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

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