Theology How to be an Ally 101 Justice

Reflections from a Black Presbyterian on the PCA’s Overture on Racial Reconciliation

Jemar Tisby

The theme of the the Presbyterian Church in America’s 44th General Assembly was “Refreshed In and For the Cross.” For those present on the evening of June 23, 2016, it may have been one of the most refreshing times in the denomination’s history.

That night, Overture 43: Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advancement of the Gospel*, passed by a vote of 861-123-23. The exact wording was a collaborative effort among church leaders and deserves quoting at length:

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical
sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial
sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race;
the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the
exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis
of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages
inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist
organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no
wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)

The full statement and the amendment.

Here are a five reflections on the overture on racial reconciliation I have as a black member of the Presbyterian Church in America.

  1. This Statement Is Distinctive

Other statements on racial reconciliation have been made (see below), but this one is different because it deals with the Civil Rights era. The PCA formally addressed slavery almost a decade and a half ago, but it failed to mention anything about the much more recent and close-to-home issue of the Civil Rights Movement. Overture 43 corrects that defect and says, “during the Civil Rights period, there were founding denominational leaders and churches who not only failed to pursue racial reconciliation but also actively worked against it in both church and society.” This is important because many members of the denomination had fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and other relatives who were alive during this important stage of America’s history and are implicated in maintaining the segregated and unequal status quo. Passing Overture 43 demonstrates a willingness to adhere to biblical principles even if they put one at odds with family.

2.  This Makes It Easier for Ethnic Minorities (at First)

The problem with not having an explicit statement repudiating racism, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, as a Southern Presbyterian denomination is that African Americans and other ethnic minorities will always wonder, “Are these folks still cool with racism?” That’s putting it bluntly, but there’s truth to it. As a black person in an overwhelmingly white branch of the church, I have to constantly evaluate whether I’m truly welcome here or not. A strong statement repenting, not just of racism generally, but the more recent lack of vocal support for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, is necessary because silence about the matter tacitly communicates either support or indifference. Now I can confidently say that the PCA is both aware of and remorseful for its historic connections with racism, especially from the mid-20th century to the present. But having this overture in the records only helps at first. The actual lived experience of ethnic minorities in churches and presbyteries will prove whether the denomination is truly ready to make room at the table for historically under-represented groups.

3. Overtures 44 and 45 Are Just as Important

Honestly, we’ve had statements and pastoral letters about racism and reconciliation before (here and here, for example). The common criticism is that those efforts remain just words on a page without improving diversity, equity, and inclusion for ethnic minorities. But this latest effort might break the pattern. Overture 44: “Creation of the PCA Unity Fund” states, “Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly create a fund to be known as “The PCA Unity Fund” to help raise up future generations of godly, reformed African American and other minority Ruling and Teaching Elders…” This overture proposes a simple but essential principle. If a denomination truly wants to increase ethnic diversity, it’s going to take money. The Unity Fund provides tuition support for minorities to attend approved seminaries, expenses for minority Teaching and Ruling Elders to attend the annual General Assembly, and funding for historians to “to explore the role that Reformed minority pastors and theologians have played in our country’s history.” Individuals and churches voluntarily contribute to the fund, so it remains to be seen how much support will be available, but the Unity Fund provides a structural support for increasing ethnic diversity in the PCA.

Overture 45 forms a racial reconciliation study committee. Not another study committee! Yes, but this one is different. It’s nice to have previous statements on slavery and racism, but this overture recognizes that, “while helpful, [these efforts] have not sufficiently resulted in the increased ethnic diversity and participation at all levels of our denomination.” So Overture 45 forms a committee not just to study the issue but to provide concrete, practical steps for individual churches and the denomination. The goal is to make sure that twenty years from now, we aren’t still seeing a denomination whose membership and involvement resembles the America of the 1950s rather than the 21st century. With the personnel who have been recommended for the committee, we can look forward to some helpful suggestions, but it remains up to each presbytery and congregation to make the commitment to real change.

4. People in the Majority Still Need to Grapple with Corporate Sin

Many have asked, “Who are the 123 who voted against the overture racial reconciliation?” First, it’s not accurate or charitable to label those 123 elders in the church as racists. I can’t say why they all voted against the overture, but it could be anything from a desire for an even more detailed statement to pressing the wrong button on the clicker when the voting started. But I can say some people object to the idea that an entire denomination should or even can repent of racism. Each person is responsible for his or her sins only, so the argument goes, and it is not possible nor biblical for a denomination to repent as a body. All people involved in the denomination are not racists and no one is accountable for the moral decisions of another person. Refuting that argument is an entirely different post. I will simply say that we are a denomination that holds the idea of being a “covenant” people very closely. God deals with His church both individually and collectively. We have no problem claiming as our own the contributions of a long line of Reformed theologians and church leaders. Yet when it comes to their failings and blindspots, we suddenly become individualistic. Furthermore, the sin of racism operates both through acts of commission and omission. It doesn’t take an individual or group engaging in overt acts to incur guilt for racism, all it takes is inaction in the face of injustice. For that we, as a denomination, acknowledge our complicity in racism and repent of it.

5. We Must View This Neither Pessimistically nor Optimistically, but Realistically

Two reactions typically follow statements from Christians on racial reconciliation. The first is pessimism. “This is a meaningless gesture that won’t do anything to actually change the status quo.” The other reaction is optimism. “This is it! We’ve finally arrived. We will never go back to the benighted days of the past.” Both pessimism and optimism are the wrong reaction to the overture on racial reconciliation. The gospel teaches us to be neither cynically hopeless nor unrealistically positive. It acknowledges that sin means we will always struggle with racism in one way or another. No amount of willpower or words will change the fact that sin will always be present on this side of heaven. At the same time, heaven has broken into this reality in the form of Jesus Christ. As Christ-followers, we have been freed from sin’s power and no longer have to conform to the pattern of this world. We have the hope of a future freed from sin and its effects and we have hope right now that we have put off the old self and can live in the newness of a Spirit-empowered life.

The overture on racial reconciliation will not abruptly change the culture of an entire denomination. Anyone who thinks otherwise is ripe for disappointment. At the same time, approving this statement makes a statement. It says to people both within and outside the PCA that we stand against racism in all its forms and commit ourselves to solidarity with other image-bearers across racial and ethnic lines. My hope is that this overture will set us on a course to increase ethnic diversity and participation in the denomination in the near future. This should be used as an opportunity to go back to our individual churches and press the issue of racial reconciliation. Every elder and member of the Presbyterian Church in America is in the midst of a moment that can catalyze a movement for racial justice in the church. Let’s use this historic event to lean into the chance for change. Let’s be bolder than we’ve ever been to work for concrete transformation in the way we think, speak, act concerning race relations. We won’t see many moments like this in our lifetime. If we don’t agitate for change now, then when will we?

*An “overture” requests action from the General Assembly on a specific matter. Overtures normally come from presbyteries (regional bodies of church elders) and are submitted to the General Assembly for deliberation during the annual meeting. Depending on the topic, the overture goes to the Committee on Overtures during the General Assembly. The committee then makes a recommendation to the broader assembly which votes in the affirmative, the negative, or sends it back to the Committee.

28 thoughts on “Reflections from a Black Presbyterian on the PCA’s Overture on Racial Reconciliation

  1. Dee Kinson

    It’s all a lie and a shake-down. If one were to study what happened here in the PCA they’d discover the subversion of the organization by Marxists (Tim Keller, Alexander Jun!). The church hierarchy has been under the influence of intellectual Cultural Marixist (PCA Voices-Youtube) in their seminaries, Conferences, etc. They display complete their eagerness to conform to current worldly standards and attitudes about “race” just as all public (government) institutions and corporations are doing. This is the last takedown of the church. If you are WHITE you are guilty!! I have 6hours of my churches lectures on the issue. They will be made public along with an address to the membership.
    This poison and goal here, they’ve set up a “FUND(!)” to promote BLACK Elders and Deacons. Why is a special fund needed. This is nonsense and I’m shocked at the gullibility of our leadership!

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  5. Nate

    Interesting analysis, thank you for posting. Fortunately for the world I am not an elder in the PCA. If I were I may have been one of the ones to vote against the statement, not because I am unconcerned with racial unity and reconciliation, but rather because my knee jerk reaction to this kind of thing is to be very pessimistic. I am always suspicious of the motivation and rarely convinced of the need. You did a good job of addressing that kind of pessimism and other objections but there is one thing that still leaves me feeling hollow. The PCA did not exist during the civil right’s era. In fact it was founded in 1973. Pardon my ignorance, I did not start attending reformed presbyterian churches until 2005 and geographically in a variety of locations spanning from Los Angeles to Houston. I have no experience with the south eastern PCA culture directly. Did the PCA corporately engage from the 1970s forward in:

    “the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations”???

    Even if so, the statement ties directly to the civil rights era. How can an organization repent of something that occurred before its existence? Or was it “our fathers” language that ties the PCA to the civil rights era? Like I said, your analysis went a long way to addressing that kind of pessimism, but how do you address this statement covers a time before the PCA existed? Perhaps there is an easy answer and one about which I am just ignorant.


  6. Tim Reisinger

    Jemar: Thank you for you encouraging words. One of the things I learned from Peacemaker Ministries is the essential need for forgiveness in matters of reconciliation. I perceive a flaw in the overture in that, while it did confess and repent, it (and the PCA) did not actually ask for forgiveness. To me, asking for forgiveness takes an extra bit of humility. It would be a beautiful thing and a furtherance of healing, for our black brothers in the PCA to express forgiveness to the PCA. Of course, we as the ones requesting forgiveness have no right to demand it, only to beg for it. I’m not sure how this expression of forgiveness could be done. Perhaps some kind of a resolution to be presented to next year’s GA? It would truly be a beautiful thing for both repentance and forgiveness to be formally expressed in the PCA.

  7. Craig


    Thanks for the pinpoint answer and helpful response to Chris’ question.

    I’ve been appreciative of RAAN’s work since it’s inception, and Lord willing I look forward to finally meeting you in person when you speak in Richmond next month.

    In Him,


  8. Chris

    Mr. Tisby,

    Thanks for your response. I know you are busy and can’t reply to everyone, nor should you be expected to do so.

    My prayer is that the overture would be very practical on a local church and presbytery level as I believe it’s supposed to. Therefore, I’m trying to ask questions logically and practically as well as theologically to do my part in making that happen.

    Peace to you.


  9. Jemar Tisby


    I appreciate your thoughtful question. For the me the answer is quite simple. If I choose to be a member of the PCA, then I must accept all that comes with it. That includes many positive aspects such as: robust, confessional Reformed theology, careful church polity, rigorous standards for ordination, connections to countless godly men and women in the denomination. But it also comes with the baggage of overt and covert racism. Many of us didn’t commit personal, individual acts of racism, but as members of a covenant community, we recognize we are a flawed family, but a family still. This overture encourages me because now we have a statement voted on at the General Assembly that condemns complicity with a segregated and unequal social system during the Civil Rights era and beyond. As an African American in the PCA, I believe I can make a convincing case to anyone, especially other ethnic minorities, that many in the PCA are serious about racial justice. God’s power to redeem is displayed to his glory in this overture and the PCA generally.

  10. Chris

    Thanks Craig. I figured you were referring back to the overture. I’m not on FB either so I will simply wait for a response here. If it doesn’t come, that’s okay. I understand he’s busy.

    Since we’re clarifying, a different Chris asked about segregation of worshipers. All of my correspondence has concluded with CPT.

    Peace to you.


  11. Craig

    @ Chris,

    No problem brother. I should mention a couple of things as well…

    1. It might be much better to contact Jemar via the RAAN Facebook Group. I’ll say that because it’s more likely that you would get his or Tyler’s feedback in that forum than him responding to a blog meta section. I’d say that would be the primary means by which the staff interacts with certain questions. From what I understand (I don’t have Facebook) it’s a private group that you have to request to join, but once they let you in you can ask the question and perhaps receive feedback from Jemar. Just a suggestion so that you don’t get your hopes up waiting for him to respond. I know he’s extremely busy with teaching and other responsibilities. I don’t think it’s a stretch also to say that there may be a Pass the Mic podcast in the future concerning the recent PCAGA.

    2. I would commend you highly to Dr. Duncan’s remarks above. Just to clarify, my remarks about race relations in the PCA takes it’s major emphasis from the actual language found in Overture 43:

    “Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)…”

    I just wanted to distinguish and clear up what I meant from some of the previous remarks above that paint the denomination as one that was created “solely” for the basis of discrimination. I sincerely believe, as stated in the overture, that the denomination’s actions stemmed from a deficiency in the full understanding of what the church is commanded to do in the second table of the Law.

    Grace to you…


  12. Ligon Duncan

    Ra – That statement is false and demonstrably untrue. The PCA stated openly and officially from the beginning that we are a church for all races. Neither the PCUS, nor the PC(USA) has ever disciplined anyone for “turn[ing] away blacks at their doors. In fact, it appears that the PCA is the only Presbyterian/Reformed denomination in North American history to discipline an officer simply on the basis of racism.

    I was an author of the PMV statement on racism and repentance, and of the pastoral letter recommended by the PCA GA to its presbyteries, so I fully understand the many and serious things that the PCA has to repent of, but what you say in this comment above is simply untrue.

  13. g

    Am I to understand that overture 44 affirms that there are not enough qualified black men now to fill openings of leadership in the PCA?

  14. Chris


    I am grateful you didn’t wait for Jemar. Your response directly answers my question. In my mind, the issue was solely one of confession and repentance not forgiveness or even repentance for potential rejection of true attempts at gospel reconciliation that may have occurred. And I would like to say probably did occur, though as you said, on a considerably smaller scale. I think it would be safe to say those occasions were seldom and definitely the rare exception to the general rule. I would hope, however, that there was a remnant during that awful time and would love for stories of such to come forward if possible. I think it would do everyone good.

    Thank you so much. The question has been rattling around in my head for four days. It has been answered.

    But Jemar, I would still like to hear any thoughts you might have to add to Craig’s.

    Peace brothers.


  15. Craig

    Hi Chris,

    I don’t want to speak for Jemar, but the beauty of corporate repentance is indeed that in the process all those connected covenantally in the community share both the blessings as well as the burden to repent and forgive. As has been noted in an earlier comment, historically the denomination was formed specifically for the purpose of a “continuing church”, with the exclusion of people of color being one of the primary objectives. In many ways, through the repentance of my White brothers, I can reflect on and ponder upon the equally important task and challenge of forgiving them as we reconcile as covenant members of one body. As Black men who have aligned ourselves with the PCA, one example for us in this season would be to repent of any ways that we or our fathers may have responded indifferently, whether known or unknown, to any offers of gospel reconciliation from the fathers and sons of our White brothers and sisters within the context of Presbyterianism at-large. Although there may be scant evidence of this (if any), should there be any hint of this occurring in the past brought up by our brothers, corporate repentance for Blacks in the PCA would be similar to what our White brothers have done, albeit on an infinitely smaller scale. However, I think you would be hard pressed to find any inclination of that in the records, minutes, testimony and ethos of both the PCA, and preceding PCUS denomination. Hope this helps a bit…

    In Him,


  16. Chris


    Thanks so much for responding. I appreciate your willingness to help me. Forgiveness and true accountability are both definitely a part of repentance.


  17. Dwaine Whitley

    I don’t really see any tension. Both groups of fathers are sinful humans. “Repenting of sins of my spiritual fathers” says to me that I must be willing to “call a spade a spade” i.e., if my favorite theologian was wrong and racist at some point, I should call him out and correct his teaching, attitude, or actions. Perhaps, I am misunderstanding your question, so I’ll be quiet until Jamar responds….I did, however, wanted to add to my previous comments that another part of my repentance is being will to forgive…..DW.

  18. Chris


    Absolutely! I understand that going forward it looks the same. My question is in regards to past/generational sins. Is there a tension created in repenting of sins of your spiritual fathers perpetrated against your physical fathers? Does that make sense or am I way off?

    Thanks for responding.


  19. Chris


    I hate to see what I would have received had you launched into a debate; and I do wish to remain on topic because I genuinely want to understand it, so I will refrain from any counter points on this rabbit trail. And no, your arguments aren’t convincing, my Kool-aid is getting warm.


  20. Dwaine Whitley

    In answer to Chris’ question to Jemar (some reflections):

    As a black Presbyterian my repentance would be the same as yours going forward. It will require a more acceptance of my white brethren (faults and all) and an intentional effort to be reconciled as a covenant people i.e. practice Matthews 18 to the max….just some thoughts….DW.

  21. Jon

    I don’t want to launch into a debate with you about the role of women in the church on an article that is about racial reconciliation because that detracts from who we should be honoring in this context.

    That said, I can’t stand to let someone continue to sip the Kool-Aid of our obviously misguided forefathers (i.e. Overture 43) that only necessitates articles like this one. The scripture that is used to support our current platform of “headship” is pigeonholed references strung together to justify a 1920s misogynist view of women…if you look at the passages in their context, they fall flat to stand for what we claim they do. Those scripture references are also from corrective passages Paul assigned to specific churches in a specific time…never intended to be leveled up to the utmost position of the church on women’s rights and roles. You pair that with the fact that Jesus consistently deployed women in roles of authority and leadership to carry out his ministry and the whole thing unravels further.

    To speak to what’s dangerous. The headiness of our church has a sometimes insurmountable cultural learning curve. What keeps people around long enough to catch up to speed is community. The way we assign gender roles has SO many deeply rooted implications for the culture of our community. If people who don’t know Jesus can’t find a place in our community because it feels so foreign and/or dated, we can’t expect them to stick around long enough to experience the Gospel. I appreciate your theory about what draws people in (the Gospel). But I assure – our current stance on women’s rights and roles threatens and undermines our ability to extend that Gospel to unchurched people. In service of WHAT? Doing church good? Give me a break.

    I’m not very smart. Here’s further reading:

    All this being said – we certainly need to holdfast to biblical principles, but I am afraid if we continue to dig our heels in and resist on certain topics (not every topic) that offer multiple interpretations we will be left a useless branch of the holy catholic church, no longer able to carry out the true mission of the church ultimately thrown in the fire. Let’s not forget what Paul said about being palatable in 1 Corin 9.

  22. Ra

    Part of the reason the PCA was formed was to allow churches to turn away blacks at their doors. When they had done that in the mainline church, they had been brought up on charges. So, they structured the PCA’s government in a way that vested sovereignty in the local congregation.

  23. Chris


    Agreed. The sins of pride and arrogance of white men have been and continue to be a problem. I count myself among that number as well.

    But that doesn’t “speak to my comment”. I asked a genuine question regarding something you and I don’t have to wrestle with as white men. I’m simply trying to understand how this all works out practically speaking for our African American brothers who, as covenantal members of the PCA, were called to corporately confess and repent of sins of their spiritual fathers perpetrated against their physical fathers. You and I can’t understand that, in my opinion, without help, and I was simply willing to try.

    As to your comment regarding the role of women, people are not drawn into community or into Jesus by our view of women in the church. In other words, a more culturally palatable position on women’s roles is not the answer, the Gospel is. I also fail to see how our current position is “dangerous”. If we are, through the study committee, seeking to determine the strongest biblical position possible we have nothing to fear, even if that position is counter-cultural. But if we are simply seeking to be more culturally pleasing, that is another story altogether (Matthew 10:26-33).


  24. chris

    Did the PCA actually segregate worshippers by race? I wasn’t aware that they had ever done that.

  25. Bart Harmon

    Jemar, thank for your very encouraging and gracious response to last weeks’ GA and the overtures. I agree with your sentiments. I had the privilege of attending your seminar Wednesday–very well done. I am proud to have guys like you (I mean–young, smart, articulate advocates for the gospel of Jesus Christ) in our denomination. May your tribe increase!

  26. Jon

    Great reflections, here. I particularly appreciate your 5th comment about having realistic expectations. I am very glad PCA has decided to move forward with this motion…it only took us 50 freaking years. Jeeeeze.

    To me this was the most blaring of several issues our church has when it comes to the most basic of human rights. My understanding is the role of women in the church is under review as well. I am tremendously uncomfortable with the PCA’s current views on women in the context of community and worship. It’s frankly dangerous to stand on the platform we do today in the world we live in. If people knew about it and we talked about it more often, I can’t imagine a single person coming from outside of church culture would feel drawn into community and more importantly into Jesus by what we say the role of women is in our church. These and other ways we are stuck in our conservative, “reformed” ways threaten our ability to extend the Gospel to the world around us and it needs to keep changing.

    To speak to CPT’s comment…white, arrogant, prideful, Presbyterian men are the problem. I know because I am one of them.

  27. Chris

    Mr. Tisby,

    Thank you for your summary and thoughtful response to the vote on Overture 43. I am grateful to you, Dr. Duncan and Dr. Lucas for your leadership throughout this past year that led to the very important, even historic, vote. I am also grateful for your charity toward those who voted “no” for, as you stated, there were probably a great number of reasons, many of which were not racist in nature.

    Due to your response and your position, I believe you are the one to answer a question I have had since reflecting on the discussion and vote while on my way home from GA. My question is this. . . How do you, as an African American Presbyterian, “recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins” of our PCA fathers? How do predominately African American congregations do the same?

    I feel as though the wording of the resolution and all of the discussion/debate was speaking to the corporate and historical sins of white Presbyterians and churches and, as a result, would create a tension within you and my other African American fathers and brothers. Am I wrong? If not, how do you resolve that tension of owning the corporate sin of the offender and at the same time forgiving as the offended and/or on behalf of the offended of the past?

    Does that make sense? Am I completely off base? I am genuinely trying to understand. Maybe I’m thinking too much.

    Again, I am thankful for what took place and look forward to what lies ahead as a result. Any help you or others could lend would be appreciated.



  28. Bob Sawyer

    Thanks, Jemar. Your words aren’t simply reflections. They are a real encouragement to elders in our church—brother to brother, friend to friend. We need to keep being encouraged, and challenged and confronted when necessary, toward brotherly affection and love.

    Since we are a connectional church, we understand that because we belong to Christ, so also we belong to each other in Christ. That is his doing, not ours. We look forward to continuing to explore and deepen this relationship together, finding ways to ‘confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.’

    Very grateful for you and the whole RAAN family.

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