Historically speaking, the Church has done some pretty crazy and ludicrous stuff. Last week, one part of it repented of a crazy and ludicrous season in their history.
So, I’m a member of a Church. That church is a member of a Presbytery. That presbytery is a member of a Denomination. And during the 44th General Assembly that was held last week, that denomination – the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) – adopted an overture that has historic ramifications for the people under its care.
The PCA has a storied past going back to the beginning of the Civil War. The Presbyterian Church in the USA denomination split along regional lines when war broke out, with the Southern members forming what was then known as the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. With a name and history like that, you can imagine their thoughts on race and reconciliation. But in 1973, responding to concerns over theological weakness and abandonment of orthodoxy, as well as ordination of women, the PCA split from the denomination in a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, while their parent denomination (now renamed) joined what would become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) The newly-formed PCA affirmed the Westminster Confession, Reformed doctrine, and the Book of Church Order; but they did not distance themselves from the historic actions and attitudes of their parent denominations.
In fact, they issued a letter with their desire to be a “continuing church” as the denomination formed. “We have called ourselves ‘Continuing’ Presbyterians because we seek to continue the faith of the founding fathers of that Church,” they said. They truly intended to carry on the tradition of faith that they believed the PC(U.S.A.) was abandoning.
And, unfortunately, that meant taking on themselves the mantle of guilt for a great many racial wrongs.
The Road to Reconciliation
In 2002, the 30th General Assembly addressed one of those things; namely, slavery. To paraphrase: “The heinous sins attendant with unbiblical forms of servitude stand in opposition to the Gospel, and we confess our involvement in these sins.”
It was a rather monumental step for a historically Southern, formerly confederate denomination to have taken. But in the view of many, it was not enough. Because, while slavery may possibly be the blackest mark on the United States’ spotty human rights record, it is not the only one in which Americans are complicit. The Civil Rights movement, which became the environment from which the PCA was born, sought to address another dark mark upon the history of the United States; but while it made great strides, the massive racial dissent that have broken up in the years and decades since that movement prove that the Civil Rights movement did not in fact complete its work.
The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner have brought this incompletion to a boiling point in our nation; and at the 43rd General Assembly, the PCA resolved to study racial reconciliation for the following meeting. That was last year, and the 44th General Assembly took place in June of 2016.
Repentance to Reconcile
The final document that the Overtures Committee sent to the floor of the General Assembly was approved with stunning unity; 90% of churches in the PCA affirmed the language gladly. The full text is below, but the bottom line is that the PCA is repenting and seeking forgiveness for their actions; for not only failing to pursue racial unity, but also actively working against it. It recommends church discipline be exercised against members and churches who have obstructed reconciliation or continue to do so.
It’s a surprising move for a denomination with such deep roots in the “old South.” And I think it is a Godly move. But someone who is more closely affected by this overture, Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network, said of the resolution, “For those present on the evening of June 23, 2016, it may have been one of the most refreshing times in the denomination’s history.”
As a black person in an overwhelmingly white branch of the church, I have to constantly evaluate whether I’m truly welcome here or not. A strong statement repenting, not just of racism generally, but the more recent lack of vocal support for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, is necessary because silence about the matter tacitly communicates either support or indifference. Now I can confidently say that the PCA is both aware of and remorseful for its historic connections with racism, especially from the mid-20th century to the present.
I’m grateful for that, too; even as a white man, I do not want to be associated with an organization that is indifferent toward – or even supporting of – racial inequality, whether tacitly or openly. As an organization, it is important that we have a strongly-worded, definitive statement repudiating and repenting of the actions of our organization in the past and present. It’s a good start, at least.
Resolution Is Not Enough
But Tisby goes on to say that this is not a done deal. We must continue pursuing repentance and reconciliation in this area as in every area of sin to which we are prone.
[H]aving this overture in the records only helps at first. The actual lived experience of ethnic minorities in churches and presbyteries will prove whether the denomination is truly ready to make room at the table for historically under-represented groups.
The first steps toward that have been taken in Overture 43. But, beautifully, Overtures 44 and 45 take the next steps; establishing a Unity Fund to financially aid the raising up of minority church leaders in the coming years, as well as a study committee to pursue diversity in the leadership of the PCA. In my opinion, these aren’t merely lip-service reactions; they’re repentance-motivated steps toward true reconciliation.
Of course, this is not the end of the story. We must continue pursuing reconciliation as individuals and as churches.
Sadly, the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile happened within the short weeks after the vote, and our response to these actions as a church will determine whether we have been moved by the resolution that the PCA adopted on June 23. This is the time which will decide whether we have been affected by this overture; whether we are truly repentant or simply affirming of a resolution that “makes us look good.” This is a time to support the black community, to come around them in sadness and support, and to pursue justice alongside our brothers and sisters of other races. For we are more like other believers of a different race – with whom we will worship God forever in the presence of the angels – than we are even with our family, if they are unbelievers.
I pray that this will be the a time of real reconciliation, and that we will repent without ceasing of our involvement in all injustice; and particularly of racism.
Praise God that He has made us in His image.
“Reflections from a Black Presbyterian on the PCA’s Overture on Racial Reconciliation”, by Jemar Tisby
PCA General Assembly #30: Overture 20 (2002)
PCA General Assembly #44: Overture 43 and supporting documentation (2016)
“2016 PCA General Assembly: Moving Forward Together”, by Richard D. Phillips
In the coming years, the PCA will be tackling the role of women in ministry, having established a study committee in General Assembly 44. You can read more about this OTHER historic event on this site.