A New Southern Presbyterianism?

For some people Southern Presbyterianism and racial reconciliation is oxymoronic.  But the elusive reality of diversity and unity in the church just took a significant step forward.

First Presbyterian Church
I recently participated on a panel about the topic “Christianity and Race” at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi.  The church has over 2,500 members, is the largest Presbyterian congregations in the state, and one of the founding congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination.  It has also been the subject of much controversy in the past regarding the racist stances of some of its members.

The panel which was part of the church’s “Friday Forum” series included the prominent Senior Pastor, J. Ligon Duncan, III  as well as Rev. Elbert McGowan, Jr. of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at Jackson State University (the first such chapter on the campus of a historically Black college), Rev. Wiley Lowry, Minister of Pastoral Care at First Pres., and myself.

The panel was divided into three segments.  In the first segment each of the panelists highlighted significant events from their past regarding race.  In the second segment, Dr. Duncan and Rev. McGowan each respectively spoke about the history of First Presbyterian Church and the gospel imperatives surrounding race.  The final segment was devoted to a question and answer period.

In the days following the panel many people asked me the same question, “How did it go?”  In an attempt to encapsulate an enormous amount of information, here are three reflections I’ve had since the Friday Forum at First Pres. regarding Christianity and race.

1. Be Glad that It Happened
We can’t overlook the historical significance of this moment.  The fact that the historic First Presbyterian Church hosted a discussion about race and the church can hardly be overstated.  For many this single night of discussion didn’t go nearly far enough.  And while it’s true this is only a start, it is indeed a start.

Conversations like the one that happened at this forum tend to spark curiosity.  Curiosity leads to learning, and learning leads to action.  Even though these few hours of conversation may have seemed like the heaping up of so many words, ideas have often sparked reform.

2. Young Adults Lead the Way 
There’s a new generation of Southern Presbyterians and they’re demanding change.  The Friday Forum was part of the young adult ministry at the church.  Nearly 100 people, most of them in their 20s gathered to hear from men–White and Black, youthful and experienced–about the topic of race and the church.

This largely White group of men and women have grown up in a different age.  They are the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement.  They have gone to school with Blacks, they have worked with them, they have seen a Black U.S. President elected, and they are looking for more.  They recognize that their churches don’t resemble their communities and they want a different reality.

Many movements are led by the youth and this one is no different.  It will be gatherings of young adults like this one that provide the energy, innovation, and passion to push forward the conversation on racial diversity, inclusiveness, and equity in the church.

3. There’s an Older Generation that “Gets It” 
The leaders at First Presbyterian Church didn’t delegate this difficult conversation about race.  The Senior Pastor himself took on the topic in a public platform.  He addressed the long and often painful history of his church regarding racial issues.  Although he was not there for most of the particularly sad moments of the church’s past, he did not shy away from the mistakes of his predecessors.  In fact, he owned them as part of his ecclesiological heritage.

The other leaders, too, recognize that now is the time for change.  In countless and unheralded ways the ministers of this Presbyterian church have been sowing the seeds of racial solidarity.  These seeds are scattered in coffee shop conversations, in Sunday School lessons, and distributed in the form of verbal and material support for other reconciliation work.

It’s All Because of the Gospel 
It’s all because of the gospel.  Gospel truth doesn’t leave any room for equivocation on matters of racial and ethnic inclusiveness in the church.  Many ministers of Southern Presbyterianism have come a long way since R.L. Dabney and others who held similar theological positions dominated the discussion.

These servants of the Word see the multi-ethnic promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  They see the implications of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  They understand the necessity of John 17:21, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  And they see the consummation of unity in diversity displayed in Revelation 5:9, “you [Christ] ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

If you think it improbable that a denomination so steeped in historical racism could overcome its past, then I urge you to remember the gospel.

Remember Paul who looked on with pleasure as Stephen was stoned to death but who later went on to write half of the New Testament.  Remember Tom Skinner  the gang leader of the Harlem Lords who, while planning what would have been the biggest gang fight in New York City’s history, stood up the next day in front of his army of misfits and testified to his new life in Christ.  If you are a believer, then remember your own story.  How you were once shackled to sin and how Christ took a hammer to your chains by submitting to the hammer that nailed Him to the cross.

If our Lord is able to deliver these men and us from our past sins is He not also able to deliver a denomination, a church, its leaders, and its young people from the benighted behavior of their forebears?  He is able. And He is willing.  Are you?

Listen to the Panel Discussions:
Christianity and Race pt. 1
Christianity and Race pt. 2
Christianity and Race pt. 3

16 thoughts on “A New Southern Presbyterianism?

  1. Very encouraging. Also very encouraged with Elbert McGowan leading RUF at Jackson St, and the African American Leadership initiative at RTS in Jackson MS – praise the Lord as we move forward. (a middle aged reformed Christian from Jackson who happens to be white)

  2. After going to RTS (06-10), moving away, and then moving back again this past year, I have seen remarkable changes. Reformed Theology is sweeping through the African American church, and it is incredible to watch. I am also seeing more predominantly white churches make huge strides to become more diverse congregations. So thankful to be a part of such a fruitful time here in the Jackson area.

  3. I’m all for racial reconciliation, but I have to admit that I’m concerned that the trend will have the (perhaps unintended) consequence of undermining the theological heritage of Southern Presbyterianism (embodied in such luminaries as Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, etc.), and thereby weaken its confession.

    1. Much skepticism still remains concerning efforts toward racial solidarity and diversity in our congregations, especially Southern Presbyterian ones. Many worry about the diluted theology of the “social gospel” creeping into the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage.

      I contend that it is, in fact, fidelity to the historic Reformed doctrines (simply a systematic articulation of biblical teachings) that enable authentic equity among different people in our church. No true reconciliation is possible if there is any dilution of the gospel’s message of reconciliation, first with God and then to each other.

      While the Southern Presbyterian theologians you mentioned made valuable contributions to Reformed theology, we must also recognize that the theological heritage of Southern Presbyterianism also had its imperfections with tragic results.

      You may be encouraged to hear that we still read Dabney and Thornwell at the seminary I attend in the heart of the South. YET, the critical element that allows me as an African American to read such men with appreciation is the caveat that our professors have wisely begun to articulate. Some of the most prominent Southern Presbyterian theologians got it wrong when it came to race (just as other theologians from other backgrounds got other elements of their theology wrong). We can acknowledge that they were men of their time and reject their flawed exegesis with its racist conclusions, even as we learn from the more wholesome parts of their teachings.

      But, sir, we cannot and must not simply hold these men up as examples of godly believers and astute theological thinkers without the explicit, verbal articulation of their grave shortcomings. Such historical accuracy and racial sensitivity will be what defines the progress of Southern Presbyterianism in our day.

      1. I appreciate your moderation and candor on some emotionally-charged topics. Whatever may divide us from Dabney, et al., there is much more that unites us, which will be gloriously apparent when we spend eternity together.

      2. What precisely did they say when the “got it wrong”?. I’m from ND – not a Southern. Got it wrong in the sense that no one has ever considered there hermeneutics defensible, ever in history? I am against spending church time on cultural issues and to “get the folk together so they look rainbow”, but since when has there been a bar to anyone who hungers and thirsts for Reformation comforts? What is it you are trying to facilitate? A certain look and feel? You present in the garb of cultural reform and transformation and not in the dress of the gospel doctrines so consider me as “unsold”.

  4. Jemar, as one raised Presbyterian out west, much of what you describe in the cultural heritage there is foreign to me as far as the denomination goes. The racial issues in general are not though. I am so glad to read of the way the power of the Spirit and the gospel has led to this panel discussion. God will surely build his kingdom as he leads his people further into reconciliation.


    P.S. I recently ran a guest post a friend wrote on one-to-one racial reconciliation in the Body of Christ.

    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog and reading, Tim. And thanks for sharing that guest post. It’s a brief, but poignant anecdote that clearly portrays the subtle and unintentional ways that we hold and act upon racial and cultural stereotypes.

      Recognizing these moments for what they are, signs of ignorance that necessitate greater communication and understanding, will help Christians demonstrate the love and unity Christ talks about in John 17.

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