In March, the Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation Study Committee released its report, concluding nearly two years of research and study on how the PCA can commit to racial reconciliation for the sake of the Gospel at every level of the denomination — from national agencies down to individual churches and sessions.
The 10-member committee will discuss its work during the plenary seminar at the 46th General Assembly. The seminar will take place on Wednesday, June 13, at 8 a.m.
Biblical and Theological Foundations for Racial Reconciliation
The study committee’s report begins by outlining the biblical and confessional basis for racial reconciliation and demonstrating that racism is more than a social problem — it is a sin problem. The Bible is clear that diversity was the plan from the beginning of creation. God created different forms of plants and animals and set about differentiating light from darkness, land from water, and day from night. As the pinnacle of creation, humans continue to display the rich diversity of God’s creation.
The committee’s report begins by outlining the biblical and confessional basis for racial reconciliation and demonstrating that racism is more than a social problem — it is a sin problem.
“Creation is not a picture of uniformity,” the report says. “Rather, from the inception of creation, there is diversity. And in the continuing divine work of creation, God continues to foster diversity.”
With the Fall came sin and the sinful desire to subjugate and oppress others. But through His atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ brought down the wall of hostility that alienates races and ethnicities from one another.
And while the word “race” does not appear in the Westminster Standards, the Confession does contain a strong theology of reconciliation. According to the Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation Study Committee’s report, to ignore this reality in the Confession would be to preach and live in a way that is not consistent with the Westminster Standards.
“While the 17th-century framers of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms did not have ‘race’ as a framework, nothing in what they summarized of Scripture’s teaching is inimical to our church’s developing understanding of racial reconciliation and justice,” the report says. “In fact, our confessional documents demand that we lean into these issues faithfully in obedience to the Scriptures themselves. To fail to see these issues as ‘Gospel issues’ — that is, as the proper ethical response to biblical teaching — is to fail to live faithfully to our own confessional standards.”
Surveying Teaching and Ruling Elders
In order to understand attitudes about racism in the PCA, the study committee contracted with LifeWay Research Services to develop qualitative and quantitative surveys. LifeWay worked with the PCA stated clerk’s office to send an internet-based survey to teaching elders and asked them to share the survey with their sessions.
In total, 1,498 teaching elders and 1,120 ruling elders responded to the survey.
The responses reveal a divide in how elders feel about racial reconciliation. Fifty-two percent of respondents believed the 44th General Assembly’s confession of corporate involvement in the sins of racism during the 1960s was “extremely” or “very much” needed. Nearly 20 percent of elders believed the confession was “not needed at all.”
“Our committee wonders how it is possible for elders to believe that remaining sin is present in all of us and that (as Calvin noted) the seed of every known sin is in our hearts; that racism is at least partially structural and hence generational; and yet not have any racism present in our denominational life,” the report notes.
Teaching elders were more likely than ruling elders to see the importance of taking action on matters related to racial reconciliation. Nearly 70 percent of teaching elders said racial reconciliation was extremely or very much needed, while 59 percent of ruling elders agreed.
Thirty-nine percent of ruling elders saw the actions of the 44th General Assembly as “extremely” or “very much needed.”
Respondents overwhelmingly believed they had a biblical understanding of racism, but 6 percent of those surveyed do not see racism as a sin. When asked about racism locally, 71 percent of elders reported little or no racism in their presbyteries and 81 percent of elders saw little or no racism in their individual congregations.
The study committee noted this disparity and how these attitudes are out of sync with a Reformed understanding of sin. “Our committee wonders how it is possible for elders to believe that remaining sin is present in all of us and that (as Calvin noted) the seed of every known sin is in our hearts; that racism is at least partially structural and hence generational; and yet not have any racism present in our denominational life,” the report notes.
Kevin Smith, chairman of the study committee, hopes that the report will help congregations begin to see racism as a moral issue, like abortion. And as with other moral issues, Smith notes, refusing to talk about the issue will not make it go away.
Recommendations and Suggestions
The only portion of the 27-page report on which the Assembly will vote is the four recommendations at the end of the document. The official recommendations deal with routine tasks such as directing the General Assembly to receive the report, the Committee on Discipleship Ministries (CDM) to publish the report, and dismissing the committee with thanks. The study committee also recommends budgeting funds so that LifeWay might follow up in five years with additional research and establish a longitudinal study on attitudes about racial reconciliation in the PCA.
While the official recommendations don’t address specific issues relevant to racial reconciliation, the committee offers plenty of suggestions for congregations, presbyteries, academic institutions, agencies, and committees. The specific suggestions for “reflection, confession, and commitment” fill more than seven pages of the report.
The overall theme of the suggestions is for churches, presbyteries, and other groups in the PCA to intentionally find ways to learn more about minority perspectives, increase their cultural intelligence, and persevere in talking about these issues in the community, in the congregation, and in the pulpit.
The report contains practical suggestions, many of which stem from the committee members’ experiences working through these issues in their own congregations. Smith said PCA sessions should view the 10 study committee members as resources they can contact for further insight and as sources of wisdom available to the denomination.
Implementation Is up to Churches and Presbyteries
How churches and presbyteries decide to use the study committee’s report is up to them. Though the report builds on the work of previous General Assemblies, committee member Sean Lucas noted it is the denomination’s first biblical and theological examination of the Gospel and race. He hopes it becomes a useful tool in helping churches think through these issues within a biblical framework.
He also hopes the data make it clear that the church has more work to do to address attitudes about racism from a biblical perspective.
“We need to work on loving our neighbor as ourselves,” he said. “It’s not about quotas and affirmative action. We have to become intentional if we’re going to become a Revelation 7 kind of church.”
Smith hopes sessions will read the report and pass it on to ministry leaders. Each church can then determine a strategy that fits its context and furthers the Great Commission in its community.