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As the daily news cycle continues to unmask longstanding racial tensions within our country (and even the church), more and more Christians are looking for answers. How do we think through racial issues biblically? How do we have conversations about race honestly? And how do we apply godly wisdom practically?

Among conservative reformed circles, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s (OPC) 1974 report on “the Problems of Race” represents one of the best denominational resources available to help think through these issues. The report was originally drafted to present the OPC’s 39th General Assembly with “proposals suggesting proper Christian action for the church of Jesus Christ in meeting the problems of race based upon plain and consistent Biblical principles.” In meeting this mandate, the report was surprisingly insightful and forthright about how the history of racial injustice among American Presbyterians still impacts the present racial makeup and practices in the denomination.

The report describes the OPC as “largely white” because, “It came out of the Presbyterian Church in the USA which had lost the allegiance of blacks during the ecclesiastical discrimination against blacks in the post-civil war period.” Sadly, Presbyterian churches are generally less diverse today than they were during the era of Reconstruction (1865-1877).

In the wake of emancipation, white Presbyterians used the connectional nature of the Presbyterian polity to re-establish oppressive dynamics with their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than accept second class citizenship in the church, Black Presbyterians turned to a more independent form of government (see Andrew E. Murray’s, Presbyterianism and the Negro—A History, Presbyterian Historical Society and Carter G Woodson’s, The History of the Negro Church in America).

This history established a pattern of division that persisted to 1936 when the OPC was founded. The denomination essentially inherited the fruits of this legacy, a church complicit in racial injustice and divided along racial lines. Rather than turn back the situation as it was received, the report confesses that the denomination “passed on the situation as we received it in 1936.” With a candor I have rarely heard in reformed conversations (let alone in official documents) the report admits, “We have done little to oppose drifting along with the culture.”

As an African American pastor in the OPC, I find this level of honesty about race refreshing and hopeful. Presbyterians recognize sin’s universal corrupting impact on individuals and society. Racialized sin is no exception. Where we find ourselves out of step with the demands of God’s justice and Christ’s love, we must “endeavor to repent of our particular sins, particularly” (Westminster Confession of Faith XV.5).

Therefore, we cannot afford to dismiss, downplay, or deny the impact of historic racism on the contemporary makeup and practices of the church. Most black folks who have been in predominantly white reformed circles for any length of time are already deeply aware of how racism impacts attitudes and practices. Ongoing experiences with racial insensitivity, ignorance, and various forms of marginalization have made them aware. However, when a denomination or church admits these struggles, it may represent a crucial first step toward addressing them.

While readily acknowledging the ongoing impact of past racial sins, the report also moves the discussion forward by asking “where do we go from here?” Here is just a sample of the report’s practical suggestions that local churches can apply.

  1. Bible Studies on Race: Denominational treatments of race do well to lead with scripture. The Church only engages racial justice faithfully as it engages it biblically.  The report begins with a survey of several source texts that offer significant insights on race. The report insists the Bible has much to say about the deep ethnic and national divisions and injustices among humanity.Those instructions, it says, are “relevant to the racial alienation of our day.” Although a thorough treatment of each text would have gone beyond the mandate and capacity of the committee, the survey provides a helpful index of biblical source texts that may be examined and mined for their divine wisdom on issues of race. God’s word represents the most important resource we can ever have on issues of race. As churches examine and re-examine the Bible for wisdom, we will often find it calling us to press further with racial repentance and unity than we ever imagined.
  2. Sermon Applications about Race: The report suggests pastors must faithfully apply the gospel to issues of race. The racial sin in our hearts threatens the peace, purity, and unity of God’s people and compromises the corporate witness of the church. Therefore, it must be addressed publicly and pastorally. This is not to say that race should be the focus of the pulpit ministry. Christ remains the focus of the pulpit ministry as we demonstrate from the word how every enemy of God’s people (including racial injustice, strife, and division) is being put beneath his feet. When we treat it as a special class of untouchable sin, our fear and inaction actually centralizes racism. It says this sin has more power than the gospel.
  3. Seminary Recruitment of Minorities: Another suggestion is deliberately recruiting, sponsoring, and training minority seminarians to faithfully exposit and apply God’s word among God’s people. The report laments the OPC’s negligence in this area. It notes the great commission and the debt of love for neighbor calls us to actively recruit and train black seminarians for service among God’s people.Faithfulness to the gospel also demands deep awareness of, and engagement with the cultural context of the Lord’s diverse people so as not to obscure the message or hinder Christian fellowship through cultural ignorance. Not only should the denomination recruit black seminarians for service in the OPC, the report suggests that reformed seminaries should actively seek out and train black seminarians for historically black denominations and churches as well.
  4. Urban Missions: The report insists on a deliberate and sustained focus on urban missions. This is not to suggests all African Americans live in the inner city, or that they are particularly unchurched. We know that many African Americans live in the suburbs and that African American women especially represent one of the most churched demographics in American society.In proposing a deliberate focus on the inner city, the OPC report is actually suggesting something quite countercultural (and perhaps controversial) in its context. As African Americans finally succeeded in integrating schools and neighborhoods, many white Americans fled to the suburbs in the 60’s and 70’s. Inner city missions participates in the great commission in a way that conspicuously and directly challenges the sinful ideologies of the day. In our day, inner cities still represent a way to strategically engage minorities with the gospel.
  5. In-Home Hospitality Across Racial Lines: With keen insight, the report suggests that Black folks will be particularly adept at spotting the grudging toleration of the church rather than deep and genuine love, acceptance, and affirmation. Therefore, it encourages members of OPC churches to intentionally open their homes and freely share their material possessions with their black brothers and sisters, to go out their way to promote and protect communion with diverse believers. Many Americans have never actually been inside the home of a person from a different race. This is because we tend to share our homes and possessions with our circle of trusted friends and family. The Christian reality of communion in Christ and its expression of in-home hospitality helps welcome diverse brothers and sisters, but also conspicuously witnesses to the unifying power of the gospel.
  6. Mutual Admonition: Real Christian communion includes honest and loving communication. The report notes, “There must be enough selfless love to produce admonition and rebuke, both given and received in love.” This avoids the kind of paternalism that does not encourage others towards the standard of Christian behavior that we expect among ourselves. Additionally, the report insists that the church should be willing to receive constructive criticism from minority brothers and sisters. It explains, “We should not be averse to criticism when we deviate from God’s justice and Christ’s love.” The report admits that as diverse believers we need one another’s spiritual gifts and unique cultural perspectives to better learn about our great God.
  7. Seasons of Prayer: This is one of the best recommendations in the entire report. We desperately need our Lord’s help with the complex issues of race. Prayer is one way we confess our need and lay hold of his abundant supply. During seasons of prayer, we can humbly confess our sin and, with hope and thanksgiving, petition him for the grace of humble repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. Our Lord himself prayed for our unity in John 17. Since racism impacts our unity, we must be devoted to praying about this area.
  8. Ongoing Conferences About the Gospel and Race: The only way we will move forward is to keep the issue before us. One way to do that, is by having conferences, trainings, and ongoing platforms to continue engaging the issues. Not only does this send the message that these issues are important, it also provides opportunities for the Lord’s people to learn and grow. Although no church should sideline its mission with its emphasis on race, neither should the church compromise its mission through ignoring the racial realities within our communities and churches. In one way or the other, we engage racialized realities regularly. The only question is whether we will intentionally engage it for the glory of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.

Finally, the report offers a warning and an encouragement. As one of a handful of black elders in the OPC, I can say the denomination has not consistently followed its own good advice. Nearly 45 years after the 1974 Report of the problems of Race was first published, we as a denomination are still largely mono-ethnic. As certain influences that helped draft the document left the denomination, the OPC grew less willing to openly engage issues of racial justice.

However, the report reveals what is possible among confessional reformed churches if they have the faith, love, and diligence to search the scriptures and rigorously apply the wisdom they find. I am very grateful that whatever its weaknesses, the OPC remains serious about the Bible. This is precisely why on occasion it has been able to speak so effectively beyond its own natural cultural demographics.

The report reflects the OPC at its best. As long as the OPC remains serious about the Bible, there is hope it will take seriously what the Bible says about justice and unity in the church. Although the OPC Report on the Problems of Race is far from a perfect document, it is a helpful document. And I am grateful and humbled that the Lord used the OPC to produce it. I hope it will continue to serve the Lord’s people for years to come.

 

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