Anthony Bradley (Professor of Theology, King’s College, New York) has an interesting post about the almost total absence of conservative reformed Christians in the Civil Rights movement. He writes,
Calvinists, as those who pride themselves on having “right” doctrine, were consistently on the wrong side of the transatlantic slave trade, American slavery (in the North and the South), and supporters of Jim Crow or passive bystanders. Why didn’t the power of the gospel work among these Christians in such a way that they championed the dignity and freedom of Africans and African Americans? For my own tribal reasons, I had hoped that Presbyterians would be the ones to lead the rest of evangelicalism in this discourse on race and the gospel in America but I now realize that for many Presbyterians who defend the South the issues of race are simply not too urgent. I do know for some that is not true. Under the advice of Presbyterian pastors, I have sobered and readjusted my expectations and realize now that the Presbyterians follow the lead of Baptists on the issues of race and justice as allies in the Kingdom.
Bradley has, I believe, in mind Southern Presbyterians and other conservative Presbyterians who founded what has become the Presbyterian Church in America and, to a lesser extent, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church–both denominations that broke away from one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church (US) also known as the “Southern Church”.
To this day, many evangelical reformed Christians–people like me–have failed to recognize the historical reality that, in Bradley’s words,
[T]he power of the gospel [didn’t] work among these Christians in such a way that they championed the dignity and freedom of Africans and African Americans[.]
We were silent. Today many of us remain silent about issues of racial injustice and thereby cheapen the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m firmly convinced that theology is important because it is a pathway to God. It provides the edges or borders of the way of approaching the Father through the Son. But, Bradly again,
“Believing the gospel does not mean that you automatically think correctly about human flourishing. The gospel does not magically fix people’s thinking. The Westminster Divines knew better than to say something as overly simplistic as “the gospel is the answer.”
The Westminster Confession acknowledges that our knowledge of theology neither justifies us before God nor does it guarantee that we become like Christ in our prevailing character:
Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
Westminster Confession of Faith XVII.iii
Then Bradley sounds a warning that is prophetic both in regards to race and conservative Presbyterianism but also to congregations who find themselves discerning whether God is calling them to remain in their current denomination (i.e., the PCUSA) or to depart for a more orthodox denomination:
The dominate position seems to be craft a narrative of the “true” heroes of the story as those who left liberalism for theological reasons without noting their cultural captivity to other social currents of the day.
I am not a liberal. In some ways I’m not totally comfortable being an “evangelical” (especially since I have a high regard for the church’s tradition in my approach to belief and practice, something often downplayed by evangelicals). And I have no time for the sort of narrative that becomes a self-justifying, self-deluding, hagiography. As soon as the Christian or the church goes down that trail, it comes perilously close to idolatry.
In hearing God and following God’s invitation to mission, it’s important to acknowledge that evangelicals haven’t always been right on all fronts. In the case of race, the Civil Rights movement would not have happened without liberals. Their theology may be less than fully faithful to the received teaching of the apostles, but nevertheless God worked through them.