Separate Unto God
by Willie White
Mr. White is pastor of Brookstone Baptist Church, Henderson, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 13, 1974, pp. 179-181. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
In this age of integration and ecumenism, one hears a great deal of talk about black and white churchesí "getting together." But before black churches and black Christians allow themselves to be carried away by the idea that they are called to usher in a golden age of reconciliation in the church, they should examine the meaning of this call.
For too long black Christians believed that the reason they had their own churches and ministers was that white Christians barred them from their "houses of God." It is true that after the founding of the black church community, blacks were barred from white congregations. But that is far from being the whole story behind the existence of the black church.
As is well known today (at least in the academic circles of the black church), Richard Allen is commonly considered the father of the black church because of his refusal to be a member of a congregation where white Christians were making the house of God an instrument in the dehumanization of black people. Yet the black Christian must now begin looking more deeply into Allenís simple act. The average black Christian who knows of this act is unable to grasp its significance -- unable to see that, with Allen, God and the Spirit of Christ were also walking out of the white churches of these United States. This is hard enough for black Christians to see; it is much harder, almost impossible, for whites to see.
How then can we speak confidently of Godís walking out? We can because that statement is consistent with the testimony of the early Christian church, and because the actions of white Christians in America were then -- and still are -- in radical contradiction to what Godís revelation in the Judeo-Christian faith has taught us: that God is universal and that his call is for all people to come unto him and into his house to partake of his love, his justice, his mercy -- indeed, of his very being. And the counsel of Jesus -- nay, the command of Jesus -- is that when the Christian testimony is rejected, his disciples are to depart from the place of the rejecters. It is this commandment, in obedience to which Allen refused to let white men make a mockery of the Christian faith, that stands today as the God-given birthright of the black church. For the establishment of the black church was not the work of a mere man; it was the work of Christ.
The revelation of God in the black church and in the lives and experience of black Christians has laid an obligation on black people: their task is to stand everywhere in the world as a Christian symbol of Godís opposition to oppression. White men must be made to realize that the black church is the instrument of God in this world, not just a group of nigger churchgoers who are separated unto themselves until the good graces of white men call them back into fellowship with white congregations.
The black church has a long history. Yet, because full apprehension of Godís revelation comes slowly, step by step, black Christians have been a long time discerning their purpose in the world. But now that purpose is being discerned, and those who have been enabled to discern it must tell the world about it.
The question confronting black Christians and white churches today, then, is not so much one of integration as it is one of ecumenism. And to me it appears that this is the question to which black Christians must direct their attention when they discuss black-white reconciliation in the church. Otherwise, they might ignorantly betray Godís purpose for them. For it is precisely Godís purpose that stands opposed to any deep ecumenical approach between the black and white churches of America. Integration is not the issue, because integration requires only that whites be tolerant when blacks become a part of their congregations (or vice versa, should such an unlikely thing ever happen). At most, integration only requires passiveness of whites. It has nothing to do with doctrine, it has nothing to do with theology, and it has nothing to do with Godís purpose as this relates to the mission of the black church. Ecumenism, on the other hand, has something to do with all these.
Ecumenism in the modern sense has to do with a union of all churches that fly the banner of Christianity. It involves a reconciliation of their "faith and order." It involves give-and-take -- indeed, a watering-down of that which is held to be true. And by this time we black churchmen should have arrived at such an understanding of Godís will and nature as will enable us to refuse the white manís continued attempts to water down the things we hold to be true and dear.
Ecumenism also involves the question of order or church polity. As one examines the structures of black churches and white churches, it seems that this question presents few problems. But there is no telling Ďhow soon and how much this area of the churchís life will begin to differ as between the black and the white churches.
Godís revelation in the black experience calls for continued development of, and continued commitment to, a theology that will counter oppression and uphold justice the world over. This development and this commitment began with Allen and were nurtured by black churchmen through the King era. Now they must be carried on by the black churchmen and theologians of our time. They are not the mission of the African Methodist Episcopals, the Baptists, or what have you; they are the mission of the black church as a whole.
This, then, is what ecumenism means for the black Christian: crossing those petty lines of division which we have patterned after white churches and denominations and entering into that broader area of the Christian faith which God has delivered into our hands. It means (to borrow Bonhoefferís phrase) that black Christians must now "come of age," must realize that the Baptist Articles of Faith and other such statements have nothing to do with the definition of the black church. The black church is defined by the very ideas which demand a new ecumenism among black Christians.
The black church is defined not by any or all of the traditionally accepted creeds but by the creed of liberation: the creed that one man does not have the right to oppress another, be the other black or white, baptized by immersion or by sprinkling, fashionably attired or running naked in the jungle. It is defined by the creed that the dehumanization of one man by another is in total contradiction to the way of Christ and must be opposed. And it is this creed which makes possible the black Christian or black church community -- one that some of the faith have hinted at over the years.
Recall the testimony of many an unlearned black churchman who stood before his people to declare to minister and layman alike that "it makes no difference what church or what denomination you belong to, as long as you have Jesus." This faith was affirmed time and time again by unlearned men of God. Obviously, it lacks the refinement of a school theologianís statement of faith. But the learned black churchmen and theologians are only now ready to finish what the unlearned started. They are only now ready to put their theological tools to the right task: that of hewing out a refined theological or creedal statement of just what the black community of faith is all about -- what it is about above and beyond denominationalism. But it is precisely at this point that the ecumenical movement as it involves the black church comes to a halt. It cannot go beyond this point.
And why? Not because of any shortcomings on the-part of the black church, but because of the shortcomings of white churchmen. Where black churchmen were bound together across denominational lines by the spirit of justice which -- though at times only timidly -- opposed the oppression and dehumanization of others, white churchmen were united across those lines by a spirit of hatred for black people. This was their spirit of ecumenism, and it still exists in the white churches of this nation.
In the past, some of those who have looked for theological and doctrinal differences between white and black churches have concluded that such differences, if any, were minor. But it should now be clear to white and black churchmen alike that the theological differences between them are very real, and that they form barriers which, in my opinion at least, are insurmountable for the present generation unless, of course, white churches are ready to make a radical commitment to the fight for justice on behalf of the oppressed. But that fight cannot be limited to the U.S.A.; it must be carried wholeheartedly into Rhodesia, into South and Central America, into all places where Godís people are ill-treated and held in bondage. But since, as it seems, white churchmen cannot deal boldly with the issue of integration, they can hardly be expected to take on the more challenging issue of justice.
To be sure, we shall be reminded that white churchmen have made "significant" contributions to the cause of justice and freedom. Well, what is the test of a Christianís action? Certainly not the fact that, in a given situation, he took positive action when he could have chosen to do nothing or to act only negatively. Rather, a Christianís action is to be evaluated (if at all) in the light of what he could have done (his potential commitment) as compared with what he did (his actual commitment). Whites have not elected to apply this principle to their dealings with black people; therefore, blacks are not impressed by their "significant" contributions to the cause of justice.
No doubt the charge will be made that we blacks are advocating hatred and discrimination in reverse -- that we are saying that people should be admitted to the church according to the color of their skin. We are saying nothing of the kind. Certainly I present no theological objections to blacksí becoming members of white churches or to whitesí becoming members of black congregations.
As for the black church, it is the body of Christ and it is open to all people. So far as I know, the black church has always lived by the precept that, as the church of the living Christ, it has no authority to turn men and women from the doors of grace and salvation because they are of a different color. Nor is there any indication that the black church contemplates such an ungodly and unchristian practice. When we say No to a black-white ecumenical movement, we are not saying No to those whites who may wish to become committed through the black church to the work of Christ for the oppressed.
If we black churchmen are separated unto God, what should be our standards for discipleship? Obviously, if we are to take our churchís mission seriously, we cannot continue with our present procedures. We have opened the doors of the Lordís church to people of all degrees of commitment, asking only, "Do you want to join the church?" If the answer is in the affirmative, the "transaction" is completed as quickly and as simply as a transaction between a child and a candy salesman.
But if the black church is to live up to its mission as a body separated unto God to do his work in the world, then it must give prominence to the question of commitment to Christ the Liberator. There are too many black churchmen and churchwomen who would not lift a finger or give a mite for the liberation of their oppressed sisters and brothers. How can they possibly claim a place in the black church?
This question of commitment becomes even more crucial when we say that the black church must be open to all people, whites included. How can the black church allow even one white man to become a part of its fellowship simply because he "wants to join the church," or because he "just likes the warm spirit of black churches"? Membership in the black church should be based upon commitment to Christ and the liberation of oppressed people. In the same way, the future of the black-white ecumenical movement must be based upon the commitment of the white church to Christ and liberation.
Is all this to say, then, that there is no hope of an ecumenical movementís maturing between black and white churches? No. We cannot say what Godís revelation holds for the future in this regard; we can only affirm what it says for the present. And that is that black Christians should get on with the fight for justice and an end to oppression in the world. This is the real ecumenical call of the black church.