Alan D. Strange
Does the church have something to say in the present civil crisis? Yes, it does. As the prime recipient and interpreter of divine writ, by the Spirit’s enablement, the church has something to say about racism and civil governance: it does because the Bible has something to say about such matters.
Certainly, we, as followers of the Lord Jesus, abominate the death of George Floyd, as one made in God’s image, and decry the police brutality that it so clearly demonstrated; yet while protests that begin and remain peaceful are permissible, Christians call for proper submission to civil authority, condemning rioting and looting as violent and destructive. We support our civil magistracy in the proper wielding of its power.
Some may assume that the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (SOTC) would forbid the church from saying anything about this. Charles Hodge, when he first encountered the usage of the SOTC by Southern Old School Presbyterian theologians in the late 1850s, was quite skeptical of it, fearing that it tended to muzzle the prophetic voice of the church. Hodge believed that the doctrine might be used to prohibit the church from addressing matters that were regarded as out of its province but that Hodge and others thought warranted the church’s attention, since they received notice in the Bible. Specifically, Hodge did not agree that the church could not address slavery as an institution, as it had in condemning it and calling for its end at the 1818 PCUSA General Assembly and as Hodge himself had in articles that he wrote, beginning in 1836, calling for emancipation.
For Hodge, the SOTC ought not to be adduced simply to keep the church from dealing with difficult matters that it would prefer to ignore. He wrote, in reflecting on the SOTC and the 1859 GA, that “there is a great temptation to adopt theories which free us from painful responsibilities,” going so far as to say that “to adopt any theory which would stop the mouth of the church, and prevent her bearing her testimony to the kings and rulers, magistrates and people, in behalf of the truth and law of God, is like someone who administers chloroform to a man to prevent his doing mischief.” Hodge found this sort of SOTC unjustifiable.
Hodge, on the other hand, came to appreciate and adopt a nuanced doctrine of the church’s spirituality. Although an ardent unionist and Lincoln supporter, vigorously opposing secession, Hodge believed that it was not the place of the institutional church to determine whether secession was permissible; that was a political question to be determined by political means. Hodge embraced the spirituality of the church, coming to understand that the doctrine at its heart means that the church is an institution that is Spirit-created and Spirit-filled, using spiritual means (the Word, sacraments, and prayer) to achieve spiritual ends—union and communion with Christ and each other as members of his mystical body. The church, as it goes into all the world evangelizing and discipling, does so in a spiritual manner (Matt. 28:18–20). It is a spiritual institution, one possessing the keys to the kingdom, not a biological institution, as is the family (having the rod), or a civil institution, as is the state (bearing the sword).
Although general revelation, in showing God and judgment, teaches equity, it is God’s special revelation that tells us, contra Neo-Darwinian naturalism, that man was made, male and female, in the image of God, and that there is a unity to the human race, even in all its ethnic diversity (Acts 17:26–28). Such diversity means richness of expression (Rev. 7:9–12), while it does not impede oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:28). All in him are a new humanity, though even outside of him, as Hodge wrote, there exists a remarkable “Unity of Humankind,” over against all the racialists and eugenicists of Hodge’s time.
Christians understand clearly that racism is contrary to the Bible’s witness to the saving of persons from every tribe, kindred, and nation. At the same time, it is also the case that the Christian church, the Presbyterian Church especially, was complicit in the racism that underlay and accompanied chattel slavery in America. Sadly, the most articulate theological justifiers of chattel slavery were certain Old School Presbyterian theologians. It should also be noted that the Covenanters, represented, at least partly, by the RPCNA, always opposed chattel slavery and employed ecclesiastical discipline for it. The church has, as no other institution, the theoretical basis for opposing all racism and like oppression, though we have in some quarters justified it and in others fought against it.
It is right that in recent years Presbyterian churches (one thinks especially of those in the South) that supported slavery and opposed racial equality should make amends for such by repudiating those positions and rescinding and expunging odious racial strictures from their minutes. It is also right that all of our churches have begun to be more intentional in condemning both historically held racist positions and reaching out across racial lines, seeking greater racial inclusivity internally and fostering fellowship with predominately African-American churches. We in the confessionally Reformed Christian churches need better to live out our convictions about the unity of the human race as those made in imago Dei. This is particularly true in the church as the new humanity who are one in Christ and are called to live out that identity in this poor, sin-benighted world. We do believe that black lives matter, together with all races, though the organization of that name (BLM) is another matter, unfortunately, having tenets that directly contradict the Bible.
It is the case that not only have the churches, lamentably, not done what they should have done over the course of American history respecting racism and slavery, but neither have the civil authorities. There has been much institutional abuse, roaring back after the Civil War with the rise of Jim Crow laws and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, ironically, who was “progressive” in many respects but re-segregated the federal work force, among other atrocities. Civil authorities since the Civil Rights Era have done much better and, generally, the laws as written are no longer racist. This doesn’t mean racism is dead, of course, as it involves heart issues, like hatred and lust, and will not be eradicated completely until Christ returns. We should, however, labor hard to eradicate such both in our own hearts and in civil society around us.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness not only of racism but also of other sorts of abuses. This abuse (familial, sexual, racial, class-based, etc.), either previously unknown or swept under the carpet, has emerged into greater public consciousness. Black men have long suffered excessive police attention: this and other sorts of abuse at the hands of officials has become more widely acknowledged. Radicalized social forces, like some in BLM and Antifa as a whole, have latched onto the claim of abuse (sometimes a valid claim, sometimes invented) and have used it as a sort of wedge to argue for and seek to bring about the far-left social views that they represent.
While it has been good to bring to light abuse(s) hitherto covered up, because leaders in every area of life need proper accountability, one of the real downsides of such revelations has been a loss of respect both for institutions and their office-bearers. Many now think that because husbands and fathers have abused their positions, all in those positions have forfeited their authority and rights. There is a prevalent sense all about us of revolution and the rejection of all due authority and the right exercise of power in the church, in the state, in education, in industry, etc. Opposing all power use by the “advantaged” is both Marxist and postmodern, but distinctly not biblical, which would teach us that the abuse of authority on the part of a father, elder, police officer, or governor does not invalidate all such authority. The abuse of something does not mean that no proper use can be made of it.
This systemic rejection of authority has resulted in widespread disrespect for our civil officials, especially our police, with many claiming that “all cops are bad cops.” Thus the cry of “abolish the police” goes up, meaning by some, serious reform and restructuring, but meaning something more radical to others. The church needs to witness to the world that we ought to respect due authority (1 Pet. 2:13–17) and yield proper submission to the lawful commands of the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1–7).
We ourselves, as both Peter and Paul make patent, not to mention our Lord himself in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), ought to be the most just and merciful with all ethnic groups and classes of persons (James 2:1–13) as well as those most properly submissive to proper authority (Matt. 22:15–22). That we all have failed in this is part of the reason that Jesus came to live and die for us. We are all natively sinners with respect to these things: loving only our own, being rebels, etc. We need to die to our self-centeredness and live in the love of God and neighbor. We must not allow differences of class, race, and other distinguishers to keep us from loving our neighbor. This is what the gospel empowers us to.
The author is an OP minister and professor of church history at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, August 2020.