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We Are Family: What African Americans Bring to Reformed Theology

by Jemar Tisby

Reformed theology is theology in process. Semper reformanda, we say — always reforming.

As a body of thought, Reformed theology is not complete. The challenge and opportunity for Christians is not to revise the biblical principles but to make our doctrinal formulations more biblical — and faithfully apply them in different cultures and contexts.

Developing Theology in Community

One of the goals for the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) is to “develop theology in community.” As the network took shape, we knew we had to avoid any kind of theological imperialism. While it’s true that the African American community can benefit from Reformed theology as it stands, Blacks have much to offer from their own theological and cultural heritage as well.

Our hope with RAAN is that as more voices contribute to the conversation, a more robust theology emerges — one that is both increasingly committed to the Scriptures and is primed to be applied in different cultures, contexts, and situations.

Questions About Contributions

When we talk about “developing theology in community,” some people ask whether we’re talking about changing doctrine. The answer to that question is easy. No. We’re not talking about changing doctrine. To the degree we have understood Scripture properly, those teachings must remain unchanged. They are biblical, eternal, and true. There may be opportunities to articulate biblical truths with more clarity and care, but mainly what we have in mind is freshly and faithfully applying Reformed teachings to new issues and in new contexts.

Another question people often ask is, “Okay, so how does Reformed theology look different when it’s informed by more African Americans?” Or, “What do African Americans uniquely contribute to Reformed theology?”

I have wrestled with the answer to that question. For a long time, I assumed I just hadn’t thought about it enough. But the more I roll it over in my mind, the less pressing the question seems to me.

An Inclination Towards Cross-Cultural Thinking

First, I think African Americans, as with any other people group, do have unique insights and experiences that can enrich Reformed theology. Christian theology should be increasingly true to the Scriptures and increasingly careful in its formulations as more and more ethnic groups contribute their perspectives and check each other’s blind spots in the light of biblical revelation.

One distinct perspective African Americans have is an inclination toward cross-cultural thinking. As a racial minority group in the United States, African Americans have an inclination to view the world cross-culturally. This worldview has been developed not by nature but by necessity. A person in the sub-dominant or minority group of any culture must learn to navigate life according to the standards of the majority. These include standards of dress, speech, education, and more.

So Blacks may be able to more intuitively ask questions about perception and adaptation that Whites who are in the majority may not ask as naturally.

A Theology of Suffering

Also, the Black church tradition has developed a distinct theology of suffering. The history of race-based chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation has given African Americans a common and pervasive historical experience. Although Blacks as a cultural group are increasingly diverse, we share a painful past in this country. The shared situation of slavery and segregation gave African Americans insight into the communal aspects of salvation.

Carl Ellis puts it this way in his article “Suffering and African American Theology”:

The southern theology of suffering addressed the need for salvation by grace through faith. The church was seen as the “ark of safety” — a place for slaves to get away from the suffering that so dominated their lives. That is why, in the historic African American church, personal salvation also had community implications. This view is very similar to the way the Israelites looked at salvation in the Old Testament (Exodus 14:13).

A Better Way to Think About the Question

But I think there may be a better way to think about this question, “What do African Americans uniquely contribute to Reformed theology?” Or at least there may be an important consideration to make before giving too much energy to constructing an exhaustive list of potential African American contributions to Reformed theology.

The Bible calls Christians the “household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). We’re a family all living under the shared roof of our Father’s house. And I think we’d all struggle to say exhaustively how members of our earthly family uniquely contribute to our overall group. How can you quantify the impact of a mother’s hug, the rough and tumble between siblings, and the laughs shared around the dinner table? Members of your family are people, not pegs. There’s much more to them than simply what they “bring to the table.”

And in a healthy family, no one has to prove their worth. You accept your mother and father, sister, and brother simply because of a shared lineage and a common family name. Gifts and strengths from each member quickly come to mind, but producing an exhaustive list of each member’s contributions, or quantifying the worth of any given member, is both unnecessary and crude.

And as Christians, we share a bond much stronger than blood. We are united by a spiritual bond to God and to each other. If members of an earthly family should be valued simply because they are part of the family, then how much more should people from every tribe and nation be valued simply because they are part of God’s family? “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

At the end of the day, whenever a family member moves away or passes away, we miss everything their presence once brought. In the same way, whenever any of God’s children from different races or ethnicities are under-represented in the household of faith, the family misses out on both their quantifiable contributions and the nameless ways in which they are part of the very spirit of the group and provide a unique opportunity for a loving relationship.

Let us, then, as Christians in the Reformed tradition make room at the table of fellowship and theological thought for all kinds of people. Not just because our theology stands to benefit from their distinct perspectives and insights, but because we stand to benefit eternally from all the priceless intangibles of enjoying true brotherhood in the Blood.