What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 8. Systemic Racism & the “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church

voting protest and white guy

[To be fair, this is a long post, and it ends with “To be continued….” I do believe this is one of the most important discussions within modern conservative evangelicalism, so if you have the time and inclination, I believe you will be rewarded.]


To me, the existence of systemic or institutionalized racism, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:

  1. Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
  2. All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
  3. The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.

If we are committed to the truth of the above three premises, then we must begin to look for explanations that do not—intentionally or unintentionally—assume the inferiority of any race. And a very short walk back through history gives us all the data we need: four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the sake of exploitation accords perfectly with the circumstances we find ourselves in today; in fact, how could we expect it to be otherwise? Truly, God has been fantastically kind to this Nation, given our history. Much worse circumstances could have justly been predicted.

Example of Systemic Racism: “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church (NSoC)

I had promised in “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism” to give specific examples of systemic racism, both from church and society, to further explicate the concept. But I have decided here, rather, to focus solely on the church—particularly the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member.

Social examples of systemic racism abound. Beginning in Colonial America, laws were passed explicitly to benefit the newly created category “white” at the expense of the newly created “negro and mulatto,” and such laws were carried on into the new republic. The ensuing Antebellum system of race-based chattel slavery is an obvious example of systemic or institutionalized racism—I would hope this is immediately clear. But we could go on from there to provide hundreds of examples from the abandonment of post-emancipation Reconstruction, to share cropping and penal slavery, Jim Crow laws, “ghettoizing” in the North, race-steering, redlining by the Federal Housing Administration, the racialized application of the GI Bill, the “legal” theft of land from black farmers, the post-Civil Rights criminalization campaign, the “Southern Strategy,” the “Law and Order” movement, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, employment and wage discrimination, and on and on and on. To find these examples simply requires us to care enough to look.

So, how about the church? Though I have given some examples ELSEWHERE, I would like here to focus on what Dr. Alan D. Strange (OPC) has called a “narrow spirituality of the church” (NSoC) leading to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as an “other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” This “narrow” doctrine is not the so-called “Spirituality of the Church” (SoC) found in the writing and practice of the European Reformed churches. It is a distinctly American interpretation, crafted to coincide not only with the American experiment of government itself, but more importantly with the deep moral conflicts which arose between the stated Christian belief and ethics of America’s founders and the irreligious and immoral policies that shaped American culture and government from its colonial beginnings.

I believe the Belgic Confession of Faith, particularly Article 30, gets to the heart of the Reformers’ conception of the SoC:

We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors chastened and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.

That is, the Church is not the State, but accomplishes its Biblically prescribed goals through spiritual means and governs its members by the same, entreating all men everywhere to enter into this voluntary, spiritual, union by means of Word, Sacrament, and service. The State, on the other hand, is granted the sword, and as the diakonos (Rom. 13:4) of God rewards the good and punishes the evil by carnal means, for the well ordering of secular society and the protection of the Church and its ministries.

In contrast, the “narrow” American interpretation serves effectively to muzzle the prophetic declarative voice of the Church as it seeks to fulfill its role in the wider society, viz., declaring the will of God to both rulers and citizens, calling to repentance, rebuking, and exhorting according to the Law of the eternal King, though never usurping the State’s carnal means. Further, NSoC proponents, in their effort to stave off the specter of the counterfeit “social gospel,” increasingly narrowed the scope of the Church’s legitimate work in society to include only Gospel preaching and Sacrament administration, an anemic mission foreign even to their Reformation forebears. This Narrow Spirituality of the Church serves as a perfect example of systemic racism within the Church, leading to indifference to social disparities, hostility toward reconciliation activists, and continued church segregation.

NSoC and American Slavery

J. H. Thornwell

This “narrow spirituality” is most closely associated with the teaching of Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell, an ardent apologist for the Southern institution of slavery. Thornwell was deeply involved in the national debate over slavery and between Old and New School American Presbyterians. In 1851 he authored a report commissioned by the Synod of South Carolina, “The Church and Slavery,” unanimously adopted by the Synod. In it, Thornwell argued from his view of the Spirituality of the Church to conclude that the Church had no right to condemn slavery as sin. We read:

The relation of the Church to Slavery cannot be definitely settled without an adequate apprehension of the nature and office of the Church itself. What, then, is the Church? It is not, as we fear too many are disposed to regard it, a moral institute of universal good, whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill, whether social, civil, political or moral, and to patronize every expedient which a romantic benevolence may suggest as likely to contribute to human comfort, or to mitigate the inconveniences of life. We freely grant, and sincerely rejoice in the truth, that the healthful operations of the Church, in its own appropriate sphere, react upon all the interests of man, and contribute to the progress and prosperity of society; but we are far from admitting either that it is the purpose of God, that, under the present dispensation of religion, all ill shall be banished from this sublunary state, and earth be converted into a paradise; or, that the proper end of the Church is the direct promotion of universal good. It has no commission to construct society afresh, to adjust its elements in different proportions, to rearrange the distribution of its classes, or to change the forms of its political constitutions. […] The problems, which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the Church has no right directly to solve. She must leave them to the Providence of God, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and cherish. (pp. 382-383)

[…] Slavery may evidently be contemplated in various aspects—as a social arrangement, involving a distinction of classes, like Oriental caste, or European gradation of ranks; as a civil relation, involving rights and obligations corresponding to its own nature; as a political condition, bearing upon the prosperity, happiness and growth of communities. In any or in all of these aspects, it may be opposed upon considerations of policy and prudence—as the despotism of Asia, the aristocracy of Europe, or the free institutions of America are opposed—without the imputation of sin upon the nature of the relation itself. The members of the Church, as citizens and as men, have the same right to judge of the expediency or inexpediency of introducing and perpetuating in their own soil this institution, as any other element of their social economy. But they transcend their sphere, and bring reproach upon the Scriptures as a rule of faith, when they go beyond these political considerations, and condemn Slavery as essentially repugnant to the will of God. (p. 387)

Hyperbole and misrepresentation aside, this accurately represents the Southern view of the mission and commission of the Church, granting no right for the Church to condemn what they believed to be merely a civil, political, and social institution. Even Old School Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (who was no abolitionist) objected to this narrow doctrine when Thornwell sought to quell any discussion of slavery during the 1859 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Hodge objected as follows:

There is a great temptation to adopt theories which free us from painful responsibilities […]To adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to the kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like one who administers chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief. We pray God that this poison may be dashed away, before it has reduced the church to a state of inanition, and delivered her bound hand and foot into the power of the world. (p. 111)

C. Mather and G. Whitefield

To be sure, this “narrow spirituality” of the South had developed around the institution of slavery very early in American history, presumably as a means to square worldly political and economic exploits with claims of Christian verity. New England Puritan Cotton Mather, writing a plea for the conversion of slaves in 1706, expressed the developing dichotomy between interest in the Gospel salvation of the “negro’s” soul and indifference toward his outward, civil, circumstances:

The greatest Kindness that can be done to any Man is to make a Christian of him. Your Negroes are immediately Raised unto an astonishing Felicity, when you have Christianized them. They are become amiable spectacles, & such as the Angels of God would gladly repair unto the Windows of Heaven to look upon. Tho’ they remain your Servants, yet they are become the Children of God. Tho’ they are to enjoy no Earthly Goods, but the small Allowance that your Justice and Bounty shall see proper for them, yet they are become Heirs of God, and Joint-Heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ. Tho’ they are your Vassals, and must with a profound subjection wait upon you, yet the Angels of God now take them under their Guardianship, and vouchsafe to tend upon them. Oh! what have you done for them ! Happy Masters, who are Instrumental to raise their Servants thus from the Dust, and make them objects for the Nobles of Heaven to take Notice of! But it will not be long before you and they come at length to be together in the Heavenly City.

[…] Christianity directs a Slave, upon his embracing the Law of the Redeemer, to satisfy himself, That he is the Lords Free-man, tho’ he continues a Slave. (“The Negro Christianized,” pp. 12-13, 16-17)

Throughout the piece, Mather assured his readers that the conversion entreated would have no effect on the “negroes” civil circumstances, nor his bondage. Owners should not worry about loss of property, for while possibly incompatible with the Law of God, the State had made no pronouncement on manumission for Christianized slaves.

We see the same just a few decades later in the writing of celebrated evangelist and Anglican Cleric, George Whitefield. While likewise an ardent advocate for the conversion of slaves, Whitefield nevertheless made clear that the question of slavery’s legality was not the province of the Church to answer, nor a matter of the Gospel, but a question for the civil magistrate.

Whether it be lawful for christians to buy slaves, and thereby encourage the nations from whence they are brought to be at perpetual war with each other, I shall not take upon me to determine[…]. (The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, M.A. [London, 1771], IV, 29)

But he would nevertheless successfully advocate for its legalization in the colony of Georgia. In his appeal to the Georgian trustees, he writes,

I am determined, that, not one of [my slaves] shall ever be allowed to work at the Orphan House till it can be done in a legal manner, and with the approbation of the Honourable Trustees. My chief aim in writing this is to inform you, that, I am as willing as ever to do all I can for Georgia and the Orphan House, if either a limited use of negroes is approved of, or some more indentured servants be sent from England. If not, I cannot promise to keep any large family, or cultivate the plantation in any considerable manner. (Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield [London: Hodder and Stoughton], II, 209)

His goal and commission, after all, was to save souls, not bodies:

Your present and past bad usage of them [‘negroes’], however ill-designed, may thus far do them good, as to break their wills, increase the sense of their natural misery, and consequently better dispose their minds to accept the redemption wrought out for them by the death and obedience of Jesus Christ. (The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, M.A. [London, 1771], IV, 32)

NSoC and Civil Rights

Although slavery itself would ultimately be abolished in the United States, the Narrow Spirituality of the Church would live on. After the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow legislation, the same view of the mission of the Church was used to justify segregation, both through active support and quiet indifference; again, segregation was considered only a “civil” and “social” arrangement, outside the appropriate “sphere” of the Church’s voice of condemnation.

J. G. Machen

Presbyterian theologian, professor, and founder of both Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen, would also champion this “narrow” understanding. Though born nearly twenty years after Thornwell’s death, Machen championed Thornwell’s social and theological conservatism in the face of growing liberalism, modernism, and the counterfeit social gospel of, e.g., Walter Rauschenbusch’s theological progeny. As a Southern Presbyterian transplant to Princeton, Machen bristled at the brewing “civil rights” advocacy of some members and professors in the Northern church. “It is true some of them are ‘sticklers’ for the civil rights of negroes,” he wrote as a thirty-year-old professor at Princeton,

[…]it always makes me intensely angry to hear people talking glibly about equal civil rights of negroes when in many parts of the South those equal rights would mean that every legislator and every judge would be a savage of a type and the white men would be more unsafe in parts of this country than in the most parts of the world where at least the protection of his home government is to some extent with him. (“Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.)

In language directly hearkening back to Thornwell’s “The Church and Slavery”—and with equal hyperbole and misrepresentation—Machen made his narrow understanding of the mission of the Church quite clear:

You cannot expect from a true Christian church an official pronouncement upon the political and social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ. (“The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age,” 1933)

Less than thirty years following Machen, this exact sentiment was used to justify the seeming paralysis of the white church as African Americans took matters into their own hands, organizing and executing public demonstrations for the advancement of civil rights. In fact, it was ministers and laymen of this very sentiment of whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

[…] In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

And this is exactly what we see in Thornwell and Machen’s conservative NSoC heirs. Presbyterian literature of the time explicitly bore this out.

The Southern Presbyterian Journal

The Southern Presbyterian Journal, created largely in response to the formation of the “liberal” Federal Council of Churches, helped carry the banner of Mather, Whitefield, Thornwell, and Machen into the Civil Rights era. L. Nelson Bell wrote an article in the first edition of the Journal explaining why he and others had created it. The central issue was the perceived abandonment of the Scriptures (the “disease”) by the Federal Council and its ensuing foray into topics thought to be outside the scope and mission of the Church.

One of the symptoms of the underlying disease is misapprehension as to the mission of the Church. The Federal Council has caused confusion and resentment by constant meddling, in the name of the Church, in economic, political, social and racial matters, and in the affairs of State. (“Why?,” p. 3)

Bell would himself go on to write and publish many defenses of Southern segregation in the Journal. One in particular that I cam across in my research serves as a perfect example of this “narrow spirituality” in practice. In the article, “Christ Our Peace in Race Relations” (1945), Rev. William C. Robinson wrote a critical response to the Federal Council’s “Recommendations For Action” on race relations. We read,

The Message to the Churches issued in January, 1945 by the Federal Council’s Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, however, contains Recommendations For Action on race relations with which I cannot wholly concur. After properly speaking against race prejudice this program continues thus:

“The churches should not only support all efforts to wipe out discriminations against minority groups, but they should also deliberately arrange co-operative programs in which racial barriers are broken down. We recommend active support by the churches of legislation:

Providing for a permanent Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission;

Providing for the repeal of poll tax and other discriminatory laws;

Providing for housing projects without discriminatory practices and other measures designed to advance the well-being and constitutional rights of Negroes and other underprivileged groups.”

We dissent from this program presented by the Federal Council of Churches in its pamphlet A Message To The Churches, page 15, for several reasons. First and foremost it is not rooted in Christ nor grounded in the Holy Spirit. There is nothing said here about redemption or regeneration.

[…] Some of us favor repealing the poll taxes by state action. Others favor the Federal Government forcing this step upon the states, and still others favor maintaining the poll tax. Shall the Church commit herself to the opinion of one portion of her children against the opinions of the other two portions?

If, in accord with the Federal Council’s Recommendation For Action, the churches “support all efforts to wipe out discriminations” whether these efforts be wise or foolish the amalgamation of the races may be expected to ensue. In human relations Calvinism recognizes only those distinctions which God has made, while Modernism seeks to erase all distinctions. […] God who has appointed the bounds of our several habitations has given the churches no commission to wipe out the color line. He has commissioned us to preach the Gospel of His love to all nations. (p. 7)

For Thornwell, Machen, Bell, and Robinson, the Church was not commissioned to speak to such matters; Christians could legitimately disagree on such things as race-based chattel slavery, segregation, and poll taxes. The Church was to focus on the Gospel, regeneration, and “love.” Again, all else “are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

M. H. Smith

Almost twenty years later, co-founder and first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Rev. Morton H. Smith, wrote a hearty defense of segregation in Machen’s journal, The Presbyterian Guardian, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. In it, he likewise emphasized the distinction between the private, individual imperative of non-discrimination over and against the “cultural pattern” to which the Church has no authority to speak.

No court or church can legislate our feelings toward our fellow man. Only as we receive the gift of love planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will we be able to love our neighbor as we ought, whatever the cultural pattern. May God grant us each a growth in grace and love, so that we each may manifest this love to our fellowman, unto the glory of our God. (“The Racial Problem Facing America,” p. 128)

Further, in his book published by the PCA Steering Committee, How is the Gold Become Dim!, Smith lists multiple reasons for the abandonment of the PCUS and the formation of the PCA, including an objection to the former’s call for immediate implementation the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The [PCUS] report comes to the conclusion that the Church should lead in the matter of integration. It is debatable whether this conclusion can really be based in Scripture. As one looks at the stance of the Southern Presbyterians towards slavery issue a century before, one finds that the Church restrained from getting into social issues, and trying to decide such issues, because the Bible itself did not do so. The fact is that God segregated Israel from the Canaanites. It is debatable as to whether the Church should get into the matter of trying to change that particular pattern, and branding one form of culture as sinful as opposed to another.

Like with Thornwell before him, Smith’s Narrow Spirituality of the Church barred the Church from such meddling. On the same page, he sums up nicely the specious argument of his forebears, concealing it the congenial language of Sola Scriptura:

Again in pressing the matter of fair treatment between races, the subjective standard of man’s thought is made the measure rather than the Scripture. “Whatever injures or prevents the growth of human personality is contrary to the law of love.” It is interesting to observe that the law of love now is the law to be obeyed. This has no specific reference in the Bible, but is the law which “seeks the welfare and happiness of all people.” Here we see a bald humanism coming forward as the ultimate goal of man’s moral conduct. (p. 153)

The Presbyterian Guardian

To be sure, this NSoC sentiment was not limited to just a couple theologians, but quite frankly appears to have been the norm among conservatives. For example, noted Presbyterian professor E.J. Young would write the following in response to the Presbyterian Guardian’s 1964 discussion on Civil Rights:

I am troubled by the great amount of space devoted to the question of civil rights and race relations in the latest issue of the Guardian. These are not the paramount issues before the church today. In the dense fog of obfuscation which the liberal press has succeeded in raising even true Christians may lose sight of the church’s central purpose. That central purpose is the preaching of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that a Christian should do good unto all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith. He who preaches the gospel in its fulness (including the obligations of Christians to others) is doing more for Negro and White than can possibly be accomplished by any method which in giving rights to one may take them away from another. (October, 1964, p. 131)

And theologian and founder of Christian Reconstructionism, Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, responded similarly:

The test of the Reformed faith is theocentric, in terms of the sovereignty of God and the infallible Word. The test of modernistic faith is always drawn from humanitarian ethics, and the current test is race, not Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, The Presbyterian Guardian has of late been busy citing one or another of the humanitarian and liberal shibboleths as “tests” rather than the Word and the Confession. Was it for this that Machen fought? (p. 131)

Regrettably, such discussions are in fact not that for which Machen fought. (For more from the Guardian, see HERE.)

Click here to continue

4 thoughts on “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 8. Systemic Racism & the “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s