In 2018, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church formed the Revelation 7:9 Task Force, a committee formed to explore ways the EPC could better realize the Kingdom of God. The denomination faced a particular problem: we are overwhelmingly majority culture, with few people of color, particularly in the demographics of church leadership. But Jesus is a Lord to whom every knee should bow and every tongue confess. The EPC sought to diversify because it wanted to be in line with the gospel we were given in Scripture.
That attitude greatly aided us when George Floyd’s murder sparked a host of protests and riots that spread throughout over 100 cities in the US.
When the protests broke out, the National Leadership Team (NLT) called for the entire denomination to Lament with prayer and fasting. It even organized seminars on race and race relations.
Of the writers here at Reformed Margins, three of us are ministers in the EPC. What we saw from our denomination in the events both before and after Floyd’s death could only be described as Providential.
Shortly after the first national EPC seminar on race, a few TE’s in various presbyteries across the country got together to discuss the situation. All of us, except for one, were people of color. After some productive talks about our shared experiences, we decided to write a letter to the EPC that highlighted this new trajectory on race that started with the formation of the Rev 7:9 Task Force. This letter is our way of encouraging the EPC to continue on this trajectory and offers some practical suggestions on how to keep going.
I want to emphasize that this is a letter of encouragement and not dissidence. The EPC is our home. We offer this letter as a way to edify that home and help the denomination realize its desire to organically embody more of the Kingdom of God.
For a Time Such as This: a Letter to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church
“Racism is a concept that considers one racial group inferior or superior by another racial group.”(1)
Beloved Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) Family,
We write this letter in a spirit of encouragement and support as our denomination endeavors to lead in a time of racial injustice and civil unrest. We are grateful to the National Leadership Team (NLT) and the Revelation 7:9 Task Force for encouraging congregations to speak for justice and apply the wondrous truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to our current local and national contexts. We are thankful that the leadership of our denomination has exhorted Teaching and Ruling Elders not to remain silent in the face of racism and inequality. We are gospel people and, as the NLT and Rev. 7:9 Task Force have demonstrated, God has presented the EPC with a pivotal moment of gospel opportunity and potential.
We write this letter as an intentional effort to amplify the voices of ethnic minorities in the EPC. The diversity of our writers demonstrates a glimpse of the diversity we hope to see develop throughout our denomination. Yet it is not enough to hope. We must also work to realize the dream of a kingdom-reflective denomination.
We write this letter to add our voices to the myriad of others, from the National Leadership Team and Revelation 7:9 Task Force to those women and men of color who sit in the pews of our churches, asking that we not allow this moment to slip by. Conversations and debate are important but concrete steps must be taken by the EPC in a time such as this.
For a Time Such as This
The Book of Esther offers a helpful parallel to our current moment in the United States. In Esther, the Jewish people are once again enslaved and living under the threat of violence from a hostile kingdom.
The antagonist, Haman, is described as a “spiritual” descendent of the Amalekites (2), an ancient ethnic enemy of God’s people as depicted in Ex 17:8-16. Haman’s violence then is not merely political but is a racially motivated act. Haman, having been offended, used the law to over-police the situation to levy his hatred against an entire people group.
In chapter 4 Mordecai appeals to Esther, arguing that she is providentially in a position to protect her people from evil. He argues that perhaps it was for a time such as this that God had orchestrated her position as queen. She in turn uses her privileged status to deliver her people from destruction.
Our Pivotal Moment
May 20, 2020 was the day that Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was suspected of buying cigarettes with counterfeit money. Floyd’s murder sparked a firestorm of racial unrest, most likely exacerbated by cell phone video that caught Chauvin in the act.
Previously, many thought that racism was a problem that had been dealt with in the past. Cell phone video footage has caused many to rethink that position. Unfortunately, this horrific crime was not an isolated event. Countless acts of racial injustice have been overlooked.
Furthermore, numerous black voices have been arguing for years that police brutality was still being levied against their community and that this was an ongoing problem. The video of George Floyd’s murder is simply the latest of a growing collection of video evidence that corroborates that claim. This is why people are in the streets protesting and in some cases even rioting.
The deadly riots and thoughtless looting have called attention to a leadership vacuum as citizens struggle to respond rightly to racial violence. Secular organizations have stepped into this void and many, including Christians, have come alongside them. Such co-belligerency is not based on philosophical or political agreement, but because these organizations rightly uphold the value of Black lives that have been oppressed and killed due to racial hatred. Of course, the paradigms offered by secular organizations are often at odds with the truth of Scripture; yet Christians are left without a viable alternative. Christians need faithful voices centered in the Gospel that clearly recognize anti-Black violence as a reality that stretches from today, through the bloody history of lynching and segregation, and back to the evils of slavery.
This is where the American church, and specifically the EPC, can re-establish itself as an Abrahamic “blessing to all families”. There are protests and riots now, but sooner or later, meaningful discussions need to take place. As PCA pastor Timothy Keller once remarked, what is missing is a gospel-oriented perspective that can help frame the issue and offer meaningful solutions as we map out a way forward (3).
The Sin of Racism
All should recognize that racism is a sin. However, there is little in the way of agreement on the definition of racism today. Some definitions are too narrow, leaving only the most ardent neo-nazi white supremacists as racists. Other definitions are much too broad, declaring everyone to be a racist at heart.
Our fellow Presbyterian denomination, the PCA adopted the following definition in a committee report to their 46th GA (4):
Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races. Racism includes the social exclusion or judgment, or the segregating, of an individual or group of individuals based on racial differences, which always include physical appearance and its underlying genetic structure that are hereditary and unalterable (M32GA, p. 435).
This definition focuses on beliefs and practices, ultimately rooted in sin. Sin is first a heart condition that manifests as behavior. In other words, sin is “inside” the human being before it is “outside” in the world.
Still, this definition says nothing about structural or systemic racism. In the same report, the authors made note of a survey that showed that 53% of PCA elders believed that racism was structural, whereas 47% believed that racism was more of an individual problem.
Sin, however, is not merely an individual issue. Sin not only puts evil in the hearts of humans but also spawns world orders. If racism is a sin, it must be dealt with and never ignored, lest we as the church become complicit with an evil world order that bears no resemblance to a city whose foundation and builder is God. Therefore it must always be confronted seriously, including, if necessary, the implementation of church discipline with an eye to godly sorrow and repentance.
It is time for careful reflection within ourselves and our denomination. The PCA report identified an internal racism problem that they needed to address. Do we as the EPC have a problem as well? If so, how can we identify and define the issue to address it to edify the Church?
So What Should We Do?
No single paper, protest, or conference will be able to single-handedly overcome the sin of racism. This deeply embedded issue cannot be solved quickly. There are, however, initial steps we can take. The authors of this letter humbly submit the following:
- Remember the gospel.
The gospel is the necessary starting place for any discussion on race. Only the gospel can counteract the spiritual stronghold of racism in our church and country and allow us to soberly engage in race discussions without fear of condemnation due to guilt or shame. We need the voices of gospel preachers who are confident in their justification in Christ and can help us navigate this topic in winsome, wise, and God-honoring ways. People who choose to take responsibility, without being inundated by a sense of culpability, will be able to do these things well.
Our world is groaning with the labor pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22), yearning for the sons of God to proclaim our Kingdom-centric good news; a gospel that the poor, captive, oppressed, and disabled will hear and rejoice.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Those of us who are united to Christ can say no differently. Only the gospel gives us the confidence and conviction to have courageous conversations about race that are the necessary first steps for bringing shalom to our communities.
2. In humility, adopt a posture of listening.
Majority culture voices often tend to dominate discussions about race in most instances. This happens under the national spotlight, and it especially happens in evangelical seminars and conferences.
A humble posture of listening will center, rather than marginalize, the voices of BIPOC (5) thinkers and allow them to shape and frame the issue of racism, all the while understanding that the secular world, black or otherwise, will never have the final answer that is found only in Jesus Christ.
For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a brilliant thinker who is one of the best at intelligently framing issues of race and oppression. His writing is clear and penetratingly powerful. Still, he is an atheist. As such, there is no feasible way he will ever be able to offer gospel-oriented solutions to what essentially is a sin problem. Gospel-oriented solutions must come from gospel-oriented people. Therefore, priority should be given to gospel-oriented people of color for these solutions.
3. Commit to building spaces in our denomination that are safe for BIPOCs.
All of us should commit to building radically hospitable churches where BIPOCs feel safe enough to share their stories and can come away believing that they have been heard. This will require us all to learn how to come alongside people who are victims of racism and need understanding, support, and healing.
Accordingly, we should consider rethinking our definition of “multicultural.” Currently, that term refers to churches that are 20% non-white. Perhaps a better approach would be a church that targets minority cultures, centers BIPOC voices, and commits to power-sharing amongst majority and minority culture people.
Lastly, we should commit to planting churches in urban areas that specifically target communities of color. This might involve developing new and effective strategies as well as recruiting BIPOC church planters who are able to competently minister to those communities.
4. Treat racism as a disciplinable sin.
All sins should be confronted and, if necessary, disciplined in hope that offenders would repent and be restored. Racism as such is a disciplinable offense. Making this explicit in the Book of Order would go a long way in equipping leaders to deal with racism and establish our church spaces as shalomic for both minority and majority culture peoples.
5. Form a standing committee.
The Revelation 7:9 task force was a welcome initiative by the denomination. While the task force has yet to give its report to our upcoming General Assembly, there is a sense that the work it has done over the past two years has done much good.
Revelation 7:9 needs to be made a standing committee so that its work can continue to help the denomination navigate through this topic of racism.
In addition, we suggest that the EPC expand the scope of the Revelation 7:9 task force to include the investigation of the historical connections between Presbyterianism and racism and the ongoing issues of racism that persist in our churches today. While such work will undoubtedly be painful, it will also be invaluable in developing a theology of race that can provide our churches guidelines for navigating racial issues both now and in the future.
Shortly after a 2015 anti-semitic attack in France, former African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post regarding why the well-being of French Jews should be a Western global concern (6).
“If France is not safe for Jews, then the very future of Europe – and indeed the civilized world – is in real danger. History has demonstrated that Jews are the proverbial canary in a coal mine. Just as canaries in a mine die before humans are aware of toxic gases … and in dying warn of impending disaster, so is the state of Jews in their societies the test for the safety of the environment there. If the Jews in a particular society are, like the canaries, singing and thriving then all is well”
Rabbi Goldstein forcefully argued that how a country treats its Jews is an indicator of how that country will eventually treat all of its people, starting with the most marginalized and at risk.
In the United States, people of color––and more specifically, our Black brothers, sisters––fit that role. It is often said that we can gauge the health of our country by looking at how the least of us are being treated. More than that, our church is only as healthy as how the marginalized among us are being treated. Perhaps it was for a time such as this that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was called to serve the United States of America by faithfully demonstrating a better way: the way of the Kingdom of God. To quote the Civil Rights leader John Perkins, “There is no institution more equipped and capable of bringing transformation to the cause of reconciliation than the church.” (7)
This letter is a sign of our deep commitment to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and to seeing the EPC thrive. Therefore, we urge our brothers and sisters in Christ to acknowledge this opportunity to cultivate gospel unity in our churches.
TE J. Felix Kim, POTE
TE Michael Davis, POCS
TE Marcos Ortega, POTE
TE Dennis Yim, POPS
Christy Lee, POPS
TE Kenneth J. Buck, POTE
TE Glenn Marshall, POTE
TE Jamie Cupschalk, POTE
TE Tracy Johnson, POTE
RE Christopher Slone, POTE
TE Keith Fink, POTE
TE Matthew Blazer, POTE
TE David Feiser, POTE
TE Robert Barrnett, POTE
TE Bryan Fitzgerald, POTE
TE Steve McLean, POTE
TE Jonathan Mikule, POTE
TE Charles Copp, POTE
TE Richard Rieves POCS
TE Kirk Adkisson POCS
RE William C. Walls, POTE
RE Gail Walls, POTE
RE Lisa Benkert, POTE
RE Nikali Benkert, POTE
RE Lillie Hickerson, POTE
TE Stephen Chang, POTE
TE Paul Bammel, POTE
TE Bonnie J. Gatchell, POTE
TE Pete Scribner, POTM
RE Bob Tongue, POTE
RE Amber Haywood, POTE
TE Stefan S. Bomberger, POTE
TE Joel Keen, POMA
RE Bill Quackenbush, POTE
(1) Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, pg 5.
(2) Jobes, Karen H. Esther (The NIV Application Commentary). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition. Says Jobes: “When Haman is introduced, he is identified as an Agagite. The author implies that the perennial relationship of enmity between the Jews and the Agagites is mirrored in the personal relationship between Mordecai and Haman,” Kindle location 2035.
(3) Timothy Keller, “Tim Keller on The Bible and Race,” Life in the Gospel, March 5, 2020, https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/the-bible-and-race/. Says Keller: “…[T]he gospel-analysis of the roots of racism and its healing is sorely missing in much of the conversation about race at present.”
(4) “Appendix V: Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation to the Forty-Sixth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America,” PCA Historical Center, 2018, https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/digest/studies/2018_Racial_and_Ethnic_Reconciliation.pdf.
(5) Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
(6) Warren Goldstein, “Jews Are the Canary in the Coal Mine,” South African Jewish Report, January 21, 2015, https://www.sajr.co.za/news-and-articles/2015/01/21/jews-are-the-canary-in-the-coal-mine.
(7) John Perkins, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love, pg 63.