Is Reformed theology for black people?

Video courtesy of Dedrick R. Briggs

A friend recently asked me, “Is Reformed theology for black people?” As president of the Reformed African American Network, I have frequently pondered this question, and it’s one that eludes an easy answer.

Reformed theology is part of the flood of teachings that tumbled forth from the Protestant Reformation. While all Protestant Christians trace their ecclesiastical lineage to the Reformation, Reformed theology represents a distinct branch of the church. Theologians and churchmen such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and Jonathan Edwards advanced the tradition, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God and a precise, scholarly brand of theology.

One issue black people have with Reformed theology is its Eurocentric roots. Reformed theology came to America by way of European countries, including France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. White, educated men crafted the teachings, wrote the books and led the churches. They did not have black people in mind.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Reformed theology for black Christians is the fact that many Reformed believers condoned slavery or were even slaveholders themselves. All of their focus on meticulous exposition of the Bible didn’t lead them to conclude that people should not be property. Moving forward to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Reformed Christians, like many conservative white evangelicals, were either silent about the struggle for black civil rights or they outright opposed it.

Given the history of slavery and racism practiced by white Reformed Christians, black people are an unlikely group to identify as Reformed.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t resonate.

The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans. With groups like Cross Movement paving the way in the 1990s, another wave of lyrical theology emerged in the 2000s. One of the most influential groups of this period was the label Reach Records, which featured artists such as Sho Baraka, Trip Lee and Tedashii. Along with other Christian rappers including Shai Linne, Flame and Voice, these artists were black, urban and unashamed of their faith.

Contemporary Reformed thinkers such as John Piper, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur influenced these Christian rappers. Quotes and sound bites even showed up in the songs. The music and the culture these artists embodied introduced many young black Christians to Reformed theology — without necessarily labeling it Reformed theology.

Other factors, too, have aided in the rise of self-professed Reformed black Christians. Greater access to seminaries that teach Reformed theology as well as church planting efforts in predominantly black, urban neighborhoods have broadened pathways into the tradition.

In the past few years, though, many black Christians have reconsidered the Reformed label. In many ways, the 2014 killing of Mike Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., served as a turning point. Younger black Christians became more vocal about systemic injustices such as mass incarceration and police brutality. They explored how their faith spoke to the persistent issues of inequality that harm black people.

These were themes that many white Reformed pastors and theologians seldom addressed. When they did talk about justice, it was most often focused on individuals, and not the collective, systemic nature and impact of racism over generations.

On top of that, the 2016 presidential election saw 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted throw their support toward the Republican candidate. While conservative white Christians usually vote Republican, black Christians expected Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric and support from white nationalists and white supremacist groups to at least dampen white evangelical enthusiasm for him. Instead, white evangelicals actually showed slightly stronger support for Trump in 2016 than for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

Black Christians realized anew how big the rift was between their core concerns and those of their white Reformed co-religionists.

Five hundred years after Martin Luther challenged Catholic clergy on key church teachings, the Reformation continues. This time the transformation needs to emphasize not only orthodoxy (“right belief”) but orthopraxy (“right action”) as well. Reformed theology prides itself on intellectual explorations of the faith. In the 21st century, though, it must also embrace an ethical approach to the Bible, especially regarding race and public justice.

As an African-American, I am learning to draw more intentionally on the expansive black church tradition to address these modern times.

The black church has always highlighted the demands of the Bible when it comes to public action. The Rev. Charles H. Pearce, who helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida in the 19th century, put it this way: “A man in this state cannot do his whole duty as a minister except if he but looks out for the political interests of his people.”

Religious beliefs motivated black women and men to pursue racial justice even at the risk of their lives. Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, John Perkins and a multitude of black Christians whose names will never appear in a history book saw the inseparable connection between Christian faith and righteous practice.

The modern-day Reformation must also bring to the forefront those groups that have been historically muted or silenced because of prejudice.

Black and brown people, among whom Christianity is growing exponentially in the majority of the world, must articulate the doctrines in a way that makes them relevant to present-day. Women, as half the population and equal as God’s image-bearers, must have a vocal and visible role in this movement. White Christians must follow and learn from those whom society has often marginalized. Today’s Reformation must be an inclusive one that makes room for both women and men, all economic classes and every tribe and tongue of those who believe.

Christianity is a worldwide religion that includes a diverse array of people. The challenge of the Reformation in America today is to reflect that heterogeneity while maintaining unity in the midst of it.

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion and culture. He is co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast and a doctoral student in history at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

Navigating Missional Work as the Lone Person of Color

Navigating Missional Work as the Lone Person of Color


Leroy Barber, Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh

In his book, Red, Yellow, Brown, Black, White—Who’s More Precious in God’s Sight: A Call for Diversity in Christian Missions and Ministry, Leroy Barber exposes the virtual absence of people of color in the mission field that threatens to compromise relationships with the people those organizations claim to serve. For more than twenty-five years Barber has led ministries serving the ones God loves: most recently as the Executive Director of Mission Year, a year-long urban ministry program focused on Christian service and discipleship, and now as the Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an international organization that works among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. Barber, who is a trusted voice across a breadth of cultures, spoke with UrbanFaith contributor Margot Starbuck about his book, his ministry, and the challenges of sometimes being the only person of color in mission-based ministry.

What from your experience in ministry caused you to write this book?

I guess, on a personal level, I am tired of being the only person of color in many of my ministry circles: Christian colleges where I speak a lot and teach a lot, also, conferences, and a lot of evangelical circles where folks are doing missions, there are few people of color around.

Selfishly that might be some of the motivation for the book.

I was going to ask about the challenges that you see among your colleagues who are men and women of color leading missional ministries, but now I’m wondering: Are they there leading?

The answer is yes, they are there, but not in mass numbers. The ones in leadership experience what I have for the last twenty-five years. It can be an experience of feeling like you’re the only one and that you’re expected to speak for people of color, to represent the perspective of people of color or your race. I am finding now that a number of churches are hiring a person of color on their staff because they think they “should.” And that person of color finds himself pretty lonely and always kind of speaking on the issue of diversity and race alone.

Today and for the last several decades, there has been an appeal, to many white evangelical college students, about living and working in an urban context. What is the risk of an all-white staff working in a more diverse urban area? How does it impact the ministry?

You are going to have more resources given to the ministry when staff is part of the white community. No matter how young the population of whites is, they are going to have some resources that automatically puts them in a position of power in many places, especially in struggling communities that don’t have resources. They’re able to host a kid’s club or after school program or a dance or whatever. But people want that for their kids.

A black friend of mine in a predominantly white campus ministry doesn’t have the same kinds of natural access to donors who have a vision for campus ministry as some of her white counterparts. What is your experience as a person of color relating to donors and fundraising?

I would say there are two aspects to that.

For starters, you don’t have a network of people with the resources to help you feed your family and pay your bills. So it can be extra stressful for that person of color. You’re invited to come do the ministry but you’re worried about your family eating and the money that needs to come in. That’s an extra tax. The burden of fundraising affects the person in ministry with fewer resources: it impacts how they’re thinking creatively about the ministry and the people around them—because they’re constantly having to worry about their funding. It takes away from their work.

The second part of wanting for resources is that it, unfortunately, makes people doubt their call. Should I be here? Should I be doing this? Because they lack resources. Financial lack serves to deny people’s call.

Are you describing the person on the ground who is running the kid’s club or are you describing the person at the top of the organizing or both?

Both. I am describing lived reality. A lot of times my creativity is stifled as a leader because I’m concerned about financial burdens as a person of color. But it’s the person on the ground as well. I have gone months without paychecks and that is also a reality for a lot of people on the ground. They do it and do it for literally nothing.

Is it hard to recruit younger people of color to work in ministries where you have to do this kind of fundraising?

Yes. It is hard to recruit because of the fundraising. A lot of times these organizations and communities are not culturally friendly enough. It is hard to find funding and one of the reasons is because of not understanding the different cultures among people.

I assume you mean historically white organizations. You are saying the organizations aren’t culturally friendly?

Right, they are not understanding. I was a missionary for a very long time in a predominantly white-culture organization: in its worship, and in the books they were reading, and the language that was used, and things like that. A person of color has to decipher some of those cultural practices.

Do you see any movement toward people of color leading organizations that are already serving primarily people of color?

Yes. I think in the last several years there has been an acknowledgment that we need to be more diverse, especially racially, and people are interested in hiring culturally diverse leaders. I do see organizations taking steps to hire people of color, that’s a first step. The challenge then is adapting an organization culturally and changing a system of funding. Leaders of color can lead as leaders of color and not leading as persons of color who are trying to conform to white culture. I’ll explain.

I am a person of color. I come into leadership, but I am expected to lead it the way it is and not bring in my cultural perspective or understanding into the mix. That is a whole different conversation. We need to be asking what does it truly mean to have a multiethnic and multicultural organization.

So how do you help people in the institution get there?

That is the big question.

A first step is hiring and making sure you at least have a diverse staff, but achieving authentic multiculturalism within your organization means an openness on the part of your leaders to learn. Quite frankly, it is difficult for established leaders to consider changing when they see that the organization is currently “successful.” They ask, “Why would we change this for diversity’s sake? Why would we change just so that we can have other people in the mix? Things are going so well.” That is a real challenge for people to get their heads around. They think, “It is going (well) why would we attempt something that feels like it could threaten the success that we already have?”

And so what is the motivation to implement change?

You have to go back to what God has to say about it. The only reason people are willing to entertain change is when they become convinced that this is closer to the kingdom and closer to God’s heart.

Check out Barber’s book, now available: