06.01.14

You’re Not Alone

Nearly 12 years ago, God opened my eyes to Reformed theology during a study through the book of John. As we began to look at Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, the question arose, “is it faith before regeneration or regeneration before faith?” This question rocked me to the core. I had always thought that faith preceded regeneration, but as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, and to me as well — unless one is born from above, they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. My eyes began to open to the truth that it was God alone who saves, that apart from Holy Spirit changing my heart, I could not trust Christ. Wow, did that change things!

That simple, but utterly profound truth began me down a path that led to Reformed theology. I thank God often for his providential hand in leading me to that bible study because as I talk to a lot of African-Americans who embrace Reformed theology, they often recount their introductions to the doctrines of grace as coming from the Sproul’s, the Piper’s and the Keller’s of the evangelical world. But that wasn’t my experience. While I learned a great deal from these men (they are no doubt heroes in my book), these men were not my first introduction to Reformed theology; Tony Carter was.

He was the man teaching that bible study — faithfully walking me and others through the book of John. Tony introduced me to the theology that I embrace, love, and by God’s grace, teach others. Tony walked me through T.U.L.I.P and  introduced me to the creeds and confessions. It was his wise council I received as I navigated through the “cage stage.” My questions, concerns, and misunderstandings were being answered by a man who looked like me. I cannot tell you how comforting and reassuring it was to be taught by one who could experientially relate to me.

“how comforting…to be taught by one who could relate to me.”

As my hunger and thirst for these truths began to increase, I looked for books, articles, websites, conferences, and sermons that had the robust foundation of Reformed theology. My common practice when utilizing these resources was to check what school the author graduated from, what church they attended, and what other clues would tip off their theological persuasion. Many might disagree with such a practice — but hey — there is a lot of junk out there, and I wanted to spend the bulk of my time reading and learning from guys with whom I agreed. After determining the authors held to the same convictions (particularly if it was a website), I  would check who was on staff or on the board, in an effort to see if there was someone who looked like me. For my white brothers and sisters, this may sound weird, but it is a habit to that is still hard for me to shake. Perhaps it is a practice akin to minority cultures; there’s comfort that comes from knowing there are people who look like you, and share common experiences. In some cases it could be a question of acceptance, in other words asking, “am I welcomed here?” But in most cases, I think it has to do with common ground, in other words asking, “is there someone here I can identify with?” These are all assumptions, of course. Not all black people can relate to one another, but there is still a comfort level nonetheless.

As I continued with this practice, I had the experience many African-Americans encounter when they embrace Reformed theology. I asked myself, “Am I the only one who believes this? Why don’t more African Americans embrace this?” It can be discouraging and cause folks to think that they’re on an island by themselves, feeling like they have abandoned their brothers and sisters for the “white man’s religion.”  In fact, it was a tweet in which a brother expressed his appreciation for the labors of The Front Porch and the joy he felt from knowing that he wasn’t alone that inspired this post.

The truth is, “Am I the only one?” is the sentiment of a number of African-Americans who have come to see these truths as Biblically faithful and consistent.

But God in his grace, even in those early days, reminded me that this was not just a truth for white folks; this was a theology that could be loved and embraced by black folks as well. In fact, there were many who did.

I remember listening to a sharp brother chop up weighty theological topics, tying them into issues of the day. Ken Jones, on the White Horse Inn, helped give legs to those big theological words that were lofty, intimidating, and difficult to understand. I remember reading blog posts on the site Black Tulip, authored by Lance Lewis, a brother in Philadelphia, who was seeking to promote Reformed theology in a tough inner-city neighborhood. Then there was the encouragement that came from hearing that Capitol Hill Baptist Church had a black guy on staff, Thabiti Anyabwile. He’s a brother who loves the truths of Reformed theology and married those truths with a love for the local church. It is also not hard for me to recall attending Together for the Gospel in 2006, and seeing a contingent, albeit small, of African-American men who held to these truths. There’s more men like Louis Love, Stephen Love, Michael Leach, Robert Benson, and I know there were others. There was also the joy of discovering brothers in the PCA who were seeking to increase the footprint of African-Americans in a confessionally Reformed denomination. Carl Ellis and Wy Plummer became men I admired and could look to for encouragement. It was also in those early days that my heart was stirred by the passionate preaching of Michael Campbell — a brother who was doing the hard work of reconciliation in Jackson, Mississippi, bringing to bear the “Big God” truths of Reformed theology on the lives of the people there.

All these men helped me to know that I was not alone, that there were indeed others who looked like me and loved Reformed theology.

Almost 10 years later, the number of African-Americans being introduced to and embracing Reformed theology is mind blowing. There is a huge ground swell of men and women who not only see Reformed theology as biblical, but see it having practical importance for how they live their lives, approach their vocations and participate in the local church. The conversations, books, and networks sprouting forth are so encouraging, and by God’s grace, diverse.

As I think about my initial years, wrestling through the theology, coming to grips with the lack of diversity, there are three things that excite me most about where we are now.

“I remember listening to…”

First, African-Americans have more resources from which to learn and study than they had 10 years ago. Books, articles, websites and networks are being produced from men and women who look like them and are concerned about issues they are concerned about. Reformed theology taught and explained with a cultural experiential aspect that often helps truths stick. Could we use more? Certainly!  But, African-Americans do not lack resources like they did years ago. Praise God for the men and women laboring for the kingdom.

Second, my introduction story to Reformed theology is becoming less and less an anomaly. More and more African-Americans are being introduced to Reformed theology by other African-Americans. Many read Tony Carter’sOn Being Black and Reformed and Glory Road. Many listened to Shai Linne’s, The Atonement; others heard through the Legacy Conference. But perhaps most importantly, and I pray this continues and far surpasses any other means, many hear  the faithful proclamation and teaching of the Word in the local church. Again, this truth may be hard for some to swallow, but it is true nonetheless. We often receive best from those with whom we share common ground. For African-Americans, we share a history and a culture that often breaks the ice right away. God has been gracious and allowed his Spirit to move, and he has been pleased to use the means of African-Americans introducing each other to these God exalting truths.

There is so much to thank God for as it relates to the growth of Reformed theology among African-Americans, but perhaps what encourages me most, and gets me most excited, is the next generation. We have a generation coming behind us who will know the preaching of Carter, Love, Jones, Campbell and Leach. They will read the works of Anyabwile, Eric Washington, and Ellis. Brothers like Jemar Tisby, Anthony Bradley, and Leonce Crump will be men they call heroes. The names and lists could go on and on, but the point is, my African-American brother and sister — you’re not alone! God has been pleased to use this time in history to ignite a resurgence of Reformed theology among African-Americans. May we disciple, write, and finish well so the generations coming behind us will never have to ask, “Am I the only one?”

Philip Duncanson
Philip Duncanson serves as an elder at East Point Church in Atlanta. Holler at him on Twitter: @PBDuncs

C’mon Up!

  • Larry Miles

    Oh my! I hear the jubilation in your post! Indeed when you come face to face with Reformed theology and embrace it, almost immediately you feel “am I all alone?” (relative to your peer group) but isnt God faithful? All these black brothers embracing what Charles Spurgeon said was a nick-name for “Biblical Christianity.” I “fell on it” by accident (or so I thought) teaching mens discipleship and wondering why certain scriptures were not as I learned them, when I began to study them through original languages, reading in context of the whole chapter, etc. doing cross references, reading commentaries, (going backward) and other “tools.” 🙂 Man, I could go on and on. You have encouraged me! 🙂

    • Tony Carter

      Go on, brother! Go on!

      • Larry Miles

        What needs to be guarded against, (I think) is the urge to become elitist, when dealing with those “left behind.” There seems to be a sameness between Reformed, AA’s, in that we all seemed to be “in search” of fuller Biblical truths. Our peers that remain are at times difficult to engage in conversation about problematic doctrinal issues. I have experienced responses/reactions on both sides of the spectrum. With the “tell me more” peers admittedly having unspoken concerns themselves. We press on.

        • Philip Duncanson

          Brother Miles, you are right, as we embrace reformed theology we need to do so with humility, and pray that God would help others see these glorious biblical truth. Thanks for engaging wit us on the porch and for sharing your story.

  • Louis Love

    “My questions, concerns, and misunderstandings were being answered by a man who looked like me.”

    Same holds true for me Phil and Carter was da man.

    • Pastor Rodney

      Many in the majority culture just don’t understand how important this is to many in the minority culture. That cultural connection is important too and also vital our spiritual growth and impact on our respective cultures

  • Julian H

    “Am I the only one who believes this? Why don’t more African Americans embrace this?”

    I’ve had these thoughts several times. Really appreciate you gentlemen on the Front Porch!

    • Julian H

      Phil, I just want to point out the accidental extra ‘t’ in Shai Linne’s Atonement.

      • Philip Duncanson

        Glad you are encouraged!! Thanks for the edit as well! Hope you keep stopping by.

  • Pastor Rodney

    “Biblical Christianity” is something I came by as I spent time in my room early in my walk studying and reading the scripture hours at a time. As many of my bro and sis around me had word of faith leanings. I was very uncomfortable with naming and claiming and the idea that God was obligated to give me what I want base on my “prayer of faith”. As I continued read and study the bible. I came to understand that some of what I was learning from some WOF people and groups did not match what I was learning from my times of study and experiences in the scriptures. The I God saw was a God who was in complete control of all things and who does what he wills, for his good pleasure and the good of those he redeems and loves. That God caused me to love him more and more each day. As I sought to fine other AAs who felt this way, it was difficult. Don’t get me wrong I learn a lot from those who had some WOF leanings, but much of their theological practices made my new mans skin Crawl. Thankfully I found many solid men of God on the radio in the early 90s who help me feel like I was not the only Christian who believes in the sovereignty of God or that “once saved always saved” because of these men I had grow in my faith. But I did not connect to them culturally and I need that. I love my tribe and want to take this journey with them too. Because I could not fine those in my tribe who believed like this, I felt many times like I was the last or only black man on earth who believe “Biblical Christianity”or read and study the bible the way I did. This caused me to run afoul with many in bible studies. So I became a closest theological superhero, only coming out in extreme circumstances, but many times I would pay the price. like the Dark Knight, I became the villain at times and not helper (in sanctification). I was told once or twice that I need to go back to the alter and pray until the Spirit revealed the truth to me. Which I did and nothing changed. Excepted that I learned how to pray more, which was a good thing.

    I do not consider myself reformed but I do have reform leanings and many of the men I listen too or read (white or black) are reformed. The first few AA men that impacted me were Tony Evans, Crawford Lorrits, Carl Ellis and Ken jones on the white horse inn. Thank God I thought, I am not alone. There are others like me. What amazed me about this discovery was that none of those around me had every heard of any of these men.

    In the middle 90s thru God providence, I Meet a few solid bros at a predominately white church with a great (free) bible school open to all believers, so many of us (AA) would travel 45 min to an hour to learn and be encouraged. That’s how I found some like minded bros. Any way I thank God for bros like you guys. Finding guys like you is akin to finding black superhero, I cherish you and share you with other for their delight in learning and experience something they not before and the joy I get from sharing what I enjoy which is God the father, the Son and The Holy Ghost (and black superheroes:) Because people just don’t know but they should!

    Progressing Pilgrim,
    Rodney

    • Philip Duncanson

      Pastor Rodney, Praise God for your story!! I know there are others out there who can relate. Thanks for sharing on the porch.

  • Derrick Johnson

    It was as it seems 8-10 years ago for me as well. And I remember asking these same questions in search of “men like me” then I heard Pastor T preach that’s Thabiti, and I was like yes! There are brothers out there like me not only like me but these men are writing and sharing God’s word so that many more of us will recognize that we are not alone. Praise God for all of these men and for those that have yet be identified

  • Vern

    As a white reformed guy from a mostly white suburban context, this topic is new to me. I’m very thankful for this post and all the work being done by the Front Porch!

  • Keith Wolaridge

    I too thought I was by myself until I was listening to Steve Brown and a sermon he gave at Reformed Seminary. I started clicking on his links then up came Liberate.org; more clicking then brother Thabiti, and one more click I’m on the Front Porch. I’m sharing this site with all my friends that take scripture seriously.

  • daveski

    Philip, great post! I had the same thoughts and similar experiences when I embraced Reformed Theology. I shared my experience on my blog, Urban Resurgence. I praise God for the resurgence of Reformed Theology among African Americans.

  • Jay

    This is a great post. Thank you brother. I wrestled with this question myself when I first encountered teaching faithful to the Scriptures & measured it against what myself & my peers taught & believed through the years. My heart now screams that we AA knowing what that feels like are faithful to our other minority brothers & sisters to broadcast & point them also to leaders from their cultures so they can find that same comfort that God has do graciously given us.

  • Kent Barber

    Phil, thank you so much for this article. I found myself for many years having a dilemma with how dead people come alive and come to faith in Christ. The natural inclination was to believe that if one goes to hell, its because they rejecting the offer of a loving God because after all it is based solely on human decision. Then God opened my eyes! Truly, the last time I felt this way was day God saved me by His grace. In retrospect, I feel I have always believed in the Reformed way but perhaps better stated (not even as Calvinism) simply what the Bible teaches about a God who is wholly sovereign in every regard.

    Grace and Peace,
    Kent