My wife and I were asked to speak at a conference called Building Bridges Instead of Barriers: Reforming Race Relations in the Church 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. In Part I, I introduced my speech by giving my personal testimony of conversion and how the Lord led me to being a member of a Reformed Church. In Part II of this speech, I address the topic of justice within the context of racial reconciliation.
As one who grew up within the Pentecostal tradition, it has been very encouraging to hear more vigorous discussions on social ethics within Reformed churches. It should go without saying that zealous concern for ethics is a non-negotiable for the Christian. Our faith cannot be merely talk; it must be accompanied with good works. Fortunately, the Reformed standards provide a Biblical foundation for ethics by walking through a systematic exposition of the Ten Commandments. The Westminster Divines understood that we cannot speak about social ethics consistently unless we understand and apply the second table of the Law properly.
The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) addresses the nature of justice and charity in its discussion of the 8th commandment (i.e. You shall not steal). According to the answer to Q. 141 of the WLC, the duties required in the 8th commandment are
… truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof
We see here that there are four basic criteria for justice: (1) Justice requires rendering to each “his due”, (2) justice requires impartiality, (3) justice requires proportional restitution, and (4) justice is defined and exercised within an individual basis (i.e. “between man and man”). This is the definition of justice that most people are familiar with because it emphasizes the punitive, restorative, and obligatory nature of justice.
Matters of injustice are detailed in the answer to Q. 142 of the WLC. Besides the neglect of our required duties, the sins forbidden in the 8th commandment are
… theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, … and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him
Again, it should be noted that injustice is committed when one takes or withholds from one’s neighbor what properly belongs to him. This includes matters of personal property along with various commercial and business practices in violation to God’s moral law. We can summarize these matters by stating that justice requires conformity to the standard set forth in God’s law. In other words, as E. Calvin Beisner states, the Biblical concept of justice is
rendering impartially and proportionally to everyone his due in accord with the righteous standard of God’s moral law.
Defining Charity and Love
However, the answers to Q. 141 and 142 of the WLC also describe our duties in regards to charity/love. These duties consist of:
… giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretyship, or other like engagements
This statement stands in sharp contrast to most modern sentiments. Our charity towards others is not optional or a matter of indifference; rather, justice and charity are both required for the Christian (although they are established on a different basis). We are commanded to give and lend freely, according to our abilities and the necessities of others.
Withholding charity from others (when one has the ability) is not an injustice; however, withholding charity is still a grave sin because it demonstrates an inordinate affection for the possessions of this world and a callous indifference towards our neighbor. For this reason, sins that are in violation of the 8th commandment include:
covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise.
This means that charity is not “owed” to any man on the same basis as justice. However, the 8th commandment requires
an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.
Applying Justice and Charity to Ethnic Strife
This distinction between justice and charity is important because they are often conflated or redefined when they are applied to matters of ethnic strife. There are many who desire to address this topic within the church from the perspective of “racial justice”. This is usually expressed by stating that White evangelicals “owe” current ethnic minorities due to historic acts of injustice. However, the phrasing of this statement demonstrates a clear re-definition of the Biblical concept of justice.
Justice is properly applied when there’s a clear definition of rights. According to WLC Q. 141-142, rights are NOT guarantees that something will be provided for us, but rights are guarantees that what is ours will not be unjustly taken from us. We rightfully call for justice and restitution when others have not received their due as those made in God’s image. We demonstrate a proper love for one’s neighbor when we preserve and procure those rights. This is foundational to why the barbarous and wicked acts of manstealing in the form of American slavery ought to have been condemned and appropriate restitution should have been given to American slaves.
In contrast to justice, charity is properly applied when there’s a clear definition of need and ability. There is much preaching and blog writing on using the historic injustices against ethnic minorities in America as a springboard for future action. From my perspective, the nature of the appeal should NOT be based upon justice; rather, it should be based upon on charity because Christians are required to be charitable. This is something we understand intuitively when we help anyone in our local church. No one argues that the needy members of our church are “owed” our acts of charity. Rather, we appeal on behalf of Christian love because we are one church. We do NOT serve our brothers and sisters in the Lord because we are merely obligated to do so; rather, we serve them because we love them. A simple change in our appeal will greatly influence how we proceed further.
Practically speaking, we exercise charity based on the concept of moral proximity. Simply put, the closer the moral proximity of the needy person (by virtue of familiarity, kinship, or geographical location), the greater our moral obligation should be in performing acts of charity. In applying this principle, one sphere of high moral proximity is our local church and our local community. There are many needs that exist locally and we ought to appeal to Christian love on addressing these needs. In light of WLC Q. 141, we are called
to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition.
There are numerous ways in which this can be done in our local communities and churches whether on the individual level or on the collective level (such as through mercy ministries) and all of these should be encouraged. We are all called to love our neighbor and to perform acts of charity and love. Elders should exhort all us to be rich in good works, to not grow weary in well doing, and to find ways to love our neighbor in various concrete ways.
However, much of our current conversation regarding ethnic strife overthrows this principle. Instead of demonstrating Christian love in concrete, specific ways to our local communities, it is often demanded that American evangelicals should feel the same moral obligation for matters outside their local community (i.e. such as events that appear in national news) as they do within their local community. From my position in the pew, this mentality clouds our moral judgment and discernment and unnecessarily burdens God’s people. Rather than using rhetoric that heaps unnecessary guilt on others, let us honor Christ with our words towards one another.
Here’s an example of how this principle has been applied personally. Many of you recall the church shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston in 2015. Although there were many churches outside of Charleston that contributed to the needs of this congregation, the primary acts of charity (much of which was unreported) came from the local Charleston community and local Charleston churches, including my own church. After the national media moved on from the story, the acts of charity from the local community came in the form of paying the financial costs for nine funerals, praying with the survivors of the incident, and affirming our love and devotion as fellow members of Christ’s body.
Applying Justice and Charity to Racial Reconciliation
In light of this discussion on justice and charity, what would “racial reconciliation” look like? First, we must establish whether if there is still an offense that requires reconciliation. If true reconciliation is needed because of actual injustice committed against specific individuals, then it would involve genuine repentance AND works in keeping with repentance. On an individual level, this would involve confessions of sin to God, confession of sin to any specific person that has been offended by our actions towards them, and if necessary, appropriate restitution.
Second, we must establish what tools the local church has been given to address these matters. One of the primary means God has given His local churches to fight for justice is church discipline. Within the church, true “racial reconciliation” would treat unrepentant racism as an offense worthy of censure and church discipline. In other words, if acts of racism exist among members within any local church, the elders MUST exercise appropriate church discipline. It would be hypocritical to fight for justice in the world if we are not first fighting for justice in own congregations through loving, gracious discipline.
There is significant historical precedent for this. For example, when it comes to American slavery, consider the practice of the American Presbyterian George Bourne who refused to serve communion to slave-owning members of his congregation. Consider the RPCNA’s denunciation of the “perpetual-slavery of men” in 1802 which condemned this practice through its entire denomination. Consider the strong public denunciations against American slavery from Charles Spurgeon and his public support of Frederick Douglass in the abolition of slavery. If there are churches, presbyteries, or denominations that continue to protect racists in any form, they should be singled out based on specific charges (rather than generic statements) with appropriate evidence (rather than mere hearsay).
Based on the criteria given above, there is overwhelming evidence that there were many ministers, churches, and denominations that were derelict in their responsibilities. It is clear that racism was the rule (not the exception) within American churches from the 17th century through the Jim Crow era. However, it must be said that there has been remarkable progress in ethnic strife since the Jim Crow era. Unfortunately, we continue to use the same language that suggests that we are still “divided by race” in such a way that reconciliation is required.
However, it has not been my experience that we are “divided by race” because of active enmity and hostility. It has been my experience that we simply don’t live around each other long enough to work through our various differences. I discussed my experience with my church in Colorado because I believe it addresses a topic that should be discussed: perseverance and patience in the local church. We are called to be patient with one another and to persevere with one other in the church. All of the agricultural analogies concerning sanctification in the Scriptures teach us that sanctification is a slow and deliberate process. This means that we should expect that there will be a number of practical problems within the local church due to cultural and ethnic differences. There may be some churches and individuals that are working through various ethnic prejudices. We should expect that the work of the gospel within the church will be slow but steady. Patience is needed to see God gradually build our unity in Christ.
For this reason, I believe that one of the practical ways to build bridges is to practice hospitality. Hospitality forces us all, no matter our ethnicity, to build relationships that we would not normally establish. In practicing hospitality, we learn to treat each other as individuals, not merely as statistics. In other words, we are forced to address unspoken and prejudiced views that we may continue to hold. This is true of all of us regardless of our ethnicity since we are all capable of prejudice. Furthermore, in order to foster these genuine relationships, we must develop a thick skin. This would involve NOT taking offense when an offensive statement is made. Our willingness to endure with one another will go a long way in building bridges with regards to ethnic strife in our churches.