By / Feb 10

At the annual convention in 2015, the SBC adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation that, in part, urged “churches to demonstrate their heart for racial reconciliation by seeking to increase racial and ethnic diversity in church staff roles, leadership positions, and church membership.”

Increasing racial diversity is not the end goal, of course, and will not automatically lead to reconciliation. Yet it can be a useful metric to determine whether reconciliation is being attempted within our churches and throughout the denomination. Ideally, individual SBC churches that are living out the gospel would be attractive to people of all races and ethnicities. If a lopsided racial imbalance is occuring, it might signal that there is a divide along other lines, such as cultural or political, that should not ​​separate the people of God. 

How is the SBC faring in its goal to be more racially diverse?

To find the answer we can look to the Great Commission Relations and Mobilization (​​GCRM) Ethnic Research Network, which tracks the state of ethnicity and race in the SBC. The network is a research initiative and a shared data collaboration of Southern Baptist Research Fellowship (SBRF) and SBC entities, such as the ERLC. Through statistical and analytical research, GCRM Ethnic Research Network “tells the story of SBC diversity as well as our collaborative and cooperative effort of sharing the Gospel in every city, town, neighborhood, and community in fulfilling the Great Commission.”

Diversity by the numbers

Currently, the SBC Annual Church Profile documents that there are 50,696 congregations and 14,089,947 people in the SBC. The network tracks the state of ethnicity and race within those congregations.

As of 2020, there are 39,408 congregations that are predominantly White Anglo, 3,895 that are African American, 3,361 that are predominantly Hispanic, 1,501 predominantly other ethnicities, and 422 that are predominantly Native American. Since 2010, there has been a 33.2% increase among congregations of other ethnicities, a 20.7% increase among Asian American congregations, 10.2% increase among African American congregations. During that time there was a 3.3% decrease among White Anglo congregations and a 3.0% decrease among Native American congregations. 

  • The states with the most African American congregations are Texas (1,168), California (455), and Georgia (239). 
  • The states with the most Asian American congregations are California (445), Texas (313), North Carolina (125), and Georgia (119). 
  • The states with the most Hispanic congregations are Texas (1,353), California (376), and Florida (317). 
  • The states with the most Native American congregations are Oklahoma (185), North Carolina (78), and Arizona (26). 
  • The states with the most other ethnic congregations are Florida (465), Texas (250), California (105), and North Carolina (98). 
  • The states with the most White Anglo congregations are Texas (4,685), North Carolina (3,739), Alabama (3,090), and Georgia (3,019). 

Within those congregations, 12,642,060 individuals are White Anglo, 880,108 are African American, 223,351 are Hispanic, 173,773 are Asian American, 136,750 are other ethnicities, and 33,590 are Native American. Since 2010, there has been a 23.8% increase among other ethnicities, a 12.1% ​​increase among Asian Americans, and an 8.6% increase among Hispanics. During that time there was a 16.1% decrease among Native Americans, a 14.1% decrease among White Anglos, and a 2.1% decrease among African Americans. 

Encouraging signs of growth

Almost 1-in-4 (22.3%) Southern Baptist congregations are non-Anglo or ethnic minority congregations. In contrast, in 1990 only 8.4% of SBC congregations were non-Anglo or ethnic minority congregations. African American congregations saw the largest growth of 289.3% from 1990- 2018, while the Anglo group saw the smallest growth of 11.4%. From 1995-2000, the African American group grew by 482 congregations, and, from 2000-2005, this group grew by an additional 833 congregations.

As for church membership, from 1990-2019 ethnic minority groups increased by over one million (1,021,658). From 2000-2010, the most growth experienced among SBC membership

was among African American, Asian American, and Hispanics, with Asian American membership growing by 270.7%.

With 22.3% of our Southern Baptist congregations being non-Anglo and many worshiping in multiple languages across America, the Southern Baptist Convention may be the most multiethnic and multilingual denomination in the United States. While the SBC still has a long way to go in its pursuit of racial reconciliation, we are moving in the right direction toward ​​the first step of having a diverse convention of believers unified around a common goal to fulfill the Great Commission.

By / Feb 21

As a new seminary graduate in 2000, I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with my young family to serve as a Southern Baptist pastor. And, though I was a native of the South and grew up in Mississippi, I quickly realized I had a lot to learn about Montgomery’s past — and how that past influenced the present. Montgomery was still largely a racially divided city, particularly in its churches. Black and white churches coexisted and sometimes worked together, but mostly dwelt in separate worlds. I wanted to know why this division persisted and what could be done to heal it. So, I began to dig into the complex history of the city related to race.

Questions began to emerge for me regarding why the church in my area failed on race for so long. Why did people who claimed to follow Jesus support slavery so fervently that Montgomery became the first capitol of the Confederacy with the largest slave market in America by 1860? Why, with so many churches, was Montgomery later a stronghold of Jim Crow segregation with a substantial reputation for the oppression of its Black citizenry through violence? With all of its history of injustice, why did it become the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement following the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and activism by leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fred Gray, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy? Montgomery seemed like a collision of worlds.

As time went on and I sought answers, I realized that William Faulkner’s line from Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead, it is not even past,” applied to Montgomery as much as any place in the nation. Why did so much division, pain, violence, oppression, and injustice happen in a city full of churches who are supposed to proclaim the gospel of peace? I began to think that if I could find the answer, then maybe it could bring healing to others as well. So I researched, walked the streets, dug through archives, and talked to people who lived through much of what happened. 

A seed of hope planted in the Black church 

I later realized that my question about why the church failed was all wrong. Yes, the historic white church that promoted and defended slavery, segregation, and racism in Montgomery and Alabama as a means of protecting and promoting its “way of life” over and above others failed in its fidelity to Christ and gospel mission. But, I realized that I was looking at this failure through a lens of my own perspective. That caused me to miss a redemptive thread. I discovered that the Black church didn’t fail during this time. Its seed was planted in the harsh and bitter soil of slavery, put out roots in the era of racial segregation, and later bore the fruit of justice that witnessed to the hope of healing for the nations found in reliance upon Jesus.

I wanted to know when this seed was planted so I could trace how it grew. So, I went back to Montgomery’s early days in the 1820s and encountered two figures in Baptist life that helped plant the seeds that would later grow into a Jesus and Justice movement. One was an English missionary named Lee Compere (1790-1871). Compere came to the Montgomery area in 1822 after being sent to Jamaica from the Baptist Missionary Society in England in 1815. The second was a Black slave preacher named Caesar Blackwell (1769-1845).

The ministry of Lee Compere 

Lee Compere had been baptized in 1812 by English Baptist leader, John Ryland, who had a close relationship with the former captain of a slave ship, who later became an Anglican priest and the writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton. Ryland was also friends with William Wilberforce and was associated with the abolitionist movement. Compere and his wife, Susannah, went to work among the slaves in Jamaica with the Ethiopian Baptist churches founded by George Liele (1750-1828), a freed slave, the first ordained Black Baptist preacher, and the first missionary sent from America to a foreign land. 

Compere was under strict orders to not get involved in matters related to slavery or politics, but he apparently rejected that instruction. While preaching the gospel, he and his wife opposed slavery and used her inheritance to buy the freedom of slaves. This work allegedly led to no small amount of controversy. As opposition grew and their health deteriorated, Compere and his wife left Jamaica in 1817 and went to Charleston, South Carolina. 

Compere’s work among Liele’s churches was fruitful, but also ahead of its time. These same Baptist churches full of slaves would rise up against slavery in 1831-32 in The Baptist War, leading to slavery’s abolition in the British Empire in 1833. Another Baptist Missionary Society missionary to Jamaica named William Knibb (also baptized by Ryland) would help lead those efforts, following in Compere’s footsteps, but ultimately being more successful.  

In 1822, the Comperes moved to East Alabama to minister among the indigenous Creek people and the Black slaves that were being brought into the area. They formed Withington Station and in the 1820s saw an interracial church develop made up of Creek Indians, Black slaves, and white people. Facing opposition for his abolitionist views from other Creek who owned slaves and opposition from the building encroachment of whites upon native lands, Compere moved to Montgomery in 1829 to found the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, which ultimately became one of the leading Baptist churches in Alabama. Compere’s influence among Baptists in the Montgomery area and Central Alabama was strong, but he would soon encounter more opposition in his church and the community and leave Alabama in 1833 to go minister to the Creek who were being forced to migrate west to Indian Territory.

Caesar Blackwell, the slave preacher 

Right before Compere traveled from Charleston to found Withington Station about 30 miles east of Montgomery, Caesar Blackwell came to faith in Jesus and was baptized as a slave in 1821. He soon began to preach the gospel and became a powerful evangelist, preacher, and discipler among the slave population that was brought into Central Alabama by white people hoping to become wealthy from growing cotton in the rich soil of the Black Belt region. My friend, Rev. Gary Burton, pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church in Pintlala, Alabama, is the chief curator of information about Blackwell’s life and says, “Caesar Blackwell lived as a slave and died as a slave. No one, however, was as influential within the slave population in central Alabama as Caesar.”

Blackwell was later purchased by the Alabama Baptist Association in 1828 for $625 and given freedom to preach and travel around to proclaim the gospel and disciple the slaves being brought in to the region for several years. Of course, it’s unfathomable to us that a Baptist Association would purchase a human being for any reason, but, it was becoming almost impossible for free Blacks to function as such in Alabama at this time. Alabama made it illegal to do so by 1833-34. Wayne Flynt, in his seminal work Alabama Baptists, says, 

Caesar preached freely (keeping the money he received) until 1835, when rising tensions over abolitionism caused the association to restrict his activities and require him to return all funds above his actual expenses. By this time the slave preacher had an extensive library, had imbibed Calvinist theology, and enjoyed debating the doctrines of election, grace, and the perseverance of the saints. So popular a preacher was Blackwell, that churches clamored for his services, and, when he preached at the annual associational meeting, standing room-only crowds of whites and blacks thronged to hear him (45).

Flynt goes on to say that part of what made Blackwell popular among white Baptists in Alabama was that he opposed the African spiritualism that was present among the slaves and that gave credence to dreams, visions, and voices. A case could be made that white Baptists found Blackwell useful in helping the slaves conform to their new environs and masters as they were sold in the markets in Montgomery to surrounding plantations. But, I don’t see evidence that Blackwell preached a truncated gospel shaped to produce subservience. Instead, he sought to ground the converted slaves in the depth of Christian doctrine from the Reformation. This is what Compere was also doing at the same time in the same area with the Creek as well as slaves. Just as the gospel provoked missionaries like Compere to confront the injustices of slavery and mistreatment of Native Americans in Jamaica and Alabama in the 1810s–1830s, it led Blackwell to minister a deep hope and reliance upon Jesus as deliverer in the growing slave population of Central Alabama. 

Nathan Ashby, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Movement

Before his death in 1845, Blackwell led a slave named Nathan Ashby, who had had been able to purchase his own freedom for $900 (Flynt, 104), to faith in Jesus and instructed him in Christian teaching. Ashby later became the pastor of the slave congregation at the white-led First Baptist Montgomery in the 1850s. This was the same church that Compere founded in 1829 as an abolitionist, though by the 1840s it had fully succumbed to the pro-slavery position, as had almost all of Alabama. Still, Ashby, ministered to hundreds of slaves in this church and would lead 700 emancipated former slaves out of that church in 1867 to found what became First Baptist Church (Colored) on Columbus Street — the first “free negro” institution in Montgomery. This church would become the mother Black Baptist church for the Montgomery and Central Alabama region.

By 1868, Ashby helped found the Colored Baptist Convention of Alabama in his church. One hundred fifty-one delegates from 11 states met in Montgomery to form the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention with “a yearning to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached on the Mother Soil of Africa.” In 1880 it would merge with two other organizations to form the National Baptist Convention, the largest Black Baptist denomination in America. In 1877, a few hundred former slaves and freedmen would leave First Baptist and found what became Dexter Avenue Baptist Church with pastor Charles Octavius Boothe. In 1879, they would pay $270 for a lot on Dexter Avenue one block from the Alabama State Capitol where a former slave pen once stood. This church would later be pastored by Vernon Johns (1947-52) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1954-60).

By the 1880s, the Black population of Montgomery and the surrounding area was growing and starting businesses, churches, and colleges — and work was organized to proclaim the gospel around the world. Blackwell’s ministry, calling slaves to hope in and reliance upon Jesus by planting the seeds of the gospel deep in their lives, was bearing fruit. And, from those seeds would grow a strong church that looked to Jesus and called for justice in the face of great opposition.

This strength was seen over one hundred years after Blackwell’s death in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On Dec.1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. She was a strong Christian and was a product of the Black church in Montgomery that was birthed with hope in and reliance upon Jesus in the midst of the oppression of slavery and that grew up under the injustice, daily humiliations, and forced segregation of Jim Crow. On Dec. 5, 1955, King proclaimed before the first mass meeting of several thousand Black Montgomerians assembling at the beginning of the Bus Boycott at Holt Street Baptist Church, “I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.”

The boycott lasted for 381 days before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court order striking down the segregated bussing laws. Approximately 40,000 Black bus riders in Montgomery banded together to say “no” to the injustice of segregation and to demand to be treated as full and equal human beings before God and this nation. This was the first large scale mass demonstration against segregation, and it launched the Civil Rights Movement. 

I want to suggest that the ministry of Blackwell (which began alongside Compere) and Ashby, as well as other Black Christians such as Cyrus Hale in the years following, be considered driving factors in the formation of the Black church of Montgomery that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement — a Christian-influenced movement seeking to apply the teachings of Jesus and the implications of the gospel related to human dignity and justice. I believe Compere, Blackwell, and other like-minded co-laborers planted gospel seeds in the Black community of Central Alabama that would see many come to faith in Christ for salvation and would then call for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

I want to be clear that I vehemently reject the idea that any of these conditions in the antebellum South were in any way good or beneficial just because many slaves came to Christ. The whole system was evil. It is of great historic shame that many white Baptists did not fight with all they had to abolish the whole hellish system. What I do want to say, however, is that God still worked, even in the worst of conditions, through Black preachers like Blackwell, Ashby, and Liele, and through all who believed their message. As these gospel seeds were planted, I believe that God was faithful to rescue and redeem out of the oppression and injustice, not because of it. 

So, let us remember Blackwell and Ashby and so many other Black church leaders who laid the gospel groundwork that led to the Black church in the South upholding its witness even as it was persecuted and suffered. And, let us praise God and draw strength from the memory of our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffered and yet faithfully produced gospel fruit that would last and bear another harvest of justice a century later. 

By / Dec 14

According to historian George Marsden, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Figures such as Bob Jones, J. Frank Norris, and Aimee Semple McPherson all fit within this mold. However, much of the study of fundamentalists has tended to exclude African Americans, for a variety of reasons. Daniel Bare, professor of history at Texas A&M University, has recently argued in Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era that thinking about fundamentalism as a primarily white movement ignores very real ideological links between Black and white theologically conservative Christians. 

In his study of Black fundamentalists, Bare argues that to understand them, it is necessary to explore how their theology and racial identity intersected and the ways that this informed their calls for equality in the public square. 

In the book, your approach is not just historical or theological, but one that combines the two, a “social history of theology.” What does this entail, and how does it help when considering these African American fundamentalists? 

The “social history of theology” is a term that I picked up from Mark Noll’s book America’s God to describe the interconnectedness of theological conviction and social/historical context. His point was that you have to understand theological developments within a wide range of social contexts — from the ecclesiastical to the political to the commercial — in order to fully account for why theological ideas develop differently in disparate social contexts. So, given my focus on the United States in the era of Jim Crow, it seemed only natural to extend this idea to encompass the influence of racial context on theological developments. 

After all, the reality of race as a pervasive, structuring element of American society in this period is undeniable — from segregation to voter disfranchisement to the horrors of lynching and other socially-approved forms of racial violence. Racial considerations influenced ecclesiastical developments; they influenced politics; they influenced economics. And whereas the thinking of the white majority in the United States (and in various church contexts) largely developed in accordance with the presumption of white superiority and the propriety of segregating the races, the social realities of discrimination and oppression also prompted Black thinkers and churches to find strength in their community and apply their intellectual and theological efforts to challenging the unjust ideas that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

With all that in mind, my book takes a historical-theological approach that is intended to give proper consideration to both historical and theological factors. So I do believe that theology as being theology holds a profound significance in defining one’s religious identity and worldview, and that theological convictions and formulations deserve to be treated seriously, on their own terms, without reducing them to mere expressions of more subliminal political or economic ideologies. Thus I take a deeply theological look at the religious beliefs of the people I discuss in the book. 

At the same time, I want to recognize that social and historical context plays a significant role in the ways that we think about religion, theology, and broader worldview issues. Our context influences our presuppositions about how the world works, how we interpret the Bible, which issues in the world deserve our focused attention, and so forth. And when we look at the Black fundamentalists whom I discuss in the book, we see people whose theological formulations were largely aligned with those of their white fundamentalist counterparts, and who took their theology very seriously, but who also saw the need to apply their theology in such a way as to address the racial injustices of the world in which they lived. 

As you note in the book, most of the scholarship around the term “fundamentalist” has excluded African Americans for a number of reasons. However, you argue that though different in key ways, these African Americans were part of the larger movement, doctrinally if not formally. How so?

Since my book takes a historical-theological approach to exploring the topic, the definition of fundamentalism that I use is essentially theological in nature. I look at fundamentalism as a centrally theological enterprise that requires an essentially theological definition. It was largely a reactionary enterprise responding to what theological conservatives saw as the dangerous encroachments of theological liberalism (or modernism). Fundamentalists viewed modernists as abandoning the historic Christian faith through their doctrinal compromises, as abandoning the “fundamentals” that comprised the essence of “real” Christianity. 

So as I examine fundamentalism in the book, I lay out four definitional elements to consider: 1) an avowedly supernaturalist and biblicist worldview; 2) an express commitment to the central doctrinal propositions at issue in the fundamentalist-modernist conflict, most obviously crystalized in the “five fundamentals”; 3) a readiness to openly and explicitly criticize and condemn modernist theology; and 4) a willingness to utilize fundamentalist terminology (e.g., “the fundamentals,” “fundamentalism,” etc.) in defining one’s theological positions and religious identity.

The strength of this historical-theological approach is that it allows us to identify and consider Black voices in the historical record who self-identified as fundamentalists and expressly aligned with the theological heartbeat of fundamentalism. Amid a society built on institutional segregation, these Black fundamentalists were not typically part of the formal fundamentalist institutional networks, which were established by well-connected white men like J. Frank Norris or William Bell Riley. As a result, African Americans have remained typically excluded from the story of fundamentalism. Yet if we look at the theological commitments, the apologetics and polemics, the doctrinal formulations, we can see that the fundamentalist outlook clearly spanned the color line. 

The key difference you highlight is that the conservative Black Christians in your study were more outspoken on racial issues than their white counterparts who either ignored the issue or were complicit in racial injustice. How did the Black fundamentalists see their advocacy for this issue as flowing from their theological convictions?

This is a key element of the argument I present in the book. The theological formulations and argumentation surrounding “the fundamentals” was very much the same for fundamentalists across the color line, but Black fundamentalists were apt to draw applications from their theology that their white counterparts would not, specifically with respect to issues of racial equality and racial justice. This illustrates how social and cultural context can play a large role in how people formulate the day-to-day application of their faith.

Throughout the book I offer examples of Black fundamentalists contending that their fundamentalist doctrines actually contained correctives to the evils of Jim Crow that they faced in everyday life. From the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, these were divinely appointed truths that necessarily entailed rebukes of racism and segregation. Among the most compelling orators in this vein whom I discuss in the book was Isaac Reed Berry, a Black Methodist minister who was ordained in 1917. Two of Berry’s favorite theological topics in his preaching were also two common fundamentalist themes — biblical inspiration and substitutionary atonement. 

With respect to biblical inspiration, Berry saw in the Bible God’s forthright rebuke of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy; such texts as Acts 17:26 (“[God] made of one blood all nations of men”) and Psalm 133:1 (“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”) underscored the full humanity and equality of African Americans. Yet, he reasoned, such a divine rebuke only holds weight if the words of the Bible are in fact the very words of God himself; otherwise these biblical passages could be dismissed as mere manmade trifles. Thus, the doctrine of biblical inspiration was foundational for fighting bigotry in the world. Such applications of these common fundamentalist doctrines were unlikely to cross the minds or the lips of Berry’s white counterparts.

Isaac Berry’s social activism appears more similar to the program of social gospel figures like Walter Rauschenbusch. However, Berry and other Black fundamentalists were often in conflict with others in their denomination who were sympathetic to modernist theology. What does this reveal about the tension that Black fundamentalists faced?

Isaac Berry’s (and other’s) gospel message had clear and undeniable social implications without becoming a “social gospel.” Too often people tend to conflate community engagement or religiously-motivated social action with the “social gospel” perspective championed by the likes of Rauschenbusch. But I think it is important to keep in mind that the “social gospel” perspective that Rauschenbusch formalized in his A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) was not merely about finding social applications in the Christian message, but significant theological reformulations on doctrines such as the Trinity, redemption/atonement, Christ’s divinity, and so on. So for fundamentalists, whether black or white, the social gospel perspective was a non-starter from the outset because they prized these traditional “fundamental” doctrines.

Yet the Black fundamentalist preachers that I study in the book did indeed at times offer major social applications, and pushed for large-scale social action, from their pulpits and from their expositions of fundamentalist doctrine. They believed that relying on the fundamental doctrines of “old-time” Christianity, as it was sometimes called, was the only sure way to elicit social change because the calls to justice and righteous living that resided in this gospel message bore God’s own imprimatur in the pages of the inerrant Bible. As a result, Black fundamentalist voices did indeed find themselves at odds, sometimes, with other leaders of the Black community with whom they may have shared certain pressing social/cultural goals (e.g., pushing for voting rights, securing funding for Black education, etc.) but differed as to theological belief or the methods of achieving those desired ends.

This conflict illustrates certain tensions in the experience of these Black fundamentalists. Their blackness separated them from the institutional “fundamentalist” movement that tended to be dominated by powerful white figures like J. Frank Norris (a proponent of segregation and Jim Crow), leading to their marginalization not only at the time but also in the historical study of fundamentalism. Yet their fundamentalist theological convictions also spurred conflicts within the Black community as well, as many leading Black thinkers adopted more social-gospel-friendly perspectives on racial advancement. However, the tension also highlights another important point — that there is a multifaceted diversity within African American intellectual and religious history, and we ought not fall into the trap of creating a monolithic caricature. In the words of famed historian Albert Raboteau, it is a “sometimes overlooked fact [that] African-American opinion has never been unanimous.”

One area of the book that is especially interesting given current conversations is your chapter on the fusion of fundamentalism with Americanism. These African American pastors and evangelists were explicitly connecting their civil liberties with Christ’s sacrifice and America’s identity as a Christian nation. Given that they were making these arguments in the context of a segregated society, how did they reconcile the tension between an America that was both Christian and segregated? 

The whole connection with the idea of America as a “Christian nation” came out most clearly in Isaac Berry’s preaching, as he drew connections between the civil freedoms promised by the United States’ founding ideals and the spiritual freedom secured in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. He declared, for instance, that Americans’ “civil liberty was first purchased with the priceless blood of the Divine Son of God,” and that “America needs today to bow the knee at the foot of the cross, where freedom’s sword was forged.” In large part, Berry reconciled this tension between a picture of “Christian America” and the reality of racial injustice in the United States by calling Americans to live up to their founding political (and religious) ideals, as he perceived them. 

“Christian America” captured the idealized founding of a nation based on the principles of civic equality, political freedom, and Christian virtue; the fact that racial injustice continued to plague the nation did not invalidate the founding ideals, but rather revealed that Americans were failing to live up to the high standard of their heritage as a “Christian nation.” In this way, Berry’s concept of a “Christian America” served as a basis for him to condemn the un-Christian, sinful practices that he observed in the world around him. So in this configuration, embracing the idea of a Christian America went hand-in-hand with confronting the evils of American racism, just as the prophets of old invoked Israel’s status as God’s covenant people while inveighing against the nation’s wicked departures from God’s statutes.

How does this new way of understanding fundamentalism, and African American Christianity during this period, have ramifications for today? Is there anything that it helps to clarify about our current approaches to race and religion? 

More than pinpointing any one specific issue of the current day, I hope that this study is helpful in illuminating how the process of thinking about, applying, and expressing religion is not only a function of propositional theological claims, but also reflects the social and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves. As I put it in the last sentence of the book, “theological unity across racial lines was no guarantee that political and social uniformity would follow.” If we look, for instance, at evangelicalism as today’s analogue (albeit imperfectly so) of the fundamentalist movement of a century ago, we can certainly still see major fissures in evangelical life that manifest along the lines of race. 

Very often white and Black evangelicals, even as they may confess the same doctrines on such topics as inspiration or Christology, may yet tend to express very different convictions when it comes to social and political applications of their common faith — from issues like the social justice movement, to conversations about police reform, to considerations of religious liberty, to immigration policy, to presidential voting patterns, and so on. I hope that in this context, the examples in the book might prove to be points of profitable reflection for believers today, and the interests of Christian fellowship and charity might prompt us to seek to humbly and honestly understand other people who offer sincere perspectives that differ from our own, rather than dismissing one another out of hand. 

By / Apr 16

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the death of Prince Phillip, Russia, the shooting of Daunte Wright, the court ruling on Down syndome abortion, current FDA recommendations on the J&J vaccine, and the no-hitter thrown by Chicago pitcher. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Chelsea Patterson Sobolik with “Explainer: What you should know about the debate in Congress about the Born-Alive bill,” Andrew Bertodatti and Lamar Hardwick with “How can churches be more inclusive of disabled person?,” and Jill Waggoner with “How learning about trauma changed my life: Learning from The Body Keeps the Score.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Gary Lancaster for his farewell episode. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dead at 99
  2. US sanctions Russia over hacks
  3. Russian troops massing on Ukrainian border
  4. Officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright charged
  5. Court ruling on Down syndrome abortion law praised
  6. FDA recommends pausing J&J vaccine after 6 reported cases of blood clots
  7. White House says J&J pause will not have “significant impact” on vaccination plan
  8. Duke University to require vaccinations for fall semester
  9. No-hitter thrown by Chicago pitcher
  10. Turner’s cheesy HR makes LA 1st to 10 wins

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By / Apr 16

In March, we crossed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, during a year unlike any other, resulted in a staggering 500,000 deaths in the United States alone. After reaching this milestone, we are faced with alarming statistics of not only the stark losses of life but also of those that reveal the Black community in America has been disproportionately affected during this year of crisis. 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Black or African American persons are twice as likely as their white or Asian counterparts to be hospitalized or pass away due to COVID-related symptoms. These statistics further point to the existence of an American social predicament which allows for significant disparities in the availability of social programs and adequate health care for many in Black communities. 

This information points to the necessity of larger numbers of African Americans urgently needing COVID-19 vaccination. With the advent of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, people can now be protected against contracting the virus (or have a significant reduction in the severity of symptoms). These vaccines could bring significant relief to the crisis for the Black community. But despite being the most affected by the virus, and most in need of vaccination, members of the Black community are disproportionately underrepresented in instances of vaccination. While some 20% of the U.S. population has received some form of vaccination, Black or African American persons only make up 7% of that number, according to recent data from the CDC.

So why aren’t members of the Black community running to the front of the line to get vaccinated? One contributing factor is rooted in a longstanding Black collective mistrust of healthcare institutions because of a history of dubious medical practices that resulted in inadequate medical treatment, misuse of Black bodies, and misinformation in Black spaces. The relationship between the medical science community and the Black community is one fraught with tension, implicit bias, and suspicion, often coming from both directions.

One of the most glaring instances of medical deception towards the Black community occurred in Alabama during the “ethically unjustified” 40-year-long experiment known as the Tuskegee Study. From 1932 until its public exposure by the Associated Press in 1972, the Public Health Service–which preceded the CDC–conducted a study on 600 Black men under the guise of treatment for vaguely described diagnoses. The study lacked informed consent from the participants, as they believed they were being given legitimate treatments for illnesses. In reality, those treatments were purposely withheld from these men as scientists observed the long term, natural effects of syphilis on their bodies. 

With the last surviving member of the Tuskegee Study passing recently in 2004, the legacy of Tuskegee remains burned into the Black consciousness and still influences the present-day medical choices of many. Add this to current statistics of high numbers of instances of medical malpractice experienced by Black Americans, and a perceived indifference toward the complaints of Black patients concerning healthcare, and the lack of investment into vaccination sites and resources in predominantly Black neighborhoods, many African Americans are left without sufficient options for vaccination. Worse, many end up thinking that it would be more beneficial and health conscious to not receive the COVID-19 vaccination at all.  

So, what then can be done to aid a community in crisis? This answer is rooted in the longstanding Black collective trust and veneration of the Church as a community presence and institution. It is the Church that is left with the responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus toward a community in need. The Church has in past times been the answer to the issues plaguing the Black community and must be that answer once again.

From serving as temporary hospitals during the Black Plague to being gathering centers for social justice meetings during the Civil Rights Era, churches have often been galvanizing hubs to help people receive information and care. The Church very often serves as the center of Black social life in America where many get not only their direction for faith, but also their teaching on initiatives in politics, education and healthcare, with politicians, activists and medical professionals often turning to the Church to utilize their platforms to distribute information directly to congregants. 

As the pandemic persists, it might once again fall on the Church to help spread truth and assuage fears in the Black community if there is hope for their getting vaccinated at higher rates. Churches can act as vaccination sites in typically low-income or Black neighborhoods. They can host information forums where medical professionals answer questions for congregants; and church leaders themselves can model the vaccine’s safety by receiving it. 

To follow the call of the Bible to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17), the Church must be an active voice in ensuring that members of marginalized groups are receiving the care and information needed to be protected in a crisis. While many members of the Black community mistrust medical institutions, they retain trust in the Church, so the Church must honor that trust and help guide people out of this unprecedented trial.

By / Feb 26

The church is central to the story of black history in the United States. In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley unpacks the many ways Scripture has been a resource for hope, perseverance, and justice in the African American experience. In spite of the dynamic role the black church has played in American history, its theological and historical significance is often understated. That is why this month we are taking a look at Dr. McCaulley’s book to further explore how the method of interpretation and reading Scripture has been an act of hope grounded in scriptural authority and the hope of the gospel

Here are select quotes from Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

I am referring to the struggle between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in this fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church. p. 3

I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope. p. 6 

My professors had a point. One does not have to dig very far into history to see that fundamentalist Christians in the South (and the North) have indeed inflicted untold harm on Black people. They have used the Bible as justification for their sins, personal and corporate. But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in that same Bible the basis for their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christian of the rock on which they stood. p. 8. 

I learned that too often alongside the four pillars of evangelicalism outlined above there were unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice. p. 11

While I was at home with much of the theology in evangelicalism, there were real disconnects. First, there was the portrayal of the Black church in these circles. I was told that the social gospel had corrupted Black Christianity. Rather than placing my hope there, I should look to the golden age of theology, either at the early years of this country or during the postwar boom of American Protestantism. But the historian in me couldn’t help but realize that these apexes of theological faithfulness coincided with the nadirs of Black freedom. p. 11

The first ray of hope came from Frederick Douglass, whose words came to be something of a Balm in Gilead. He said, 

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference. . . . I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Frederick then posits a distinction, not so much between Black Christianity and white, but between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Jesus and the Bible.

Black Christianity historically, I would come to understand, has claimed that white slave master readings of the Bible used to undergird white degradation of Black bodies were not merely one manifestation of Christianity to be contrasted with another. Instead they said that such a reading was wrong. p. 16-17

Therefore, I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology). p. 19

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be 

  • unapologetically canonical and theological. 
  • socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans. 
  • willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns. 
  • willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing. 
  • willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text. p. 21

Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness. p. 68

The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible. The question is which does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God. This is what we see in Satan’s use of Scripture in the wilderness. The problem isn’t that the Scriptures that Satan quoted were untrue, but when made to do the work that he wanted them to do, they distorted the biblical witness. This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited. p. 91

The Black Christian is often beset from the left and the right. Those on the right too often contend that the Bible speaks to their souls and not the liberation of their bodies. Those on the left maintain that those on the right are correct. The Bible doesn’t clearly address the needs of Black and Brown folks. Therefore, it must either be supplemented or replaced. I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States. p. 94-95

God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God. p. 106

There are two groups that want to separate us from the Christian story. One group claims that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion. This is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon? I have contended that Christianity is ultimately a story about God and his purposes. That is good news. God has always intended to gather a diverse group of people to worship him. p. 117

It is difficult for the African American believer to look deeply into the history of Christianity and not be profoundly shaken. Insomuch as it arises in response to the church’s historic mistreatment of African Americans, the Black secular protest against religion is one of the most understandable developments in the history of the West. If they are wrong (and they are), it is a wrongness born out of considerable pain. I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on Black bodies and souls. If we come to different conclusions about the solutions to those problems, it is not because Black Christians deny the past. It is simply that we found different solutions within the biblical witness to Black suffering and anger. We do not find fault with the broad center of the great Christian tradition. We lament its distortion by others and the ways in which we have failed to live up to the truths we hold dear. Nonetheless, we are not ashamed of finding hope and forgiveness in and through the cross of Christ. In the end, we plead and have confidence in the blood. p. 136

I argued that the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery. It is simply false to claim that the Old and New Testaments simply baptize the institutions as they find them. Instead, the Scriptures raise tensions between the central themes of the Bible and slavery. p. 162

Alongside the vibrancy of evangelicalism, there was, in spirit if not always in practice, an emphasis on the equality of all people due to the belief that all were sinners in need of God’s grace. The equal need for grace spoke to the equal worth of Black bodies and souls, making conversion to this form of Christianity a realistic possibility. Furthermore, the flexible polities of Baptist and later Methodist churches made it easier for African Americans to form their own independent churches and denominations when racism forced them out of white churches. Here in these newly formed Black churches and denominations we have our first extensive record of the Black encounter with the Bible. p. 169

The emphasis on the Bible in evangelical circles spurred on the Black desire for literacy. Learning to read the Bible helped expand the world and imagination of slaves, making them more difficult to control. This led to attempts to limit Bible reading among slaves out of fear it might cause rebellion. Slave masters’ fear of the Bible must bear some indirect testimony to what the slave masters thought it said. Part of them knew that their exegetical conclusions could only be maintained if the enslaved were denied firsthand experience of the text. This is evidence to my mind that Bible reading was itself an act against despair and for hope. p. 170

Most Black writers from this period saw in the texts of the Old and New Testament a message calling for liberation from actual slavery. This call for the end of slavery did not mean that they neglected personal salvation from sin. This call for individual and societal transformation within the context of the historic confessions of Christianity is what I came to think of as the mainstream or at least a significant strand of the Black ecclesial tradition. p. 171

The witness of the traditional black church in the United States testifies to the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reading While Black is an excellent resource to better understand how the black church has utilized Scripture to make sense of the many joys and challenges of the African American experience. 

By / Feb 10

“Daddy, he looks like me!” My young black son pointed to the only black basketball player on the court that night at my overwhelmingly white seminary. Even at a young age, he immediately felt represented by the one man on the court who shared his appearance. Without knowing it, my son was experiencing “representation.”

What is representation?

Representation can describe either the way different kinds of people are portrayed or the presence of someone who represents something about us. The way different kinds of people are portrayed is important, because it shapes both the perception and self-perception of their group. Similarly, the absence or presence of people like ourselves can send a powerful message about how we might be received in a group we’ve encountered.

It was good for my son to see a man who represented him on the court that night. But if he grows up seeing black men portrayed only as athletes or entertainers or criminals, he’s being told that athleticism or entertainment are requirements for his success… and that criminality is a way society might view his manhood. In the same way, if my black daughters grow up with only classic American dolls, they’re subtly learning that light peachy skin and straight blonde hair and baby blue eyes are the standard — a mono-cultural image they can never replicate, and one that discounts their own striking features.

If you want to understand representation, look no further than the outpouring of love, honor, and grief over the recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who became an international hero for people of African descent through his portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Playing an African king, Boseman displayed goodness, dignity, humility, and strength — especially when the world learned that he was silently battling cancer during the later stages of his rigorous career. Many testified that T’Challa represented blackness with nobility and honor, challenging many of the less noble portrayals of blackness in our world.

Always representing

It’s helpful to remember that we’re always representing and being represented. This isn’t wrong; it’s just reality. Because human beings are God’s image-bearers, we represent his rule in the world (Gen. 1:26–28). Adam represents humanity as our first father (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 47–49). Children also represent their parents, employees represent their companies, athletes represent their teams, and bands represent their labels. When a pastoral scandal is exposed, I can’t pretend like it doesn’t relate to me. I’m a pastor, too, so I grieve over the deep pain of the survivors and the fresh shame on the profession.

Because of how we’re wired, we consistently portray both ourselves and others in specific ways, whether we realize it or not. I was once working with an all-white team on a missions event. We were looking for videos to communicate our message, and someone played an example. Its verbal message was biblical, but its visual message was disturbing: the people doing good were virtually all white, while those who were dirty, desperate, and hurting were all black and brown. In the world of this video, which exposed the worldview of its creators, one race does the saving, while all the others need saving. Black and brown people were nothing but the mission field, and apparently, whiteness was a sign of holistic health.

Even well-meaning Christian communities are not immune to internalized attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority. The implications are far-reaching if we’re willing to search our souls.

So why did I notice, and why did I care? Because I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching over the years — a happy and humbling journey of discovery that will continue for the rest of my life.

A seat at the table

Many years ago, Cindi and I attended a traditional black church during our senior year of college. We were some of the only non-black believers there (I’m half-Japanese; she’s white). We were loved well, and gained some lifelong friends. But we also learned what it felt like to be different at church. Over time, our perspective kept widening as we adopted four African children, traveled to different countries, talked candidly with black friends, saw racial themes surging through Scripture, embraced racial matters as lifelong issues, and recently moved to a global city where we hope to live this out in community. God’s vision of a new humanity redeemed from all nations and gathered before his throne is now very personal to us (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 148:11–13; Dan. 7:14; Acts 2:5–11; Eph. 3:6; Rev. 5:9).

But the most practical reason why that missions video stood out to me is this: four beautiful black faces have a permanent seat at our table, so their perspectives and concerns are permanently represented in our hearts. As a family, we instinctively notice the ethnic makeup of every space we enter — a church, a school, a restaurant, even a video. We also notice how black and brown people are portrayed — especially when they’re denigrated. So after the video played, I was compelled to point out its biased portrayal of the kind of people who need the hope and help of Christ. I shared my perspective with our team, challenged us toward a more biblical worldview, and urged us to create promotional materials with a variety of people both hurting and helping.

Potential pitfalls

Cultivating appropriate representation is a worthy pursuit, but it’s not simple. The path is rocky, and there are pitfalls. For starters, it’s tempting to content ourselves with visual diversity alone. But welcoming someone’s color while sidelining their culture isn’t much of a welcome. Selfish or shallow pursuits of diversity can produce tokenism, where somehow all three black students at the small Christian school end up in the admissions brochure each year, without the school ever growing in its ethnic reach. Or the way photo selections from the mission field can expose that we’re more concerned about sharing our exploits than helping those in need. Tokenism exposes that we’re more concerned about perceived diversity than true community.

Even in a mixed community, we often settle for clumpy diversity, each of us magnetized to our own groups. Or we flatten people’s unique features by viewing them only as interchangeable symbols of their “kind.” Our passion for inclusion can even lead us to ignore or condemn certain groups simply for their demographic clout, falling into a second ditch as we flee the first.

Wisdom calls us away from seeking diversity for its own sake, a twisted path that always ends in some form of favoritism. Instead, our pursuits should follow the flow of God’s own redemptive storyline: his creation design, his Abrahamic promise, his reconciling gospel, his integrated church, his unifying Spirit, and his promise of a new risen humanity, international heirs of a new creation (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 96:1–3; Isa. 19:23–25; Rom. 15:5–7; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:14–16; 3:14; 4:1–6; Rev. 5:9–10). On these firm foundations, a diverse Christian community can rise, bonded with a shared faith and a common love.

Intentionality will always be required, because left to ourselves, most of us gravitate toward those we deem similar and easy. But intentionality must never become partiality, because Christ calls us to love all kinds of people. Along the way, we must stay thoughtful and reasonable, patiently considering the nuanced dynamics of each situation, the makeup of our own groups and communities, and the pointed guidance of God’s Spirit.

Representation in Scripture

On the surface, it’s easy to claim that biblical impartiality should make us blind to color, culture, and class, and if we’re consistent, gender and age, too. But Scripture tells a different story, a story filled with eye-opening concern for every kind of person. It’s true that every human being bears God’s image, making us equal in dignity, value, and purpose (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–2; 9:6). Yet our distinctions are often highlighted, not downplayed, to show God’s fatherly care for the full spectrum of humanity.

Abel, the first victim in the Bible, is clearly righteous, not tarnished (Gen. 4:3–10; Heb. 11:4). Rahab’s gutsy faith brings Israelite spies into her home and a Jericho prostitute into God’s family (Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Mephibosheth, handicapped by a childhood accident, is sought out and restored by David as a representative of Saul’s fallen family (2 Sam. 9).

A nameless little slave girl introduces her Syrian captor Naaman to the healing ministry of Elisha (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). The same Syrian general is later used to illustrate God’s border-crossing grace (Luke 4:27). A Ninevite king bows before Jonah’s God in a citywide revival that angers the prejudiced prophet (Jonah 3:5–10; Matt. 12:41). Esther’s courageous representation in the Persian court keeps her adoptive father from execution and her Jewish people from genocide (Esth. 4:13–16).

The presence of Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary in Jesus’ genealogy is a symbol of God’s equalizing grace that includes abused, foreign, or culturally scandalized women in the messianic line (Matt. 1:1–17). Jesus’ own ministry to the marginalized shouts a joyful welcome to broken people of all kinds, and his magnetic ministry to children puts the littlest among us front and center (Matt. 4:23–24; 19:13–15).

The Gospels often highlight the rejected and powerless both to dignify them and to confront the proud and presumptuous (Mark 3:1–6; Luke 16:19–31; John 9). The paragon of virtue in Jesus’ most famous parable is a “half-breed” Samaritan, while a prominent priest and a pure Levite are condemned as cold-hearted contrasts (Luke 10:30–37). The Gospels also tell how Zacchaeus the tax collector is transformed, a Roman centurion is enlightened, and two Pharisees honor the crucified body of Jesus, so that even the rich can know that God can fit them through the needle’s eye (Matt. 19:23–24; Matt. 27:54; Luke 19:1–10; John 19:38–42).

As the gospel spreads, the terrorist Saul is dramatically saved on his way to persecute Christians so that no one can doubt God’s mercy (1 Tim. 1:12–16). The Jewish Paul then takes on apprentices like Timothy and Titus as he plants racially mixed churches throughout the Gentile world (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). When God’s kingdom dawns in Philippi, it liberates a high-end fashion dealer, a demonized slave girl, and a Roman jailer who is likely a military veteran (Acts 16:11–40). And when Paul writes to the Roman church, he goes to great lengths to greet his wildly diverse network, a mosaic of ethnicities and personalities showing off the gospel’s reconciling grace surging through the empire’s capital city (Rom. 16:1–16).

Whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, rich or poor, civilian or soldier, powerful or powerless, prince or prodigal, every kind of person is represented in the redeemed church of Jesus Christ. Keeping in step with the Spirit’s work, Christian movements should humbly desire the same dynamic.

Inclusion and influence

For those on the fringes, being represented signals two main possibilities. The first is inclusion. When a Chinese man walks into an American church and sees people from his culture already present, belonging looks possible. When an elderly woman sees grey hair on the worship team, she can feel the possibility of participating. When the youth group sees a fellow teenager baptized, they can sense that grace and change are possible for someone their age. Representation embodies the possibility of belonging, participating, and being included.

But inclusion alone is not enough. Representation is needed at a higher level — the level of influence. All believers are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). And the body of Christ needs every part fully operational in order to mature (Eph. 4:15–16). Therefore, a healthy church or organization will always be identifying and removing barriers to biblical forms of influence.

We can start by initiating conversations and hearing people’s perspectives. If we don’t pursue that family with special needs, who will tell us how our ignorance might be keeping them from full participation? If the elderly have no voice in our churches, who will let us know when we’ve skewed so contemporary that we’re unhinged from our own heritage? If a multiethnic group is led by monoethnic leadership, who will point out cultural idols, blind spots, missteps, needs, and opportunities? Most importantly, if our churches and movements and organizations remain homogenous, how will we make up for all the virtue, knowledge, talent, experience, and vision that our varied brothers and sisters are ready to bring to the table?

A masterclass

In Acts 6, when the gospel is spreading and the church is becoming more diverse, racial tensions ignite. The Greek-culture Christians lodge a legitimate complaint because their widows aren’t being cared for like the Jewish-culture widows (Acts 6:1). The church’s response is a masterclass in humble, strategic, unified representation. The apostles admit there’s a problem, they involve the whole church, and the church appoints seven Spirit-filled leaders to expand the care ministry across racial lines (Acts 6:2–3). Strikingly, all seven appointees have Greek names (Acts 6:5).

The Jerusalem church recognized that Hellenistic believers would be most effective at serving the widows from their own culture. Racial inequity was acknowledged, a homogenous team was diversified, “and the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).

Leaders who learn

Our family once toured a Christian school that was almost exclusively white. We asked about racial diversity, but rather than recognizing its absence, the principal emphasized their handful of black students — by name. She had fallen into a common trap that sees token representation as meaningful diversity. We would’ve been more encouraged if she’d acknowledged the lack of representation and explained how her team would be thoughtful learners and leaders. Yet this same administrator would later disallow our black daughter from having a typical black hairstyle because of a monocultural policy ignorant about the intricacies of black hair. We appealed as winsomely as we could, but it didn’t matter. Only one kind of accessory was allowed: “Just put a ribbon in it like all the other girls!” she told my wife. Black women everywhere know how naïve this sounds. But there was no one else to help this leader see what she didn’t know — or to help her team reevaluate the deeper assumptions keeping their school an ethnocentric community.

In contrast, I have a black friend who took an internship at a white church. The dress code for the program would have required that he purchase a whole new wardrobe—because the “equivalent” dress in his culture was unacceptable. Thankfully, he was courageous enough to speak up, and the leaders were humble enough to hear his perspective. They adjusted their culture-bound requirements — and no doubt grew in their own perspective. Later, my friend told me he would often wear his jeans and Timberlands to church, not out of disrespect, but to show any visitors from his culture that they too could belong.

As a pastor, I want to be a leader who listens. I want to know when people are being left out. An empty-nester recently told me that one of his adult sons said he wouldn’t fit at our church because he has a big beard and tattoos. I’d like to think he’d be welcomed, but there’s a reason he feels like an outsider, so I’ve kept his comments in mind. 

I was recently talking with a Japanese family new to the States and growing in their English. They were attending a Christian church — our church — for only the second time in their lives. As I talked with them after the service, I wondered: Had I preached clearly enough for them to understand? Was I thinking about people like them in our international city? Or had I gotten caught up in the moment, maximizing my vocabulary to engage only a certain kind of person here in west Houston? There’s always a balance, but had I considered second-language souls like this new couple when calibrating my approach? In the global city where I serve, I should.

Jesus our representative

As God’s divine Son, Jesus represents God to us, and as our human high priest, he represents us before God (John 1:18; Heb. 1:3; 2:14–15). To represent us, “he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way” (Heb. 2:17).

When we look to Jesus, from incarnation to ascension, we see a full human being. Jesus is human, like us, but lived righteously. Jesus was tempted, like us, but never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Now that we’re united with him by faith, we share in all that belongs to him: his righteousness, his sonship, his ministry, his family, and his future.

The message is clear: Our salvation and service, our redemption and participation, our inclusion and influence, are all possible not only because Christ is God, but because he came as the God-man — because, in my little boy’s words, “He looks like me!”

By / Feb 8

In 1964, painter Norman Rockwell was given his first assignment for Look magazine. The assignment, itself a result of the 10-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision which desegregated schools, culminated in his producing the painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With.” In the painting, a young Ruby Bridges is escorted to school by federal marshals, with racial slurs painted on the wall behind her and crushed tomatoes smashed against the wall, thrown by a crowd of onlookers outside the frame. She looks ahead, stoic, as she follows the marshals to school. What is absent from the image are all the others who had to courageously fight and defend her right to be educated and treated as a full member of society: her mother, her father, a watching country, and members of her church. The story of Ruby Bridges is not just the story of her courage, though it is that, but also the courage of her family and community as they fought for equal protection and justice.

The courage of a child

To see the image painted by Norman Rockwell is to be confronted with the courage of such a small child. Bridges is dwarfed in size by the men in the photo (their upper bodies existing outside the frame), and yet she looms just as large in the way it is presented. The focus is on her, with her back straight and her eyes set toward her goal. As one federal marshal there reported: “She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her. As the painting, and multiple accounts have shown, this little girl faced a constant stream of threats and physical violence. Once she was enrolled, some white parents pulled their children from the school rather than let them be in the same classroom. Even the teachers, with the exception of one, refused to teach her. Thus, Ruby Bridges was left in a classroom by herself with only her teacher each day at school. 

Bridges’ courage, even as a young child, is a testimony of the way that individuals must stand on the strength of their convictions and fight for justice and equality. That anyone should face such treatment is abhorrent, but for it to happen to a child even more so. However, the courage of this little girl, and the others like her, was essential in ending segregation and furthering the cause of Civil Rights. It was an immense burden to lay on one so young, but it was one that Bridges was carried with the strength and dignity of one who is on the side of justice. 

The courage of a family

The courage of the Civil Rights Movement is not just the story of individuals, but often of families. This is especially true in the case of Ruby Bridges. Absent from Rockwell’s painting is the person who walked with her every day that first year: her mother. Ruby’s mother, Lucille Bridges, was described as one of the “Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement” at the time of her death. Ruby, reflecting on her mother at that time, said that it was her mother who set her on the path that led to her enrollment in the white school. And that was a courageous event because little Ruby would be enrolling by herself. Though there were six African-American students who were eligible to enroll (because the school district required that the African American students pass a test proving their academic ability), two chose to remain at their current school, and three were sent to another all-white school. When Ruby’s parents made the decision to send her to William-Frantz Elementary School, they were making the decision to trust the federal marshals, as well as their community, to protect their little girl from what they knew would be a barrage of hate, racism, and threats to her safety. 

Though Ruby would face constant threats and harassment, she was not the only one to suffer. Lucille faced it when she escorted her daughter to school. Lucille’s parents, sharecroppers in Mississippi, would be evicted from their farm because of Ruby. Stores refused to sell to Lucille. And Ruby’s father lost his job. All this as a result of their desire to see their daughter, and others like her, receive the same education as their white counterparts. It is right and proper to recognize the role that individuals played, but it is also true that so often that was the result of a family and community who were facing adversity with them. Lucille Bridges, and the rest of Ruby Bridges family, are representative of the power that a community has in calling for justice, and that the courageous actions of one individual, one parent, one spouse, can have for generations to come. 

A day when no one will make them afraid

Rockwell’s painting is a reminder of just how far we have come, but also so much that is left to do. Though school segregation seems like a relic of the distant past, in reality American schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s. Acknowledging that this is not the result of de facto segregation, but rather a number of factors, some that are problematic (such as redlining and housing contracts) and others that are beneficial (developing African-American communities and communities), the separation is not an ideal. As Rockwell’s painting reminds us, this is a problem that we continue to live with. However, as we are reminded in the scriptures, the walls of hostility have been brought down (Eph. 2:14), and we will one day all stand before a throne with the redeemed of history from every nation, tribe, and tongue in praise of our savior (Rev. 7:9). As we work to make the world more just, we should be encouraged by the bravery of Ruby Bridges and her family, and the countless others whose names are lost to history, who were working for a future, to use the language of the prophets, where each person could sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:4).

By / Aug 28

I love God. I love the Bible. So I hate abortion. Scripture is clear. God is the author of life. He alone has the authority to say when it can be given and when it can be taken away. This is why the clandestinely recorded videos of officials from the abortion-provider, Planned Parenthood, disturb so many.

The Planned Parenthood videos that have been released by the Center for Medical Progress (and more to come) leave no tender-hearted person unmoved. You can’t hear Dr. Nucatola saying, between bites of salad and sips of wine, “… we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact,” and not grimace in revulsion.

The Testimony of Scripture

Abortion horrifies us because the notion of life as a gift has been infused in us by our Creator. In the account of humankind’s creation in Genesis 2, it says, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). God endowed all human beings with inherent dignity when he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). We have an instinct for life because existence itself images the Creator. 

Since God animates all humanity he has all rights over it. In Genesis 8, after the Flood he declares, “‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.'” God’s unrivaled command over the lives of all people as their Creator means he alone has the authority to declare the conditions under which life can be taken.

God’s prerogative over life unequivocally extends to the unborn. In Exodus 21, if two men are fighting and one hits a nearby pregnant woman and harms her child, he must pay the consequence commensurate to the injury done. “But if there is harm, [to the unborn child] then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe: (vv 23-25). Abortion advocates claim that a child in the womb is not a person; this text says different. The penalty for the death of a child in the womb is the same penalty as for the murder of an adult (Lev. 24:17-20). In the biblical view, there is no difference in personhood between the born and the unborn. 

Not only are unborn children considered persons in the Bible, they are also blessings. Psalm 127 communicates that children are a gift from God. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (vv 3-5a). Scripture teaches that when pregnancy occurs the unborn child is an unequivocal grace and should be celebrated. The value of life in the womb is also affirmed by King David in the Psalms.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Psalm 139:13-16

David views children in the womb as a marvelous demonstration of God’s artistry and care. He understands that life from its earliest stages is reason to praise God. The Lord, as the only Lifegiver, is always concerned with life. He has determined when a child will be conceived and takes particular interest in every child even before birth. Children are precious in God’s sight, even when they are still hidden in the womb. 

Abortion and the Black Community

God loves the little children, but black babies are dying by the score. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an African American woman is almost five times more likely to have an abortion than a white woman. In the state of Mississippi, white women had 665 abortions in 2006, or 22.6 percent of all abortions in that state. By comparison, black women had 2,250 abortions or 76.3 percent of the total.

Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and the crusade to legalize abortion has also been linked to the eugenics movement, an effort to perfect the human race by promoting reproduction (i.e. selective breeding) among human beings with desirable traits and to discourage reproduction (i.e. sterilizing adults or aborting children) with undesirable traits. African Americans were generally not viewed as having the traits necessary for the progress of humanity, so they were frequent targets of racist eugenicist ideas like abortion.

The disproportionate number of abortions in the Black community should cause outrage among African Americans. Instead, organizations founded to uplift people of color support institutions that tear those same people from the womb. The NAACP has openly affirmed a woman’s legalized choice to abort and Planned Parenthood financially supports NAACP national events. Another important organization, the Congressional Black Caucus partners with Planned Parenthood. In 2012, a former CBC chairman, Emanuel Cleaver even received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood for his support of “women’s reproductive rights.” The affiliation of the NAACP and the CBC, though, should not be taken to mean that all Black people support abortion. It is an inaccurate and pejorative stereotype to say African Americans do not care about life in the womb.  Yet there are reasons some black people have aligned themselves with organizations like Planned Parenthood.

A Historical Alliance

In the past, and especially during the Civil Rights Movement, socially and politically progressive individuals were typically the more outspoken against racism than their conservative counterparts. This doesn’t mean that such liberals were blameless in their racial beliefs, but it was, for example, northern college students who helped run the Freedom Schools and took the Freedom Rides with African Americans in the early 1960s. People from more theologically liberal branches of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics were more likely to support the Civil Rights Movement than their theologically conservative co-religionists. The historical support liberals had for African Americans in securing racial justice has, for some, morphed into an uncritical allegiance to the modern-day organizations they populate like Planned Parenthood.

But the relationship is complex. One could argue that African American women have more abortions because they have more unplanned pregnancies. The higher rates of poverty, mass incarceration, inadequate education, in addition to lower overall health and struggles with fatherlessness all contribute to an intricate social web that increases the likelihood of desperate situations for a woman who becomes pregnant in such conditions. African Americans today may align themselves with abortion providers like Planned Parenthood because these organizations also address other social issues. They provide services like breast cancer screening, sex education, and address body image issues. Perhaps for African American supporters, the perceived community good these organizations provide outweighs their objections to abortion.

Life from the “Womb to the Tomb”

If Christians follow the Bible they will find themselves at times allies and at times enemies with all kinds of people. While the contribution of certain individuals and organizations during the Civil Rights Movement should never be forgotten, this advocacy is no reason to ignore the contra-biblical practices of abortion providers. Fortunately, many African Americans have consistently opposed abortion. Alveda C. King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a public advocate for life. The National Black Pro-Life Coalition spearheads many pro-life efforts among minorities.

Christians of all races must be concerned with life “from the womb to the tomb” (and beyond!). This is why Christians of any race cannot support Planned Parenthood as long as it conducts abortions. Believers must do this while continuing to creatively address other important issues. The struggle is for the right to life and the right to a quality life. Love for God and his word requires both.

By / Jul 1

What is the #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches story about?

 Since June 17 there have been seven fires at predominantly black churches. Many people are questioning whether the fires are hate crimes because they occurred in the wake of the massacre of nine African-Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The speculation has been shared on social media through the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.

Are all the churches in South Carolina?

 No, only two are in South Carolina. Two others are in Tennessee. There were also fires in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and California.

What are the names of the churches?

The churches and locations are:

1. Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina

2. College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee

3. Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina

4. God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia

5. Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida

6. Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee

7. Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.

Additionally, a fire was intentionally set at a church in Los Angeles that hosts Latino groups on June 29.

Who is investigating the fires?

Along with local and state authorities in each location, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is conducting investigations into five of the seven fires. The ATF frequently aids in arson investigations, and because of the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, is called in whenever there is a suspicious burnings or desecration at a house of worship. The FBI also aids in such investigations when there is a suspicion the act was a hate crime.

Are the church fires connected? Were they caused by hate crimes?

Investigators have said there is no evidence any of the church fires are linked, or that racism was the motivation. So far there has also been no evidence that the church fires are hate crimes. According to the ATF:

ATF has special agents and certified fire investigators (CFIs) from several field divisions investigating the fires to determine cause and origin. We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related.

Are all seven fires the result of arson?

No, only three are officially suspected to be arson. The other four are either accidents or show no signs of criminal intent. Here are the suspected causes of each of the fire:

Church: Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
Cause of fire: The investigation has determined the cause to be arson.
Damage assessment: Damage is estimated at more than $250 thousand. 

Church: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Arson/Vandalism. A church van was set on fire and authorities found a pile of burning debris (i.e., bales of hay) in front of a door at the church.
Damage assessment: The van is a total loss, but the main church building was largely unaffected.

Church: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators observed no element of criminal intent.
Damage assessment: The church building is a total loss.

Church: God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia
Cause of fire: Undetermined, but investigators believe the cause is arson. Additionally, the church was recently burglarized and its sound system was stolen.
Damage assessment: The church building is likely to be a total loss.

Church: Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida
Cause of fire: Officials believe it was an electrical fire.
Damage assessment: The fire resulted in a total loss for the church estimated at $700,000.

Church: Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee
Cause of fire: Lightening striking the church steeple.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.

Church: Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Cause of fire: Unknown at this time, though it doesn’t appear to be arson. Because of a recent storm in the area officials believe it could have come from a lightning strike.
Damage assessment: The church was completely destroyed.
(Note: This church was the scene of an arson by the KKK in 1995.)

How many church fires occur every year?

In the U.S., an average of two churches are intentionally set on fire every three days.

From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 structure fires each year on religious properties (churches, temples, mosques, religious education facilities, funeral parlors and related properties). Of those 16 percent (about 280 per year) are classified as intentional.

Who starts church fires and what are their motivations?

Currently, no group tracks the incidents of arson that occur in churches. But the National Church Arson Task Force Reports (NCATF) issued a report in September 2000 that can give us a snapshot of previous arsons. The NCATF) had opened investigations into 945 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at places of worship. The results found:

• One-third of the incidents occurred at African-American places of worship.

• Forty-six of the 79 defendants (58 percent) convicted on federal charges related to arson or bombing were “motivated by bias.”

• While some arsons were racially motivated, they found the usual range of other motives such as vandalism, mental health issues, burglary cover-up, retribution against religious authorities, other disputes and financial profit.

• 39 percent of the arsonists were between the ages of 6 to 17 (14 percent were 6 to 13, 25 percent were 14 to 17).

• Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the arrestees were white males. However, more than a third (37 percent) of the people arrested for incidents at African-American places of worship were themselves African American.