Big Momma, Church Hats and the Glory of God

For many, including myself, this picture is a familiar scene – strong black women in the church. If you’re familiar, you know how African-American church culture is. The pastor or reverend in the pulpit is smiling one minute and whoopin’ the next beckoning the congregation with, “Can I get an amen!?!” “Amen!”, shouts back the congregation.  He casually wipes the sweat off of his brow with his handkerchief, looks at the congregation and pauses…..“Wellllll!”, says Big Momma as she fans herself. You know who Big Momma is. She’s been a member for 40 years, well respected, makes the best chicken dinners and peach cobblers and has that unofficial reserved parking spot. She walks in the church in her Sunday best, church hat, gloves, smelling good, and a warm friendly smile for everyone as she makes her way to her pew.  You know Big Momma! She likes to gently sway her body during praise & worship and hum throughout the service. In fact, I saw many Big Mommas growing up in the church, but besides the deacons, the “rev” and “ursher” board, I don’t recall seeing many men in the church.

I recently had a conversation with a dear brother in the Lord and I was sharing my heart about my concerns for the African American church – one of which is the general lack of expositional teaching. What he said to me was something I didn’t expect to hear. He said, “David, just about every week, I hear stories of African-American men pursuing pastoral ministry who grieve over the lack of solid exposition in the pulpit. But the biggest problem you’ll face in the African-American church culture is an acceptance of complementarianism.”

That answer caused me to significantly reconsider my approach concerning my desires for the African-American church culture. One of the greatest tragedies, due to sin, in the African-American culture is the lack of fathers in the home. Statistics have been recorded about how the African-American community has been and is affected by the absence of strong male leadership and the church is not immune.  It is because of this very reason that women have had to step up to be the “momma” and the “daddy” of their homes and in the culture. So we can see how this gets messy in matters of the church. While we applaud the women and Big Mommas in our culture for taking necessary responsibility, we must understand that God’s way is better and His way is for men to lovingly lead their families for the stability of society and ultimately for the glory of God.

Humanity, man and woman, was the only part of creation that was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). In very specific ways, we have been given or share some of the same attributes of God as His image bearers. These are known as communicable attributes. Such are love, peace, patience, kindness, anger, reasoning, etc.  But we don’t image God in those ways alone, but also in our functions according to our roles.  Humanity was given the task to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue and have dominion (authority) over the earth as a picture of God’s authority (Genesis 1:28) and woman was given to man to help him with this task (Genesis 2:18-23). This explicitly points to male leadership and female submission, which we can rightly assume functioned well before sin entered the world.  Adam was given the charge to lead, protect and provide and Eve was given the charge to submit to him and assist him with his God given mandate to subdue and have dominion.  Some have said it like this – God orients man to the task and orients woman to the man. Paul lays out the theology of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-32 and clearly men and women are called to function in a way toward one another that points to Christ’s submission to the Father in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what I meant by God’s glory in the beginning.  Humanity, gender differences and gender roles all point to the magnificence of God’s glory and any deviation from what God intended is a marring of His glory. For the church, it’s the same.  Men are called to lead as women are not permitted to occupy the leadership offices of elders, which function as pastors, or have any type of authority over man in the church (1 Timothy 2:12). These are reserved for men alone (1 Timothy 3:1-13 & Titus 1:5-9) as a means of displaying the order within the Godhead.  In part, due to the absence of men, egalitarianism is often practiced within the African-American church culture, but unfortunately it is also practiced when males are present. This is owing to poor biblical hermeneutics and comfortable cultural traditions.

So the problem seems have two sides. Side 1 – Black communities, churches included, lack the presence of male leadership for various reasons, therefore women are forced to lead and protect that leadership vigorously. Side 2 – Women lead or are viewed as co-leaders because of biblical ignorance and passivity among the black men that are present. So what is the solution?

While I am aware that the issue is far more complex that what I’ve outlined above, the gospel is the solution to this problem. Solid expositional teaching needs to be the steady diet in African-American pulpits so the gospel can be recovered. We need correct orthodoxy and correct orthopraxy.

Perhaps we should consider the African-American male as an unreached people group as Eric Redmond has as he assessed this problem in his book, Where Are All the Brothers?

The gospel needs to go forth in the African-American church community and men need to step up so we can give Big Momma a break.

Grace & Peace,

d.

Resources 

*  For more information on complementarianism, egalitarianism, biblical manhood and womanhood, consider reading Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood editors John Piper and Wayne Grudem. (Free PDF of book at link courtesy of Desiring God)

Together for the Gospel | Complementarianism Panel Discussion 

A Few Thoughts on Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity

It all seemed to have happened in an instant. The knowledge of my sin.  The knowledge of His wrath.  The knowledge of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.  The knowledge of the gospel.  Though I’d heard the gospel many times prior, this knowledge and faith came in an instant during a heated argument with my then girlfriend in September 1998.  This knowledge came when I heard a voice say, “It’s time to come home.”  This voice wasn’t audible, but it was other.  It was piercing, yet tender and loving.  I knew it was the voice of the Lord.  In the midst of an argument, I was converted by the grace of God.  However, I’ve often hesitated to share my conversion experience because it sounded so mystical and atypical as far as what I knew about conversion. I  wasn’t in church being emotionally pulled.  No one was walking me through the gospel.  I wasn’t at a crisis in my life that might have made me more sensitive to sin and the need for a Savior.  I was loving life; loving my sin.

Looking back on my conversion experience, I see it was the sovereign gracious election of the Father and the conviction and regenerating work of the Spirit causing me to “see” the beauty of the work of Jesus Christ.  But it would be six years after my conversion before I could see that sovereign grace of God in election.  It was through the patient explanations of my brother in the faith, shai linne, and biblical expositors like John MacArthur, John Piper and R.C. Sproul that the Spirit used to cause me to embrace, love and cherish biblical soteriology.  But were there anymore like me in my city?  Were there any other young black men rejoicing with me about this treasure?  How come I did not see the black preachers on television laboring over and teaching this?  In essence what I was asking myself was, “Is it okay to be African-American and Reformed?”

I honestly can’t think of any other book that accurately describes my theological journey as a black man in America. Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity has been a tremendous blessing and encouragement to my soul. Edited by Pastor Anthony J. Carter, Glory Road is a compilation of ten endearing, enriching, transparent, and humble testimonies of men, including Carter’s, who upon discovering the truths of Reformed salvation, though filled with extraordinary joy, found themselves swimming against the current of modern African American Christianity.

Consider this picture.  The general doctrinal framework of American Christianity is Arminian, so to be Reformed in America is to be a minority. From a church culture perspective,  modern African-Americans generally fall into several Arminian denominations and conventions, such as the African American Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the National Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.  So to be black and Reformed is to be an unfavored minority within a minority.  Each author noted how their embrace of Reformed Theology, to one degree or another, ushered them into an internal cultural conflict as well as a short-lived uncomfortable assimilation into white Reformed culture.

Through the lens of the African-American Church, Reformed Theology is often seen as something foreign, impractical, problematic and another subservient act toward the white man. Specifically, the thought of trying to reconcile the African Slave Trade with God’s sovereignty is the excuse many African Americans use to reject Reformed Theology. I can understand this point of view. However, another cause of rejecting biblical soteriology partly is owing part to the heresies of James Cones’s  Black Liberation Theology that arose during the Civil Rights Era. Contributing author and Assistant Professor of Bible & Theology at Washington Bible College, Eric C. Redmond, refutes this idea masterfully by saying:

“If a person would allow himself to be pigeonholed into becoming a person of nationalistic or ethnocentric thought out of the fear of being viewed as an Oreo or Uncle Tom, then Reformed Theology is not for that person. But then neither is the gospel, for the gospel calls each of us to stand against an ethnic-centered philosophy of one’s own race, for such philosophy is naturally conformed to this present world and is in need of redemption. If you cannot stand against your own culture where it does not square with the Scriptures, you are the one who is ashamed of Christ, and such shame has nothing to do with the philosophical or ontological blackness; it only has to do with your view of majesty of the God who call you to deny yourself in order to follow Christ.” (p. 150)

In essence, Redmond is saying people that place too high of an emphasis on their race and allows their anthropocentrism to shape their views of God actually have a warped view of God and will find themselves at odds with the biblical gospel. Some of us are too black to be Christians.

Aside from the social and cultural implications, Reformed Theology forced some of these men to examine and change their ecclesiological traditions. Contributing author, Pastor Ken Jones, senior pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church in Compton, CA and co-host of the nationally syndicated radio program, The White Horse Inn, recounts his experience.

“….the change in my preaching began with a different aim. My aim was to no longer move the people, but rather to open the Word of God and expound the person and work of Jesus Christ. I no longer saw the need to be motivational or to be a cheerleader. It became clear to me that the tradition that I had been reared in had, intentionally or not, confused the power and the presence of the Spirit with human emotions…Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 became my aim in preaching……We made significant changes to our order of service, changes that made the Word of God and the person and work of Christ central to the service. As a result the tone of the services changed…..And it was through teaching that we were able to call attention to the content of our songs that we sang…Bible teaching provides the theology of worship, and the songs old and new should be selected on the basis of their consistence with that theology.” (p.87-88, 90-91)

Out of the Protestant Reformation, 5 significant doctrinal affirmations were declared that marked key distinctives of Christianity. Out of the five, Sola Scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”) is what led to the change in Pastor Ken Jones’ teaching style and song choices. Sola Scriptura is the affirmation that the Bible is the only infallible and inerrant authority for the Christian faith and it contains all knowledge for salvation and holiness. After seeing the sufficiency of the Spirit inspired Scriptures, Pastor Jones no longer felt the need to “whoop” and move people emotionally. Such pragmatism and other forms of it are abandoned when expository preaching resulting from exegesis is commonplace for the shepherd.

I praise God simply for the preservation of His truth and for His justified desire for glory of His name that will arise from all ethnicities. (Revelation 7:9-12)

While much more could be said about this book, I’ll refrain from further comments hoping that you will purchase and read the accounts of these ten African-American men and their journeys.

 Soli Deo Gloria!

d.

Other Resources:

1. Anthony Carter, Pastor of East Point Church (Atlanta, GA)

Buy Glory Road

2. Anthony B. Bradley, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology & Ethics at Covenant Seminary (St. Louis, MO)

Buy Liberating Black Theology (New Release)

 

3. Thabiti Anyabwile, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands, U.S.)

Buy Decline of African American Theology

Buy What Is A Healthy Church Member?

 

4. Eric Redmond, Assistant Professor of Bible & Theology at Washington Bible College (Lanham, MD)

Buy Where Are All The Brothers?

Update:  Ken Jones is  the pastor of Glendale Baptist Church in Miami, Florida. He has taught seminary extension courses on the Book of Galatians and Church History. Rev. Jones has contributed articles to Modern Reformation and Tabletalk. (courtesy of  whitehorseinn.org)