Some background first: I love the Presbyterian Church in America.
I didn’t grow up in the PCA, but one could say that Presbyterianism has “haunted” me for a good while. The church I did grow up in — the Christian & Missionary Alliance — was founded by a Presbyterian minister named Albert Benjamin Simpson. Not only that, but I (quite literally) grew up in the PCA’s shadow — less than four miles away from Briarwood — in Birmingham, Alabama. Briarwood’s legendary pastor emeritus, Frank Barker, ministered to my mother as a hospital chaplain when she was fighting the cancer that eventually took her earthly life.
Through a series of seemingly unrelated events and circumstances, I now find myself not only a Presbyterian, but a presbyter. Some might even say it was “predestined.”
So, as I said — I love the PCA. Recent discussions and discoveries, though, have me asking if she loves me back. As a black man, I’m a rarity in this church. As a black elder, I may well be approaching unicorn-level rarity. After all, it’s pretty well-known that American Presbyterianism in general — including the PCA specifically, with its Southern roots — has historically been a white, affluent phenomenon. There’s nothing wrong with that.
An unfortunate holdover from those Southern roots, though, is the lingering stench — however faint or infrequently noticed — of Civil Rights-era racism.
(Author’s note: Just so you know, I was very hesitant to write on this in the first place and even more hesitant to make it my very first topic on V73. After all, how typical does it appear for the sole African-American contributor to do his first blog on racism? Quite. But, that’s okay.)
Now, I’m not completely naïve. I’m not fooling myself into buying the prevailing black notion that racism is under every rock, nor am I blinded to the racism that actually does exist in individual Christians and churches — even churches with good (on paper) theology. Still, since coming into the PCA in 2005, I’ve been grieved by the number of stories I’ve heard and read — mostly from fellow elders — about the systemic racism in our church that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Examples that come immediately to mind are the infiltration of members of the “League of the South” (largely regarded as a white supremacist organization) in a number of influential PCA churches, and the recent “Friendship Case” in Asheville, NC, in which a pastor faced what was likely the biggest battle of his ministry after daring to call certain members of his church to repent of their racist views. I’m thankful to God that I’ve experienced none of this in my own church or presbytery.
Still, it’s here, and it’s real. This fact came starkly to light again when Dr. Anthony Bradley, theology professor at The King’s College and a PCA member, recently wrote on Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society — a book that Bradley says discusses the “racist and pro-segregationist ethos” surrounding the formation of the PCA. This ethos apparently still remains in some corners. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read Slade’s book (though I now plan to), but this raises another question in my mind.
That question is “what?!” Not the “I-didn’t-quite-understand-that” type of “what,” but the incredulous, “what-is-wrong-with-you” type of “what” that Paul blurted out under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in his first missive to the Corinthians. This has been sitting and stinking for too long. The PCA tried its hand at collective repentance with a statement issued by the 30th General Assembly in 2002, but it was so general that I don’t know that it was helpful. Our own Westminster Confession of Faith points to the need for specificity in our repentance (WCF XV.5). Can you imagine Paul only confessing this: “I formerly did some bad stuff to the church, but I received mercy”? By no means! He laid out his sins specifically. He didn’t mince words with himself and acknowledged that he was a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent opponent.” There is nothing general about that! Where are the faithful men, specifically and publicly repenting of their specific, personal sins and being reconciled to their red, yellow, black, and white brothers? Where are the public calls for this repentance? Why are we so often satisfied to look the other way?
Fathers and brothers, if you are among those who harbor (or have harbored) racist attitudes in your heart, be warned: GA doesn’t have you covered. A general statement from the PCA is not the same as personal repentance. I call you — as a fellow elder in this church — to repent of your sin and then to be reconciled to your brothers. If you are not guilty of this, but choose to look the other way, then I urge you to repent of your apathy and join me in this call.
Like Bradley, I am reformed and Presbyterian for reasons that have nothing to do with the South, with segregation. Like Bradley, I love the PCA. Like Bradley, sometimes I falter and start wondering if this is where I really belong, but then I remember why I’m here. Despite her warts — and what church has no warts — the PCA is “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.” That’s a church I want to be part of, a church I will raise my family in, and a church I’m called to help lead.