Anthony Carter is lead pastor of a new church plant, East Point Church, just outside of Atlanta, Ga. Carter earned his M.A. in biblical studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. And he has suthored and edited several books, including On Being Black and Reformed and Experiencing the Truth.
Carter’s newest book is Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity. We spoke with him about the differences between “black” and “white” Christianity, and how Reformed theology is viewed in African-American churches.
Why is it important that we know how these 10 black men came to the Reformed faith?
I think it’s important to know how God’s work of grace has occurred in the lives of those who are outside our normal sphere of influence. It is encouraging to know that God’s grace and salvation are being marvelously and wonderfully experienced outside our normal circles. A lot of us have a myopic view of Christianity and our own faith. To be encouraged, to know that God is at work in the hearts of men and women whose lives may not look exactly like ours—and yet whose faith and confession is the same—that should offer a sense of encouragement. And it should offer a challenge to get involved in what God is doing, even outside our normal areas of operation.
A number of these men embraced Reformed theology for the same reason I (a white man) did: they heard R.C. Sproul. Was there something different about what they heard—because they grew up black—than I did?
Probably not, except that the voice you heard was, at some level, a familiar voice. The face you saw was a familiar face. In most of these situations [the stories in Carter’s book] that voice was not a regular voice that they would have heard. That face was not a regular face that they would have seen in a church or religious context. So that may have been different. But I think when people read this book they’ll see that it’s more about grace than race. They’ll see that even though the culture of these men is African-American, their stories are not that dissimilar from other stories of people who come to the knowledge of who Jesus is. They’ll see that some of the same names and the same influences have been brought to bear in these situations as well.
These men come from theological backgrounds that most PCA members aren’t familiar with. Some grew up hearing a prosperity gospel; others were reared on liberation theology, Word-Faith theology, or Afro-centric teaching. How do those backgrounds complicate perceptions of Reformed theology?
Any aberrant teaching complicates the perception of true biblical teaching. But a person who’s been conditioned by aberrant teaching not only has to overcome the error, they have to embrace the truth. That’s not easy because there are a lot of factors connected to the error. It’s not just the error itself, it’s our love lines: Who taught us the error? We have a lot of respect for the people and for the church that espoused it. We have affinities for that place, and that complicates our perception of something new—of something that contradicts what we’ve been taught.
When people embrace Reformed theology out of some of those perspectives, it’s not—a lot of times—just letting go of the error, it’s letting go of some of the people who were teaching those things. That complicates the situation.
Michael Leach, in his portion of the book, mentions accusations of “buying into a white man’s doctrine.” Can you describe that subtle (or perhaps it’s not so subtle) form of persecution?
When someone comes from a predominantly black church, and particularly if they come from an Afro-centric setting, if they embrace Reformed theology—and then, once they have embraced Reformed theology they begin to quote and espouse the teaching of prominent Reformed theologians—it might seem as if they’re espousing a white man’s religion—because the proponents of Reformed theology have historically been white. So when you begin to quote them and point people to them, the perception may be that you have embraced a white man’s doctrine. But that has a lot to do with the context someone comes out of. It is not, I don’t think, a pervasive thing that everyone has experienced.
Staying with this theme for a second, in the book’s introduction Ken Jones says: “On the surface it would appear that these African-Americans [the men whose stories are recorded] have sided with a system of religion that provided theological support for the oppression of our forefathers, and that they stand in opposition to traditional African-American Christianity that has been hailed as the impetus for our liberation.” Can you help us understand what black Americans are thinking and feeling about white vs. black Christianity?
The interesting thing about historical black Christianity is that it was born out of racism. When African-Americans began to embrace Christianity they didn’t do so with the idea of establishing their own churches. But, because they were treated as second-class citizens, and because they were denied certain aspects of ordinary church life, they broke away. Blacks and whites thought it was better to be separate than to worship together. So the black church was born out of a sense of necessity and a desire for a sense of dignity. As a result of that, the church in the African-American community became an institution that has long been self-governing, self-standing, and self-supporting. It is the one long-standing institution within the black community that has not needed outside support in order to thrive. And so, it’s been a staple of the African-American community. To go against that, in many quarters, is seen as going back to those who oppressed black people, who initiated the need for these churches in the first place. That may be more of a self-conscious reality today than an overtly conscious one.
Lance Lewis, when he talks about a theological shift in black churches from the Civil Rights era to a prosperity theology, observes how the change “demonstrates that black people were willing to adopt new ways of thinking regarding black church culture.” He then expresses hope for the advancement of Reformed theology. Do you share that optimism?
Yes, because I’ve seen it already in the circles that God has allowed me to be in. I also share that optimism from the standpoint that African-Americans tend—and I say that in quotation marks—they “tend” to have a high view of the Scriptures. So when Reformed theology is presented in its biblical context, then African-Americans are willing to give it a hearing. That’s not always the case when it’s presented in its historical context, where you’re quoting a lot of dead white guys, but when you put the doctrine in a biblical context, when you demonstrate that these are biblical doctrines, then African-Americans are willing to hear those truths. So I do share that optimism; I’ve seen the fruit of it in my own ministry.
Is Reformed theology a harder sell in the black church than in the white church?
The difficulty is the entrenched tradition of church in the African-American community. I don’t know if people understand just how entrenched traditionalism is. To try to buck that system and introduce people to a more biblical understanding of Christianity, and then to label it “Reformed theology”—people are going to resist that. However, I think that this generation—the younger generation—is less resistant than the older one. One of the positive aspects of post-modernity, if we call it that, is that people are willing to question traditions. Within the African-American context that’s a good thing, because the traditionalism of the church, I think, has blinded people to the truth of the gospel. That’s not just true in African-American communities, that’s true across the board in America, that the traditionalism of the established mainline churches has blinded so many people to the truth of the gospel. This next generation, with its willingness to question the status quo, is more open to the true message of the gospel, not only proclaimed, but lived out.
A few of these men talk about differences in worship styles. They mention the overly emotional aspects of worship in black churches and the bland music in white churches. Will style always separate black and white believers?
That’s going to be a difficult bridge to cross. The types of music, the genres that are used in predominantly black churches and predominantly white churches are different. It’s going to take a collective effort among people who are interested in closing the gap to not only seek to understand the various genres, but to embrace them and to rejoice in them. It may take a generation of Christians—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—working together to develop worship music that actually speaks across the board. It may take a revival in the production of music itself to bridge that gap. But that remains a point of separation that needs to be bridged.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? And do you hope white readers take away something different than black readers?
I hope more than anything that people who read this book will see that it’s more about grace than it is about race, and that the gospel–as God sovereignly orchestrates His will in this world and in the lives of His people–is a wonderful thing even in the multifaceted and diverse way in which He makes it known.
It should be a source of joy for all of us to see that God is doing His multicultural, multifaceted work of bringing men and women into the kingdom—a kingdom that He is populating from every tongue and tribe and nation upon the earth. I hope this book will, in some small way, encourage the Church, and particularly Reformed people, that this is actually going on. I hope that it will inspire people to look more intently at the truths that are espoused by our Reformed theology, and to see that they are not only biblical, but trans-cultural, that they’re relevant to everyone, everywhere, that while the culture may change, the truth need not.
I hope they also see that while our experiences may be different, the journey is ultimately the same, that the pilgrimage is toward glory where we’ll behold our God who has so graciously redeemed us out of various circumstances and has placed us at various points along the path. But we’re all journeying to the same place.
Do you think the PCA is doing anything that causes black people to resist coming into our churches?
On so many levels the PCA is trying to attract African-American people, I see that the PCA is trying to knock down barriers, so I can’t pinpoint anything that the church is doing that hinders [black people from coming]. I think it may just take more time. It may take training more African-Americans within a Reformed context. It’s going to take the promotion of African-Americans into prominent positions of leadership. It’s going to take opening the doors of your training institutions and providing financial assistance—it may take some combination of all these things. But I don’t think the PCA is doing anything that hinders black people from coming.
If a PCA church wanted to proactively attract black people into its congregation, what advice would you give?
Well, the first thing I’d ask someone is where is your church. If you’re living in North Dakota or somewhere where there aren’t a lot of black people I don’t want you to be disillusioned thinking you’re going to attract the few black people that are there. So, where is the church? Is it someplace where you’re in regular contact with African-Americans?
I think a lot of time people want diversity but they’re not even in the midst of diversity. They have very few contacts with black people on a regular basis, and then they just expect them to show up at their church. That may be wishful thinking.
Another thing you could do is reach out to some of the more solid African-American pastors in the area; you could establish relationships with their churches and cooperate on some joint ventures. That would give your people a little more familiarity with African-Americans, and give African-Americans more familiarity with your people. That’s another practical thing you could do.
We see in the Bible, and we know from our own lives, that you have to be willing to fellowship with people. When I say fellowship I mean you need to be willing to eat with people. We don’t eat with strangers; they may be strangers before we sit down, but once we sit across from them and share a meal with them, it’s not long that they’re strangers. So, eating with people and actually welcoming people into our home, or going into their home, that says a lot about our desire to want to get to know them and fellowship with them.
These are just down-to-earth, practical ways that the racial divide can be bridged. It’s not easy, but it is possible … it really is.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He’s also the author of two novels, Safe at Home and Crossing the Lines, both published by David C. Cook Publishers.