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Doing Indigenous Reformed Theology

Jemar Tisby

Over 30 years ago Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. articulated his desire to see an indigenous Reformed movement in the African American community. Among other implications, this means doing theology appropriate to the challenges and questions African Americans face in this day. During the the 2014 Leadership Development and Resource (LDR) Weekend, I realized that were doing the indigenous Reformed theology of which Dr. Ellis speaks.

Indigenous Reformed theology among African Americans draws upon existing Reformed theological formulations, but it does not simply mimic them. While biblical truth is timeless, the applications of that truth are limitless. A truly Indigenous Reformed theology applies biblical truth to the unique social and cultural milieu of different communities, in this case, African Americans. You can read more about this topic here.

So what does this look like? If the LDR Weekend showcased examples of doing indigenous Reformed theology then what are those examples? 

How to Handle the Anger from Racial Discrimination

One of the many psychological costs of living as a marginalized minority in this country is psychological vigilance. It is having to constantly ask the question, “Did that happen to me because I’m Black?” This constant hyper-awareness affects one’s emotional state. “Byproducts of psychological vigilance include frustration, irritation, and hostility, which are the antecedents for anger and possibly depression.” 

One of the sessions at the LDR Weekend was a panel discussion about Ferguson. The panelists included pastors and lay leaders from churches in or near St. Louis. They told us firsthand of the struggles and tension that resulted from the death of unarmed, Black teenager, Mike Brown. The panelists related the anger felt by so many in and beyond Ferguson. Dwelling on the seeming powerlessness to positively affect a traumatic situation stirred up an anger that seemed irremediable.

Then the panelists preached the gospel. Among others who understood the reality of Black experiences in America, no one dismissed or devalued our anger. They understood it and affirmed that it was a logical response to our struggles. They demonstrated empathy and compassion. In other words, they wept with those who wept (Rm. 12:15). 

After empathizing with our anger, the panelists went on to affirm the value of Black life. Amidst many situations that blatantly or subtly undermine the humanity of African Americans, particularly young men, the Bible’s teaching on creation affirms the dignity of all people, including Blacks. The group referenced Genesis 1:26-27 which articulates the doctrine of the imago dei or the image of God. It reminds us that we all, no matter our race, are created in the image of God. Therefore, no matter what we have done or failed to do, we are entitled to life and respect from our fellow image bearers. 

Having our anger validated helped assuage our rage. And pointing us to the dignity of all human life, including Black male life, helped us seek peace instead of retribution. 

How to Persevere as Oppressed Minorities

While I have often heard sermons or read blogs or books about perseverance in the midst of personal sin, I have seldom heard how to persevere as a racial minority. Evangelical and Reformed Christians have much more experience applying theology to issues of personal piety. Thus it is common to talk about perseverance in the face of the constant temptation to sin. We are indeed called to holiness and righteous works. So perseverance in holiness is certainly a valid and needed application. But there are further applications. 

At the LDR Weekend, I heard pastors and other leaders talk about perseverance not in regards to indwelling sin but in regards to imposed sin. Imposed sin is unrighteousness that is forced upon a person or people group by another person or people group. Imposed sin is oppression, and African Americans have endured much of it. 

So how does one endure as a Christian in the midst of oppression or the challenges of life as a minority? The Bible has much to say about this. At the LDR Weekend we were pointed to passages in the Old Testament that told about the oppression of whole people groups. The Jews in Egypt, the Jews in Babylonian Exile, the faithful ones in the book of Judges, poor and confused Job. In each of these instances and more, we see that the people of God cried out to their Lord for deliverance. In each instance, God delivered them or promised an ultimate Deliverer. We learn from them that believers are not called to passively endure oppression but resist it biblically knowing that true and final justice comes from the Lord alone. 

Furthermore, perseverance need not pertain to outright acts of unrighteousness. Perseverance is needed simply to be a racial or ethnic minority in the midst of an overwhelmingly White denomination or theological tradition. Most African Americans who are Reformed are one of a very few in their church or community. As such, they constantly struggle to have their particular questions and needs addressed by the majority. Minorities are frequently in the place of speaking for their entire people group. They are often subject to unfair assumptions and face feelings of isolation. 

So we also look to the example of Jesus who was the minority of minorities. As the only truly righteous person who ever lived, Jesus was a minority everywhere He went. Yet Jesus endured to the end and we can have confidence that our Savior understands what it is like to be the only one of His kind in a particular situation. 

Doing Indigenous Reformed Theology 

What we’re talking about is not doing anything radially different methodologically. Exegetical principles for biblical interpretation still stand. Foundational doctrines about the Trinity, the atonement, and sanctification still hold. What is most remarkable, it seems to me, is two aspects. 

First, we are taking the questions raised by race and culture seriously. That is, we know that the dynamics caused by race and culture in this country are real and must be addressed. They are not issues that should be willfully or unintentionally dismissed. Moreover we are doing it from a unique sub-dominant vantage point. African Americans have a singular history in this country. Thus when we place our experience under the light of Scripture, we will come up with new and different applications of that truth.

This leads to the second aspect of doing indigenous Reformed theology.  We take the questions and topics coming from African American perspectives and bring them to the Bible and God for answers. While other theological and politically liberal groups have addressed questions relating to African American experiences, we have yet to see this happen on a broad scale from a Christian and Reformed theological perspective. Further, we have yet to see this kind of work being done by African Americans themselves in any sustained and widespread way. We must never neglect the contribution of scholars like Anthony Bradley and Carl Ellis, or practitioners like Eric Mason or H.B. Charles, Jr. But these are just the modern forerunners of what could be a generation of scholars and practitioners who could apply God’s words to the issues and subjects most pertinent to African Americans. 

Mighty Things Through the LDR Weekend 

The LDR Weekend is in its fourth year. It is a small conference without the trappings of exhibit tables, massive advertising campaigns, or nationally-known speakers and authors. Yet God is doing a mighty work with this event regarding African Americans and Reformed theology. 

All aspects of this weekend are contextualized to the unity and diversity of experiences within the African American community. The music, the speakers, the topics, and the general vibe of the LDR Weekend work together to create a singular experience of biblical Christianity that speaks to African Americans today. In many ways, the LDR Weekend demonstrates how to “do” indigenous Reformed theology in African American contexts. 

God willing, we’ll be getting together for the LDR Weekend again over Labor Day weekend 2015 in Jackson, MS. Join us to see one example of how indigenous Reformed theology is done. 


4 thoughts on “Doing Indigenous Reformed Theology

  1. Jemar

    Hey, Corey. Thanks for reading. You can contact Wy Plummer of Mission to North America for more information about the LDR weekend. Go to his page:

  2. Tyshan Broden

    This is encouraging to read. I would love this to see this in other ethnic groups as well.

  3. Corey Widmer

    Thanks for this great post Jemar. I especially like your reflection on perseverance in the face of imposed sin. How can I get on the contact list for the LDR weekend?

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