The Sell Out: Abandonment and the “Black Church” Tradition
“But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11–14)
I am a black man rooted in a predominantly white, reformed church. My wife and I once attended a predominantly black, heavily charismatic church. The transition has been challenging at times, as I find myself adjusting to an environment that is in stark contrast with my previous one—culturally AND theologically.
I find myself watching closely what I say and how I conduct myself, while seeking the appropriate spaces to display the differences in my perspective on various topics. So much is different, but I truly do love my church family. I’ve learned so much about myself and the Body at large, as a result of making such a change.
Encountering Ethnic Gnosticism
Interestingly enough, what I find most difficult is the treatment I have received from those I formerly fellowshipped with. I won’t mince words; some black Christians leaders I formerly had rapport with have now distanced themselves and seem to treat our interactions with suspicion.
I wish I could say we’re simply dealing with the dynamics of someone leaving their former church to attend a new church—I really do. However, what we have is the complex, emotionally driven picture of a black man who left a black church to attend a white church.
This scenario has deeper implications: “Uncle Tom” implications; “Sell out” implications; “Token” implications. These all communicate that I didn’t just leave a black church, but I left black people.
The scenario is crafted through the lens of oppression and socio-economic disparity, and creates a tension-filled reality which assumes I am no longer in touch with the needs, conditions, or plight of the black community.
It’s also a type of passive persecution that addresses me in a derogatory manner, while implicitly thrusting me from the inner workings of the “black church” tradition. There is serious distrust present; Sensitivity is high. Apparently, these aren’t my brothers anymore…at least not like we were. A helpful term I’ve heard coined by Pastor Voddie Baucham, that I feel would be appropriate to use here is “ethnic Gnosticism”, which is the cult-like commitment blacks have to race over and above everything else.
What compounds the difficulty of this dynamic are the aforementioned struggles of being an urban African American wading around in unfamiliar territory—without the support system that was always present.
In some ways, this support system now seems painfully conditional. As long as I affirm the tradition of the “black church”, I’ll have the relationships, access, and support I richly enjoyed. In leaving the system, I apparently inadvertently forfeit the above.
The Problem At Galatia
In the above Scripture, we see details of the well-known altercation between the apostles Paul and Peter. What I’d like to highlight is a gaping socio-theological implication.
Simply put, Peter (and Barnabas for that matter) had seemingly affirmed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, in preaching the righteousness of God being an extension of faith in Christ alone. However, the Jews and Judaizers arrive, and we see Peter shrink back from his affirmation by separating himself from the Gentiles.
It is here we see the crown of Paul’s indictment toward Peter: hypocrisy. Peter had enjoyed fellowship with the Gentiles that has now been proven to be shallow and insincere. As soon as “his people” enter the setting, he and others who have joined Paul’s campaign to win the Gentiles defer to Jewish social pressure, reinforcing a law of righteousness completely subversive to the truth of the Gospel.
Paul’s remarks are well spoken; their conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel. The Gospel was given to set people free, and Peter was, in essence, reinstituting a yoke of bondage stained in religious tradition and ethnic supremacy. Sound familiar?
Rising Above Social Baggage
I want to be fair. Not all black Christians from my previous environment have treated me this way. Many have rejoiced in my pursuit of a truly Gospel-founded desire for all types of people to worship together. Some have become more intentional in their respective churches to make their own changes. Praise God for that.
I’ve learned so much about how to love others, and even repent of my own prejudices. My passion is fueled in recognizing tradition and preference must not define our churches. I didn’t leave the black church to join a white church; I simply took another step in discovering the vast variety of the true church…and it is beautiful. It’s been tough at times, but ever so sanctifying!
May our meditation on the Gospel continue to produce the supernatural love needed to rise above our own social baggage, to see Jesus and the beauty of non-discriminatory grace.