Typically when the topic of Reformed Theology is raised the discussion usually focuses on 5-Point Calvinism or aspects of it like limited atonement and efficacious grace. For this post I don’t want to add the the myriad of blogs that address those ideas. My hope in this post is to raise a different, but not original discussion as it relates to Reformed Theology and that is how reformed culture is perceived and in many cases presented to ethnic minorities. Many in the reformed community verbally express a desire for diversity and multi-ethnic ministry, but functionally they communicate they’re happy with homogeny or one would need to acquiesce to their way of doing things to be embraced. This may or may not be intentional, but it’s a reality that I believe widens the gap between white reformed evangelicals and minorities and stifles the testimony of grace that we proclaim destroys the walls of hostility. Less than 8% of US churches are multi-ethnic. It seems that walls exist between majority and minority groups not necessarily in theology but in the culture of the reformed community. Many minorities have trouble embracing the culture not the theology of reformed evangelicalism. My hope is to define Reform Theology, analyze the culture and present some helpful ways we can move forward.
What is Reformed Theology?
Depending on who you ask you’ll get a lot of responses to this one, but in summary I’ll let the guys at CARM define it for us. Reformed Theology is the theology of the protestant movement that “reformed” the theological perspective held by the Roman Catholic Church. This movement began in the sixteenth Century with Martin Luther and has continued on since them. It has since come to be known as Calvinism and is a biblically centered theological perspective focusing on the sovereignty of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, his election, redemption, and our securing in Christ’s work. Reformered theology holds to the five solas:
- Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
- Sola Christus – Christ alone
- Sola Gratia – Grace alone
- Sola Fide – Faith alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – the Glory of God alone
It is also known by the Five Points of Calvinism that not everyone embraces, but here they are:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistable Grace
- Perserverance of the Saints
I agree with most of the tenets of Reformed Theology, but I think it’s important to note that Reformed Theology is NOT the gospel because the gospel doesn’t need reform. I bring that up because RT is often presented as if it is the only way to practice hermeneutics, liturgy and mission. Minorities are often turned away from RT because we’re presented with a choice of losing our culture if we embrace the theology and this for many minorities is unacceptable.
John Frame in his book The Doctrine of the Christian Life gives five reasons for minorities not embracing reformed churches. Frame’s reasons provide a starting point from which I’ll make several observations about the Reformed Theology v. Reformed Culture line of reasoning I’m making:
1. The Reformation has been a movement of scholars.
He says “This approach appeals to the well-educated, who are also often relatively wealthy members of society. It tends to turn away others, in the present case the relatively poor minorities.” (679) – I’m not saying that Frame believes that all minorities are unintellectual, I just think that statements like this need to be explained and not said in passing. I wonder if Frame knows how many ethnic minorities would respond to this? It appears that he’s implying that minorities aren’t intellectuals nor wealthy and that those factors keep us from embracing Reformed Theology, but let’s examine history. Africans were enslaved, oppressed, dehumanized and tortured and the systemic oppression went beyond physical abuse. At one point in America it was illegal for minorities to read and write. Fast-forward to Jim Crow (in acted 1876 and 1965) which coined the phrase “separate, but equal”, but the truth is it was only separate. Minorities had dilapidated schools, incomplete books, endured social oppression, etc. and while many would say we’re passed that many white evangelicals are either unaware or ignore the fact that Reformed seminaries did not allow minority students at their schools. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case not only opened access for minorities to public schools, sadly it was needed for many of our seminaries that celebrated good doctrine and the gospel yet ostracized believers of different races.
What’s my point? Minorities aren’t unintellectual; the reality is that we’ve had to fight not only for social but also for theological equality in this country. I believe there is something called theological white privilege that needs to be discussed because for decades we were denied access to Reformed institutions while Oral Roberts welcomed many. I’m not giving anyone a pass for bad doctrine, but to my original point, statements like this that aren’t explained by white reformed proponents come across as insensitive to our historical struggle and ignorant of the role racist “christians” played in attempting to oppress the social and theological progress of minorities. African-American’s have historically embraced and believed in the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and the deity of Christ. Belief in a “Big God” (as John Piper said in an interview with Reformed African-Americans Network) is nothing new for us nor are we returning to it because we’ve abandoned it. The reality is the reformed community in many ways is just now taking notice and seeing the need for diversity and new voices as the landscape of America changes. This is not to be combative, but informative of the need for white reformed men in particular to engulf themselves in the history of minorities and consider serving under someone non-white to gain experience as a practitioner and not an idealist of the rich theological, intellectual and social history of minorities in particular African-Americans.
2. Being an intellectual movement, the Reformation in some circles disparaged feelings, in my judgment to an unscriptural extent.
I agree, but I think that this is a present problem that we’re not past. In some places it seems that emotions are eisgeted into scripture in order to make our response to the gospel exclusively cognitive. This is primarily seen in liturgy (worship) and preaching. Here’s what I mean, some white evangelicals have not had many experiences of being the minority in a worship service and many stay in circles of agreement. Consequently the delusion about minorities being unintellectual and overly emotional is nurtured instead of shunned and they allow stories of bad experiences heard from others and assumptions to drive their understanding of minorities as it relates to worship and preaching. For instance when one doesn’t allow themselves to hear others one could hear the same sermon and when the white guy gets loud he’s passionate, but when the black guy gets loud he’s angry. Why the disparity? I think it has a lot to do with elevating the Reformation to a point of cultural imperialism. This causes reformed churches, which historically are predominately white to see “their” way as “the way” and again minorities feel rejected and not embraced because if we express ourselves we’re viewed as overly emotional, unintellectual, or even, liberal. From a liturgical and homiletical perspective it seems that the worship needs to be predictable and the preaching needs to be monotone to be spirit-led. Again I know that not everyone feels this way, but it’s still prevalent and needs to be addressed. Keller affirms this notion in his book Center Church he notes how Shoki Coe a Taiwanese – born man who challenged western Christians presentation to him of how to reach his people with the gospel. “He observed that the missionaries still gave national leaders forms of church ministry ways of expressing and formulating the gospel and structuring churches that were unalterably Western. National Christians were not being encouraged to think creatively about how to communicate the gospel to their own culture.” In other words they were being presented with a way that spoke to white culture without taking other cultures into consideration, but a lot of times white reformed guys don’t see themselves as having a culture because they assume their way is right. The results Keller acknowledges for minorities is that “this is the issue non-white culture face in America they’re given a model that often doesn’t fit their culture or they’ll deny their culture altogether.” (91) In context this chapter was addressing contextualization, but my aforementioned points apply because contextualization isn’t limited to mission and evangelism. The results of denying their (minorities) own culture is being embraced by many minorities because they want acceptance in reformed circles, but the fact that this is a trend is really an indictment if we have to lose ourselves culturally to be embraced. The 1978 publication Christianity in Culture points out the same reality, “Western logic was considered to be proper logic and those who do not think in our way were said to be prelogical, prescientific, or possessed of a primitive mentality (Levy-Bruhl 1923). “Western Christians often saw such divergence from normality as the result of unchecked sin in these other cultures. If such peoples were to be won to Christ, they would first need to civilized in order to be evangelized.” (Anderson 1838 in Beaver 1967) Whatever our race we should allow our citizenship to be in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and be embracing of the differences in approach as a display of the creative genius of God. Obviously we don’t compromise the gospel for anyone, but if one culture is louder, volitional in their expression while another is more reserved should that really separate us? It shouldn’t, but it does when as a minority I’m functionally given two options: 1) Be you and be on your own or; 2) Join us just tone down the passionate and responsive preaching and movement during worship. When these are our options minorities reject the culture of RT and not necessarily theology. The lines are blurred because it appears that those that have the doctrines of grace don’t extend that grace to those that are culturally different in many cases.
3. The minimalist aesthetic of Reformed worship.
This point is somewhat obscure because artistic expression is subjective so I won’t belabor his point here.
4. Some Reformed theologians, particularly R.L. Dabney, have made statements deemed racist.
Historically the patriarchs of reformed theology were white men many of which were either ant-Semitc or owned or was in favor of slavery. I’m not saying everyone historically shared these views, but the fact that some these guys are heralded does speak to minorities and the concern of minorities are either ignored or labeled as being “overly sensitive.” Here are two quotes from Dabney:
“It is well known, that, as a general rule, [Negroes] are a graceless vagabondish set, and contribute very little to the support of the State by which they are protected. They are not citizens, never can become citizens, and wherever found in large numbers they are an expense and a source of trouble.”
“The black race is an alien one on our soil; and nothing except his amalgamation with ours, or his subordination to ours, can prevent the rise of that instinctive antipathy of race, which, history shows, always arises between opposite races in proximity.”
If these statements are only “deemed racist” I wonder what qualifies as overt racism? When the racist history of many within the reformed tradition is broached it seems that many of the heroes are given a pass because their theological prowess and this is the biggest indictment against Reformed culture. I’m fully aware that no hero is perfect outside of Christ, but when you couple the immense Anglo influence with racist history and the cultural ignorance about minorities you’re essentially telling minorities to “do your thing” and we’ll do ours. I want to reiterate that I have tons of brothers in the faith of all racial backgrounds. My hope is to point out the holes within the culture and how we can closed them to grow together.
5. The Reformed emphasis on objective, absolute truth has sometimes been misused.
I covered this point in my response to his first reason for minorities not being in reformed churches. The issue isn’t truth, but rather it’s the culturally imperialistic way worship, preaching and hermeneutics are presented to minorities in many cases.
What should we do?
- Let’s be intentional about making it clear that a person doesn’t have to be reformed to be embraced. Reformed Theology is not the gospel and we should lead with being gospel-centered over being Reformed Calvinist. Minorities quite frankly aren’t interested in being associated with an anti-Semitic figure. I know Luther and Calvin are more than that, but I want to help many understand that leading with a frail man instead of Christ will no go well. Lead and end with the gospel.
- Let’s pray and hope for some white-on-white confrontation so that lasting change take place. As long as diversity and culture is an issue of the minorities many in the dominant culture will still see homogenous churches and superficial relationships with people outside of their race. We have to challenge our people to see this as a gospel and heart issue that should be aggressively confronted with grace and not use grace as a license for things to stay the same.
- Let’s hope that some seminary professors and executive staff opt to join churches in which they can serve under minority pastors, and that they encourage their student body to do the same. We need more practitioners and less talkers in this area in order to create a new normal of people thinking beyond homogeny as it relates to their ecclesiological experience.
- Let’s believe the gospel! Yes I went there, either we do or we don’t in this area. Here’s the truth if we aggressively pursue this we’ll see that some in our churches and seminaries aren’t on board and they need to be identified and prayed for and confronted lovingly on the fact that the gospel unites and not separates.
The reality is any movement led by a predominant race is going to have some form of culture. I won’t deny that, but it’s vital to own this reality and not try to present it as exclusively theological when it’s drench in culture, which some aspects are optional to embrace. Keller says in Center Church “they (white evangelicals) don’t see any part of how they express or live the gospel to be “anglo” – it is just the way things are. They feel that any change in how they preach, worship, or minister is somehow a compromise of the gospel. In this they may be doing what Jesus warns against – elevating the “traditions of men” to the same level as biblical truth (Mark 7:8). This happens when one’s cultural approach to time or emotional expressiveness or way to communicate become enshrined as the Christian way to act and live.” (96)
The reformed community has a culture that many view as exclusive in both culture and ideals and my hope is to start a conversation and seek reconciliation. I’ve witnessed this when the president of Acts 29 Network Matt Chandler met with all the minorities at our yearly retreat and apologized and asked how can “we” move forward. He owned it as our issue and not just the minorities issue. I’ve seen the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary continue to push this issue as our issue and not an minority issue and that’s encouraging. A29 and SEBTS have a long way to go as does the Body of Christ in general, but let’s not lose sight of this because there are non-beleiving witnesses that need us.
I’ll end with a quote from a Puritan:
“In things necessary there must be unity, in things less than necessary there must be liberty and in all things there must be charity” – Richard Baxter
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Timely for us here at our church as we try to be a gospel-centered made up of reformed whites and newly saved minorities who are struggling with the reformed culture alluded to by Frame. I just got through reading his article when I came across your blog doing a Google search.
Would love to hear more best practices on how to address the reformed culture issue in ethnically diverse congregations.
See you in Miami!
Bravo Bravo! Well written piece. thanks for writing about what I have observed in typical reformed circles but could not gather my thoughts well enough to write what needed to be said. I have grown to love the theology behind reformed thought, but as a Mexican woman I often feel like a fish out of water. Oh how I have struggled wrestling with the very points brought up in this blog post. Can’t wait to read more from pastor jerome. thank you for your timely words.