This article begins a seven-part series discussing racial issues in the PCA, each one written by an African-American with pastoral experience in the denomination. The authors seek to provide a voice of experience along with wisdom and insight from a biblical perspective.
In her new book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, Dr. Condeleeza Rice, former secretary of state and national security advisor under former president George W. Bush, makes the following statement about race in America: “The fact is, race is a constant factor in American life, yet reacting to every incident, real or imagined, is crippling, tiring, and ultimately counterproductive. I’d grown up in a family that believed you might not control your circumstances, but you could control your reaction to them. Despite the gross inequities my ancestors faced, there has been progress and race is today no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color-blind and likely will never be. Race is ever-present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure.”
To my dismay, I agree with her perspective. Although unpleasant, I find Rice’s analogy sobering and accurate. It’s sobering to know that within my lifetime blacks were unwelcome in many evangelical churches. Yet within that same lifetime our country has elected an African-American president. Somewhere between these two realities lays our present struggle with race/ethnicity. America has absolutely made great progress; however, this does not make us a colorblind society.
Assessing Our Situation
The irony of race in America is that it has been more than 40 years since the end of Jim Crow (laws that legitimized anti-black racism and legalized segregation), yet in many ways we’re still two peoples living among—but not necessarily with—each other and harboring distrust and some animosity. We rarely talk about race. When a racial issue arises, our society generally reacts in ways similar to the two factions within the Christian church when the topic of demonic activity comes up. One sees demonic activity behind every tree and under every rock; the other almost never admits to it.
Unfortunately, the best our culture can seem to do at this point is highlight the issue, wish it were better, and then have everyone go about their business. As Ms. Rice said, we may admit our problem but feel somewhat powerless to address it and thus go on our way, hoping that it will correct itself. Sadly the evangelical church is not much better—and may be worse. For one, we—and I do mean we, for we cannot truly address this issue if we remain in our separate historical camps—have a long and sinful history of disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the treatment of individuals and groups. The evangelical church embraced the social gospel of racial discrimination instead of pursuing the biblical message of unity that springs from the gospel. Consequently, we put the temporal and sinful wishes of our tribal groups above the clear mandate of Scripture. Moreover, rather than taking the lead in this area, we’ve retreated into ideological positions which may reinforce our political beliefs but do little (if anything) to further the cause of the gospel.
That’s what this discussion is about.
Where Are We Going?
One thing that should be clear: The PCA is not the only denomination or institution that struggles with race. The issue then for us dear ones is simple: How do we move forward, and can we as a church begin to shepherd those we serve in ways that help us speak to the issues of race/ethnicity with grace, humility, and a with a focus on the mission of the gospel?
Perhaps you are aware of an article in the Southern Poverty Law Center concerning Rev. Craig Bulkley, a PCA pastor in North Carolina who responded to racist remarks sent to him in an email from an elder at his church and the subsequent fallout from that action. (To read about this, click here.)
Because Scripture speaks powerfully about equality and how to treat one another, I and a number of other black PCA ministers approached byFaith magazine and asked to begin a series of articles to address this. We approach the thorny issue of race not to champion a side, advance a cause, or even placate our own conscience. We do it because society has proven repeatedly that it is lost in this area, and we need to address it.
Starting the Discussion
Our goal is to address issues of race/ethnicity from a biblical point of view that equips us to be faithful witnesses to our culture. We recognize that not every PCA church will become a balanced multiethnic congregation, and we also realize that this is not the only issue to which we, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, must speak. But speak to it we must, just as we speak to issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
All who write in this series have served for some time within the PCA. Moreover, all of us have had different, though common, experiences as African-Americans in this country. We’ve all been blessed to have embraced Reformed theology and, by our Lord’s grace, are either presently pastoring or have been involved with serving in pastoral ministry with both blacks and whites.
Our hope is that this series will help us navigate the turbulent waters of race/ethnicity together and that in unity we can present a gracious, humble, biblical, and Christ-focused witness to culture and communities for God’s glory and the sake of the gospel.
Reverend Lance Lewis is the pastor of Christ Liberation Fellowship, a plant of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pa.