When I read Isabel Wilkerson’s best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns, it was like reading my own story. Wilkerson provides a detailed narrative describing the “great migration” — the exodus of 6 million black Southerners out of the Jim Crow South, into an uncertain future in the North and Midwest. My grandmother was one of them.
She left North Carolina for New York City in 1947, leaving her six children with relatives. Five years later, in 1952, my mother joined her. She had always dreamed of becoming a nurse but knew that would never happen in the North Carolina of the 1950s. So my family joined the Great American Migration. I’m a native New Yorker, raised in Brooklyn, because my grandmother, and then my mother, were in search of a better life.
When the PCA considered the personal resolution from Drs. Lucas and Duncan on confession and repentance for sins committed during the civil rights period, I could not help but connect our denomination’s history to my family’s story.
Over the course of 60 years, millions of people — all God’s image bearers, fed up with segregation, oppression, inequality, and an array of dehumanizing policies and attitudes — were induced to leave the Southern states. So when the PCA considered the personal resolution from Drs. Lucas and Duncan on confession and repentance for sins committed during the civil rights period, I could not help but connect our denomination’s history to my family’s story. And now, as the PCA considers the overtures submitted by 30-plus presbyteries to the 44th Assembly in Mobile, Alabama, it remains personal to me.
But it’s more than that. If we as a denomination long to delight in racial reconciliation, such truth-telling is required. To put it another way, the PCA needs confession and dialogue in order to live out the implications of our theological commitments. We need these things in order to pursue the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. What’s more, such truth-telling is an outworking of what it means to image our Triune God.
Theologian Herman Bavinck, in “Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2,” says that the confession of the Trinity is the heartbeat of the Christian religion. In what has become a go-to description for me, he writes, “The image of God is much too rich to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be. … Only humanity in its entirety — as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as a prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation — only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.”
Every human — with his or her unique gifts, talents, personalities, qualities, and quirks — is mysteriously joined to every other human, thereby forming the image of God.
Bavinck captures the blessing of Genesis 1:28-30. Human beings image God, not only as individuals, but most strikingly as a collective. It is impossible to multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion as individuals. In creation, human destiny is in community — because humanity is the image of the Triune God who lives in community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Nonna Verna Harrison, author of “God’s Many-Splendored Image,” makes the point. “The unity of humankind is an important facet of the image of God, who is one. Humankind is a multiplicity of persons who are united in one body,” she says, “just as God is three persons united in one essence.” The Trinity lives without internal conflict. The three persons are perfectly agreed on what they should do and how their plan should be executed. They support one another, assist one another, and promote one another’s purposes. They mutually glorify one another, too. Thus, when humanity is united in loving community, it is a reflection of the Triune God.
We should not be surprised that unity and diversity are reflected in the human relationships that God has ordained. God in Himself, after all, has both unity and diversity. That’s why in the church there are many members yet one body. And it’s why, says Covenant College Professor of Sociology Matthew Vos, that fellowship is more than having coffee after church. Fellowship is the basis for identity itself. “To be made in the image of God,” Vos says, “is to be made in relationship.”
Just as the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery, mankind is too. Every human — with his or her unique gifts, talents, personalities, qualities, and quirks — is mysteriously joined to every other human, thereby forming the image of God. Author and theologian John Frame says it more directly. In “The Doctrine of God,” Frame explains, “The concept of mutual glorification suggests an important way in which Christians can be like members of the Trinity: we, too, are called to defer to one another in this way, to glorify one another, to be disposable to one another’s purposes — that is, to love one another as God loved us.”
We see the practical implication of this in Chapter 26 of the Westminster Confession of Faith: Of the Communion of Saints. While this chapter of the Confession deals primarily with our “union with Christ,” it nevertheless reveals a correlation between the Trinity and the communion of the saints. Robert Letham, a professor of systematic and historical theology, explains even that while the saints enjoy communion with one another, such enjoyment doesn’t erode the integrity of the individual. This communion, Letham says, is an outflow of the doctrine of the Trinity. There is unity and union, but in diversity.
In the opening of Chapter 26 we find that Christians are united to one another in love, have communion in one another’s gifts and graces, and are therefore obligated to pursue their mutual good. Such traits are a direct reflection the mutuality found in the Trinity.
Chad Van Dixhoorn, co-editor of “The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly: 1643-1652,” explains it this way: “Ultimately this love for each other cannot be restricted to what we have; it needs to encompass who we are.” Van Dixhoorn calls for a Christian identity of mutual love in community. R.C. Sproul implies agreement when, in his book “Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith,” he says that the communion of the saints depends on love. Likewise, William Perkins, a theologian in the tradition carried on by the Westminster Divines, explains that Christian community shares mutual love expressed in mutual obligation. “We must here be admonished not to seek our own things,” Perkins said, “but to refer the labours [sic] of our callings to the common good. … Lastly, considering we are all knit into one mystical body … our duty is to redress the faults of our brethren, and to cover them. … Love covers the multitude of sins.”
George S. Hendry explained that this love is not based on mutual attraction. Rather, it is a love that overcomes division and reconciles differences; it brings into communion those who have nothing in common except the fact that Christ gave himself for them. The difference, then, between the inner life of the Triune God, and the inner life of the community that images him, is the presence of sin.
That reality brings attention to the challenge of living out mutual love as image-bearers in community where don’t have much in common — save the fact that Christ gave his life for us. This shared identity leads us to act for our mutual good, both inwardly and outwardly. And it leads us to confess and repent, particularly when sin is revealed.
I do not know how the General Assembly debate will go and what action we will take in response to the many overtures addressing the issue of repentance for sins committed during the Civil Rights period. I do know that it is good for us to pursue unity by not only extolling the virtues of our past, but decrying what is vile. May we do so by the grace of Christ.
Irwyn Ince is the pastor of City of Hope Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Maryland. He is a contributor to Heal Us, Emmannuel, a collection of essays dealing with race and repentance, and in May 2016, Ince earned his D. Min. degree from Covenant Theological Seminary.