June 13, 2015

Why Did It Take 50 Years For Calvinists To Care About Race?: How The Mainline Saved Evangelicalism

The Civil-Rights Movement in America lasted from roughly 1955 to 1968 (with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968). That was half a century ago. In what many people would call “remarkable,” 2015 may go down in the annals of American church history as the year that conservative, Calvinist Baptists and conservative Presbyterians decided that racism is a real problem that needs the attention of the church. Why did it take so long?

In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were a white Christian burdened by the racial injustice of America’s past conservative Baptists and Presbyterians during that time would have likely labelled you “a liberal” and relegated the issues of racial justice to the category of “social issues” and not “gospel issues.”

In a capstone of disconnected discussions over the past few years, in 2015 the Calvinistic Baptist community decided to end the moratorium on racial issues as a merely social issue through a series of conversations, conferences, and articles. As I’ve said before, The Southern Baptist Convention, without question, is the leading conservative evangelical denomination in the America on confessing past racism, being completely honest about being on the wrong side of racial oppression, and taking strides toward racial reconciliation (and led by very visible leaders like Russell Moore). For example, Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition initiated, led, and directed a conversation about the response of evangelicals to the Civil-Rights Movement. The entire series was highly instructive and I was honored that Justin Taylor even thought my question was worth investigating. In a follow-up discussion, Russell Moore and Matt Hall had a courageously public and transparent conversation about the failings of Southern Baptists and posted it on social media–an unprecedented move for two white males, in my experience, with high levels of credibility within conservative evangelicalism.

Conservative Presbyterians: In 1976, Randy Nabors was installed as the pastor of a then newly particularized church called, “New City Fellowship” in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. Beginning in 1968, a small group of Christians in Chattanooga, TN believed that racial injustice was an issue that needed to be addressed in the church, by the church. This developed into the racial reconciliation emphasis of this new church that was particularized in 1976. For most of New City’s history their denomination has acknowledged the importance of the church’s racial reconciliation work but treated the racial discourse as an extra-curricular activity and never central to the denomination’s mission. As a result, according to 2014 data, the PCA had 4,556 ministers and roughly 50 of them are African American (that’s around 1%).

One the floor of the 43rd General Assembly of the PCA, the Rev. Jim Baird, one of the founders of the denomination, confessed his own passivity and indifference to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s and early 70s, saying, “but I confess I did nothing to help my black brethren who were suffering. I did nothing.” This was spoken as ministers in the denomination were debating a resolution, offered by the Rev. Drs. Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas, for the denomination to work through confessing and repenting of the Southern Presbyterian/PCA complicity in facilitating resistance and indifference to the end of the Jim Crow era.

Why did this take 50 years? Why was Randy Nabors not taken seriously and embraced as a hero and model throughout the Presbyterian churches in the South beginning in the 1970s? I do not know the answers to these questions fully but I do know, in part, that we would not likely be having these conversations in 2015 if it were not for the scholarship of mainline liberal theologians and historians. Men like Nabors and the African Americans I know of who have been talking about these issues in the PCA for decades did not have enough credibility and they have paid the price for raising the issue at all.

Members of the PCA are largely ignorant of their own denomination’s actual history. Maybe that will change with Sean Lucas’ forthcoming book on the history of the PCA. Therefore, I can honestly say that had it not been for the for the work of Dr. Joel Alvis (Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983), Dr. Peter Slade (Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship), Dr. Stephen Haynes, (The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation) and Dr. Carolyn Dupont (Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975) members of the Presbyterian Church in America would likely never have learned about the role that race played in the formation of the denomination and in the lives of prominent Presbyterians in South during slavery and Jim Crow. These issues were taken seriously only after mainline historians and theologians provided documentary evidence of what many African American pastors and scholars have been writing about for decades.

I am confident to say, then, that the Protestant mainline churches may have just saved the conservative denominations from dying in an America where the only denominations that will survive in the future will have multi-ethnic members and leaders as the country’s racial demographics change. PCA outsiders knew more about the denomination than its own leaders. How did that happen? The narrative of the PCA’s formation has been largely told as only a theologically story–as if those men were not influenced by the cultural currents of the times. For that to be completely true, of course, the denomination’s founders would have been some kind of super humans unaffected by things that have always shaped church movements in the past.

My Protestant mainline friends are wondering why the Calvinistic Baptists and conservative Presbyterians are so celebratory about the current progress in 2015 given the fact the rest of American Protestantism had these discussions 50 years ago. In fact, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy came to the assistance of African Americans during the Civil-Rights Movement while gospel-centered, grace-centered Calvinists did nothing or supported racial segregation from the Bible. However, even with the half-of-a-century slowness to embrace issues that African American and “liberal” Christians regularly raise, we must give credit wherever credit is due. Progress is progress. What Russell Moore and Jim Baird did in 2015 is remarkable given the historical resistance to caring about African-Americans in their respective traditions. It is serving t0 silence progressive critics who believe that conservative evangelicals are committed to white privilege. So, we celebrate progress wherever it happens. Change is coming.

A few years ago, Randy Nabors said that no one in the PCA should be ordained without being able to tell the story of the Southern Presbyterian Church/PCA history of race relations. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll go one step further and say that seminaries should require all of its students to read Alvis, Slade, Haynes, and Dupont, even if some of the details are contested, because without mainline scholars many of us are afraid that today’s Calvinists might never learn what actually happened in this country from professors at the Reformed seminaries across the US.

Now what? Solutions? What do we do? How do we fix it? How do we bring about change? How do we move forward? These are all natural questions. Great questions. There are answers.

In 2013, I put together a book title, Aliens In The Promised Land:
Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions
to answer these questions and provide a framework for what it looks like to move from racial reconciliation (looking at the past) to racial solidarity (moving forward). The book includes African-American, Hispanic, Latino, and Asian American perspectives. It’s a book of ideas and solutions that address the entire span of Christian institutions from church planting, denominational leadership, to recruiting students to Christian colleges and evangelical seminaries, and more. Dr. John Frame calls the book “A game changer.” We produced the book because I regularly hear the complaint that “you only highlight problems but we need solutions.” Well, here is a book of solutions and I pray that we don’t have to wait another 50 years to see the action steps mentioned in this book come to pass. The appendix is an outstanding set of practical steps for local churches.

Again, while I can’t answer the 50-year question, we also don’t have to wait until resolutions and overtures pass to start making real change today.

24 response to “Why Did It Take 50 Years For Calvinists To Care About Race?: How The Mainline Saved Evangelicalism”

  1. Wow, just wow to the post above. I dunno how you deal with this on a day to day basis Anthony. I really hope the person who posted it was illustrating the problem of deep seated white privilege behind this kind of thinking and behavior. Randy “White” Ministries is dangerously appropriate.

  2. No denying that 50 years is 50 years too long. But as a small encouragement, you may appreciate that Greg Perry and his City Ministry Initiative did more than ask students to read Peter Slade –Greg actually brought Peter (and others) to campus this Spring to headline an important conference on race. Copies of your above mentioned book were also given out to many who attended. The conversation has been slow to begin, but it has begun in earnest.

  3. Although I fully support good relationships and mutual assistance to our brothers in Christ of all races and nations, I must ask myself several honest questions in reference to this resolution. 1. Does an apology by present day people for possible sins committed by others really increase good relationships with folks today? 2. How could the PCA legitimately apologize for its supposed sins during the Civil Rights period when it didn’t even exist then, it was formed in 1973? 3. Is it really possible in God’s eyes for one person(s) to apologize for the actions of another(s), or the PCA to apologize for another Presbyterian denomination? 4. Isn’t such an apology so broad in reference to WHO sinned and WHAT their sin is, that it actually goes against church doctrine as it is destructive of the peace of the church?

    Let’s view this from another perspective. What would happen if a black denomination were to issue an apology for what they did wrongly during the Civil Rights period? For it to be legitimate, it would have to be from a church that existed during that period, it would have to name specific sins and it would have to name specific individuals. In the PCA it would be against church order for a minister to commit adultery, to beat women, to plagiarize his doctorate dissertation, to instigate others to violence, to encourage people of their congregation and others to willfully disobey local and State civil laws, to a large degree to become involved with civil issues and not primarily keep to the preaching of God’s word. Since Martin Luther King, Jr. did all these things (see Abernathy’s biography), would it not be more legitimate for the denomination that ordained him to issue an apology?

    Surely I doubt they will. And even if they were to do so I don’t know that it would be of any real benefit as we need to be more concerned about doing God’s work today than apologizing for what others may have done wrongly years ago. Judging those of the past by today’s notions, revising history and making attention garnering, politically correct statements which demean others, are not helpful.

    And finally, the proposed resolution mentioned Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Regardless of one’s position on these acts and any benefits resulting from them, they are all un-Constitutional. The Constitution clearly specifies that those powers not given to the federal government, which includes internal State policies, are reserved by the States. Church ministers of the past should not have supported these acts because they violated legitimate laws. These acts also have made a precedence that the federal government has used to force other social policy changes. Roe vs. Wade is an example, the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, probably shortly the forced recognition of sodomite marriages, and I anticipate soon the silencing of Christian churches and ministers who oppose anything the federal government deems right and forces upon the people of These United States.

  4. Always thankful for your work, Dr. Bradley.

    As for the Randy White’s article on the comment above, I look forward to the days when people no longer see dissension as a non-gospel issue. Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue because unity is a gospel issue. Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue because Jesus is Lord, not primarily a savior of individuals. The gospel is creating a worldwide family — anything that runs against that is anti-gospel — well, at least that’s what Paul would say.

  5. Anthony, thanks for this post.

    The answer to the question it poses (“Why did it take 50 years…?”) is surely multi-faceted. But one important facet is perhaps too close to home (at least for me): Whereas Paul’s doctrine of justification is hugely about the ethnic/national (and, we would add, racial) “other”, that dimension is arguably completely absent from historic, reformed definitions of justification (e.g., peruse the WCF, ch. 11).

    Paul can barely talk about justification without talking about Jews (covenant insiders) and the Gentiles (covenant outsiders), the goyim, the “other.” It’s everywhere. But look at the Confession. It’s nowhere. (Transnationality is indeed found in the Confession’s discussion of the New Covenant).

    Related to this, consider the Calvinistic definitions of the (predominantly Pauline) term “flesh”: crudely put, “flesh” is that which makes humans do bad things. Closely bound up with “total inability / depravity”, our “flesh” is WHY we can’t be justified by our works. But while that is surely present in Paul’s letters, “flesh” for him has a hugely social-identity dimension (and is a crucially significant expression of collective human depravity): “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews….” Arguably, four or five of Paul’s seven self-descriptions of his “flesh” are ethnically / culticly assigned—i.e., culturally constructed—identities.

    Contrast this with Paul’s definition of a “true” Jew in Rom. 2.28-29, where he does not discard his own culturally constructed identity (how could he?!), but he puts it back into its proper place (i.e., he re-orders it). Such re-ordering, he says, is a work of the Spirit.

    So I’m asking: In reformed conceptions of justification, have we (very rightly) emphasized how sin has alienated humans from God but (very wrongly) failed to emphasize how sin has alienated humans—not only individually but collectively (racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, etc.)—from one another? Should not a biblical (and thus confessional) doctrine of justification speak to both?

  6. This is mostly still a new conversation to me since I am just beginning the process of being ordained in the PCA. I’m sure this is something you have known about for a very long time, Anthony. But I am so confused by Presbyterians who supposedly believe in covenant theology, federal headship, imputed sin, imputed righteousness, infant baptism, a God who revisits sin on several generations, and so on to have such a narrow, individualistic view of sin. It is beyond me how someone can read Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and come to the same “we didn’t actually commit the sin ourselves so we are not responsible” conclusions? What does one do with Daniel 9, Isaiah 6, Ezra 9, Exodus 34, 2 Chronicles 6, and so many other passages that deal with generational and covenantal sins as mentioned in the proposed resolution.

  7. Dr. Bradley, thank you for your writing. I’m a Calvinistic dispensationalist considering embracing confessional Presbyterianism. I watched the PCA GA this year, including the debate regarding the racism repentance overture. I’m a little confused as to exactly why this overture is needed. I understand and agree with the desire as a denomination to repent of the institutional racism in the PCA’s forebear denominations (PCUS and RPCES). However, it was my understanding that that was done in 2002, with a supplemental statement on racism issued in 2004. What specifically about those statements was insufficient to disqualify them as genuine expressions of corporate repentance?

  8. wow… some of these comments. Shouts out to you Dr. Bradley because I would’ve quit decades ago…

  9. As a former PCA minister who is now a PC(USA) minister, I have witnessed (and continue to witness) lots of denial about the racism that was part of the reason for the PCA’s formation. I had been a member of a PCA church since the age of 14, but never learned any of this until I read a book entitled “The Confessional Mosaic,” which was published by Westminster/John Knox Press (a mainline publisher, connected with the PCUSA). While no longer a part of the PCA, I was very encouraged to see Drs. Duncan and Lucas bring this overture.

  10. This will mark the beginning of the end for the PCA as racial babylon always gives way to sexual Babylon. The PCA Founders such as Dr. John Richards who wrote against Racial Amalgamation and Internationalism have been besmirched. We will end up as the PCUSA, eventually ordaining homosexual minister. A very sad time for our denomination.

  11. Thank you, change is coming and it is the kind that completely glorifies our God bringing healing and earth moving unity to His people!

  12. John Frame called Dr. Bradley’s book “a game changer.” Did you see that? That’s ain’t small praise. That’s like R.C. Sproul saying he recommends it to everyone he meets. That’s like J.I. Packer saying, “Put down whatever you’re reading now and read this book.”

    Looking at Allegretti’s comment, I’ve been wondering how politicized our view of the gospel has become. As I understand it, the church took up the call of American identity over the gospel in some of its practices, such as youth group ministry and para-church organizations. We didn’t preach the gospel of Jesus so much as we worked to instill American values in order to ward off communism. I saw that idea brought up in an article I read this morning by Morton H. Smith. It was an piece from the 60s. One of his concerns was that the civil rights movement was being influenced by communists.

    Friends, communism is not the enemy. Jesus did not receive his kingdom as a bastion against the Red Scare. In the same vein, the gospel isn’t being co-opted by politics when we talk about racial reconciliation. It’s the co-opting of gospel that prevents us from talking about it. Nothing could be more native to the gospel than to work to overcome historic and systemic sin and the pain of that sin in our communities today.

  13. To those of you in the comments wondering how white people today have anything to repent of towards African-Americans, I sympathize with you. As a white man, my own process of learning to see my own individual sin in this area, as well as those sins which it is my representative duty to confess, has been ongoing and relatively recent. From a desire for you to experience the healing that I have in this area, let me leave you with two thoughts:

    First, consider that when a brother in Christ claims that you have sinned against him or her, the response should probably be “Oh, no! How?!”, instead of “No, I haven’t!”. Any unbeliever can self-defensively protest a claim of sin. It is worth asking yourself if the anger you feel when you are implicated in these sins is more of the flesh than of the Holy Spirit. Righteous anger and self-righteous anger are easy to confuse.

    Second, I always find it difficult to see how I have sinned against a person who is not real to me. Until I saw history not only from my own perspective, (which I had assumed was the objective point of view,) but also from the perspective of others, I did not understand how I was guilty of anything against my brothers in Christ who are African-American. For this reason I encourage you to seek out teaching from other perspectives. Confession and repentance are good for our souls and we should all pursue them at every opportunity.

  14. And to Dr. Bradley,

    thank you for this article. I thank God for your patience. I pray that He will encourage you daily.

  15. Gentlemen, how many races are there? God created one human kind. So racism is a man-made issue which the Church should not accommodate. Our confessions speak to this as it speaks to any and all sin. The only way any culturally manifested sin is handled ultimately, is a work of the Spirit, first in a person’s soul and then working in the lives of these individuals to redeem the institutions and relationships that suffer because of mankind’s sinfulness. We also must know where and to what we each are ‘called’ in God’s Kingdom, and that is where each should apply ourselves, for God’s Glory!