The Prophetic Voice of the Black Church
The Black church has been a consistent prophetic voice for the church in the United States. And even beyond the church, in many cases, the Black church has also been the reason we have any commendable measure of justice and equality today. The Black church’s historic struggle for justice––a struggle deeply rooted in the God of the Bible––and its theological orthodoxy––orthodoxy rooted in the Bible’s authority––transformed (and continues to transform) a nation whose Christianity often presented a distorted Christ.
As we enter Black History Month, we should experience deep gratitude for the Black church’s faithfulness. While the following article cannot possibly do justice in making the argument, I want to present a brief historical overview of 1) how religious life developed in the United States, 2) how the Black church played a significant role in stabilizing true Christian faithfulness, and 3) how it sets the example for all Christians going forward.
Development of Religious Life
Fairly recently, I came across an interesting study by sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Captured in their book, The Churching of America: 1776-2005, they describe the landscape of Christianity in America, and in particular, the churching of America. They show how unchurched America was in colonial times and how church adherence grew. They also focused on which churches grew and which declined. They argue,
Not all denominations shared in the immense rise in membership rates, and to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper. The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.
While this is for another day, one key takeaway is that if a church/denomination seeks longevity, both “traditional doctrine” and “demands of their followers” seems vital. As a confessional Presbyterian committed to the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith––a nearly 400-year confession––I certainly find a commitment to historic Christianity of essential value for discipleship and fidelity.
That said, what struck me was a graph they presented that charts church attendance rates:
The Churching of America: 1776-2005, 23.
The trajectory of that chart reminded me of another chart presented by Dr. Carl Ellis. During a talk on urban ministry (I forget who made me aware of this talk, but whoever you are, thanks!), Ellis unpacked the importance of narratives, particularly America’s “Christian” narrative. He juxtaposed the “Dominant Culture’s ‘Christian’ Narrative” and the “African American ‘Christian’ Narrative.”
From a dominant culture evangelical perspective, the “general consensus” was the belief that the United States was a Christian Society. But over time, particularly during the Civil Rights Era, many believed there was a decline and that the U.S. was becoming a less Christian society:
However, this perception differed from the perspective of African American Christians. During the heyday of our “Christian Society,” there was enslavement, Jim Crow, and more. From the standpoint of morality and ethics, the United States was a deeply un-Christian society. This unchristian-ness, of course, started to change for African Americans during both emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement since, from a moral and ethical point of view, the United States was becoming more Christian-like over time:
That is, from the African American perspective, the United States now acts more Christianly toward them than it ever did in the past. (The dissonance between the two perspectives is quite reflective of Ellis’ “Side A” and “Side B” Christianity, specifically the epistemological emphasis of Side A and the ethical emphasis of B. For more on Side A/B, check out this article from Ellis).
This trajectory brings me back to where I started and brings me to two conclusions. First, I don’t think it is a coincidence that as the United States became more churched, at the same time, African Americans experienced greater measures of liberation, equality, and justice. There is a reason the chart from Finke and Starke tracks with the chart from Ellis.
While there are many factors for the end of enslavement and the victories of the Civil Rights movement, amongst the most consequential is the church’s influence on the moral conscience of the United States. There are some who want to debate that reality, but you do not get emancipation or the Civil Rights Movement without those deeply formed by the church. In contemporary times, when many people seem compelled to leave the church to find true justice, in the long run, there will be a de-evolution of true justice (we are already seeing it) since it is no longer rooted in the very thing that makes true justice potent––a God of justice revealed in the Bible.
Faithful Orthodoxy & Orthopraxy
What does all of the above have to do with the Black church? Well, within many white, dominant culture churches, there was often a discontinuity between a churched society holding to “traditional doctrine” and “demands of their followers” (in the words of Finke and Starke). “Faithful doctrine” did not always lead to “faithful practice,” especially as it related to pervasive and idolatrous injustice.
Yet, such discontinuity was far less prevelant in much of the Black church. In other words, in the history of the white, dominant culture church, there has often been a consistent dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That dissonance was far less present in the Black church.
In her book, Doctrine and Race, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathew shows the tensions experienced by the Black church (she specifically focuses on Baptists and Methodists) between 1915 and World War II. In essence, the Black church did not find a home with white Protestant fundamentalists, nor did they with the white liberal modernists, due to the unfaithfulness found in both. She argues,
Fundamentalists viewed the Christian world as bifurcated into right and wrong, orthodoxy and heresy, with no middle ground. African Americans heard this and responded in their own way––they refused to side entirely with a single group. African Americans would not join a movement that employed new methods of understanding eschatology, and that lacked social justice, nor would they cast their lot with those Protestants who appeared to reject the very source text of Christianity and the crucial notion that it was divinely inspired. With one, they would be safe in inspiration but not in life; with the other, they could gain the world but lose their soul (2).
Within many fundamentalist and evangelical churches, one’s life was at stake. Within many modernist churches, one’s soul was a stake. The Black church refused the compromise necessary to align with either perspective. And for those who insisted on a problematic version of the spirituality of the church, Mathew’s points out,
For African American Protestants, the Christian church did not need to choose between conversion and social justice…instead the church––the community of all believers in the Christian message––could embody both evangelism duties and the social justice calling (140).
The Black Church as a Prophetic Voice
With all this in mind, there are several key takeaways. First, the most egregiously wicked times of American history were also times when we were the least churched. Consequently (and a bit tangentially), we should never 1) idealize our founding, nor 2) ignore the role the church played in, over time, defeating many injustices present in our nation.
Second, and to the point, the Black church and African American Christians provide a vision for Christian faithfulness. Throughout our history, the conservative white church failed to honor God in its practice; the progressive white church failed to honor God in its theology; and the Black church served as a rebuke to them both. In so doing, the Black church has been a prophetic voice––a moral and doctrinal conscience in America––calling some to be more faithful in how they lived before God and others to be more faithful in what they believed about God, especially His Word.
If, for example, we look at the achievements in much of the Civil Rights Movement and undermine the central place of orthodox Christianity in that movement, we lose the animating power of the movement. If we do not realize that faithful orthodox Christianity will lead us to meaningful social action, we lose the effectiveness of the movement. Orthodox Christianity––Christianity rooted in God’s inspired and infallible Word––is the animating power for effective faithfulness. And the Black church provides a picture of what such faithfulness to God ought to produce––faithful orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Praise be to God for His sustaining grace in making the Black church a prophetic voice for all. And may the Lord continue to bring rebuke and reproof when we become purveyors and defenders of injustice or when we compromise and minimize fidelity to his Word.