We Wish for … The Reformation for the Black Church

Ken Jones
Sunday, January 2nd 2000
Jan/Feb 2000

It is evident, from even the most casual observation, that the evangelical church of our day has shifted dramatically away from the theological moorings of our Protestant forefathers. The influence of modernity, neo-Gnosticism and Pentecostalism extend from the most conservative confessionally Reformational churches to the nonconfessional and more distant heirs of the sixteenth century Reformation. In other words, all sectors of the evangelical church are affected to a greater or lesser degree by the same problems. Therefore, all segments of Evangelicalism could benefit from a recovery of the fundamental truths gained from the light of the sixteenth century Reformation.

I make mention of this because, although my focus here is the black church, it is with the understanding that the problems plaguing it are the same ones plaguing the evangelical church as a whole. The very fact of a "black church" is indicative of social and cultural factors that extend beyond theology. And the theological crisis affecting all of Evangelicalism is played out in the context of the black church against the backdrop of these extenuating factors. Two things should be understood before considering my main point: 1) The black church, although unique in terms of social, ethnic, and cultural distinctives, is not unaffected by the theological problems of the day. 2) Social injustices of the past and the present, although very real and deserving of serious consideration, do not exempt the black church from theological and doctrinal criticisms.

The Primary Mission of the Church?

Having said this, I will begin by saying the black church can benefit from recovering (or discovering) the message of the Reformation, in that it will provide a balanced and consistent theological framework from which its social ministries can be measured. This applies particularly to inner-city black churches that are surrounded by economic depression and sub-standard living conditions. In such areas, local churches have provided food, clothing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and job training. Such ministries and services are commendable and advantageous to the community. However, a problem I have observed among church leaders and pastors in the Los Angeles area is that many of them are defining these activities as essential to the primary purpose and function of the church. The theological framework of the sixteenth century Reformation would establish the church's primary purpose and duty as administering the Word and the Sacraments.

This is not to suggest that the reformers were not concerned with the social ills and poverty of their day. Geneva under Calvin's leadership and influence is a prime example of ministering to the needs of the community. And as the Reformation spread throughout Europe so did hospitals to deal with health problems, schools to educate, as well as other ministries to address other social needs. The difference was that such activities were understood by members in the church as the living out of the second table of the law (man's duty to man). Although some of this work was done through the institutional church, it was not deemed the defining work of the church. The church's primary function was and is to properly administer the Word of God and his Sacraments. Proper administration of the Word clearly includes sound exposition of the law, which should lead its hearers (out of a sense of gratitude to Christ for what he has done) to a sense of duty to their fellow man, as they have the opportunity and capacity to do so. But what I have seen in many inner-city situations is the exact opposite. Churches are being defined as being good or truly Christian, not by the message proclaimed, but by the duties and services performed. Here inner-city churches could learn from the Reformation.

Biblical Evangelism

A second benefit from the Reformation that would be helpful for our black churches is that of being clear on the context of the Gospel, especially as it pertains to evangelism. There can be no doubt on the part of anyone who has attended a black worship service, that there is a genuine desire to save souls. Unfortunately, both the method and the message of soul-saving are greatly influenced by nineteenth century revivalism, spearheaded by people like Charles Finney, where the emphasis is on emotional manipulation. It is from this movement that we have inherited altar calls, mourners' benches, making decisions for Jesus and the like. These things are still prevalent throughout Evangelicalism but especially so in our black churches. I believe that a recovery of the Gospel message, as articulated by the reformers with a proper and biblical understanding of the nature of God, of fallen man, and of the redemptive work of Christ, would cause us to reshape our message and rethink our methods.

It has been my experience that while many in the black church are untrusting of what white theologians have to say, they are well versed in the theology of the four spiritual laws. A return to reformational evangelism would be a return to the scriptural teaching on the sovereignty of God, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and the proper proclamation of the law that kills and the Gospel that brings life as the means of saving the lost. There must be a distinction between saving souls and getting people to make a decision to join our churches. Again, this unbiblical evangelism is not unique to our black churches, but there are historical factors that cause it to manifest itself uniquely in our environment.

An Educated Clergy

A final benefit to consider from the Reformation is the training of the clergy. A prevailing problem in our black churches is that of preachers and pastors who are theologically unprepared. The reasons for this are manifold. For instance, there was a time when educational opportunities were not afforded to us. And with the emergence of the black church as an entity, the calling and appointing of pastors was left in the hands of uneducated or poorly educated congregations. This should be understood alongside the fact that during slavery it was not uncommon for slave owners to take a slave that had been taught to read and educate him to be a spiritual leader among the other slaves. After slavery, in many cases, the educational institutions that would receive black students were liberal or Arminian. It should also be noted that sporadically throughout history there have been individuals who under favorable circumstances were able to defy the odds and get full academic training in theology and other fields when these doors were closed to other blacks. Such was the case of Lemeul Haynes, a half-black, half-white, Congregationalist and Puritan who pastored a white congregation in the seventeenth century.

But these are exceptions. What was more common were barriers denying people of African descent educational opportunities. This is the reason that most black churches in this country are congregational, where the ordaining of ministers is in the hands of the membership or other autonomous bodies, not necessarily requiring any particular training. If a man was charismatic, was reasonably knowledgeable of Scripture, had a good reputation among the people, and was thought to be fairly devout, he could be ordained as a pastor. I do not demean any of these men and am certain that many provided sound biblical preaching and leadership under the most trying of circumstances. In fact, I relish the accounts given by elderly family and church members of preachers in their youth that lacked formal education and were able to accurately proclaim the Word of God. However, what was once a situation of necessity eventually evolved into a dangerous pattern of extremes. Either congregations were choosing ministers based on the above-mentioned criteria, even though training was available, or they chose based on education regardless of the theological position of the candidate. The pattern of the reformers was to train ministers, not only in the necessary languages, but also in the doctrines of the Protestant faith. With the development of various Protestant denominations and their confessions of faith, ministers were trained in and charged to preach in the spirit of these confessions. Such training and theological and doctrinal integrity would be a great asset to all churches, but especially our black churches. Formal training would be ideal, but if not possible, training in the basic doctrines of Protestantism beginning with the solas and a knowledge of the major creeds and confessions would be better than what is currently often the case.

In summary, I would wish to see the black church challenged by the Reformation to understand her status in the light of Scripture. In other words, she would be challenged to be more biblical than black, to be more theological than sociological.

Sunday, January 2nd 2000

“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
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