[Here, now, is the conclusion to the PCA’s 2004 Pastoral Letter, “The Gospel and Race.”]
AS GOD’S PEOPLE, HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
How should God’s grace, given to us by the power of the Spirit through the Gospel, be evidenced in our lives by addressing the sins of racism? Through the Spirit, Peter provides a framework within which to address these issues practically, in speaking of the people of God as a new people, priesthood and nation, called out of darkness by His mercy. Since we are one people of God, we should not allow racial differences to divide us. While this is a spiritual reality and will be seen in its complete manifestation only in heaven, we are called to seek as full a unity of God’s people as possible in this age:
1Pe 2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1Pe 2:10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
God calls us to prayer.
We respond first with prayer because the challenges we face in living as God’s people are spiritual challenges. The power of Christ – alone – will bring triumph over sin and will bring holy living. In particular, unity in the church is brought about by the Holy Spirit. God calls us to pray that the Holy Spirit will break down barriers that separate us from one another and create the unity that ought to be exhibited within the body of Christ, that Christ will defeat the kingdom of Satan, that progress in reconciliation among Christians may be achieved in our generation as never before.
God calls us to self-examination.
God’s Word brings conviction to all of us:
Mt 7:1-5 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
All of us, by virtue of our fallen nature, have some elements of racism in our heart. Whether or not we judge people based on race as such, each of us is guilty of judging particular individuals or groups of people based on characteristics that are natural and which they are not able to change, or based on preconceived notions of the behavior of their particular group. What is more superficial than skin? The Lord calls us to judge only by righteous judgment, to examine our attitudes, our prejudices, our stereotypes. The Lord calls us to repent of such sin; to turn from it and to treat all persons with justice, mercy, and love.
The doctrine of grace is great because it enables us to be honest with ourselves before the Lord and to seek His loving correction so that, motivated by forgiveness rather than guilt, we may be more like Christ. Right motivation comes from knowing Christ as our Savior and seeking to do His will out of love for Him. God calls us to confess to Him our sins of commission and omission, even the thoughtless jest and the unchallenged racial slur.
God calls us to repent of the sins of our history.
Both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian traditions, out of which most of the founding congregations of the PCA came, allowed extensive propagation of error and confusion on the matter of race. Through both verbal and written statements these errors were freely presented not only as pragmatic realities, but also as sanctioned by Scripture: that certain races are inherently inferior to others; that slavery is justified; and that segregation based on race is justified, even if forced by law or institutionalized. The Southern Presbyterian tradition, in particular, publicly promulgated views of this nature to such an extent that they are inseparably identified with the teaching of the Presbyterian Church in the minds of many. Thus the Presbyterian Church failed to stand for biblical truth in these matters. Even where the official positions of the church did not reflect racist views, the silence of many in the church allowed the free expression of racist sentiments that were then perceived as the official position of the church.
One of the express motivations for the founding of the PCA was a desire to be the continuing Presbyterian Church. The founders of the PCA sought to establish a church in continuity with past biblical Presbyterianism, the distinctives of which were being eroded by non-biblical and even anti-biblical liberal theology. PCA founding leaders articulated the entirely positive and biblical motivations of preserving the inerrancy of Scripture, reaffirming the reformed system of doctrine and moving ahead boldly to fulfill the Great Commission. Since we are a product of this expressed intention to be the continuing Presbyterian Church, it is crucial that we repent of those teachings and actions in our history that are sinful, make a clear break from them and establish a new beginning in obedience, by God’s grace. A number of biblical texts present examples of such repentance.
Daniel addressed not only his own sins and those of his people, but also the sins of his fathers in prayer to God:
Da 9:4-19 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.
“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.
“Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.
“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”
Similarly, Ezra confessed past and present national sins:
Ezr 9:5-8 Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the LORD my God and prayed: “O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our forefathers until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. “But now, for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.
Nehemiah, in the same manner, confessed the past national sins:
Ne 9:5 And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
Ne 9:33-35 In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong. Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways.
Furthermore, the words of our Lord with regard to the sins of our fathers are particularly sobering and convicting:
Lk 11:46-51Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
Just as we celebrate those aspects of our history of which we are proud, we must also acknowledge with sadness and turn from those practices in our history that do not reflect biblical standards. We must profess, acknowledge and confess before God, before one another, and before the watching world, that the tolerance of chattel slavery, forced or institutional segregation based on race, and declarations of the inferiority of certain races, such as were practiced and supported by many voices in the Presbyterian tradition, were wrong and cannot be accepted within our ranks today.
For years we have left unattended in our midst the vestiges of racism, and the reality of its raw presence within corners of our denomination. We have been comfortable to let our brothers and sisters of races other than Caucasian quietly acquiesce to our unwillingness to make changes on their behalf, in contrast to Christ’s laying down His life for us. We repent of our offenses against our brothers and sisters in Christ. Both as individuals and together as a church, we are compelled by the Gospel to repent of racism in our own hearts and in our actions, and we are compelled to commit ourselves to wrestle against it personally and publicly. We repent of our sins of omission and commission in this area. We confess that we do not have the strength to overcome the power of racism and that we need Christ to be our Rock in this struggle. We confess that we do not know how to be the New Community of God’s People, and we confess our inadequacy to reflect the Gospel as it will be expressed in its fullness in Heaven. Yet, notwithstanding our inadequacies, we commit to seeking the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit, believing in the sufficiency of His sanctifying power to transform us, and we commit ourselves to follow that leading as we, in cooperation with other branches of Christ’s universal Church, pledge ourselves to ministry among every nation, tribe, people and language, both in North America, and in all other regions of the world. (For further discussion of practical ministry among the people groups of North America, see the resources listed in the Introduction.)
God calls us to repent of current racial attitudes and practices that are sinful, and calls us to deeds in keeping with repentance.
Racism is deeply entrenched in North America. Today, in the United States, there are many proponents, and even entire organizations, devoted to the acceptance of slavery, segregation, and the belief that one race is superior to another. Such views have an impact even within our own church community. We affirm that such practices are abhorrent to the Holy Word of God, are contrary to the proclamation and living out of the Gospel, and cannot be allowed in the church of Jesus Christ. Where segregation is no longer forced by law but has become institutionalized in our society, we are called to live out and apply the Gospel, so that people are treated as equals without regard to their race. This means not only addressing wrong doing, but also seeking racial reconciliation, acting justly and loving mercy as we walk humbly with our God and with one another (Micah 6:8). In North America today, there is a great influx of new immigrants from other regions of the world. The call to biblical witness among all peoples without prejudice or favoritism applies to our treatment of new immigrants. In our fallen human condition, it is difficult to avoid generalizations about people of a different race, whether based on our firsthand experience or the reported experience of others. God calls us to minister among the strangers within our gates; God calls us to minister among our neighbors without regard to their racial background.
God calls us to seek racial reconciliation, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Racism can prompt sins of omission, that is, the failure to stand for what is just and merciful in the treatment of others. Racism can also be manifested in active and passive forms. Some examples:
• Failure to evangelize people of other cultures and races within our communities and within the areas covered by our regional church, the presbytery.
• Exclusion or discouragement on the basis of race of any person from membership, privilege or responsibility, including leadership, in any church, or in the presbytery or General Assembly.
• Discrimination, based on race, against a Christian participant in worship services or other services or functions of the church.
• Disassociation with other branches of Christ’s Church due to differences in racial composition.
• Hiring based on matching particular races with particular jobs.
• Failure to apply God’s Word to racial issues, allowing the perpetuation of racist attitudes and practices within the church.
Some examples of positive actions that contribute to racial reconciliation:
• Seasons of prayer and repentance.
• Examination of the patterns, language, and culture within our churches that erect barriers to other races.
• Teaching in our services and classes concerning racism and callings for repentance in this regard.
• Reading publications by authors of other races.
• Development of individual friendships across racial lines.
• Ministry among new residents who are settling into a community and learning the American culture and language, including studying the cultures and languages of those living among us.
• Intentional efforts to raise up church leaders and share leadership in the church across racial and cultural lines.
• Cross-cultural ministries that include a variety of forms, including heterogeneous congregations.
• A return to ministry and church planting in our cities and other communities in which racial division and conflict is often most evident, bringing the healing power of the Gospel in Word and deed.
God calls us not to overlook these practices, but rather conscientiously to call one another to greater faithfulness to His Word.
God calls us to a practical ministry that is consistent with our understanding of the Gospel and our ecclesiology.
In the Presbyterian tradition, we seek properly to represent Christ’s Body by seeking rightly to administer the Word, sacraments and discipline. In the PCA, we believe that we have a biblical formulation of the Gospel and sound methods of evangelism and discipleship, and are therefore equipped to carry out the Great Commission, which is a call to make disciples of all people groups. Sometimes it is asserted that PCA distinctives will hinder progress in ministry among certain ethnic or socio-economic groups; however, if our distinctives are biblical, then we are well equipped and called to minister among all people groups.
The 31st General Assembly included in response to Overture 17 (p. 654) a call to “. . . the enhancement of existing ministries of mercy, across all social, racial, and economic boundaries, to the glory of God.” We reaffirm that call in this Pastoral Letter, and for guidance in practical ministry, we again refer to the resources listed in the Introduction.
God calls us to minister among the poor.
Ministry among the poor is closely related to the issue of racism, because of the frequent association of poverty with certain racial groups. Both Old and New Testament passages present God’s call to minister among the poor within the church and outside the church (Leviticus 19:10; Galatians 6:10). At the same time, great care should be taken – even in our motivation to show God’s mercy and help those in need – that we avoid stereotyping people of any race, automatically associating certain races and poverty in our own hearts and actions.
God calls us to develop cross-cultural relationships and ministries and to plant churches among the people groups of North America as well as the other regions of the world.
Cross-cultural ministry is a foundational commitment of the PCA, most often expressed in the call to missions in other regions outside of North America. God calls us to cooperate with others in His Church as well as to minister directly among all the races and cultures of North America as well. Often the need of the rest of the world is emphasized more than the need in North America because of the perceived relative absence of the Gospel in other regions of the world. In truth, however, geographical location is not the only, or even the primary, consideration in determining where cross-cultural ministry is to occur. In the case of peoples in North America, while there might be disparities of historical Gospel presence among different cultures, there is the ongoing need for cross-cultural Gospel ministry among all peoples, irrespective of ethnicity, language, culture or race.
Ps 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
1Jn 3:11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
1Jn 3:18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
As we conclude, let us be reminded again of the title of this Pastoral Letter, The Gospel and Race. And let us also be reminded of the finished work of Jesus Christ Himself on our behalf, through the words of the Apostle Paul:
Ro 3:21-25 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
This pastoral letter has addressed the issues of biblical and theological foundations; calls to prayer, self-examination and repentance; and practical outworkings of ministry. May it be our prayer that the Lord will graciously work in our hearts and lives by His Spirit, bringing us to self-examination, repentance and full commitment to His leading through His Holy Word, so that our lives will increasingly reflect these biblical truths: that all persons are created in His image, and that all who belong to the Body of Christ are His sons and daughters and members of one family, with no room for racial discrimination. May it be our prayer that the Spirit will work in great power through the Gospel, so that we who have been reconciled to God through Christ will be reconciled to one another through Christ, and built up into one holy household for His praise.