From January 31st through February 2nd, 2019, Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) hosted a conference called Building Bridges Instead of Barriers: Reforming Race Relations in the Church. The purpose of this conference was “to serve and to strengthen the Body of Christ by proposing and exploring biblically Reformed ways of thinking about the subject of race relationships within the church. In addition, we wish to proffer practical suggestions as to how we might more effectively build bridges across ethnic lines within the church in order to achieve greater unity for the sake of Christ and His Gospel.”
My wife and I were asked to speak at this conference based on our experience within the PCA and our experience upon interacting with numerous individuals regarding the ongoing discussion of race/ethnicity within Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. I was tasked with discussing how the rhetoric that we use in discussing race/ethnicity practically affects congregational life within local churches. Since there have been some who have asked my opinion regarding this topic, I thought it would be a good idea to post my manuscript speech. Because of the length of the speech, I will split it into five parts. Here’s the first part of the speech which deals with my personal testimony, how I arrived at embracing Reformed theology, and becoming members of a Reformed church.
Over the past several years, the topic of racial reconciliation has overshadowed many others within Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Some of these discussions have been fruitful, as denominations (such as the PCA) have confessed to systemic and institutional racism practiced within various presbyteries. In spite of the progress that has been made, these conversations continue to evoke strong and polarizing responses. There is often more heat than light, especially when this debate occurs on social media. We can rejoice in that some churches of differing opinions on this topic continue to strive for unity within our various denominations. However, at other times, it feels as if we are at a stalemate, particularly when the topic of reparations is brought up. In my estimation, most of the difficulty in discussing this topic is based on the rhetoric that we use towards one another. What I would like to convey today is an honest portrayal of how our rhetoric influences congregational life within our local churches. However, I think that it’s important to explain my background and how I was brought into this discussion.
My Background and Conversion
I’m a child of what is known today known as the “hip-hop generation”. My grandfather was a Pentecostal minister who passed his faith to his children, and because of that, I was born into this tradition. Within the Pentecostal tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on holiness and ethics along with the experience of the Spirit-filled life; these emphases also characterized the home in which I grew up. However, as I grew older, I saw Black ministers swindle Black congregations and I began to question many of the various superstitious beliefs held by many Black Pentecostals. Eventually, I turned away from the faith in which I was raised and while in high school, my rebellion against the Lord led me to embrace atheism.
The Lord subdued my rebellion and brought me to Himself primarily through three influences: my older brother’s conversion, the genuine faith of a few peers, and, oddly enough, a world history course. In learning 20th century world history, I had no valid answer for why the so-called “enlightened” world committed atrocities, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide. This led me to ponder the existence of evil. Fortunately, some of my peers, who were genuine Christians, took these philosophical questions and pivoted them towards me. I realized that I could not understand the wickedness in the world and within myself, especially since I had no environmental influences that provoked it.
Through the persistent witness of my older brother and of my peers, they implored me to listen to the words of the gospel. This led me to an old-fashioned American tent-revival service in which Law and Gospel were clearly preached. For the first time, I realized that the justice that I demanded against those men who committed horrible acts of evil must also be directed towards me. The Lord opened my heart to consider what was being said and I was converted through the preaching of the Word.
Experiencing the Ministry of the Local Church
In reflecting on my young life, I realized that I’ve spent my entire childhood within the walls of a church and yet I don’t recall a single sermon from my childhood about the purpose of the church. Although church attendance was required, the heavy emphasis that was placed on receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit gave me the impression that the institutional church was not very important. For this reason, I treated the local church with an air of indifference. Throughout my undergraduate college years, I joined a megachurch in which there was no oversight or genuine shepherding care. Furthermore, through this church, I was introduced to the damnable teachings associated with the Word of Faith movement. I eventually left this church, but in my youthful folly, I walked away from the church altogether for a period of five years. As all of you would expect, my faith floundered and I wandered aimlessly as a result.
While I was in graduate school in Texas, I began to interact with Roman Catholic evangelists who forced me to think through many of my theological views. In God’s providence, these discussions convinced me that I needed to repent for walking away from the church. After moving to Colorado to finish my doctoral work, I became a committed member of an evangelical church for the first time as an adult. Moreover, for the first time, I was an ethnic minority within a local church. Many of the members of this church originally came from an Amish or Mennonite background so, as you can imagine, there were numerous cultural differences and misunderstandings. However, because we were united together in Christ and committed to each other through church membership, we worked through those difficulties and loved each other through them all. From these experiences, I realized how much I needed the church. I experienced how the ministry of Word and sacrament within the local church is the ordinary means of salvation for God’s people.
While I was in Colorado, I continued to reflect on those conversations that I had with Roman Catholic evangelists, and it made me consider why I was a Protestant. This led me to study the claims of Roman Catholicism and I realized quickly that there were numerous Reformed and Lutheran ministers who wrote extensively about the topic. Like many who have come to embrace Reformed theology later in their Christian life, I was deeply moved by the internal consistency of biblical truth across the Old and New Testament. In short, I began to see the unity and the Christ-centered focus of the Scriptures in a much clearer light.
My family and I eventually moved to Monroe, LA for my first academic position and while there, we joined our first Reformed church. This was another culture shock for myself and for my family. Our family went from singing modern praise songs with a praise band to formal congregational singing of Psalms and hymns. We went from a church with a rather low liturgy to a much higher liturgy of traditional Reformed worship. Interestingly enough, we also went from afternoon potlucks following Lord’s Day service to what the late R.C. Sproul describes as the “Presbyterian rush” following morning service. By the time that our family joined this church, I was intellectually convinced of the regulative principle of worship, but it is a different matter to experience it on a weekly basis. However, I can say without hesitation that our souls were fed week-in and week-out by the ministry of Word and sacrament. It was a blessing to sit in a local fellowship of older seasoned saints in the Lord; in many ways, it reminded me of the first church that I joined when I was a teenager where older saints would encourage me in the Lord.
Challenges in Reformed Churches
I have known for years that all churches and denominations have their controversies, but I was genuinely surprised at the sheer volume of controversies that exist within confessional Reformed churches. As an outsider to this world, I was honestly shocked to hear about claims of racism, oppression, patriarchy, and misogyny institutionalized among God’s people.
It may be surprising to hear today, but this was not an issue that was discussed much in the churches in which I was raised. I was already accustomed to multi-ethnic churches, and as a child, I recall that a Pentecostal minister said that “the color line had been washed away in the blood.” In other words, racial integration and solidarity were considered signs of God’s active presence in the church today. According to Ephesians 4, there is one body and one Spirit just as we all were called to the one hope. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all. According to Colossians 3, there is neither Greek nor Jew, but Christ is all and in all. According to 1 John 1, we are defined by our common fellowship with the Son and according to John 13, we will be known by our love for another.
However, the frank reality is that our rhetoric in addressing ethnic strife demonstrates that we are known more for our disagreements and differences rather than our common fellowship with one another. As I consider our present discussion regarding ethnic strife within Reformed and Presbyterian churches and their effects on congregational life, there are four questions that I would like to address: (1) What is the relationship between justice and charity? (2) What is the nature of racial reconciliation? (3) Can Christians who disagree with each other politically coexist in the same church? (4) What are the consequences of our current actions in addressing ethnic strife?