The Church and Race: Some History



Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.

The current racial mix in Churches of Christ

The Pew Research Center recently published a study of the racial breakdown of American Christian denominations. The Churches of Christ were among those that most closely reflected the racial make up of U.S. Here’s the graphic from the Pew Research Center:

Pew research center_religionDiversityIndex-1

While the US adult population is 66% white, the Churches of Christ are 69% white, making the Churches of Christ among the most racially diverse denominations. This is, of course, a very good thing – tracing back to missionary work done among slaves in the 19th Century by Restoration Movement preachers. Alexander Campbell was an abolitionist, as were many of his contemporaries – and the attitudes of these men toward blacks nearly 200 years ago still impact the Churches of Christ in a positive way.

On the other hand, these numbers are measured at the denominational level and overlook two important facts:

  • First, we remain highly segregated congregationally, that is, we still have white and black churches in racially diverse communities. The denominational integration hasn’t affected the individual churches as well as we’d all want. Of course, many white churches have black members, and this seems to be an increasing trend. But these are almost always overwhelmingly white churches. And it’s still rare to find a racially mixed eldership or ministerial staff – although they do exist, and the trend seems to be toward greater diversity.
  • Second, the Churches of Christ exist largely in the South, where the percentage of whites is lower than in most of the rest of the country. The denominational racial mix is close to the racial mix of the nation but not of the communities where we live. For example, Alabama is 26.8% black, whereas the Churches of Christ are 16% black. I’m not aware of a single predominantly white Alabama congregation with anything close to a 26.8% black membership.

Nonetheless, we are much more integrated than most other American denominations.

History of racial relations in the Churches of Christ

In the 20th Century, Churches of Christ had many active outreaches to the black community, but most congregations were highly segregated. Racism was rarely preached against. And most white church members opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That is, not many in the Churches of Christ worked for equal rights for blacks. That was true of most denominations with Southern roots. We were hardly alone, but we did let the secular culture, rather than the Scriptures, define right and wrong for us.

I remember what it was like in the 1960s.

  • Some elders and other leaders questioned whether blacks had souls. I’ve had people tell me that blacks are higher forms of primates, without souls, and so not capable of being lost or saved.
  • I’ve heard Christians argue that God assigned black people to live in Africa immediately after the Flood, and so they should be returned to Africa. (They had no answer when I asked whether the whites in South Africa should return to Holland or the British in North America should return to England.)
  • I’ve even heard it argued that black skin is the “mark of Cain.” (Since God marked Cain to show God’s protection was upon him, I asked how we could not consider blacks as people especially protected by God. Again, no answer. It seems this stuff was all made up by people who’d never actually read Genesis.)

These attitudes were not typical, but they existed and were tolerated.

Gospel advocate Marshall KeebleOn the other hand, I had white friends who bought albums (vinyl records) of the black Church of Christ preacher Marshall Keeble’s sermons and who would travel many miles to hear Br. Keeble preach. (Delightful series of quotations. Fascinating analysis of his work to bring about racial reconciliation in the Churches.)

The general view was the blacks and whites should be separate but that we owed the same duty to convert lost black souls as lost white souls. Many mission works were founded in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. And I’ve heard far more objections to foreign missions in general than to domestic and foreign missions to black people. If race was a major barrier to missions, I never heard it.

For that matter, in my experience, Church of Christ benevolence programs have always served whites and blacks without distinction. The majority view was that blacks were as much among “the least of these” as whites – maybe more so because their more difficult circumstances.

And yet few Church of Christ institutions and congregations worked to join blacks and whites together in the same congregations. Indeed, it was ultimately the federal government – one of those fallen principalities and powers – that forced social change. The government did far more to improve the lives of black Christians than the church. And the church is still lagging behind society at large in many ways.

I agree with those who argue that today’s church is not responsible for the sins of our ancestors. We are only responsible for our own sins. But if we are to be a church of “neither Jew nor Greek” with no “barbarian, Scythian, slave [or] free,” we have to tear down structures and institutions that are racially divided solely because of our racist past. We cannot cling to racial separation built on the racism of the past and claim to be innocent of racism.

That is, if the church is divided today over race because of the racism of the past, well, our job is to end that division. It’s just as wrong whether we created it or we allowed it to continue yet another generation. After all, the Gentiles and Jews of Paul’s day did not create the divide between Jews and Gentiles. Jews considered Gentiles unclean “dogs” for generations before Paul. Nonetheless, Paul spent much of his apostolic work bringing Jews and Gentiles together as a single body in a single church together in the same congregations.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to The Church and Race: Some History

  1. John F says:

    When you read the referenced letters,From Shank / Solomon letter “(for instance if #Blacklivesmatter bothers you but #Bluelivesmatter does not, it could have its roots in implicit bias.)”

    (JOHN) “Smoke’m like pigs … Fry’m like bacon” does “bother” me and it has nothing to do with race. The below does bother me and will prevent me from endorsing their goals, as their goals (as least SOME) are quite clearly in opposition to Biblical truth.

    Straight from the official BlackLivesMatter website: We are committed to fostering a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking or, rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual unless s/he or they disclose otherwise.
    We are committed to embracing and making space for trans brothers and sisters to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive and doing the work required to dismantle cis-gender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence
    We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.
    And, to keep it real–it is appropriate and necessary to have strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it. It is appropriate and necessary for us to acknowledge the critical role that Black lives and struggles for Black liberation have played in inspiring and anchoring, through practice and theory, social movements for the liberation of all people. The women’s movement, the Chicano liberation movement, queer movements, and many more have adopted the strategies, tactics and theory of the Black liberation movement. And if we are committed to a world where all lives matter, we are called to support the very movement that inspired and activated so many more. That means supporting and acknowledging Black lives.

    We could use more of the following: JERRY TAYLOR is an associate professor in the College of Bible, Ministry and Missions at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is a longtime minister for Churches of Christ and an author of “Courageous Compassion: A Prophetic Homiletic in Service to the Church.” He is a leader of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit, a program that brings Christians together to work for racial reconciliation in Churches of Christ.

    Don’t try to attribute racism to me . . . you don’t know me. You don’t know if I an Asian, Black, White, or other ethnicity. But I will tell you, I am Caucasian. I lived through the 60’s movement with and alongside other ethnic groups. I have stood (and still stand) beside them (not just “black”) and walked with them and lived beside them and worshiped with them But I WILL NOT walk with #BlackLivesMatter –. The only way to peace is through the Prince of Peace.

  2. John F says:

    “Pigs in a Blanket! Fry ‘Em Like Bacon!” This was the more widely publicized video rant.

    So as this discussion continues, let us keep in mind that black racism towards whites can be as strong as the reverse. There is guilt on both sides. There is racism among blacks toward other blacks because someone is not “black enough” and there were many blacks who sold other blacks into slavery from Africa, and continue to do so to this day. The “profit motive” by some in fomenting racial tensions should not be overlooked either — there is no “profit” in declaiming existent slavery in African countries, so it is largely ignored.

  3. John, the fact that racism exists on both sides of the racial divide doesn’t excuse us from walking in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace and do what we can to eradicate it at least in our own congregations. I agree that it is hard to find common cause with those who chant hate slogans. But we can at least try to understand why the hate is there. And we should at least work with our black and/or Hispanic brothers & sisters to find common cause with them.

  4. Bob Brandon says:

    This statement, “let us keep in mind that black racism towards whites can be as strong as the reverse…”, is fundamentally ignorant. Racism is an expression and basis for asserting power by some over others on the social basis of race (race as an essentially social construction, since genetics puts the lie to the notion that such distinctions are genetic). Racism, to be effective, has to have a means of imposing such political priorities by force, legal or not. African-Americans have had little, if any, political capacity to assert power over whites in any capacity to advance a racial interest. So it’s a false equivalence to compare and contrast.

  5. John F says:

    SJ: I would endorse those sentiments. It has been my PERSONAL experience in reaching out to “predominantly black” USA congregations with the needs we are trying to meet in Africa (see above link to Operation Starfish that they do not (on the whole, and certainly there are exceptions) want to hear the need, even less to respond. It almost seems that to consider the needs (James 1:27) makes their promoting their own situation (i.e. “social justice”) less critical, perhaps even hypocritical. Even through, I will continue to press on with the understanding that if God can use me in some way through (in spite of) my shortcomings, He can use others as well. Grace to us all. . . .

  6. Dustin says:

    John F., you referenced is a political action committee, not the social movement. It is not a religious organization, so they definitely shouldn’t be judged in the same way a Christian organization should be judged. When someone stands up for the oppressed, they deserve a voice. The social movement is even supported by white, ultra-conservatives such as Russell Moore and John Piper.

  7. John says:

    An obstacle in the Church of Christ, as well as in other conservative denominations, is that racism in the church is allowed to define racism. That definition is simply stated, “Racism is the hatred of anyone of another race. I don’t hate anyone. So my belief that whites are superior in intelligence and leadership, and my conviction that Blacks were happier before the Civil Rights Movement, cannot be call racist”. As long as this attitude is treated gingerly, the wound of racism will not be healed.

  8. John F says:

    How you define the term “racism” determines the comment based on that particular definition. So perhaps. in reference to Bob B.’s definiton, it would be more accurate to say, “let us keep in mind that black hatred towards whites can be as strong as the reverse…”. I am not ignorant of these things, but perhaps my definition of “racism” is a bit wider than what Bob B. provides.

    Full Definition of racism. 1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.

    Urban:An excuse given by one ‘race’ of people to abuse another person’s rights. Usually created by blind ignorance.

    The term reverse racism has been used to describe racism (in one sense or another) by a group that has traditionally been oppressed, against a traditionally more-empowered group. However, some argue that this distinction does not need to be made, and advocate using simply the term racism; others have argued conversely that the term racism should not be used at all in such cases. (Wiktionary)

    Function: noun
    1 : belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others
    2 : discrimination or hatred based on race (Miriam Webster)

    “Of one the Lord has made the race
    Thru one has come the fall
    Where sin has gone must go His grace
    The Gospel is for all.”

  9. John F says:

    Dustin, Just how do we differentiate between the two, if both use the same name and much of the same methodology? I do not argue against racial equality — I embrace it. But when an organization (BLM) advocates unBiblical principles and practices, I part ways with them.

  10. Bob Bliss says:

    Jay, all of Cain’s descendents died in the flood so no group today could exhibit the “mark of Cain.”

  11. Monty says:

    Much like Christian hate groups (Westboro Baptist) or any other, the BLM movement is appalling to reasonable people, or should be, of any color. They are anarchist. They are worse than the Westboro folks in that they call for the death of police(white) officers of which 99.9 % would never purposely shoot an innocent unarmed black man behaving in an unthreatening compliant manner. Their goal is to stir up political/racial strife, they don’t seem to want the truth and they keep propagating these often times false narratives. As in the case in Missouri. “All the guy was doing was standing there with his hands in the air” was proven to be a lie. They still propagate the lie that Trayvon Martin was an innocent child that was hunted down and murdered. They don’t seem to be interested in the truth at all especially as it pertains to black on black murders. But if you can find a couple of cases where a bad cop or a racially motivated white cop kills a black man then you’ve got yourself a movement or better still, even when the facts of a case don’t support your agenda then deny them and just say whatever fuels people’s anger the most.

    The Westboro Baptist folks are despicable in their promotion of hatemongering but they aren’t calling for anarchy or murder. But of course they are as detestable as the BLM because of how they twist scripture to further their agendas and give Christianity a bad name.(although most without an agenda would be easily able to tell what a narrow distorted view of Christianity they represent.) As most reasonable people should be able to understand that the number of racist rogue black killing cops is beyond minuscule. It is an irrational fear based on the smallest of percentages but to hear BLM every time a black man gets in his car and obeys the laws and the instructions of the authorities there’s like a 50/50 chance of being gunned down without reason. It just can’t be taken seriously and it does more harm than good.

  12. Alabama John says:

    The more any group of people throw bottles, bricks, kick police cars and destruct authorities property the shorter the trigger gets

    The color, religious beliefs of those doing the damage by breaking the law doesn’t matter

    Its natures way to become more alert to whatever or whoever poses a threat to you and react quicker to those far more than those that are seen as peaceful and quieter.

    That was proven in the military when a child would smile and walk up to your buddy and when it got close enough would set off explosives hidden in its shirt or strapped to its back and blow your buddy up. Send his body or what was left of it home. So, anytime a child would be friendly and want to approach you, you would draw down on it and say stop. If it didn’t it was shot.

    That is the same thinking the police are getting and who will blame them. I won’t!

    Knowing this, anyone asked to do something to take away that fear from the police should be obeyed and quickly.

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