Three women read from the Bible during church services. Photograph by Brian Walski

Is Reformed theology for black people?

(RNS) — A friend recently asked me, “Is Reformed theology for black people?” As president of the Reformed African American Network, I have frequently pondered this question, and it's one that eludes an easy answer.

Reformed theology is part of the flood of teachings that tumbled forth from the Protestant Reformation. While all Protestant Christians trace their ecclesiastical lineage to the Reformation, Reformed theology represents a distinct branch of the church. Theologians and churchmen such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and Jonathan Edwards advanced the tradition, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God and a precise, scholarly brand of theology.

One issue black people have with Reformed theology is its Eurocentric roots. Reformed theology came to America by way of European countries, including France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. White, educated men crafted the teachings, wrote the books and led the churches. They did not have black people in mind.

Women attend service at a black church in Heard County, Ga., April 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy of New York Public Library @ Flickr Commons

One of the most frustrating aspects of Reformed theology for black Christians is the fact that many Reformed believers condoned slavery or were even slaveholders themselves. All of their focus on meticulous exposition of the Bible didn’t lead them to conclude that people should not be property. Moving forward to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Reformed Christians, like many conservative white evangelicals, were either silent about the struggle for black civil rights or they outright opposed it.

Given the history of slavery and racism practiced by white Reformed Christians, black people are an unlikely group to identify as Reformed.

But that doesn't mean it didn't resonate.

The Cross Movement. Cross Movement Records, Seventh Street Records. Release date: Feb. 18, 1999.

The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans. With groups like Cross Movement paving the way in the 1990s, another wave of lyrical theology emerged in the 2000s. One of the most influential groups of this period was the label Reach Records, which featured artists such as Sho Baraka, Trip Lee and Tedashii. Along with other Christian rappers including Shai Linne, Flame and Voice, these artists were black, urban and unashamed of their faith.

Contemporary Reformed thinkers such as John Piper, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur influenced these Christian rappers. Quotes and sound bites even showed up in the songs. The music and the culture these artists embodied introduced many young black Christians to Reformed theology — without necessarily labeling it Reformed theology.

Other factors, too, have aided in the rise of self-professed Reformed black Christians. Greater access to seminaries that teach Reformed theology as well as church planting efforts in predominantly black, urban neighborhoods have broadened pathways into the tradition.

In the past few years, though, many black Christians have reconsidered the Reformed label. In many ways, the 2014 killing of Mike Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., served as a turning point. Younger black Christians became more vocal about systemic injustices such as mass incarceration and police brutality. They explored how their faith spoke to the persistent issues of inequality that harm black people.

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These were themes that many white Reformed pastors and theologians seldom addressed. When they did talk about justice, it was most often focused on individuals, and not the collective, systemic nature and impact of racism over generations.

On top of that, the 2016 presidential election saw 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted throw their support toward the Republican candidate. While conservative white Christians usually vote Republican, black Christians expected Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric and support from white nationalists and white supremacist groups to at least dampen white evangelical enthusiasm for him. Instead, white evangelicals actually showed slightly stronger support for Trump in 2016 than for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Black Christians realized anew how big the rift was between their core concerns and those of their white Reformed co-religionists.

Five hundred years after Martin Luther challenged Catholic clergy on key church teachings, the Reformation continues. This time the transformation needs to emphasize not only orthodoxy ("right belief") but orthopraxy ("right action") as well. Reformed theology prides itself on intellectual explorations of the faith. In the 21st century, though, it must also embrace an ethical approach to the Bible, especially regarding race and public justice.

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As an African-American, I am learning to draw more intentionally on the expansive black church tradition to address these modern times.

The Rev. Charles H. Pearce, who helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal church in Florida. 18--. Black & white photoprint, 10 x 8 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The black church has always highlighted the demands of the Bible when it comes to public action. The Rev. Charles H. Pearce, who helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida in the 19th century, put it this way: “A man in this state cannot do his whole duty as a minister except if he but looks out for the political interests of his people.”

Religious beliefs motivated black women and men to pursue racial justice even at the risk of their lives. Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, John Perkins and a multitude of black Christians whose names will never appear in a history book saw the inseparable connection between Christian faith and righteous practice.

The modern-day Reformation must also bring to the forefront those groups that have been historically muted or silenced because of prejudice.

Black and brown people, among whom Christianity is growing exponentially in the majority of the world, must articulate the doctrines in a way that makes them relevant to present-day. Women, as half the population and equal as God’s image-bearers, must have a vocal and visible role in this movement. White Christians must follow and learn from those whom society has often marginalized. Today’s Reformation must be an inclusive one that makes room for both women and men, all economic classes and every tribe and tongue of those who believe.

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Christianity is a worldwide religion that includes a diverse array of people. The challenge of the Reformation in America today is to reflect that heterogeneity while maintaining unity in the midst of it.

(Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion and culture. He is co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast and a doctoral student in history at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Comments

  1. I don’t really get it. Isn’t everything you say here about Reform Christianity applicable to, like, every single Christian Church with exception of the Oriental Orthodox Church??

  2. I’m not Black and my earliest American ancestors were Calvinist extremists who signed a document, the Mayflower Compact, creating a minority rule theocracy. My inchoate impression of reformed theology, at least as it’s done by “conservatives,” is that it’s full of unresolved internal contradictions and impulses buried under dense apologetics, and trends towards endless schisms, the authoritarian and the patriarchal. That made “Old School” Presbyterians, such as James Henley Thornwell, among the most intellectually horrifying of pro-slavery apologists. See: “When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War,” by John Patrick Daly (2002), for starters.

  3. Well, the really meanspirited church folk of all races already are.

  4. The article could be summed up in one precept proffered by Mr. Tisby, and that precept is applicable to all Christians; Orthodoxy in conjunction with orthopraxy.

  5. We are so very far away from Dr. King’s dream that the color of one’s skin is really irrelevant.

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.– Rev. Dr. King

  6. One would expect the Epsicopal church to want to leverage the state to impose its view of religious morality given it is a state church.

    In America we have freedom of religion but separation of church and state. Church and politics can be a dangerous thing. And dismissal of certain theological traditions because they were written by “white men” sounds just as racist to me as many other racist things. I see too much racism among those whose skin mirrors my own. But in the long run it is the brain and not the skin that determines a person’s potential and behavior, unless one has skin cancer, that could have bearing on one’s life. All the other meaning we assign to skin color is purely a fiction.

  7. When integrated churches (considering demographics) are the norm maybe society can achieve King’s dream.

  8. Mr Tisby’s meditation on his question is much about black people generally but very little about Reformed theology (except remarking that Reformed thinkers do not confuse theology and social ethics).

  9. So, “Reformed theology” to date is all “precise, scholarly brand of theology … [all] orthodoxy (‘right belief’) but” NO “orthopraxy (‘right action’)”? Not that I approve of him (I don’t), but don’t tell me, brother Jemar Tisby, that you’ve never heard of Abraham Kuyper before. I’m sure the librarians at your University of Mississippi have.

    According to George Harinck, “Abraham Kuyper, South Africa, and Apartheid”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Issue 23, 2002: “Kuyper was not guided by the cultural racism of his day, but by his Calvinistic creed of human equality”.

  10. Which only proves your conservatives-bashing tunnel vision is blind to such alternative views as afforded by George Harinck, “Abraham Kuyper, South Africa, and Apartheid”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Issue 23, 2002. But, like I said above, not that I approve of the guy, but just saying.

  11. Speaking of “Oriental”, have you seen Murder on the “Orient” Express, where the pitch is, “Everybody Is A Suspect”, because every single one of the suspects murdered the Nazi. There. Spoil Alerted Too Late. Pointless, right? As is your comment.

  12. Yeah, but everybody’s cheating here on the suffix “praxy”. I know whereof I speak. That’s Marxist lingo. Liberation Theology, anyone? No? Then stop toying with this Marxist terminology. No, I don’t mean you, brother, I mean this article’s writer.

  13. I just read it. Thanks! Very interesting.

    However, you will note that I was talking about American Calvinists. Race and slavery warped most major American Protestantisms into American institutions…and hardly for the better in many cases.

    The early Methodists, as with most evangelicals of the day, were strongly anti-slavery,with the notable exception of the Great Awakening’s George Whitefield, who was very responsible for the legalization of slavery in Georgia. I don’t remember being taught that in Methodist Sunday school, but as that was many decades ago, maybe I don’t remember it as it was.

    Yet that strong antipathy towards slavery that didn’t keep the Methodist church from a schism over slavery and the creation of the pro-slavery, white supremacist Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1844.

    Or for that matter, the creation of the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention the next year even though Baptists were also known for their antipathy towards slavery.

    There are the Methodist movement offshoots that became Pentacostals, Holiness churches etc, but I don’t know much about them and I think they were mostly postbellum movements.

    As for the reformed movements, as I understand it anyway… it seems complicated… the New School Presbyterians were more anti-slavery, but the Old School Presbyterians of the South were more likely to be pro-slavery.

    The Congregationalists, speaking of complicated, had divided into “New Light” and “Old Light” Congregationalists. The Old Light movement, which wanted a Christianity for the Age of Reason, birthed Unitarianism over arguments on Calvinism, and some of the New Light people became Baptists.

    The Congregationalists were strongly anti-slavery by the 19th Century, but their wealth was, like America’s in general, heavily based upon the backs of enslaved people through their export/import trading and business dealings.

  14. To be honest it seems to me that you are more concerned about religion, color, etc OVER who & what we are as Christians. We as believes are the bride of Christ. Our Lord does not distinguish us based on color or religion but by faith and love of him and HIS WAYS. It bothers me that today supposed men of God speak of things that are NOT of God but of the world. Our God sees his children, he doesn’t see a black or white man/woman. So why do you CREATE a class of worshippers? (Black, white, etc) WE ARE CITIZENS OF HEAVEN! First and foremost! There is NO ROOM in Heaven or in the body of Christ for color, race or religion. Our SOLE PURPOSE is to seek and practice GODLY things as citizens of Heaven which have been taught to us by Jesus (Yehushua). The GRACIE GOSPEL IS THE ONLY GOSPEL brother. I feel you teach our Fathers children to look to the world and to worldly things instead of keeping our eyes, ears, hearts & minds focused SOLEY on him our Lord & Savior Jesus. This article focuses solely on religion NOT worship. Religion is what the Pharisees practiced NOT what Jesus taught. Think about that!!!! I am a Christian and I live as a citizen of heaven. Letting anything in the way of what our Lord & Savior taught and introducing things that he didn’t into your flock is a sin. Where does the Lord tell us to view ourselves as black, white, etc.? Where does he mention that we are to introduce politics into our worship? Where does he tell us to delegate ourselves based on color, religion, political beliefs, etc.? He doesn’t! The scriptures teach us ALL we need to know! ADDING or SUBTRACTING from his word is considered leading your flock astray. WE ARE TO KEEP OUR EYES FOCUSED SOLEY ON HIM & ONLY HIM. As a preacher/minister you have removed yourself from your PURPOSE which is to teach our Heavenly Fathers children about the SAVIOR he sent us. The Lord doesn’t care about worldly practices, politics, race, etc. if we focus solely on him NOTHING ELSE MATTERS & ALL THINGS WILL BE AS THEY SHOULD. Throughout history there are (supposed) Christians doing things that ARE AGAINST our Gods teachings. I have thought about “why & how” this could happen when his teachings are CRYSTAL CLEAR. Then it hit me! The people responsible for teaching Gods people were OF & IN THE WORLD NOT “OF & IN HEAVEN” as we ARE COMMANDED. I struggle with what I have pointed out to you because I have to keep bringing myself and my focus BACK to were it has to be! ON HIM & HIM ALONE. If I can keep my eyes focused on him and his teachings then I will be EXACTLY WHO I AM CREATED TO BE. I will also do the things that I was created to do because everything I do will be what he has taught and showed us. Just as Jesus ONLY DID what he saw and heard the Father do. We are to do what our Lord Jesus taught us to do. You say that “White Christians need to learn from the marginalized”, I disagree! We are to LEARN from our Lord Jesus and the scriptures ALONE. It is written “WE CANNOT SERVE TWO MASTERS”. Love you brother may God Bless you and may the Holy Spirit inside you rise up!

  15. You mustn’t generalize, brother Gregory Peterson, that “race and slavery warped most major American Protestantisms into American institutions”. Because Christians who weren’t “warped” at all at the time, would beg to differ. Like Finney, Wright & Cheever here:

    (1) To quote Charles Finney, a Presbyterian: “I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it.” (Memoirs, Barnes, 1876, page 324.) Christians supporting the system of slavery incurred “the greatest guilt” upon them. (Cf. “Guilt Modified by Ignorance: Anti-Slavery Duties”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18, 1852.)

    (2) Theodore S. Wright, an African-American Presbyterian and founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS), spearheaded a powerful postal campaign in 1835. By dropping off over 100,000 bundles of tracts and newspapers on prominent clerical, legal, and political figures everywhere, he triggered massive demonstrations throughout the North and South. (Cf. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “American Abolitionism and Religion: Divining America: Religion in American History”, National Humanities Center, presently posted online.)

    (3) George B. Cheever not only wrote “God Against Slavery: And the Freedom and Duty of the Pulpit to Rebuke It, As a Sin Against God” (American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1857) and “The Guilt of Slavery and the Crime of Slaveholding: Demonstrated from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures” (J. P. Jewett & Company, 1860). But he also prepared a speech entitled, “The Fire and Hammer of God’s Word Against the Sin of Slavery” (American Abolition Society,1858), then addressed the pro-slavery president at the time with it – James Buchanan (1857-1861).

  16. Well…that they felt compelled fight slavery, which was enthusiastically religiously legitimized by Southern elite Evangelicals and leaders pretty much all the time, everywhere they could, still says that slavery and white supremacy had warped American Protestantism.

    One of my heroes was Frederick Douglass, who wrote: “I attached myself to a small body of colored Methodists, known as the Zion Methodists. Favored with the affection and confidence of the members of this humble communion, I was soon made a classleader and a local preacher among them. Many seasons of peace and joy I experienced among them, the remembrance of which is still precious, although I could not see it to be my duty to remain with that body, when I found that it consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains.” (My Bondage and My Freedom
    by Frederick Douglass, Chapter 22: Liberty Attained.)

    Of course denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, along with Southern Presbyterian churches and ministers, didn’t merely consent to that spirit which held Douglass’ brethren in chains — they worshiped that spirit, embodied that spirit, were that spirit.

  17. Was the Great Awakening evangelist and slaves’ master George Whitefield “OF & IN THE WORLD NOT “OF & IN HEAVEN”, too, then, brother Augie Janke? For our born-again Christian brother did “speak of things” of “political beliefs … color, race or religion” as well.

    “The constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves. … Had Negroes been allowed, I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans without expending above half the sum that has been laid out. … Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without negroes [being] allowed”. Once “allowed” thanks to me, Whitefield, however, “slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, [shall] have not an equal privilege.” Sure, “I think God has a Quarrel with [slavemasters’] for [their] Abuse of and Cruelty to the poor Negroes”, who, true, are “human”, albeit “subordinate Creatures”.

    (Source: Harry Stout, Divine Dramatist: George Whitfield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, Eerdmans, 1991. Also Mark Galli, “Slaveholding Evangelist: Whitefield’s Troubling Mix of Views”, Christian History, 1993, Number 38. And also Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, University Press of Mississippi, 2015.)

  18. Which do you prefer, then, brother Richard S. Bell? “Mr Tisby’s … much [ado] about black people generally but very little about Reformed theology”? Or the Great Awakening evangelist and “Massa” George Whitefield’s “much [ado] about black people generally [and] Reformed theology” to boot?

    How’s this for “Reformed theology” – with “black people” very much in mind?

    “The poor negroes: … Jesus Christ has died for … you … O that you would seek the Lord to be your righteousness … and … wash you in his own blood. Go home then, turn … [to] prayer, and entreat the Lord to be your righteousness.”

    By “home”, of course, “Massa” Whitefield was referring to slaves’ colonies like Georgia. Wanna know what he thought of such “home” in particular?

    “The constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves. … Had Negroes been allowed, I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans without expending above half the sum that has been laid out. … Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without negroes [being] allowed”. Once “allowed” thanks to me, Whitefield, however, “slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, [shall] have not an equal privilege.” Sure, “I think God has a Quarrel with [slavemasters’] for [their] Abuse of and Cruelty to the poor Negroes”, who, true, are “human”, albeit “subordinate Creatures”.

    (Source: Harry Stout, Divine Dramatist: George Whitfield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, Eerdmans, 1991. Also Mark Galli, “Slaveholding Evangelist: Whitefield’s Troubling Mix of Views”, Christian History, 1993, Number 38. And also Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, University Press of Mississippi, 2015.)

  19. Care to comment on my replies above to my fellow born-again Christian brothers Augie Janke and Richard S. Bell? They & you have kept me balance my perspective.

  20. Well, I did not say that Mr Tisby made any “ado” about anything, and I wonder why you impute that to me.
    As for the substance of my remark about Mr Tisby’s essay, your reply is irrelevant. I find your reply interesting, but it neither confirms nor disconfirms what I said.
    Your first quotation of Whitefield is Reformed theology in a pastoral application without any relation to social ethics except its advice to go home, which you rightly deem bad advice because the “poor negroes” would continue to suffer injustice. But the tenuous ethical implications of that advice do not show that Whitefield actually did confuse theology and social ethics. We would need to know the specific context in which Whitefield told these people to go home. (Did they have any other place to find food and shelter?)
    Your quotations of Whitefield on slavery in Georgia are not statements of either theology or social ethics. They are empirical statements, which seem to me very likely true, albeit very callous. Now, it is possible, if made in a context that I do not know, that Whitefield’s statements were part of an argument in support of slavery in Georgia that is based entirely on crude welfare economics. Crude welfare economics is a kind of social ethics, strictly utilitarian and taking no account of distributive justice or personal dignity other than the formal equality of “A’s personal utility matters as much as B’s personal utility.” If Whitefield was making a crude utilitarian argument for slavery in Georgia, he was offering an application of one kind of social ethics. But the bases of Whitefield’s argument would not show that Whitefield actually did confuse theology and social ethics. We would need to know whether he thought God’s moral law is crude utilitarianism.
    Finally, I cannot say whether I prefer these meditations of Tisby to your quotations from Whitefield or vice versa. Tisby’s meditations did not deliver what they promised — not by a long shot — and so Tisby disappoints me. Your quotations from Whitefield state views highly objectionable to me and so Whitefield disappoints me. I cannot believe that Tisby’s meditations or Whitefield’s quotations will have any very important effect on me or on my society. Therefore, I have no clear criteria for preference.

  21. It’s unfortunate that this article limits Reformed Theology to its evangelical wing in America, when there are other lines of development, e.g., Barth and Moltmann (and their students), that have more liberative potential than RC Sproul and John Piper.

  22. As an African American member of a Reformed Church, I have been surprised and elated by the growing inclusion of people from all walks of life and all colors of skin. I have seen acceptance, acknowledgement of all members being worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. I absolutely love God and my Church. I am the only African American female in our Church, but I feel as important and worthy of God’s love and forgiveness as the next person. I have been a member of this church for 11 or 12 years and would not want to go to another congregation. Great pastor, too!!!

  23. You are one astronomical hypocrite! How dare you defile the church with Your Presence when you spew racism and hate on other sites! Of course I’m sure any church that you would attend is one of deviance and voodoo and I’m sure that you are a follower of Louis Farrakhan!

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