The Decline of Theology in the African-American Church

My purpose in writing this article is to hold up the proverbial mirror to the Black church in hopes that we might help lift our people out of the bondage that results from bad theology. James Cone, whom I’ll later discuss, makes a valid point when he states, “A community that does not analyze its existence theologically is a community that does not care what it says or does. It is a community with no identity.” Ironically however, his own theology is found wanting when analyzed. In this article, I plan to comment on some of the more popular theological movements within the Black church, such as Oneness Pentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, and the Black liberation theology Movement, with respect to the roots of the Christian religion as interpreted by the Black race during slavery.

Oneness Pentecostalism

About 10 years ago, when I lived in Dallas, TX, I began attending a prominent, predominantly Black mega-church. I had the utmost respect for the lead pastor, and I was very impressed with his ministry. I even began the process of trying to join the choir; it was a tedious 6-month long process (they were a recording choir). One day my sister-in-law told me, “You know, the lead pastor doesn’t believe in the Trinity.” I was sure she was mistaken, but the more I researched his statement of doctrine and researched what the wording meant I realized he was a Oneness Pentecostal. When I brought this issue to the minister of music, he told me, “Candace, the Trinity is just not one of those issues that really matters in the church.” He placed me in contact with a female pastor on staff who expressed the same sentiments. I explained to them that it was my understanding that when other leaders such as John MacArthur had confronted this pastor about his heretical beliefs, he continued to obstinately hold to his false beliefs. I engaged in several email and phone conversations with these staff members, and essentially what it came down to was “Candace, what does the Trinity have to do with having church?” With that, I wrote a letter explaining to them why I could no longer be a member of the choir or the church for that matter, and I was literally mocked for my decision. The minister of music literally laughed at me and said I didn’t realize I was making a dumb decision. Some of my family members disagreed with my decision, and said I misunderstood doctrine and that I was making a huge mistake. But this situation solidified what I had always suspected: that theology in the Black church generally takes a back seat to sensationalism or emotionalism.

“T.D. Jakes can preach!” was the retort with which I was met when I expressed my reasons for leaving his church. Never mind that he believes that the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son are one Person, or that one must be baptized to receive salvation. Anyone who had taken a quick survey of historical theology would have quickly noticed the heresy here of Sabellianism or modalism (the teaching that the only person of God is Jesus Christ and essentially when the three persons of the Trinity are working throughout time and Scripture it’s just Jesus basically wearing three different hats). Oneness Pentecostalism also teaches that one must be baptized in order to be saved in addition to confessing Christ as Savior. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s an old heresy that is unfortunately still being propagated today; only most in the Black church are unaware or just simply don’t consider orthodoxy a priority.

How can this kind of thing happen in the Black church? I realize this occurrence is not exclusive to the Black church alone, but I’d like to explore why it’s such a big problem for this particular group of people. Why is it that we look at church as a place to “get happy” or merely focus on our emotions, rather than to delve into God’s word as we assemble with other saints? Should we be content with an institution that produces young people who shout and speak in tongues, but are awkward and at a loss for words when it comes to speaking the gospel message in a coherent manner that is consistent with Scripture?

The Prosperity Gospel

I had an interesting conversation with a pastor at a Pentecostal church several years ago. His thoughts were that our faith has the ability to “control” God’s actions, and that we can “command” God to give us what we want regardless of what He desires for us. Obviously, I firmly believe that Scripture teaches that our faith is effective and is the catalyst for miracles, but I had a serious problem with this pastor’s language of “command,” “control,” and “ordering God to act according to our wishes” for the purpose of acquiring material wealth or any desires, for that matter.

I object to the prosperity gospel on the following bases:

1) It’s unbiblical; we’re told throughout Scripture that God is sovereign–He is the one who moves men’s hearts to follow His will (not the other way around).

2) No matter how much faith we have, the truth is that God has the final say in the end. For example, Paul prayed fervently that God would remove the thorn from his flesh three times with all the faith he had. But in the end God said “No…My grace is sufficient for you; for My power is made perfect in your weakness–II Corinthians 12:7-10.” (This doesn’t, however mean that God is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses–Heb. 4:14-15).

3) This teaching can lead to disillusionment with God altogether. As Christians, we know that God knows what’s best for us even when it seems as though things aren’t going according to our immediate desires. God alone (as our Father) reserves the right to say “no” to us if he thinks that giving us what we want is not in our best interest. After all, what kind of a father indiscriminately allows his children to have whatever they want? This is true even in cases in which it seems that evil prevails; Although it’s not God’s ultimate desire that we suffer for suffering’s sake, He permits what He forbids in order that His ultimate will be worked out (“what the devil means for evil, God intends for good–Gen. 45).

4) It sets up a false expectation that’s based on a distortion of God’s character, for the unbeliever. If a Christian tells a non-Christian, “Come to Christ and He’ll make life easy for you and bless you with whatever you want!” then imagine the shock the non-Christian will experience when he comes to find out that life actually becomes harder after you make a definitive commitment to Christ. Jesus Himself said “In this world you WILL have trouble” but thankfully he didn’t stop there–“Take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Our hope shouldn’t be based on God taking our troubles away, it should be based on a God who came and experienced ultimate suffering so that we could have the peace of coming to a God who’s not removed from pain when we go through it.

The Religion of the Slaves

I will submit to you that the African-American church, having been born out of our slavery days began as a means of survival, and we, theologically speaking, simply haven’t progressed much beyond that. Slaves were not afforded the luxury of reading the works of Jonathon Edwards or discussing the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity. Slaves were primarily concerned about benefiting from a relationship with a Savior who could relate to being oppressed and held the power to offer them freedom. Dr. Anyabwile talks about African-American theology having been developed in the crucible of the slave experience. I’m certain there weren’t slaves who were escaping on the Underground Railroad whispering, “Do you lean more towards consubstantiation or transubstantiation?” No, and that was understandable for their situation. They sang, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” Even now when we’re facing a difficult situation, we cry out to God. Black people were looking to a more immediate freedom from their physical chains; this helps us understand the impetus of their religion.

I believe this is the appeal of the Black liberation theology movement. James Cone, one of the progenitors of the movement, made the following statement: ‘I respect what happened at Nicaea and Chalcedon (A.D. 451) and the theological input of the church fathers on Christology; but that source alone is inadequate for finding out the meaning of Black folks’ Jesus.’ Regarding Athanasius’s discussion of the Son’s homoousia, or one substance with the Father, Cone replied, ‘the homoousia question is not a Black question. Blacks do not ask whether Jesus is one with the Father or divine or human, though the orthodox formulations are implied in their language. They want to know whether Jesus is walking with them, whether they can call Him on ‘the telephone of prayer’ and tell him about their troubles.[1]” This may sound appealing, but if you listen closely the problems with Cone’s philosophy of theology are glaring! Black liberation theology disregards the authority of the Bible, history of the church, and reinterprets Christian doctrines as a whole to fit its larger socio-political agenda. I believe it is this mindset that is responsible for the decline of theology in the Black church.

Yes, it is true that during slavery we needed a God who was on the mainline, so we could “call Him up and tell Him what we want[ed],” but we are indeed in a sad state if we are in the same place today. The Black church has a hard time moving beyond ourselves to a more theo-centric perspective, and I believe we are suffering because of it. I cite my former example of Oneness Pentecostalism as proof of this.

Speaking of which, some may be aware that the Church of God in Christ convocation is taking place right now, and T.D. Jakes was one of the speakers. I grew up as 4th generation member of the Church of God in Christ (though I have not been a member for 10 years now). On her facebook page, my sister mentioned her disapproval of the COGIC leaders’ move to allow him to speak at this historic convocation, and some of the reactions she got were essentially “Relax, and if you really think Jakes is that bad just pray for him,” and “I don’t see what the big deal is; I really enjoy his preaching.” She was accused of being judgmental, was told that she was being unloving, and was told to take the plank out of her own eye. I pointed out to her accusers that there is a marked difference between being judgmental and holding someone accountable for their doctrine. James 3:1 says that teachers are held to a higher standard. We are commanded to contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We are exhorted to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought (or idea) to make it obedient to Christ” in II Corinthians 10:5. The people who were speaking against my sister were apparently unfamiliar with the Christian’s duty to combat false doctrine with sound doctrine. Everyone continued to unrelentingly defend Jakes simply because he’s a dynamic preacher who undoubtedly speaks to them in their immediate situation. Never mind his blatant disregard for historic Christian orthodoxy or his obstinacy in holding onto his false beliefs. Jakes undoubtedly offers helpful skills for living, but one must be discerning and wary of receiving any instruction from someone who has been made aware by other members of the body of Christ that his teachings are false and yet he persists in holding to these false beliefs, leading others astray. Jesus has some choice words for the person who leads the young in their faith astray in Luke 17:2, saying that if one causes another to stumble, it would be better if he were thrown into a sea and a millstone were tied around his neck. This is a subject Jesus takes quite seriously.

Unlike our ancestors, we have the freedom to study orthodoxy in its entirety. We now have an obligation not to merely pick and choose the parts of Christianity that speak to our immediate situation. Even among the first Black theologians that emerged during slavery there was still a high regard for the word of God. We don’t have access to a complete body of work by these men, but we do know they existed and we have excerpts of some of their writings. Jupiter Hammon, a slave and the first African-American to publish a work of literature, in 1760, was converted during the revivals of the Great Awakening. He wrote to his fellow slaves, “The Bible is the word of God and tells you what you must do to please God…The Bible is the mind and will of God to men.[2]” This man, though a slave, still held Scripture in the highest regard and encouraged his peers to heed his words as he heeded Scripture.

Daniel Payne, also born a slave, in 1811, taught himself to read and write in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He also encouraged slaves to hold the Scriptures in high esteem. He exhorted his readers to “Rest not until you have learned to read the Bible.[3]” He wrote, “If a conviction infringes upon the written word of God, or in any manner conflicts with that word, the conviction is not to be followed. It is our duty to abandon it. Moreover, I will add that light on a doubtful conviction is not to be sought for in the conscience, but in the Bible. The conscience, like the conviction, may be blind, erroneous, misled, or perverted; therefore, it is not always a safe guide. The only safe guide for a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, priest or people is the Bible, the whole Bible, nothing but the Bible.[4]” What has happened to our zeal since then? These men would be so disappointed to learn that men who disregard orthodoxy are able to pastor large churches and are given free reign to speak at national church conventions regardless of their false doctrinal beliefs. Dr. Anyabwile states, “Where the early church members searched the Scriptures to test the veracity of the apostles’ teachings (Acts 17:10-11), the present-day church offers only passive inspection, often accepting a church leader’s opinion as a satisfactory basis for defining core belief and conduct.[5]

The Black Liberation Theology Movement

The Black church has also been affected more recently (since the 1960s and 70s) by the Black Power movement of the Civil Rights Era. Few realize how much Black liberation theology has influenced the way we “do” church. James Cone differed from his predecessors in that he did not have a high view of special revelation. Cone aligned himself with the neo-orthodox views of special revelation, rejecting any claims of Scripture’s infallibility and inspiration, reducing Scripture to a “guide for checking the contemporary interpretation of God’s revelation, making certain that our interpretation is consistent with the biblical witness.[6]” Black liberation theologians are concerned with “only the tradition of Christianity that is usable in the Black liberation struggle.[7]” This employs a destructive hermeneutic. Black liberation theology reduces Christology (the person and work of Christ) to who Christ is to Black persons in their social situation, and “who He will be in the consummation of liberation hopes.” My personal qualm with it is that it disregards the rich cultural beauty of the African and Black traditions, and reduces us to mere victims of social oppression, thereby denying our ability to empower ourselves apart from our past.

Dr. Anyabwile states, “Cone’s understanding of what black history, experience, and culture entailed was an extremely narrow conception. He viewed Black experience in singular terms—“ a life of humiliation and suffering” and an existence “where babies are tortured, women are raped, and men are shot” in a system of white racism. Cone seemed unable to imagine a view of blackness not bound by extreme suffering. This framework effectively limited Scripture and tradition—two of the three sources of historical orthodox theology—to instrumental roles in service to political interests of the community. And, by demanding that the norms for theological inquiry must be based in group interests and group questions, Cone’s doctrine of revelation consigned the more individualistic questions of salvation and personal communion with God to nonexistence.[8]” One’s relationship with God could not be viewed apart from their racial experience. Now, is there a place for understanding Christ as a liberator of His people? Absolutely! But we would fall short to limit His work of liberation to merely our social situation or our own race. We must, rather be prepared to defend the inerrancy of Scripture, and the Christ of God’s true Word who came in the flesh, suffered, and died to set the captives free; this Christ alone possesses the ability to give all men freedom when they call upon His name even when others try to deny them the freedom thereof. “If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

A Challenge Issued to Black Apologists

A member of the Nation of Islam once wrote to me asking how Christianity was capable of “healing” our race of the rampant racism we have suffered throughout the centuries (he was presuming that the Nation had the answer). In short I responded that the God of the Bible offers the peace of mind that we have from knowing that in Christ all peoples are ontologically equal. For centuries we as a people have been oppressed and told that we are “less than” and that we don’t measure up to White people. But imagine widening your perspective to a worldview in which the progenitor (Christ) and His followers proclaim that in Him “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I wrote to this man and told him we cannot heal ourselves; Jesus offers healing for you and for me from what we’ve suffered as a people from the injustices, prejudices, and bigotry of this country in the past and even till this day, but we must embrace Him for how He reveals Himself to us, not how we would like to interpret Him based upon our own presuppositions. The fact is we are not the only people group that has suffered throughout the beginning of humanity; we as a human race have all suffered at the hands of other corrupt people who live in perpetual ignorance, hatred, and resentment. Following Christ empowers us to individually and corporately put an end to this cycle of hate, and release ourselves from the captivity of the past and present. But how can we expect to gain the freedom that only Christ can give if we are not willing to embrace who Christ really is in His entirety, apart from our social agenda? We must resist the temptation to conform Christ to our image of One who speaks to us merely in our social situation, rather than conforming ourselves to His image and mission in light of how He has revealed Himself to us through special revelation. Conformance to the Christ revealed in Scripture is the only means of cultivating unity throughout His body and becoming free from our cultural captivity.

 

 

 


[1] Thabiti Anyabwile, “The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity” (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007), p. 160.

[2] Ibid. p. 28.

[3] Ibid. p. 29.

[4] Ibid. p. 30.

[5] Ibid. p. 61.

[6] Ibid. p. 52.

[7] Ibid. p. 52.

[8] Ibid. p. 51.

candace@apologetics.com

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