The Sacraments in Black Spirituality

In regards to our previous discussion on traditional Black spirituality, the second commonality with Reformed spirituality is a high view of the sacraments. In other words, a point in which Reformed and Black Christians both hold is that a person cannot truly be spiritual and grow in the Lord if they perpetually neglect the sacraments. In regards to the sacraments, Chapter 28 of the 1689 LBCF states that:

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world. These holy appointments are to be administered by those only who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ.

Thanks to the writings of the 17th century Particular Baptists (as well as modern Baptist writers), many Reformed Baptists today have come to understand the importance of the sacraments in the life of the Church. Moreover, due to rediscovered writings from 17th century Particular Baptists, many Reformed Baptists have developed a covenantal view of the sacraments, which sees the sacraments as a means of grace. As a consequence, many Reformed Baptists understand the deep connection between Christian growth and faithful participation in the sacraments. Naturally, this leads to a deep reverence and respect for the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

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This deep reverence for the sacraments is also a key mark in Black spirituality as well. Traditionally, most Black churches take communion once per month (typically on the first Sunday of the month) and for many congregations, there is a sense of expectation for Communion Sunday. In the church that I grew up in, a significant portion of the service on Communion Sunday was dedicated to preparing for the Supper. There was a heightened sense of seriousness as everyone knew that something very importance was about to happen. The solemnity of the event was particularly on display as the deacons distributed the elements with white gloves, which was always meant to be a symbol of respect for the ordinance. Before the congregation partook of communion, there were serious warnings given to those who took the Supper in an unworthy manner. After these warnings, the congregation partook of the elements together, as a symbol of their unity.

As many Reformed writers have written, there are many facets and layers of meaning which pertain to the Supper. In my experience, the two dimensions that are most prominently displayed in many traditional Black churches are the Eucharistic dimension and the covenantal dimension. In the Eucharistic dimension, we see that the Lord’s Supper is a holy and solemn feast of praise and thanksgiving to God for His lovingkindness. Here the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is intended to bring us to the adoration and praise of God; it moves us to render thanksgiving to God for his infinite goodness and helps us to recognize the grace which God has so generously poured out for His people. In many Black churches, this dimension of the Supper has led to the composition of various hymns that have sometimes been called “blood songs”

I Know it was His Blood – Mahalia Jackson

The Blood Will Never Lose its Power – Andrae Crouch

Calvary – Richard Smallwood

The Blood – James Hall

These above songs also indicate that another central aspect of the Supper in traditional Black churches is the concept of a memorial. Here, it is understood that the recipient should do more than simply remember what Christ has done, but the recipient is making a public confession and commitment to Christ at the Supper. In essence, these “blood songs” are a recounting of the saving acts of God. This fits very much with Calvin’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:26

But this knowledge [of the saving acts of Christ] ought to move us to praise Him openly, so as to let men know, when we are in their company, what we are aware of within ourselves in the presence of God. The Supper is, therefore, if I may say so, a kind of memorial which must always be maintained in the Church until the final coming of Christ. John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:26, Commentary on First Corinthians, p. 250

In many Black churches, there is also a sense of the covenantal dimension. A very popular African-American spiritual called Let Us Break Bread Together on our Knees (lyrics) which is typically sung on Communion Sunday illustrates this. Here the stress of this hymn is the mutual fellowship that we have with other believers at the Table. It’s at the Supper that we understand how we are united to Christ and to each other.

The ordinance of baptism plays a similar role in many Black churches as well. Article XIV of the Articles of Faith from the National Baptist Convention states that Christian baptism is “prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation.” In the churches that I grew up in, this meant that a new convert was sufficiently questioned before baptism by the pastor. After being sufficiently questioned, the new convert made vows based on the membership covenant of the local church (here’s an example) and was baptized. After being baptized, the new convert was given the right hand of fellowship, which emphasized the covenantal union of the member to the local church. Thus, a “true Christian” is one who was properly baptized and received the right hand of fellowship into the church. This pattern is observed not just from Black Baptist churches, but also AME and Pentecostal denominations as well.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a sharp distinction between the modern trends in Black churches and the traditional black church in which I grew up. It has been well established that modern evangelical churches are de-emphasizing the role of the sacraments in the life of the Church. This trend is entering the more modern, non-denominational Black Churches in which the role of the sacraments are often underemphasized, neglected, or at times, completely disrespected. Few modern Black churches “guard the table” from unbelievers and give no sense of warning towards those who receive the Supper with an unbelieving heart. In other cases, there have been churches that baptize virtually any child that attended a vacation bible school (which has been described as a position of de facto infant baptism). There have been numerous conversations in which older Black Christians have complained and have been offended by the casual (and at times, disrespectful) attitude of many churches regarding this sacraments. This attitude is also shared with Reformed believers who understand the significance of these ordinances. Thus, traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality affirm the necessity of the sacraments in the life of the individual Christian and in the life of the Church.

For the next blog, we will address another strong commonality, particular with Reformed Baptist: a high view of the local church.

Black Spirituality vs. Reformed Spirituality – Part 1

As a Black Physics professor who is also Reformed Baptist, I usually get asked three questions:

Why have I chosen to join a church with no other minorities? This question is usually asked from other Black Christians and usually there are numerous undertones to this question. Sometimes it’s suggested that I’m abandoning the Black church or Black people in general. Other times, the question suggests that I’m under a theological imperialism.

How do I reconcile science with the Christian faith? When this question is asked by unbelievers (which is usually the case because of my vocation), it’s usually a statement of incredulity and thus the question becomes an apologetics question. When this question is asked by believers, it’s usually a question about the scientific method, the creation debate, and the claims of the modern scientific atheists.

However, the question asked by most Reformed people is: Why aren’t there more Black Reformed Christians? There have been numerous answers to this question and honestly, the answers are superficial or, at times, downright insulting. Some people assert that diverging musical styles are the reason that Blacks don’t attend Reformed churches (as if all Black Christians like gospel music and don’t sing hymns). Some people assert that it’s because of the lack of expressiveness (as if all Black Christians are charismatic).

My goal is to eventually answer all of these questions, but I want to specifically focus on the third question. I believe that the essential reason is because of diverging views of Christian spirituality. What are the marks of a truly spiritual person? How does one grow in their devotion to Christ? What are the marks of a godly leader? My experience convinces me that most devout Black Christians answer these questions very differently than devout Reformed Christians. This seems to imply that traditional Black spirituality is quite different than Reformed spirituality. In this blog series, I want to address the commonalities and differences between traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality and then address the trends in modern Black spirituality.

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Let’s start with the first commonality: a high view of the Lord’s Day. Chapter 22, Paragraph 8 of the 1689 LBCF states:

The Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe a holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

churchIt may be surprising to most Reformed people, but most devout Black Christians would completely affirm this statement. Most of the debates regarding the Sabbath that have occurred within the broader evangelical world and even within Baptist circles with those who affirm New Covenant Theology would be non-issues for devout Black Christians. Most black Christians believe that a person cannot truly be spiritual and grow in the Lord if they perpetually disrespect the Lord’s Day.

For those of us who have grown up in the Black Church, Lord’s Day piety was a central part of our life. For devout Black families, any extracurricular activity must be done on Saturdays because Sunday was set apart for the Lord. Moreover, many Black churches believed in an entire Lord’s Day, not just the morning of the Lord’s Day. As a child, when we woke up on Sunday morning, gospel music would play in the home so that our minds would be focused on Christ. We attended Sunday School at 9am, attended morning worship at 11:15am, had fellowship and lunch time within the church immediately following church (which usually lasted for a couple of hours), and then had evening service. It was firmly believed that God met with His people in a special way during corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. It was during our fellowship/lunch time that we mutually edified each other, found out what was going on with each other, and talked about what we were studying in the Scriptures. Sundays were also the day in which many members would perform acts of benevolence for sick church members (which we called the “sick and shut-in” ministry).

Consequently, it was considered sinful not to participate in the life of the Church on the Lord’s Day because you wanted to watch sports or do other worldly recreations. If a person would miss more than two consecutive Sundays, numerous people would call to see if something was wrong and at times, that would prompt a visitation from the deacons and pastor. Lord’s Day piety was also reflected in the attire that one would wear to church. It was assumed that you put on your “church clothes” when you went to church and if not, you had “disrespected the Lord and His house.” Some families would actually wash their cars every Saturday because in their view, “the Lord wants their best.”

For these reasons, many older Black Christians do not understand the casual and lax nature of many evangelicals, including some Reformed believers, concerning the Lord’s Day. No older Black Christian would believe the argument that “all of life is worship” means that the Lord’s Day is not a holy day. Very few older Black Christians would think it’s acceptable for people to come to church with flip-flops on and a T-shirt. Very few older Black Christians would think that the Lord’s Day ended by 12pm so that church members can watch the NFL on Sunday. All of these are innovations for the modern evangelical church, but this is a point in which Reformed and Black Christians both hold – Lord’s Day devotion is an essential and necessary component of the Christian life.

For the next blog, we will address another strong commonality: a high view of the sacraments.