Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church

Ken Jones
Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

Michael Horton recently talked with Ken Jones about the issue of bringing the doctrines of grace to African-American churches and the problems that still cause division today. Rev. Jones is pastor at Greater Union Baptist Church in Compton, California, and a co-host of The White Horse Inn. He also serves as Sunday School Director and Chairman of Credentials Commission for the Long Beach Harbor Association of the California Southern Baptist Convention.

What is the current state of affairs for race and Reformation theology today?
The race issue is such a large and pervasive issue that I think you have to divide it up into subgroups. As it relates to the black/white issue-that’s the area where I’ve been particularly active over the last several years-there is an effort being made by a number of African-American pastors that I’ve been involved with to try to expose the African-American church across denominational lines to the doctrines of grace. There’s a small contingent within the Presbyterian Church (PCA); and we’ve worked with them over the last few years with a conference in Miami that actually started when we worked together with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and we hosted an African-American pastors’ conference that we put together. I’ve been involved with Anthony Carter who wrote the book on being black and Reformed, and who speaks at a lot of different conferences. We’ve done some things to try and expose as many African-American churches to the doctrines of grace as we can. The extent of the effect, I don’t know.

You’ve given me a lot of insights on the whole history of not only race relations, but some of the reasons why African Americans have not responded historically to Presbyterian/Reformed traditions, yet have been more attracted to Pentecostalism, to Arminian Baptist churches, and really have not had a lot of interest in “Reformation” Christianity. Besides the fact that almost all of our churches are white, what’s the history here?
Most African Americans in this country have Southern roots, and Southern Presbyterianism was a stronghold for reformational Christianity in America for a long period of time. The connotation is slavery and racial segregation, so it hasn’t been pleasant. When we had revivals-even the first Great Awakening-there was more participation of the slaves during the revival meetings than in the actual church services. Initially, in about 1680, there was an effort to evangelize the slaves; but one of the reasons for the hesita tion on that was the fear that if they became Christians, then they would have to be granted their freedom because they’d have to be considered equal brothers.

Which is interesting because at the Synod of Dort, where the so-called five points of Calvinism were devised, they passed a resolution that whenever a slave became a Christian, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company wherever it was in its far-flung reaches, those slaves would immediately be set free.
Yes, that was the fear. There was an edict passed in the Virginia Commonwealth about 1689 or so, which gave rise to the SPG, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel; but the edict basically maintained that if a slave became a Christian, that did not guarantee their freedom, they were to remain slaves. At that point, the slave owners were more diligent in catechizing and evangelizing their slaves. Interestingly enough, one of the people who argued strongly for at least the sharing of the gospel, if not the freeing of the slaves, was Cotton Mather. He wrote a stern tract against the slave owners who refused to evangelize their sl aves. So what took place in about the first 50-150 years of the church (that’s a wide range because it’s hard to gauge) is that many of the slaves were catechized with the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Catechism. They were included in the slave master’s church, but it was really marginal. They were not allowed full participation of membership and could sit in only certain places. On the plantations they had what they called the “invisible institution,” which was outside the purview of the master, where they would come together and worship, borrowing from the forms of the slave master’s church, but also including a lot of things from their traditional tribal religions. Many historians, including sociologists like W. E. B. DuBois, have acknowledged that these secret worship services were barely Christian-if at all-initially, but eventually over a period of time they did become more Christian in character. Still, that was their only form of worship and free e xpression; so when the revivals came along-even in the first Great Awakening where it was more expressive and more open for non-preachers and non-clergy to actually participate-that’s when they became more vocal. It was really under the preaching of George Whitefield that we began to see larger numbers of slaves participating in the services and actual conversions; and then there was the rise of the establishment of African-American churches in the late eighteenth century. One of the reasons for the heavy Arminian-ism, revivalism, and Pentecostalism is because people like Wesley, Finney, and others who were more liberal in their theology, were much more committed to the abolition of slavery. So therefore the African-American churches, as they began to be established, reflected their methodology-even if they kept some of the forms of the some of the more Presbyterian or confessional churches-they kept the methodology, especially the moralism hung over from the Finney and Wes ley influence.

Do you see examples of churches that are integrated ethnically? I know your own church is probably more ethnically integrated in terms of representation than most churches in your neighborhood. On the other end, what accounts for that? We see something similar in the church I belong to and in the church Kim Riddlebarger pastors. There is a lot of integration-it’s not just one ethnic group. What brings people together?
I can’t explain it other than in our situation a lot of it has to do with my exposure on the White Horse Inn and speaking at different conferences so that people have different expectations when they come to our church. Unfortunately, when people come to a black church there are certain emotional expectations, but it’s sort of gleaned where they get a chance to have it pre-analyzed with me because they hear me in different settings and know that my theology is more reformational; so we’re sort of pre-screened for them and the y have different expectations when they come to our church.

Do you think that racism is still a problem culturally, or do you think by and large it’s no longer culturally acceptable to have racist views or at least to express them?
I think all of that. It’s not as culturally acceptable to have racist views or to express them; but I think there is a significant race problem that has yet to be addressed. I think we’ve addressed some of these issues superficially, but in terms of having preconceptions about a group of people or one person because they come from a particular group, that is something we live with; and I think we as Christians have probably not done a good enough job in applying the Scriptures to deal with those issues. I think it’s a very serious problem, but not of the same nature-I don’t think we still have those same sorts of efforts to oppress groups of people simply based on race as we did in the past-but in terms as to having preconceived ideas about groups of people simply because o f the color of their skin. I think it’s much more subtle.

What about within the church? Do you think that the fact that many of our churches are divided by race is due to racism or are there other causes? People have language barriers: Koreans worship together because they speak a different language, especially within the initial wave of immigration; and that was the case with the Dutch Reformed and the German Lutherans and so forth. Do you think that there are practical reasons or, especially with the black/white issue, do you think that when people have choices-and our society is so given to choice-a lot of white Christians will still prefer to be with other white Christians?
Again, that’s a multilayered question. For one thing, I do think people are more naturally comfortable with people who are like them color-wise, education, profession, class-there a lot of factors that make us more comfortable with people who are like us. Certain other ethnic groups-you mentioned the Korean community for i nstance-find it easy to hide behind language and say that we worship together because of language; but language is not the barrier that it used to be. If you go to many non-English speaking countries, there’s still English available. It’s not what it was in the period of massive immigrations of the early twentieth century when you had people from Eastern Europe who had problems learning the language; their opportunities to learn were much more limited, and so they tended to flock together and to be with people who spoke the same language. I don’t think that’s as much as a real problem today as it has been in the past. It goes back to the two tables of the Law, which has to do with our love for God and our love for our fellow man. In the Fall, we have failed to meet both tables of the Law, and our interaction with people who are other than us is an extension of our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

So loving ourselves more than our neighbor-in other words, narcissism-can take a group form. Not just that I love myself more than I love you, but I love my group more than your group.
Exactly. Or we become more distrustful of another group for whatever reason we are equipped to believe the worst about an individual or a particular group because they are other than us; or someone does something to you that we’re going to blame the whole group for. On the black/white issue, all of that is true-a self-love and a hatred of others-but on top of that, the black church has really developed outside the theological scrutiny. When you look at Protestantism in America, all of the discussions, all of the great theological debates over the last century and a half-since the founding of our country-haven’t included the African-American church. It’s kind of grown up in obscurity. We haven’t been included in the discussions and so therefore largely it has not developed along theological patterns. The expectation of the African-American church is to provide music for Disney or for McDonald’s Songfest or other gatherings. I spoke at a pastors’ conference in the Midwest a couple of years ago-there were about 1,500 pastors, mostly Anglo-and after I was finished, a brother came up to me and said, “Man, I was waiting for you to get loose.” What he was expecting was this sort of rhythmic sing-song preaching that is characteristic of black preachers. But that’s the expectation. People loved E. V. Hill. Not only was he a powerful speaker, and when he got the gospel right he really nailed it, but he was Arminian and not really connected to any theological position. The reason he was so powerful and so well loved on TBN was because of his presence. People love those characteristics of a black personality, but they don’t take them seriously in terms of theology.

Don’t you think that if our theology was deeper both in the black churches and in the white churches-if that was the tie that binds-we wouldn’t say your churches and our churches, we would say Christian churches? Our group and your group wouldn’t be defined along ethnic lines, but along the only dividing line that really matters-believer and nonbeliever, the church and the world?
I hope that would be the case. I’d certainly think that would be the case. If we had a deeper commitment to theology in the African-American tradition more intentionally and historically, and maybe in the white tradition more consistently, there would be less division along racial lines.

Certainly if it weren’t about style, we wouldn’t say, “I don’t like the way they sing or I’m not comfortable in that kind of environment”; but rather, “Look, we all have to exchange gifts here. We have to realize that God has put us together, our confession is what unites us, and our differences-as important as they are-simply cannot determine what church I go to.”
But unfortunately those are the issues that people still think about because the style is so distinct. Our church is a little unusual. White visitors come and think, “Oh, this is lively, this is good.” But African Americans come in and think, “Oh, this is dead.” So we’re somewhere in this limbo, we’re in between. Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. I understood that our people initially would not feel comfortable singing through the Trinity Hymnal, which is why I didn’t introduce it when we brought theological reformation to our church. There were enou gh good hymns in the National Baptist Hymnal for us to continue to use it. I just went through the hymns and gave a list that was permissible to our musician: “Those are the ones you play; anything other than that, you need to come and see me first.” But it would have been such a culture shock for our people to all of a sudden worship in a Reformed church-now they would be able to handle it-but early on it would have been such a culture shock that they would have rejected the theology. I think the same would be true with going the other way; that is, people coming from a confessional church to an African-American church. My heart goes out and my hat is off to some of our white members who have been a part of our church through this long transformation of the congregation; they’ve been patient, they’ve endured a great deal.

So one of the benefits of our mixing and mingling, of our being put together by God in the same church, is that we are forced to recognize how much of our own faith and practice is cultural. I think a tendency of a lot of white Christians is to assume that whatever is different from what we do is culturally defined; what we do is vital. I don’t think I have an accent until I go to France.
I think that’s very true. Anything that man touches, his cultural fingerprints are going to be all over it; and it’s naïve to assume that if because you do it, yours is right and theirs is more influenced by culture. I think that’s part of the fear that African Americans may have about giving up the entity that is the black church. It used to be said, and I heard this growing up as a child, that the black church is the only thing the black man owns in this society, which may have been true when my grandfather was a child. I think the effort to preserve th is entity is one of reasons that for many years most African-American Christians in this country were Baptists. It was not just the theology, but it was the ecclesiology where there was no central governing body determining the affairs of that local congregation-because they lost too much trusting that central governing body-and so in a Baptist ecclesiology they were able to govern their own affairs. But I think there is a sense among many African Americans that if we open the door to include others, then we lose what is uniquely black, which is disheartening to me because the one place where I think our culture should certainly die away continuously is within the church, just as we die daily in Christ. The church is not the place to preserve any cultural or ethnic tradition, no matter what we think. Granted there was a period in American history where the church was the only primary platform that African Americans had to make their voice known, which is why the black prea cher was the spokesman for the community. But that’s no longer the case. If you look at the Civil Rights movement, most of the leaders were preachers. Many of them were preachers for necessity of the cause-if they were just politicians they wouldn’t be heard, but as a leader in the church they would be heard. But again, I think those days have passed; and I would love to see us jettison the cultural distinctives of our worship or of our church environment, and welcome those things that we have in common with all Christians-and that’s across the board, whether it’s Dutch, German, Korean, or whatever.

Last year at our conference in Miami, there was a gentleman who had been attending since the first one with ACE years ago. He came up to me at the end and said, “I’ve heard you speak on a number of occasions, and I’ve heard you talk about the pain of losing members as you’re trying to establish the doctrines of grace. Brother, I want you to know that this really reso nates with me.” Then this tall distinguished-looking gentleman just started crying. “My church is in North Carolina and, Ken, we had about 1,500 people and it got down to as little as 100 to 150 people; and week in and week out, I was asking, ‘Lord, am I doing something wrong?’ I keep coming back to this conference, and I hope you brothers keep having it, because every time I come I’m reminded that I am doing something right. This is God’s church and this is what God’s people need.”

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology