The Essence of the Black Church

I read with interest Nicole Symmond’s recent On Faith op-ed, “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew about the Black Church.” Symmonds is no stranger to African-American churches and writes frequently from that perspective at Urban Faith. You should check out the site if you haven’t already.

Most of Symmonds list is good, basic, helpful perspective for anyone locked into stereotypical views of the Black church. She crisply points out that not all African-American churches feature whooping preachers or teach the prosperity gospel. She reminds us that white pastors pastor some Black churches, non-Black persons are a part of the church’s membership, and we even sing contemporary Christian music [read: “white” music]. These reminders keep us happily aware that “the Black Church” is not one thing, and certainly not that one stereotypical thing folks imagine.

But the post also raises vital questions about what essentially makes the Black Church a church. Items 4-6 on Symmond’s list include what she sees as the church’s expanding inclusivity of Black female leadership (#4), “shaking off homophobia” (#5) and the realization that some Black churches are Catholic (#6).

What do these things have in common?

Well, at bottom, they represent movements away from the authority and norm of the Scripture. As I’m sure Symmond would quickly point out, we are not witnessing a wholesale falling away from the Bible as the word of God in Black churches. The church reveres the Bible. But reverencing the Bible and obeying the Bible are two very different things.

Assuming Symmond accurately observes the contemporary scene, items 4-6 raise a serious question for us: To what extent is the sufficiency and authority of scripture essential to being a church?

The church can and should revisit its treatment of women and persons experiencing same-sex attraction. There remains some repenting to do with regard to sexist and prejudicial treatment of people if the church is to amend its record with women and people sexually oriented to their own gender. But we need to be careful that our revisiting isn’t a revising of the Bible itself, that our “repenting” isn’t a rejecting of biblical norms. The Scriptures plainly teach what women can and cannot do in the leadership of the church. The Scriptures clearly identify what can and cannot be done in our sexual lives. To violate the scripture in the name of what Symmond calls “radical inclusion” will ultimately produce a radical exclusion of the truth itself along with those who believe it.

I’m a mildly surprised that Symmond was surprised to discover Catholic congregations about five years ago. I suppose our exposure to Catholicism (or any group really) is determined in part by where we live. For example, African-American Catholics would be stronger in number in DC than in the South, so familiarity would naturally be higher in DC. But what’s more surprising is the mentioning of Catholic congregations alongside Protestant churches without mention of the enduring gospel and ecclesial issues between the two groups. We ought not blur the significant nearly 500 year-old divide that centers on the authority of Scripture and the nature of the gospel. We fail to make this distinction to everyone’s peril.

Again, the inclusion of these items prompts the question: What is essential to being the Black church?

Answer: It’s not the adjective but the noun.

The one essential thing is that Black churches and all churches be true churches. True churches, to use the Reformation formulation, are those congregations where the word is rightly taught, the ordinances rightly administered, and discipline rightly practiced. Wherever these things are true it is not to be doubted that we have a true and regular (ruled by the word) church. Lose these things and all we’re really talking about are the various social organizations into which Black people knit themselves. That’s a worthwhile discussion and study, but it’s not the church and it doesn’t give life.

For life we need the life-giving word of God (). That’s the essence of the Black church and I’m so thankful to God that she has not abandoned His word. If I could add one thing to Symmond’s list of things she wishes everyone knew about the Black church it would be that everyone knew how vital it is that the church keeps a firm hold on the word of God.

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

John 6:63

63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

John 6:68

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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