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Growing up in the Black Church has been a rich blessing that I do not take for granted.  As a young boy, at Calvary Baptist Church in Portsmouth Virginia, I heard the Christ-centered bold preaching that arrested my soul and caused me to be drawn to surrender my life to Christ.

In that same Church, I learned about the Doctrine of the Trinity, Salvation by Faith alone, and that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I also learned that Jesus is the Son of God, the creator of the universe. As I was growing in my faith, my Grandmother who was also nurtured in the historic black church encouraged me in my faith whenever I felt weary. This elderly woman who raised a home full of children taught me the doctrine of the “preservation of the saints” without using the fancy phrase. Throughout the years, I felt the continual pull on my life from the call and response, and whooping style preaching that some of my pastors delivered over the years.

However, when I began to seek an education to prepare for ministry, I found myself having to enter into spaces that were a little different from where I grew up. I found myself entering into the Evangelical world that was largely white. In my case, this was no problem. However, I began to be told that there was something inferior about the Church that taught me Christian orthodoxy; that the context from which I came was viewed as theologically suspicious almost as if we we’re second class members of God’s kingdom.

The professors, students, and course outlines taught me Black people did not have anything to contribute to the theological magisterium. I was viewed more as a Christian who needed to be “saved” from my Black Church background and get all of the foolish doctrine corrected.

In this context, there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that you are to assimilate and join in the refutation of your former inferior context. Some African American students willingly join in and accept this condescending view of the Black Church, while others resist this stance and continue to love the Black Church.  It is based on this experience that I would like to draw on some historical data to contextualize and show that we must repent of our paternalistic devaluing of the Black Church.

A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS OF CHRISTIAN PATERNALISM: THE AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY

In the eighteenth century, the doctrine of White supremacy and Black inferiority were well established. These doctrines played themselves out in the horrible institution of American slavery. Within this context, there were some “fortunate” Africans who were free in the country. This caused a problem for the supporters of the system of degradation in the society; one scholar asserts “theoretically the natural increase of free blacks threatened white hegemony in the North and slavocracy in the South.”[1] The “problem” was addressed by a former slave “owner,” “Rev.” Samuel Hopkins, who conceived the idea of black emigration to Africa in 1759.[2]

This was the beginning of a controversial system intended to educate some free blacks to “Christianize” and “civilize” Africa; the American Colonization Society (ACS) was birthed for this purpose. Gayraud Wilmore describes the cause of suspicion amongst blacks to the ACS: “both those whites who favored slavery and those who were genuinely opposed to it found common cause in the proposal to remove this source of embarrassment and danger and salve their consciences about Africa at the same time.”[3]

In other words, citizens were attempting to rid themselves of free blacks by the apparently “benevolent” act of attempting to civilize Africa. However good their intentions were, the talk of “Negro inferiority” and “degradation,” along with the overly zealous support of slaveholders turned free Northern blacks from the ACS.[4] It seems that for Blacks, two main issues were at stake for their rejection of the ACS: (1) They did not want to turn their backs on their brothers and sisters in chains. (2) The implication that Africans were an inferior race needing to be civilized.

For our purposes here, I would like to focus on this latter concept. This historic event illuminates the fact that a supposed desire to help people while holding a degrading view of them can hinder partnership for a potentially good cause. Wilmore points out this arrogance was adopted by many African Americans toward their homeland as well: “The attitude of the first African Americans to colonize Africa was unquestionably one of condescension and paternalism. The Africans were regarded as a degraded race in need of nothing so much as the salvation and superior virtues others could bring.” Consequently, history shows that both whites and blacks have adopted in the past a view that sees non-conformity to European social expectations as inferior and in need of “saving”.

CHRISTIAN PATERNALISM TOWARD THE BLACK CHURCH

When I stepped into the evangelical world, it felt as if people saw me as a victim of the Black Church rather than a resource from a different tradition that one can glean from. The Black Church, like Africa to the ACS, is pictured as an inferior institution. We see this stigma revealed possibly in the fact that many African American evangelical seminarians are choosing to leave the traditional black church to enter into more traditionally white churches. The most common reasons I have heard is: A) we want to help build multiethnic churches; B) there are no good black churches that preach sound doctrine.

To the first point, I always wondered why this articulated desire to diversify churches only went in one direction. Stated plainly, the idea that church diversity can only happen if African Americans join white churches leaves a screaming elephant in the room: the lack of reciprocal joining of black churches by white Christians can communicate that the Black Church is seen as inferior.

Charlie Dates describes this Exodus of Black seminarians from the Black Church cogently when he states, “These days, I run into an increasing number of young black aspiring pastors who loathe the black church. Many of them skip black churches in favor of what one Illinois’ pastor calls ‘Gospel Gentrification.’”[5]

To the second point of there being no Black Churches who preach sound doctrine, Dates answers again by stating healthy churches who preach expositionally in the hood are not an anomaly.[6] Yet, some Black Christians who have adopted the posture of suspicion toward the Black Church assume their only interaction with it, similar to some Africans’ mentality toward Africa, is to be funnels for white cultural and theological norms to come through and correct it. Dates warns us again: “The savior complex is tempting, but it’s dangerously presumptive. Some of the young aspirants I meet leave the black church because she didn’t compare to their newfound non-black experience. Their mission is to show the black church how to do church right.”[7] The church needs a radical reorientation of its assessment of the value of the Black Church tradition.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

  • Repent of cultural arrogance. Many of us need to rid ourselves of the view that the white church is the measuring line by which all other churches are to be judged. The preaching style, whooping at the end of an exposition, and call and response common in the Black Churches should not be seen as inferior to other church traditions.
  • Repent of Theological arrogance. We should not assume that because the Black Church’s theology is not largely systematized. it is therefore unsophisticated. Throughout its inception, the Black Church has done a good job of joining its doctrinal theology with its practical theology. Do not assume because I learned of the “preservation of the saints” from my slave descended Grandmother, while you learned it from Jonathan Edwards, that it is inferior.
  • Honor and respect how God has worked through the Black Church. In too many of our seminaries and Bible colleges, the Black Church’s contributions have been largely devalued. The Black Church has flourished during times of state-sponsored persecution; it has led a movement that better articulated the Doctrine of humanity than many other traditions in America who may have given lip service to it. It also restrained the desire for violent resistance to terrorism in America; these things should be honored and appreciated.
  • Recognize our need to learn from the Black Church. The Black Church is not the sole possessor of biblical wisdom. However, the gems it does have to offer are often undervalued. There needs to be a desire to learn from the unique history of Black Christianity.

My goal here is not to suggest the Black Church is the perfect expression of Christianity. It has its flaws like every other tradition. Nor do I assert that other traditions have nothing to say to the Black Church tradition. My contention is that in the midst of a Christian culture that seems to inadvertently devalue her, the Black Church matters!

[1]Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans 3rd edition, NY: Orbis Books, 1998, 127.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 128.

[5]Charlie Dates, http://www.progressivechicago.org/you-cant-turn-me-away-from-the-black-church retrieved: 8/12/16 at 10:11pm.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

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