The Gospel and Race: A Pastoral Letter

In the coming days I will be posting the pastoral letter approved in 2004 by the PCA on “The Gospel and Race” in serial form.  Here is the preface, helping to set the stage.

———————————————————————————————-

To: Teaching and Ruling Elders of the PCA
From: the 32nd General Assembly

“The Gospel and Race: A Pastoral Letter” was adopted by the 32nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. This letter is commended to our churches to clarify the position of our denomination on very important issues relating to racism in the past, present, and future. It is also intended to provide guidance in examining our own hearts with respect to this issue and lead the flock the Lord has entrusted to our care.

The letter seeks to provide a definition of racism, a theological perspective on racism, pastoral responses to racism and discussion of pastoral issues relating to racism. Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races. From a biblical perspective, it is the position of the General Assembly that racism, as it is defined in the letter, is sin, and that repentance must follow both individually and corporately.

James reminds us that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26b). We call on each elder, session, presbytery, committee, and agency of our denomination to study this letter and seek to turn from the sin of racism even in its most subtle of forms. You are strongly encouraged to engage the leadership of your church in examining this issue with the objective of developing specific actions you will follow to lead your congregation in conviction and repentance of this sin, whether in its most subtle or most overt form.

It is the prayer of the General Assembly that our Lord Christ will be glorified and that His grace will be poured out upon each of us as individuals as we struggle daily with sin and as we rest in the promise of reconciliation found in His Gospel.

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47 Comments

  1. jeffhutchinson said,

    October 20, 2009 at 6:18 am

    Restating things just a bit, the preface establishes these points:

    1. The position of the PCA on very important issues related to racism needs clarifying.

    2. Elders are called to examine our own hearts for racism.

    3. Elders are also called to lead our flocks with respect to these matters.

    4. Racism (defined as any explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races) is sin, and repentance must follow both individually and corporately.

    5. Each elder, session, presbytery, committee, and agency of our denomination is called to study this letter and seek to turn from the sin of racism even in its most subtle of forms.

    6. Each elder is strongly encouraged to engage the leadership of their church in examining this issue with the objective of developing specific actions we will follow to lead our congregation in conviction and repentance of this sin, whether in its most subtle or most overt form.

    7. The great hope is that our Lord Christ will be glorified and that His grace will be poured out upon each of us as individuals as we struggle daily with sin and as we rest in the promise of reconciliation found in His Gospel.

    Amen to all seven. Lord have mercy on me, and on us all.

  2. Richard said,

    October 20, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Is this really necessary? Isn’t a proper Reformed emphasis on the law and its uses sufficient to convict us of our remaining indwelling sins and our need of daily repentance without having us focus on a particular sin?

  3. Paige Britton said,

    October 20, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Well, but don’t different ages (of man and civilization) swirl up different permutations of sin? What’s wrong with naming some of them, and giving each other the heads-up that this is likely a shared fault, given our place and time?

  4. Richard said,

    October 20, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    And are some “permutations of sin” worse than others? Aren’t we instead concentrating on “cuturally relevant” sins intead?

  5. Paige Britton said,

    October 20, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Racism gets a lot of liberal press, and it’s very “PC” to talk about it. But does this mean we should avoid talking about it ourselves, because we’re being PCA and not PC? How about talking about it wisely? That would be a change. (Compare the Belhar, which Lane brought up a few posts ago, with this letter in tone and content!)

    The sin of racism, like the sin of misogyny, is a particularly grievous one to experience, because it involves the rejection of one’s very person, down to a providential combination of physical factors that one has no control over. Sure, there’s always the possibility of oversensitivity and the temptation to play the victim card. We’re all sinners. But for “love to do no harm to its neighbor,” we might need to walk in the neighbor’s shoes a little, to see things from his perspective.

    I’m not sure if this permutation of sin is among the top ten worst — there are lots of terrible ones — but it doesn’t seem, anyway, an ill-conceived thing to consider it thoughtfully.

  6. Tim Vaughan said,

    October 22, 2009 at 4:32 am

    The fact that my hackles were raised the first time I read that made me suspicious that the issue probably had to be addressed.

    Hey, Paige, misogyny? How would you say that manifests itself in Reformed circles? That last time I saw that allegation it took the form of a woman whining that the PCA’s exclusion of female deacons hurt her feelings ;-)

  7. Richard said,

    October 22, 2009 at 8:02 am

    Yeah, Tim, this puts the finger on the problem, I think, when we start concentrating on particularly culturally “relevant” sins instead of letting the whole law blast us and drive us to repentance.

  8. Reed Here said,

    October 22, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Richard: not sure you intend this, but it sounds as if you’re falling into an eithor/or trap.

    It is not that we have to choose between emphasizing that whole condemnation of the Law versus only emphasizing particularly culturally relevant sins. Rather, Scripture models the emphasis of both.

    I use Paul’s advice to Titus concerning the Cretans as a typical example (Tit 1:12.) Note there that the emphasis of a culturally relevant sin was part and parcel of the emphasis of the whole law. Indeed, it could be argued that Paul is using the culturally relevant sin as a doorway through which to bring the emphasis of the whole Law.

    I appreciate the tendency in other traditions to label the culturally relevant sin(s) as THE SIN responsible for all our ills. This is indeed falling into the either/or trap.

    I do not think however, that this is what is motivating or occurring in this statement from the PCA. (By way of support, notice that this is not the only culturally relevant sin upon which the PCA has spoken. That in itself demonstrates that the PCA is not falling into the failure of the other traditions.)

  9. Paige Britton said,

    October 22, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Hey, Tim,
    I mention misogyny only because of its similarity to racism on the receiving end — the experience of being rejected as a whole person. I’m not meaning to implicate the PCA in that direction or anything. My own experience with milder forms of misogyny (whether in Christian or secular circles) has schooled me to expect that in any given situation, I’ll likely have extra hurdles to jump through or suspicions or assumptions to overcome, just because of the gender factor. My frustration with that kind of thing is a mild reflection of the hurt that must occur when someone is rejected more overtly or violently because of their DNA.

  10. Paige Britton said,

    October 22, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Maybe I should define terms more specifically, so I don’t mislead: “misogyny” is literally “the hatred of women,” and it has its virulent and overtly poisonous forms that few of us could miss. I would extend the definition to include more subtle forms of “unlove” that come in the form of assumptions, suspicions, expectations, indifference, sarcasm, etc. It’s a matter of being perceived first — and negatively — as one of a subset of human beings, rather than perceived first — and lovingly — as a human being.

    And I DON’T think that this applies to a limited deaconate.

  11. Paige Britton said,

    October 23, 2009 at 4:32 am

    And one further note, just to be clear — in the three short years that I’ve been a part of a very conservative PCA congregation, I’ve been on the receiving end of more than my share of friendly welcome & encouragement from my brothers, something I had grown unaccustomed to in a general-evangelical egalitarian setting! :)

  12. Zrim said,

    October 23, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Paige,

    When it comes to misogyny, remember there’s a difference between a male chauvinist and a male chauvinist pig.

    But I think Richard has an important point that shouldn’t be either analyzed away or dismissed. Misguided (and eventually silly looking) ecclesiastical reports on things like “women in combat” owe to the impulse of being culturally relevant. Granted, it’s a doctrine that has fallen on very hard times in the modern age, but in the end, this is all a spirituality of the church issue.

  13. Paige Britton said,

    October 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

    So, if my calling is to analyze things, is your calling to complain about them? :)

    Do you think there could be any difference between talking about women in combat and talking about racism? I can see the women in combat issue being entirely KoM, but racism seems to have an overlap with the KoG (in that all races & tribes & etc. are a part of it, and we’re not fully sanctified so we’re still due for some reteaching about loving each other).

    But how that reteaching is to occur without interfering with the spirituality of the church is another matter. Here’s a pastoral letter; so that means, I guess, that pastors read it, and sessions, and maybe even deacons (Zrim rolls his eyes). And maybe it’s made available to congregations. But if it doesn’t ever become a central feature in worship (as the Belhar Confession would!) — is there anything wrong, then, with thinking that its contents might be useful to believers, and might trickle down into their speech and behavior? We read books and articles that do that, don’t we?

  14. David Gray said,

    October 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    >I can see the women in combat issue being entirely KoM

    How so? At least as applied to practice by members of the church…

  15. Zrim said,

    October 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Paige,

    Do you think there could be any difference between talking about women in combat and talking about racism?

    Short answer, no.

    Extended answer, I think the better question, and one much harder to pursue, is whether a concern is worldly or ecclesiastical. It seems to me the way you have set the question up it’s asking us to decide between one worldly concern or another. Women in combat was a worldly concern in a very specific time and place, race relations is a much much broader worldly concern that spans time and place. The former is easier to spot as worldly because of its rather provincial status. The latter is the sort that I think tends to get mistaken for spiritual because of its expanse and wider cultural appeal.

  16. Zrim said,

    October 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    …by the way, this mistaking higher stakes worldly issues for spiritual ones is also what seems to owe to ecclesiastical statements on abortion. I know that one will hurt, but conservatives aren’t immune to the liberal notion that “the world sets the church’s agenda.”

  17. Paige Britton said,

    October 23, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    David — I was trying to think like Zrim there (it isn’t as easy as it sounds). I think the KoM deal is that even if believers are involved, it is not the church’s work or concern if it’s not spiritual. Period. The KoG part is to be entirely different from the KoM part. The schizophrenia you feel is a hallmark of dual citizenship.

    Zrim, does the KoG part only happen on Sundays? If Christians get together during the week, are they ever doing KoG stuff?

  18. Zrim said,

    October 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Paige,

    How could daily obeying the law of God in gratitude for Christ’s work on our behalf be anything other than “KoG stuff”? Daily family worhsip seems KoG-ish as well.

    But the point of asking if something is worldly or spiritual isn’t to try and render the individual non-activity of believers during the week, but to watch out for potentially breaking the back of the church. Think of it this way: if women in combat, abortion and racism should be issues the church takes on, what’s to stop her from having to take on questions of labor unions, government bailouts and sexism?

    Even so, I’m not at all saying these social concerns are negligible, but it seems to me that if we took seriously that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (and the second greatest commandment) that we would have little need in the church for the laws of men. Doesn’t Galatians have something over All The Colors of Benneton?

  19. Reformed Sinner said,

    October 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    While in principle there’s nothing wrong with PCA having an official view on racism, however, the tricky part is the discussion itself is so heated and emotional that I fear it would not bring out an honest analysis and debate, but rather force the PCA to go along with the “PC” line, after all, if you’re not PC about racism then you are a racist.

  20. David Gray said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:59 am

    >I think the KoM deal is that even if believers are involved, it is not the church’s work or concern if it’s not spiritual. Period.

    So the church should be unconcerned with anything believers actually do?

  21. Paige Britton said,

    October 24, 2009 at 5:01 am

    Thanks, Zrim. Yes, Galatians over Benneton. And when we look around at our fellow living stones, that should be all we need. I am just thinking that some of us are blockheads enough to need things spelled out in more detail from time to time. I wish we could separate something of the “racism” issue from the PC bandwagon it’s on, take a good look at it, and then go back to Galatians with a more honest view of ourselves in mind. But maybe not on Sunday morning.

    I am in agreement with you about the slippery slope of Activism. I’m just sorry that the racism bit is jumbled in there, because I think it’s one sin that permeates the borders between church and world, and that some of us need to be klonked over the head with it by name, in a wise way.

  22. Tim Vaughan said,

    October 24, 2009 at 5:34 am

    “Think of it this way: if women in combat, abortion and racism should be issues the church takes on, what’s to stop her from having to take on questions of labor unions, government bailouts and sexism? ”

    Deborah deals with women in combat. Exodus 21 talks about abortion. Deut. 23:7-8 deals with racism (blacks (Egyptians) whites (Edomites) allowed full integration after the 3rd generation) government bailouts is easy: the sixth Commandment. Lots of Scripture deal with issues of gender, e.g. Num. 30, 1 Cor. 14, 2 Tim. 2. The church should deal with all this things. The church should just be careful to be right.

  23. Paige Britton said,

    October 24, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Hey, David —
    I’m just in the 2K tutorial, not a spokesperson, and am trying to sort this out too. “So the church should be unconcerned with anything believers actually do?” is pretty much the question I come to, too. Zrim can (and will) correct me if I get this wrong, but I think they’d put it like this. The church, as the preaching and worshiping body of Christ, is charged with proclaiming the gospel and administering the Sacraments. This sets it apart from the world. When worldly concerns or issues bleed into the church, the distinction between kingdoms is blurred, and attention to the real work of the Kingdom of God is drastically diminished.

    On the other hand, individual Christians may, in their Christian liberty, be involved in the secular world in whatever ways they wish, within God’s law. This would include political involvement or advocacy, which distinguishes 2K from an Anabaptist separatist kind of movement. This does also mean that Christians will come down on different sides of issues, and that there is not a “Christian” way to structure education or puppy mills or economics. Applying the Bible in those realms is a non-sequitur, because the Bible is about the KoG.

    Again, I’m not advocating this, just trying to understand it — I personally think there is maybe too much of a disconnect between the work of the church in this view, not to mention the Word of God, and the actual lives of believers. But I do agree with the assessment that churches can become so Activist that the gospel is diminished, and I do resent it when a Christian spokesperson labels something as a “Christian” way of approaching an issue when Christians actually differ in their opinions about how things should go.

  24. David Gray said,

    October 24, 2009 at 7:32 am

    >Again, I’m not advocating this

    OK. The position seemed to hold that there is not a Christian understanding of the relation of the sexes (i.e. whether Christian women should be in the armed forces).

  25. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Paige,

    I am just thinking that some of us are blockheads enough to need things spelled out in more detail from time to time.

    Total depravity isn’t utter depravity. It seems to me that what may inform the idea that we need special instructions on ill or wrong behavior is a function of Calvinism on steroids. But a better Calvinism actually seems suggest we know what right and wrong is and don’t need things spelled out. (Like I tell my kids, you know how to behave well so do it.) What we need is more indicative, not detailed imperative. And even if you don’t advocate 2K you seem to me to have a good grasp of it.

    Tim,

    The church should deal with all this things. The church should just be careful to be right.

    What we have to be careful about is distinguishing when we are fighting worldly battles in ecclesiastical dress.

    David,

    The position seemed to hold that there is not a Christian understanding of the relation of the sexes (i.e. whether Christian women should be in the armed forces).

    That’s not the position at all. There is indeed a Christian understanding of the relation of the sexes. The position, rather, is that there is a Reformed understanding of the relation of the spiritual and temporal spheres; specific civil concerns are not ecclesiastical concerns.

  26. David Gray said,

    October 24, 2009 at 11:25 am

    >specific civil concerns are not ecclesiastical concerns

    But the behaviour of congregants is…

  27. Paige Britton said,

    October 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Zrim,
    I’m totally with you on the indicative over imperative part. That’s the focus of a lot of my work, in writing and teaching. But I’ve gotta say, even Paul spelled things out about behavior from time to time! It’s not an either/or choice.

    Re. racism, there are Christian adults in my community who have imbibed a kind of poison from their parents that is just second nature to them now, in speech and attitude and sometimes action. Just because you and I have our Yankee minds straight about this stuff doesn’t mean everybody does. (And I, for one, would not mind some more reteaching in this area, because I know I’m ignorant and make assumptions about others’ experiences & positions.)

    Yes, the straight teaching of the gospel will make much difference in how even these folks perceive others; but generations worth of attitudes don’t get straightened out overnight. They might not even be noticed for a long time! I can see the need for some direct instruction. It doesn’t have to be from the pulpit — it could be just from a friend coming alongside and pointing these things out, or maybe a little more formally from a teacher once in a while. But I think some things need to be said.

  28. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    David,

    But the behaviour of congregants is [of ecclesiastical concern]

    Agreed absolutely. Church discipline has fallen on hard times. And the point of 1 Cor. 5 is precisely that the church should nurture its own. But the other point is that she has no business meddling in the affairs of those not her own. I’m not sure ecclesiastical statements on military policy, etc. reveal the ability to make that vital, Pauline distinction.

  29. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Paige,

    I hear you. But one of my other concerns is how this sort of thing can also turn into ways for contemporary times and places to stand in judgment of others. I’d like to believe my 2009 Yankee attitude is superior, but I suppose my Calvinism runs too deep to let me get away with that.

    Yes, the straight teaching of the gospel will make much difference in how even these folks perceive others; but generations worth of attitudes don’t get straightened out overnight.

    I can’t help but think what is given here about the power of the gospel with one hand is taken away with the other. I’m also leery of the premise that the point of the gospel is to “straighten people out.” The point is to reconcile sinners to a just God.

  30. David Gray said,

    October 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    >I’m not sure ecclesiastical statements on military policy, etc. reveal the ability to make that vital, Pauline distinction.

    But statements regarding what Christian women should do regarding the military are a different matter presumably.

  31. Paige Britton said,

    October 24, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Zrim,
    Of course the point of the gospel is not to straighten people out. I know that. I should have said, “The straight teaching of the Scriptures.” I was using vague Christianese.

    What’s your thinking behind your concern that “this sort of thing can also turn into ways for contemporary times and places to stand in judgment of others”?

  32. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    David,

    But statements regarding what Christian women should do regarding the military are a different matter presumably.

    First, it is my sense that the ecclesiastical statement on women in the military was more or less contemporaneous with it being a hot social topic. That indicates to me that it was closer to an instance of “the world setting the church’s agenda”; it was a way for the church to vicariously participate in worldly activity and make social statements under the thin guise of discipling our own (I’d make the same argument when it comes to abortion).

    Second, if you want to contend that it really was a way to disciple our own then where are the statements reminding “workaholic” fathers to shape up? My point isn’t that these things need to be equalized, because once we accept the premise that we need to specially address these things then the list goes on and on, and the church begins to resemble a glorified moral society. But it is interesting how we seem at ease ordering our women around but not our men.

    Third, military service is a matter of conscience and liberty.

  33. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Paige,

    What’s your thinking behind your concern that “this sort of thing can also turn into ways for contemporary times and places to stand in judgment of others”?

    I’m thinking of how we 21st century American believers look back on at 18th-20th century American believers and reckon them as nasty, unenlightened racists and sexists, etc. It seems a function of modernity to conceive of the latest generation as having figured out social morality while those in the past (or in other lands) are closer to being backward and dark-minded. This is what happens when we forget that the human condition should be evaluated by more than just a moral lens; human beings are complicated and so is their history.

  34. David Gray said,

    October 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    >Third, military service is a matter of conscience and liberty.

    Says who? That makes you sound like Andrew Sullivan…

  35. Paige Britton said,

    October 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Zrim-
    Well, maybe they were just racists and sexists? (Kind of the difference between male chauvinists, and male chauvinist pigs?) Just kidding. I know things are more complex than that.
    pb

  36. Zrim said,

    October 24, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    “…military service is a matter of conscience and liberty.”

    Says who? That makes you sound like Andrew Sullivan…

    Says the Protestant Reformation. Your question makes you sound like a descendant of the Radical Reformation.

  37. Tim Vaughan said,

    October 25, 2009 at 2:25 am

    The Protestant Reformation said Christian women should take part in organized military combat? I can think of a few cases where women dressed up as men and fought, but if they were every found out, they were sent home. All the Protestants I’ve read on the subject felt when Deborah said “And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding, the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honor; for Jehovah will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” it was a rebuke, not just an off the cuff remark.

    Zrim, shouldn’t you just make a list of which things the Church should address? That way there will be less confusion when it GAs are deciding on which issues to comment on. They can refer to your list. Just make sure it isn’t ambiguous.

  38. Zrim said,

    October 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Tim,

    Like I suggested above, 2K isn’t as much for making lists as it is about questioning the lists made by others.

    And I thought the story of Deborah was redemptive-historical, as in pointing to Jesus, not a way to divinize whether Jane may fly fighter jets.

  39. David Gray said,

    October 25, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    If this is a good example 2K would appear to be another way of rationalizing rebellion and conformity to the spirit of the age.

  40. Tim Vaughan said,

    October 25, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    “And I thought the story of Deborah was redemptive-historical, as in pointing to Jesus, not a way to divinize whether Jane may fly fighter jets.”

    Yes, and the Song of Songs has nothing to do with romance between a man and a woman.

  41. Zrim said,

    October 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    If this is a good example 2K would appear to be another way of rationalizing rebellion…

    That’s an interesting accusation (and new to me). But I wonder how one draws a straight line from the ethic to mind one’s own affairs to inciting rebellion. Wouldn’t that be easier to do with the ethic that nurtures meddling?

  42. David Gray said,

    October 25, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    >Wouldn’t that be easier to do with the ethic that nurtures meddling?

    Rebellion is disobedience not interference or non-interference.

  43. Zrim said,

    October 25, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Rebellion is disobedience not interference or non-interference.

    How are the proponents of the spirituality of the church rationalizing disobedience? This is a curious accusation, as the transformationists (who favor social statements like this) are constantly criticizing 2K for its insistence on civil obedience over against a western ethic that prizes civil disobedience.

  44. Paige Britton said,

    October 26, 2009 at 5:39 am

    Does David mean “rebellion” against the powers that be (“civil disobedience”), or “rebellion” against what he might call biblical principles or norms, like not having women in combat?

  45. Richard said,

    October 26, 2009 at 8:21 am

    You see–this discussion is an example of what happens when we concentrate on particular sins instead of letting the whole law blast us all into repentance. I’m with Zrim on this. Concerning the “women in combat” issue, the WTJ had a terrific article in 2002 speaking to the matter.

  46. David Gray said,

    October 26, 2009 at 9:19 am

    >Does David mean “rebellion” against the powers that be (”civil disobedience”), or “rebellion” against what he might call biblical principles or norms, like not having women in combat?

    Rebellion against God.

  47. Zrim said,

    October 26, 2009 at 9:29 am

    David,

    Forgive the bluntness, but your answers haven’t proved very helpful. Defining “rebellion” as “that which is against God” seems about as constructive as telling people “racism is bad.” And accusing 2K/SOTC as trafficking in rebellion seems like telling someone who happens to have fewer minority employees he’s clearly a racist.


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