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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

The Black Church and the Promise of Racial Reconciliation

By Barbara Williams-Skinner,
President of Skinner Leadership Institute

Barbara Williams-Skinner, president of the Skinner Leadership Institute
Barbara Williams-Skinner
Despite the biblical mandate for reconciliation and community, the Black Church and the White Church in America have long been divided. This history of separation in which the Church has been mired began during slavery and persists today. But I believe that recent developments in our national life could help spark a move from centuries of alienation to a new era of racial unity — including a move toward multiracial worship.

Among these trends are the historic election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States; a new generation of post-Civil-Rights-Movement African-American politicians, business executives, and civic leaders seeking to transcend the issue of race; a growing number of high-profile biracial and multiracial celebrities with cross-racial allegiances; and a recent House of Representatives apology for slavery and segregation. And these are just some of the most visible ways in which the United States has begun to move into an era in which the national conversation about race is characterized less by polarizing extremes than by cross-racial ideas. Is it now possible for us to no longer see Americans in black and white, but in technicolor?

Beyond these developments, however, there stands an even more powerful force with the potential to create an environment for racial reconciliation in the Church. It is the appeal of the cross and of grace over the attraction of single-race worship in the Black Church and the White Church, totally separated historically and today. It is this divine appeal that compels me to ask the Black Church: “How ready are you, as ‘the rejected stones,’ to lead us to a place where the promise of racial reconciliation becomes the reality of racial unity in the Church today?”

I ask the question directly of the Black Church because it is my church. And because by virtue of my longtime work equipping young black leaders, I am uniquely positioned both to value the historic Black Church and to envision a new future.Throughout Scripture — and throughout American history — we see God using the rejected and the despised to bring about social transformation and to address issues of injustice. I believe he can use the Black Church today to help heal and transform our dividedness.

Christ’s Call to “Oneness” Versus the Call to Leave Things as They Are

Jesus prayed for his followers to “be one,” as he and God are one (John 17:21). But centuries of separation between black and white Christians in America can make Christ’s call to “oneness” seem unachievable. In fact, a number of compelling reasons are often given for leaving things exactly as they are.

First, some argue for preserving the unique historic and theological identity of the Black Church. In his book The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham Duke University Press, 1990), C. Eric Lincoln defines “the Black Church” in America as the independent, historic, and completely black-controlled denominations founded during slavery. Although there have been African-American believers in denominations governed by white Americans — the Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches, for instance — Lincoln’s definition includes seven major historic black denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (A.M.E.Z.) Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church; the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Incorporated (N.B.C.); the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (N.B.C.A.); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (P.N.B.C.); and the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.).

Black churches, suggests Lincoln, should not be viewed as replicas of the white churches from which they were excluded. Instead, they reflect an entirely different Christian worldview. In the Black Church, God is seen as an avenging force for liberation; he conquers oppression and injustice in the same way that he liberated the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

Although black and white Christians agree on the core message of salvation, Lincoln argues that they differ on the biblical concept of freedom from the bondage of sin. For African-American believers, this freedom means the absence of any restraints caused by injustice. For white American Christians, Lincoln says, it means the ability to pursue one’s individual destiny without interference.

Another argument given for leaving things as they are is based on the theory of the “homogenous unit” as crucial to church growth. But John Perkins, a longtime trailblazer and ambassador of reconciliation, counters that a gospel of church growth cannot substitute for a gospel of reconciliation — because the only purpose of the gospel is to reconcile people to God and each other. In fact, he says, multiracial worship is a catalyst for church growth in today’s divided world.

Without question, the Black Church as a “homogenous unit” has raised up centuries of morally excellent leaders and equipped them to address issues of social and economic justice. Many social justice movements; historic black social, economic, and educational institutions; the Civil Rights Movement; and much of the African-American political leadership all have roots in the Black Church. In addition, for centuries, the Black Church as a “homogenous unit” has been a sanctuary and safe haven for African Americans challenged by racial bigotry.

Yet neither the crucial historic role of the Black Church since slavery, nor its existence as the only institution in America fully owned by African Americans, is sufficient rationale for black Christians to ignore the compelling biblical call to community, unity, and reconciliation through Jesus Christ with Christians of other races, particularly white Christians.

Biblical Reconciliation in the Church: The Compelling Message of the Cross and Grace

Reconciliation in the Greek is katallassō and means a “radical exchange.” Nothing is more radical than exchanging historic division and hostility for friendship and partnership for the sake of Christ. Reconciliation is closely tied to the biblical concept of grace, the free gift or unmerited favor of God, by which “we are saved” from enslavement to sin (Ephesians 2:5). With grace, the work of freeing humanity from bondage has already been completed by God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The only job for believers is to operate with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, in forging cross-racial friendships and multiracial worship opportunities that tear down age-old barriers that are offensive to God.

The late evangelist and author Tom Skinner often preached that as citizens of the kingdom, believers are to be in the world “the live expression on earth of exactly what is going on in heaven, where Jesus is Lord and God is in control.” They have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1), who, through Christ, has already broken down the “dividing line of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). But this peace must be walked out by those whose only agenda is pleasing God and obeying his Word in order to replace our culture of racial division with a new culture of harmony and unity.

It is inconceivable that God released believers from bondage to sin only for them to become enslaved and trapped into separate racial compounds despite the cross and grace that have “set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Notwithstanding the reality of racism and the continued work of eradicating it, the Black Church can become an incredible witness for the power of the cross and of God’s grace as leaders and members of a “new community” of liberated believers operating out of love and obedience — not fear, tradition, or comfort zones.

There are many reconciliation pioneers and new-generation reconciliation practitioners today who provide theological resources, models, and tools for African-American Christians prepared to take leadership as agents of racial healing. One challenge will be for white brothers and sisters in Christ to follow Christ-centered black leaders who answer the call to biblical reconciliation. I believe that this kind of leadership with roots in the Black Church will inspire hope, encourage unity, and help to break down age-old barriers between people of all backgrounds, including the barriers between the Black Church and the White Church — for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Barbara Williams-Skinner is president of Skinner Leadership Institute, which she founded in 1992 with her late husband: evangelist, author, and pro sports chaplain Tom Skinner. The goal of the Institute is to inspire a new generation of technically skilled and spiritually mature leaders. She is a nationally recognized spiritual leader and coach, teacher, lecturer, and mediator, and has worked with groups as varied as congressional leaders, college students, clergy, and urban youth.


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