The other day I got an email from a friend on how he was getting frustrated and tired of reading books and hearing lectures on Eurocentric theology and church history. He wanted to have some color injected into his Bible college and seminary education.
It’s a story I’m all too familiar with. By the end of seminary, most people are screaming at the top of their lungs, “Let me out!” But they press on anyway because they know they have a calling and they know this is the path God has them on in order to equip them. This is even more true for those students who are of non-white ethnicity. The seminary is a far cry from their home culture and the things taught there are taught from a predominantly white historical and theological perspective. Consequently, you can feel like you are being brainwashed or indoctrinated into whiteness or at the very least just made to feel like an oddball or invisible because your experience is different from a lot of the other students. I’ve been there. And I would have lost my mind if it weren’t for these principles working themselves out in my life intentionally or unintentionally.
1. Remember why you are there
You are there because you are called. You are here because you want to soak up the knowledge to make you effective in ministry. You are there to connect with like-minded folk who may one day partner with you in ministry. Do not let the overwhelming whiteness take you off course. Learn. Soak it in. Grow.
2. Make two sets of notes
There are two sets of notes to take. Notes for the paper you will write and notes for yourself (Shout out to MK Asante). Some things will be helpful for your academic career but other things will help as you take your seminary training back home.
3. Find the alternative books
When I first started attending Fuller Theological Seminary I had the privilege of working in the library. As I put the books back on the shelves I learned about James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez and so many others. I began reading those books even before I started classes because they spoke from a perspective I understood and was familiar with. Just the exposure alone helped me to tackle some of the lack of diversity I was experiencing.
4. Find like-minded students
There is always, at least, a handful of students of color on any campus. If you can’t find students of color then there are many white students who understand where you are coming from. Reach out and connect. It may be the best thing you have ever done.
5. Find like-minded professors
In an attempt to make their faculties more diverse, most seminaries and Christian universities have hired at least two or three non-white professors who teach from a different perspective. Go and take their classes if you have the opportunity. If you can’t take their classes then find some way to connect with them. They understand your experience and are rooting for your success. Personally, I found Dr. Ralph Watkins and Dr. Jehu Hanciles. Just their teaching and course content helped me to not lose my mind!
6. Ask thought-provoking questions
Don’t just sit in class like a lump on a log. Ask questions—thought-provoking questions. Not solely to cause trouble. Ask questions from your unique ethnic and socio-economic perspective. It will not only bless you but also those in class around you who may be going into these contexts or just those who need to have their world expanded
7. Keep a vital and dynamic relationship with God
Last but not least, keep your eyes on Jesus. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop reading your Bible. Remember this isn’t about ethnicity. This is about God’s calling on your life.
What about you do you have any other tips to include? What was your experience in seminary like? How did you keep from losing your mind?
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.
Shai Linne has created waves in the Christian music scene with his recently released single, Fal$e Teacher$. The song names prominent pastors and televangelists that Linne suggests are wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Photo credit: Covenant.edu)
When it dropped, the reaction that I saw across my social media feed consisted of a lot of raised eyebrows, tilted heads, and furrowed brows.
Wow… he really went there.
Shai Linne, the standard-bearer for reformed theology in hip-hop, released a song called “Fal$e Teacher$,” in which he castigates the erroneous, prosperity-based, word-of-faith teachings of many high-profile ministers, and then in the chorus, calls them out by name. Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are just a few of the names that Linne identifies as false teachers.
In this video, he explains his reasoning for the single (part of his recent album Lyrical Theology, Vol. 1), specifically citing widespread deception regarding prosperity doctrine on the continent of Africa. According to Linne, the export of these ideas to unreached communities in Africa is even more dangerous, because many of these African listeners and viewers are mired in even deeper and more extreme levels of poverty. This prosperity thing must work, Linne says they’re probably thinking, since so many Americans have bought in.
I share an extreme distaste for most of these big-name ministries, for most of the same reasons. Because I care greatly about the destruction that such false teaching can unleash in the lives of naïve Christians who lack discernment, I am glad that Shai Linne has renewed his effort to address these heretical doctrines.
HOWEVAH… I wish he wouldn’t have done it this way. Not the naming-names, thing. In principle, I don’t have a problem with that. I agree with Shai that there is significant Biblical precedent for naming names, most prominently with Paul publicly opposing Peter’s favoritism in Galatians 2.
No, for me, the most problematic part is in the title and the chorus. The single doesn’t just refer to false teaching, but it calls out false teachers. It crosses the line from holding public ministers accountable for the words and actions into publicly name-calling and denouncing their whole ministry. Depending on how you interpret 2 Peter 2:1-3 (which was quoted in the song), it’s possible to conclude that Linne is even questioning their salvation.
I am reminded of the words of hip-hop intellectual Jay Smooth, whose video blog “ill doctrine” blew up in 2008 when he offered people tips on how to tell someone that what they said sounded racist. Even though the issues are different, the concept is similar. When trying to hold someone accountable for something bad, it’s always better to focus on what they did rather than who they are. The former has a much narrow focus, whereas the latter gets into much bigger issues that are easier to derail.
So even if, for example, there is plenty of evidence to convict Paula White of having espoused and transmitted false doctrine, simply labeling her as a false teacher makes it too easy for her allies (in this case, her son who manages the ministry) to defend the totality of her ministry without addressing specific allegations.
In the headline, I used the term “false positive” – this is not an accusation that Shai is being deceptively nice. It’s a medical term, which describes “a test result that wrongly indicates the presence of a disease or other condition the test is designed to reveal.”
False positives are a major problem in medical diagnosis, but not because patients are often diagnosed as sick when they’re perfectly healthy. What happens more often is that patients who truly are sick get misdiagnosed, and then are given treatment that relates to the overall problem, but lacks certain nuances that could more precisely aid their recovery.
Now I’m not a fan of any of these names, but how fair is it to compare the ministries of Joyce Meyer and Robert Tilton? I don’t know, and that’s the point – Shai Linne provides very little contextual differentiation between them to justify his declaration of their heresy, only that they’re all in the same hellbound boat (“if you’re living your best life now, you’re headed for hell”). What then of any potential truth intermingled within the heresy? Or does one errant sermon, video or sentence corrupt the whole thing?
In his YouTube’d explanation (yes, I really just used the word “YouTube” as a verb), Shai mused that it had been ten years since he had really taken on this subject, which caused me to reflect on his original take on the matter, “Issues,” from 2003’s Urban Compositions.
This, to me, is a more well-rounded and more interesting song.
In it, he definitely attacks pastors who propagate the prosperity gospel (check this lyric: “I know this iced-out pastor, the brotha’s large / my man wanted to go to his church, but couldn’t afford the cover charge”). But its chorus also includes the phrase, “only Christ can separate the wheat from the tares,” a reference to Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:36-43.
Shai would be wise to revisit both the song and the parable. In it, Jesus describes a farmer who allow both wheat and the weeds to grow side by side, because trying to pull out the weeds could damage the still-growing wheat. It’s good to hold public ministers accountable to things they do and say that contradict Scripture, but labeling them as “Fal$e Teacher$” has the potential to undercut any of the gospel truth they might have preached alongside the heresy. And the people who get hurt – again –are those who follow those ministers, who haven’t yet developed the ability to eat the meat and spit out the bones, so to speak. After living under these faulty teachings, a believer who is suddenly exposed to the truth in such a harsh manner runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
My advice to Shai Linne: keep doing your best to promote Godly truth, but trust God to pull the weeds in His timing.
Editor’s Note: Bradley Knight, Paula White’s son, released a statement in response to Shai Linne’s song. Linne subsequently released a statement responding to Knight with specific examples of what he considers to be false teaching by Paula White.
Pastor Anthony Carter, the author of On Being Black and Reformed, is a part of a growing number of pastors, academics, and faith leaders who espouse what could be called a “Big God” theology. (Photo Credit: epointchurch.org)
Last year I participated in one of the most memorable worship services of my life. Pastor Mike Campbell of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, preached a biblically sound and passionate sermon on Titus 2:11-14 to a mixed congregation of hundreds of white and black believers in a visible demonstration of what he called “Big God” theology. Pastor Mike told of his journey into Reformed theology and explained that he was attracted by the glorious picture of God. I find that this phrase – Big God theology – encapsulates the essence of Reformed theology and why the African American community needs it.
I am black and Reformed, part of a small but growing number of African Americans finding the Big God of the Bible through this theology. To be clear, Reformed theology is not equivalent to the gospel. God is God, and no theological system can fully encompass or ever replace the Almighty. Yet Reformed is still a useful banner that captures essential teachings of Christianity carefully derived from the Bible.
Unfortunately, Reformed theology often gets reduced to its views on salvation. Big God theology says that God is the king of the universe, and as part of his royal power he determines – yes predetermines – who will be judged according to his own works and who, by grace through faith, will be judged according to Christ’s work. Numerous biblical passages point to this reality (Rom. 8:29-30, Acts 13:48, Eph. 1:4-5), but there is more to Big God theology than election.
What attracted me to Reformed theology is the centrality of God. I went to a Catholic school for my undergraduate degree, but I was never a Catholic. Although I had been an active leader in my Baptist youth group, college was the first time I had to explain my Protestant beliefs. I remember reading books by John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and I was taken by how they kept God at the center of their theology. God is the sun in their theological solar system, and all aspects of life revolve around him, held in orbit by his gravitational pull. I have found no other comprehensive doctrine derived from the Bible that gives me the same sense of God’s bigness that Reformed theology does.
I have spent years attending black churches and witnessed the harm caused by mishandling the Word of truth. Many black churches have wandered far astray from the sound teaching of the Bible, but we do well to remember that there are reasons for this departure. Many of the colleges, universities, and seminaries equipped to teach accurate understanding the Bible were not open to blacks in the past. The leaders of these institutions were steeped in the prevailing ideas of race and culture in their day, and many of them failed to apply Big God theology to their admissions practices.
The only schools African Americans could attend did not honor the authority of the Bible in the same way that Reformed theology does. As a result, human-centered ideas like legalism and prosperity theology infiltrated the pulpits and pews of black churches. The damage is evident as African Americans stumble and sometimes run toward sin and folly.
I lived and worked as an educator in the Mississippi Delta for seven years. The black community there is bruised by generational poverty, lack of education, poor health care, single parent homes, apathetic men, and nearly every other social ill. Yet the norm for my students and their families is to attend church.
As I daily encountered the fruits of these dysfunctions I asked myself, “Where is the gospel transformation?” I wondered if there were others out there like me: those who had grown up with a picture of the gospel but who could also experience a new surge of love for God and neighbor by learning of Big God theology.
I do not advocate any form of theological imperialism – indeed Reformed theology has much to learn from the black church tradition. My passion is simply to see African Americans reshaped by a bigger vision of God.
Only the God-centered gospel of the Bible has the power to renew individuals and whole communities. Reformed theology helps us understand that the gospel is all about a God who is vaster than we can possibly grasp and more personal than we ever realized.
Big Problems, Big God
My hope and prayer is that more African Americans would awaken to the reality of a Big God who cares enough to save sinners like us and who wants to have a relationship with us now and for eternity.
Rev. Mike Campbell, senior pastor of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a mentor within the African-American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. (Photo Credit: Reformed Theological Seminary, AALI).
For this reason, I have been privileged to work with my seminary – Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi – to launch the African American Leadership Initiative (AALI) that includes a scholarship as well as mentoring in African American, multi-ethnic, and urban ministry. Several Reformed organizations have also partnered to host the African American Leadership Development and Recruitment weekend (AALDR) that brought together experienced ministers and black seminary students to communicate that there’s room in Big God theology for people of all races. I also co-founded the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) on Facebook and Twitter to bring together Reformed thinkers – black and white, male and female, representing denominations and networks -to publish articles from a Reformed and African American perspective.
No system of doctrine is immune from critique. Those who call themselves Reformed must be willing to accept the criticism – some valid, some not – that goes along with the label. Yet for all of its shortcomings, Reformed theology provides an accessible route, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for men and women to be captivated by as true a picture of God as we can get through Scripture. Many segments of the African American community live in the grip of big problems, and only a “Big God” theology is sufficient to help them see Christ as their Savior.
A Discussion about Race and the Christian with Tim Keller, Anthony Bradley, and John Piper (Photo courtesy of Crossway Books)
The Rev. Dr. John Piper has, by his own count, written 30 books. His latest is Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, a book that is rooted in Reformed theology and Piper’s personal story of growing up as a Southern racist who was redeemed by Christ and later transformed by the adoption of his African American daughter, Talitha. Piper says he will retire as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in about a year, and will be replaced by another white pastor with a personal commitment to racial reconciliation. Piper is one of the first and the few white evangelical pastors to issue a public statement about the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. He says revelations that Martin may not have been as wholesome a boy as initially portrayed are irrelevant to the case and the outcome could have been different if Zimmerman had been constrained by the gospel.
On Wednesday, March 28, Piper, Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and The King’s College theologian Dr. Anthony Bradley participated in a vibrant discussion about Race and the Christian at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. UrbanFaith talked to Piper Thursday morning about the discussion, the book that inspired it, and his own journey toward racial harmony. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: What are your initial reflections about Wednesday night’s discussion about Race and the Christian?
John Piper: I come away from all events revolving around race with ambivalence. I’m never confident that I have said anything helpful. I generally come away from those things feeling like I learned another blind spot. I work with such an awareness of how little I see, so when Tim, in particular, was talking, I thought: I never thought of that. My next thought was: Okay, don’t be paralyzed by that. Don’t run away. Take that in. Learn. Build on that. Stand there. Take another step. Try to grow. In my younger day, I felt like quitting so many times after conversations. Now I put my feet on God and say, “Move forward.”
You communicate a lot of humility about your own failures and struggles in the area of racial reconciliation. Why have you been able to resist the temptation to give up?
One short answer would be that I adopted Talitha. That’s a real inadequate answer, but it’s a true answer, meaning that when we made the decision to adopt an eight-week old African American baby when I was 50 years old, I thought: Oh man, when she is 15, I’m going to be 65. What is it like for a 15-year-old girl to have a 65-year-old dad? What is it like for an African American girl to have a white 65-year-old dad? All those questions were tumbling around inside of me 16 years ago. My wife and I just looked at each other and said, “This is the right thing to do. This locks us in to the issue forever.” That’s why I can’t walk away. I signed on with blood. You can sign with ink or pencil and erase that, but when you sign with blood, you don’t erase that. And so, we’re in. There is a deeper reason. Biblically, socially, historically, my history, globally, it’s just too big to walk away from.
There are only two paragraphs in Bloodlines about your daughter. Can you tell us more about your experience of raising her?
We began to take race seriously 20 years ago maybe, where I’d preach on it every Martin Luther King weekend. Into that, we were heavy into the pro-life [cause]. I was getting arrested. I spent a night in jail. That’s how serious it was. The guy next to me in the cell, Rod Elofson, leaned over and said, “There’s probably a better way to do this.” His next step was to adopt two black kids who might have been aborted. So the two issues conjoined for me and they’ve been conjoined for 20 years with a pro-life sermon and a race sermon every February.
[Rod] lives across the street from me and he named a fund the MICAH Fund after his kids. [It’s an acronym for] Minority Infant Child Adoption Help, which means it raises money to help people pay for adoptions. This began to spread through our church and Phoebe Dawson (a black social worker from Georgia, who’s kind of the Underground Railroad to us) was bringing these kids up and my wife got to know her. My wife [Noël Piper] was 48 and I was 50. She got a phone call from Phoebe one day, and Phoebe said, “I have a little girl here. I think she’s yours.” You don’t say that to a 48-year-old woman that has four sons and no daughter, who always wanted a daughter. The dynamics here are just explosive emotionally.
We took long walks at the arboretum and talked and talked about the implications for our lives. We were done having kids. These kids were on their way out and we were going to have a chapter of freedom after the kids. We locked ourselves in for another 16- 20 years. (Of course, now we’ve got adult kids and we know you never stop parenting.) At eight weeks old, she came to us in her beautiful little white dress and there she’s been ever since.
There’s a distinction between [adopting an infant] and becoming acclimated to a person who is culturally black. Talitha is not. We’ve labored hard to make her aware, to have all the history, to connect her with friends, so there would be some link with African American culture. But, by-and-large, she is white inside. Everybody knows that. She talks white. She thinks white. She relates white. What that will mean long term for her, I don’t know. That’s just one of the huge issues. We have black folks in our church who think I’m stupid. One of my elders thinks trans-racial adoption is not a good idea. He’s tolerant, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, because he thinks it just deculturates [adopted children].
How do you deal with that criticism?
I say, “This girl had a mom who came to the clinic to get rid of her.” Phoebe is in the business of persuading women that that’s not a good idea, that there are better alternatives. We were the better alternative, and so I said to Talitha, “Culture and ethnicity has some value. Being in the image of God has infinitely more value. So, on balance, that she’s a human being and that she comes to know Jesus Christ and lives forever in the family of God is like a billion and that’s she’s black is 10.