In continuing this mini-series regarding Black spirituality, the third commonality with Reformed spirituality is a high view of the local church. In other words, a point in which Reformed and traditional Black Christians both hold is that a person cannot truly be spiritual and grow in the Lord if they neglect the local church. This means that church membership is necessary and vital for Christian growth. In regards to the formation of the Church, Chapter 26, Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the 1689 LBCF states
In the exercise of the authority which has been entrusted to Him, the Lord Jesus calls to Himself from out of the world, through the ministry of His Word, by His Spirit, those who are given to Him by His Father, so that they may walk before Him in all the ways of obedience which He prescribes to them in His Word. Those who are thus called, He commands to walk together in particular societies or churches, for their mutual edification, and for the due performance of that public worship, which He requires of them in the world.
The members of these churches are saints because they have been called by Christ, and because they visibly manifest and give evidence of their obedience to that call by their profession and walk. Such saints willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ, giving themselves up to the Lord and to one another, according to God’s will, in avowed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel.
This is a statement in which traditional Black Christians will give a hearty amen to. This is particularly the case since it has been well-established that the Black Church was formed out of necessity, not by convenience. The unfortunate reality is that the historical racism of mainline denominations in the 18th and 19th century established the legitimacy of the Black church. For the purposes of this blog, the necessary formation of the Black church had a very important consequence on how many traditional Black Christians view the local church – namely, that the gospel of Christ should nurture and proclaim the eschatological hope of Christianity.
Because the Black church preached the gospel of hope and developed a robust theological view of suffering, the Black church (as an institution) became the center of the Black community. Historically, the local church was seen as a city of refuge and provided the true hope to those dealing with the numerous difficulties of life. Many Black Christians would agree with the Puritans that this world is a vale of tears, but they praised God that there is “an opening gate of glory at its end”. They realized that there truly was a better and more heavenly country and viewed this current life as a pilgrimage. This was the message that was proclaimed to the Black community and the surrounding world. For traditional Black Christians, the local church (primarily through its preaching and hymnody) nurtured this hope and proclaimed the hope of this gospel to the world. In this way, the local church is the city set on a hill, the light of the world, and the salt of the earth – it offers a glimpse of our eternal state and our eternal inheritance as believers. For a more thorough discussion of this, feel free to listen to Thabiti Anyabwile’s sermon on the contributions of African-American theology.
One of the most upsetting trends in modern expressions of the Black Church is that this richly biblical theology is being replaced by Word of Faith/Prosperity teaching. The theology of suffering, which served as a historical distinctive of Black theology, is being cast aside for such bad teaching, and the impact is that the Black community has grown distrustful of the Black church. In my view, the Black church will only remain relevant as an institution only when it returns back to its roots on the matter.
Another very important aspect of the local church is church membership. In regards to church membership, Chapter 26, Paragraph 7 of the 1689 LBCF states
All believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches when and where they have opportunity so to do, and all who are admitted into the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government of that church, in accordance with the rule of Christ.
This is a statement that all devout Black Christians believe. Simply put, church membership is a must for any person who calls themselves a Christian. Because the Black church plays such a central role in the community, virtually all Black millennials with Christian parents were raised in the church. By and large, traditional Black parents insist on church participation by not giving their children an option. As children, we served as ushers, choir members, janitors, landscapers, and all sorts of roles, with the intention that we would understand how important the local church is. This helps to explain why Black churches continue to see stable participation from millennials, whereas millennials as a whole are completely abandoning the church as a whole. This also meant that those who did not attend church were considered godless and worldly. This produces a very strong church-world distinction within Black spirituality.
It is at this point where traditional Black spirituality meshes much more with Reformed Baptists rather than Reformed Presbyterians. The concept of covenant children and the purposefully mixed nature of the church fall on deaf ears for many traditional Black Christians. Black parents have no problem telling their children to pray to God concerning various matters, while also confessing that their children aren’t Christians. Black parents have no problem forcing their children to read their Bible, to go to church, or to participate in family devotion. As a child, the most often quoted passage to emphasize the distinction between the true church and the world was 2 Corinthians 6:14-18:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,” I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
Because the church is seen as the place that God’s people are strengthened and encouraged against the assault from the world, this meant that the Black church met multiple times during the week. When I was converted as a teenager, the church that I attended had morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day, Wednesday evening Bible study, and Friday evening prayer meeting – and it was expected that you attended (and properly prepared) for all of them. It was also assumed that we would visit churches in our local associations as well whenever important events appeared on the calendar. In a number of ways, a person’s active participation in these services was an indicator of their spiritual health. It was during these activities in which older, mature believers took an interest in young converts like myself – who taught me about the necessity of personal holiness and the significant of the local church. Moreover, the church-world distinction became more pronounced as Black preachers taught unashamedly on the doctrine of hell. We were taught to flee to Christ and His church to escape the condemnation that will occur to the world around us. Thus, the church-world distinction was very black-and-white (no pun intended!).
For these reasons, many modern arguments on the unimportance of the local church is nonsensical to those who grew up in my background. As a new convert, I was taught that it is foolish to separate our personal devotion to the Lord from our commitment to the local church. This is a point in which Reformed Christians and Black Christian can affirm with each other. For the next blog, we will begin to address the significant differences between traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality. We will start with the divergent views concerning the means of grace.