Three Proposals for Racial Reconciliation Overtures in the PCA

Rick Phillips

Perhaps the biggest issue going into this year's Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly will be the racial reconciliation overtures that are starting to come in from the presbyteries.  This process was prompted by the personal resolution submitted last year by Drs. Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan.  When that overture was tabled to this coming year, it has rightly prompted a variety of responses.  Moreover, the recent publication of Dr. Lucas' record of the PCA's founding, For a Continuing Church, informs this process with abundant historical data.

As the calendar turns and thoughts begin to turn to the general assembly, it is important that we think about this matter in a biblically principled manner.  To that end, I would suggest three principles for the PCA's response to racial reconciliation concerns:

1.       We should pursue grace with a diligent concern for truth.

2.       We should show care and respect to all sides.

3.       We should avoid diverting the church from its spiritual mission by means of permanent committees for social justice.

Let me work out each of these as follows:

1.        We should pursue grace with a diligent concern for truth.  Naturally, PCA members will desire the gospel to find expression through the confession, repentance, and forgiveness of sin as these are called for.  We also should seek tangible actions to redress current sins that are found.  These worthy desires should not lead us, however, to make statements that cannot be substantiated as being clearly true.  To this end, sweeping generalizations should be avoided and the temptation to exaggeration should be resisted.  If sins are charged, they should be clear biblical sins rather than transgressions we have constructed out of our social context.  Sean Lucas' book suggests to me that there is clear evidence of two kinds of racial sins in the movement of churches that led to the PCA: racially harmful teaching in support of segregation and instances where African Americans were sinfully excluded from worship and ministry.  As these sins are substantiated, we should eagerly confess, apologize, and show tangible sympathy to those afflicted.  Moreover, there seems to have been indifference on the part of whites to the sufferings of blacks under the injustices of segregation.  As this is disclosed, our denomination which represents white conservatives from that era should gladly say, "We are very sorry and we confess how wrong this was." 

2.       We should show care and respect to all sides.  When it comes to the people and communities that have suffered under sin, there should be a gracious desire to allow them to speak and express their thoughts and feelings.  It is common to minimize the effects of sins that we have not experienced, so we should be sure to express our concern towards them.  At the same time, due care and concern should also be shown to the people and communities against whom the sins are charged.  If there was a context, that context should be acknowledged without brushing the sin aside.  As an example, the Civil Rights era was one characterized by societal turmoil of various kinds.  As a result, people may have acted in response to the turmoil rather than to the issues in question.  This does not mean that they were not wrong and it does not justify sins.  But acknowledging the actual situation is a way of treating people on both sides with the kind of respect and care that reconciliation requires.  If the goal is actually condemnation and retribution, then no such care need be taken.  But if reconciliation is the goal, then care and respect will should be shown to all persons involved.   

3.       We should avoid diverting the church from its spiritual mission by means of permanent committees for social justice.  Sean Lucas' book clearly shows the peril to a Christian church of embracing a mission of social change or justice.  It was PCUS's Permanent Committee on Social and Moral Welfare that played a significant role in leading that denomination away from the gospel.  It was largely because they embraced social justice as a mission of the church that the mainline Presbyterians today frequently issue demands for divestment from Israel or for peace proposals in the Middle East but no longer declare the atoning work of Christ for the forgiveness of sin (see Lucas, 41-52).  Jesus assigned the church its mission in the Great Commission, directing us to evangelism, discipleship, and church-building (Mt. 28:18-20).  While the church can and should speak prophetically to the culture on matters of sin, and should seek to cross cultural boundaries with the gospel, these activities can and should be done under agencies devoted to church's spiritual mission (Jn. 18:36).    For the PCA General Assembly or its presbyteries to erect permanent committees devoted to societal reform is to walk down a well-worn path away from its Christ-ordained unity in gospel mission. 

There is no doubt that much will be said, written, and proposed in the coming months.  I hope that these principles will aid that discussion so that there can be genuine confession with forgiveness and true gospel reconciliation in this important matter.