In his book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, & Public Witness, Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, reflects on a gathering held many years ago at the Kelly Miller Institute on Black Church Studies of theologians and pastors for the purpose of dialoguing “between pulpit, pew, and academy” on a question black theologians raised decades ago: “What does it mean to be black and Christian?”
I will endeavor to answer that question myself later in this article. But for now, please consider how Warnock himself responds to that inquiry, saying that to be black and Christian,
“. . . is the relationship between one’s understanding of the meaning of blackness and the meaning of the gospel, as well as the tensions between Christian proclamation that focuses on individual salvation and that which engages social transformation, that sits at the heart of the rub between black theologians and black pastors regarding the church’s essential work as salvation’s instrument.”
Notwithstanding Warnock’s response, the question he poses is one that is being considered more frequently by black Christians today than at perhaps any other time in the history of the evangelical church in America. A primary reason for that, I believe, is the increasing number of black churches that are embracing a “gospel” of socio-economic liberation, with the aforementioned Ebenezer Baptist Church being one of the more egregious examples. The resulting alchemy is that salvation, as a spiritual construct, is not merely defined in terms of having one’s sins forgiven by a holy God (theological), but also of temporal redemption through the obtaining of political and economic power and remuneration (sociological).
Interestingly, that same soteriological dualism was shared by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as evidenced in a 1958 sermon he delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches, titled The Christian Doctrine of Man, in which he said,
“It’s not enough for me to tell men to be honest, but I must be concerned about the economic conditions that make them dishonest. I must be concerned about the poverty in the world. I must be concerned about the ignorance in the world. I must be concerned about the slums in the world. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but I must be concerned about the new Detroit, the new New York, the new Atlanta. It’s all right to think of a city and the street flowing with milk and honey, but religion must be concerned about those streets in this world where individuals go to bed hungry at night. And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and fails to be concerned about the economic conditions that corrupt them, the social conditions that damn them, the city governments that cripple them, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.”
King’s soteriology is perhaps better understood in light of his confession a decade earlier when, while a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, he said, “I am a profound advocator of the social gospel.”
The preaching of liberation theology is not merely a contemporary phenomenon within the Black Church. It is, in fact, a tradition that dates back not only decades but centuries, to the slavery-era founding of the Black Church in America. Dr. Wayne E. Croft, Sr., pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the Jeremiah A. Wright senior associate professor of homiletics and liturgics at United Lutheran Seminary, underscores that fact, saying,
The African American church is the only institution still in existence that was birthed from slavery and nurtured in the bosom of social protest. . . . The Black church has been the dominant force of liberation for historically oppressed and marginalized people. . . . Black converts loved to hear their own preachers because they used culturally appropriate language, which helped them visualize life beyond their present situation.
Conversely, historian and author Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., comments that:
The Black Church has a long and noble history in relation to Black political action, dating back at least to the late eighteenth century. . . . The Black Church was the cultural cauldron that Black people created to combat a system designed in every way to crush their spirit. . . . No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the “Black Church.” . . . In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, the Black Church has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic, and social life.
As a theologian and historian who, by the sovereign providence of God, is black, I can appreciate the historical timbre from which the Black Church in America was founded. I was reared in the ecclesiastical tradition of the Black Church. I am familiar by experience with its culture, its customs, and its morés.  I’ve spent many Sunday and Wednesday mornings and evenings ensconced on crushed velvet pews as the pastor announced that “the doors of the church are open”—the universal black church invitation to sinners to walk the aisle and be saved—while being exposed to countless sermons that were hermeneutically grounded in the sufferings and miseries of my enslaved ancestors.
It is against the backdrop of my own ecclesiastical experience that you will get no argument from me about what either Dr. Croft or Dr. Gates declared, respectively, in the above-mentioned comments. It is an objective historical fact that the Black Church was borne within a systemically oppressive milieu in which black people in America, by myriad sinful ways and means, were consciously, deliberately, and wittingly discriminated against.  Rightly did the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, a white man, declare, “Every man knows that slavery is a curse. Whoever denies this, his lips libel his heart.”
And yet it is precisely that reality that, ironically, is harming the Black Church today. The Black Church has become so ethnically and politically detached from its divinely-ordained raison d’être (reason for existing), that it has become veritably unrecognizable as an entity whose primary mission in the world is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to an ungodly culture (Matt. 28:19-20). Instead, because of its obdurately myopic emphasis on social justice and temporal liberation, the Black Church has become nothing more than a quasi-political structure that exists to affirm, endorse, and propagate such unbiblical ideologies as abortion-on-demand and LGBTQ2S+ rights.
That reality was evidenced during the 2022 midterm elections by the many “black churches” in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia that openly celebrated and lauded then-gubernatorial candidate—and womanist—Stacey Abrams who, despite the clear teachings of Scripture against abortion and homosexuality, was unashamedly supportive of both those issues. 
But when the identity of a politician, in this case, Stacey Abrams, who is black and biologically female, becomes of such importance within the body of Christ as to render completely irrelevant the blatantly unbiblical positions that individual holds, there is a problem, to say the least. And yet it is because of its focus on matters of social justice and socio-economic liberation that the Black Church, historically, has never actually viewed the pragmatic amalgamation of church and culture or, conversely, Christianity and other religions, as necessarily problematic. This brings us to a consideration of the religious ecumenicism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was an ardent admirer of Mohandas K. Gandhi and of the Buddhism that Gandhi so devoutly practiced. It was Mohandas K. Gandhi who inspired Dr. King’s non-violent approach to rectifying the social injustices that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement in the American South in the 1960s.  On Palm Sunday in 1959, a day when in any other biblically orthodox Christian church the preaching would have been centered on Jesus’s triumphant entry to Jerusalem prior to being brutally murdered on a Roman cross (Matt. 21:8-11; Jn. 12:12-19), Dr. King chose as the focal point of his sermon the life and work of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King had this to say about the Buddhist “holy man”:
“I believe this man, more than anybody else in the modern world, caught the spirit of Jesus Christ and lived it more completely in his life. His name was Gandhi, Mohandas K. Gandhi. And after he lived a few years, the poet Tagore, who lived in India, gave him another name: “Mahatma,” [meaning] ‘the great soul’. And we know him as Mahatma Gandhi. . . . And isn’t it significant that he died on the same day that Christ died; it was on a Friday. This is the story of history. But thank God it never stops here. Thank God Good Friday is never the end. And the man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity. And just as when Abraham Lincoln was shot—mark you, for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot, that is, the attempt to heal the wounds of a divided nation. When the great leader Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the body of this leader and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” And that same thing can be said about Mahatma Gandhi now. He belongs to the ages, and he belongs especially to this age, an age drifting once more to its doom. And he has revealed to us that we must learn to go another way.”
Notwithstanding King’s personal admiration of and reverence for Mohandas K. Gandhi, please note that instead of preaching the heart-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ as the only remedy for the sin-inflicted maladies that have plagued mankind throughout the course of human history (Gen. 6:5), King took the aforementioned opportunity to credit Gandhi for suggesting that “we must learn to go another way.” In other words, King fully embraced the Buddhistic humanism of Mohandas K. Gandhi as the curative to society’s ills.
Another Buddhist ally of Dr. King was a Vietnamese monk named Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, King, himself a recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a letter to the Nobel Prize Committee proposing that the award be conferred to Hạnh, saying:
“The history of Vietnam is filled with chapters of exploitation by outside powers and corrupted men of wealth until even now the Vietnamese are harshly ruled, ill-fed, poorly housed, and burdened by all the hardships and terrors of modern warfare. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars, and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, and to humanity.”
The book Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.  by Marc Andrus sheds more light on the relationship between King and Hanh. But what I want you to see is that King’s worldview consisted of an amalgamation of theological pluralism and religious syncretism. What King, Gandhi, and Hạnh were attempting to accomplish through their man-centered approach to conciliating sinful human beings to one another was not the gospel, but humanism. Dr. R.C. Sproul explains why that philosophy should be concerning to believers, saying,
Because it has appeared throughout history in a variety of forms and with a variety of emphases, humanism can be hard to define. Perhaps the best way to summarize its major tenets is to use the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras’ statement homo mensura, which means “man the measure.” In its secular form, humanism has taught that man is the measure of all things. Man is the ultimate, autonomous norm; that is, he is a law unto himself. His reason, not subservient to divine revelation, is the basis of ethics.
As Dr. Sproul defined what humanism is, the seventeenth-century Puritan Thomas Brooks helps us understand what is its true origin, stating,
There is nothing that the heart of man stands more averse to than this, of coming off from his own righteousness. Man is a creature apt to warm himself with the sparks of his own fire, though he doth lie down for it in eternal sorrow (Isa. 1:11). Man is naturally prone to go about to establish his own righteousness, that he might not subject [himself] to the righteousness of Christ; he will labor as for life, to lift up his own righteousness, and to make a savior of it.
Secular humanism is the natural by-product of embracing a doctrine of salvation in which sinful human beings have the capacity and ability to be their own savior. That is fundamentally what liberation theology is. It is a theology of self-salvation. It is no wonder, then, that Derrick A. Bell, known to many within social justice circles as the ‘godfather’ of Critical Race Theory, would use soteriological language in titling his book, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, and in that book lament that:
The role and fate of civil rights measures can be compared to those of the brides in the French fairy tale Bluebeard’s Castle, in which Bluebeard woos and brings to his castle a series of brides in the hope that each will free him from the burden of his past crimes. But the brides are rebellious rather than redemptive, and each is condemned either to death or to a dark chamber. Thus, first after the Civil War and again in 1954, America produced symbols of redemption in the form of civil rights measures seemingly intended to rectify past racial cruelties and expunge the dark stain of slavery. But, after a brief period of hope, compliance with these measures has impeded other goals and, like Bluebeard’s brides, they have been abandoned, leaving the blacks’ social subordination firmly entrenched.
As I reflect on those words of Bell, I can’t help wondering what he would think about the relative ease and rapidity with which the LGBTQ2S+ lobby has successfully hijacked the black Civil Rights Movement so as to secure, in less than a decade, some, if not more, of the same civil rights protections and privileges that it took black Americans nearly two hundred years to obtain—and to do so with the brazen and unapologetic assistance of such supposed advocates of black people as Barack Obama. Ironically, it was black churches, primarily under the auspices of black pastors, who were largely responsible for helping elect, and reelect, Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 and 2012. And who was it that benefited from that historic political development? It’s easier to tell you who didn’t benefit from it—black people (at least not the black proletariat anyway).
And therein lies the rub with regard to the question posed earlier by Raphael Warnock: “What does it mean to be black and Christian?”
Notwithstanding that it is a completely unnecessary and nonsensical question to begin with, particularly when one considers that the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ has rendered of no value or importance such biological characteristics as ethnicity (Eph. 2:14-16; 2 Cor. 5:16), all too often what being “black and Christian” actually means is that black Christians must first and foremost identify as black—whatever ‘black’ means—and as Christian second and, consequently, to view Christ, and His church, through the skin-deep—literally—lens of melanin, completely ignoring the truth of 2 Cor. 5:17. An example of that kind of ethno-Christological thinking is Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the episcopal divinity school at Union Theological Seminary, who, in her book titled The Black Christ, said:
“As a young girl, it was Jesus’s birth in a manger that held the most meaning for me. That he was born in the starkness of a manger allowed me to feel connected to him as a child, but more importantly to see his connection to that black girl and boy who had made such an imprint upon my childhood imagination. His birth in a manger convinced me that he understood the struggles, if not the hopes and dreams, of black children who were trapped in “manger-like” conditions of living. Jesus’s birth in a manger continues to have theological significance for me as it indicates his intrinsic bond with those on the outside, that is, on the wrong side of the color line.”
With those words Douglas, a womanist disciple of James Hal Cone  who is widely regarded as the founder of the doctrine known as black liberation theology, is simply reflecting the ethno-theological worldview of Cone who, in his book Black Theology: A Documented History, Volume 1: 1966-1979, said:
Taking seriously the necessity to make the Christian message of liberation relevant to our time, we conclude that Christian theology in America must be black. In a society where men are defined on the basis of skin color for the purpose of humiliation, Christian theology takes on the color of the victims [emphasis mine], proclaiming that the condition of the poor is incongruous with him who has come to liberate us.
Sadly, what Cone described as “the necessity to make the Christian message of liberation relevant to our time” remains the primary missiological enterprise in which the Black Church is largely engaged today. Instead of preaching the biblical gospel of confession of sin and restoration of repentant sinners to a right relationship with a holy and righteous God (Mk. 1:15; Acts 17:30; Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:1-22; 2 Pet. 3:9), the “gospel” of today’s Black Church is, to a great extent, a message of ephemeral salvation through the pursuit of monetary reparations and restorative justice.
It is a message that is borne largely from the expanding influence of James Cone and his black liberation theology on a generation of black pastors, among whom are the above-mentioned Raphael Warnock, and Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, each of whom subscribes to Cone’s notion that Christian theology must “take on the color of” the victims of oppression. Consequently, what has increasingly become of significance and worth in the Black Church is not merely whether an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:27; 5:2) is objectively—and by “objectively” I mean by Scripture’s definition—a victim of injustice, to which God’s Word exhorts believers in Christ to respond (Isa. 1:17; Prov. 14:21, 31; 31:8-9; Jer. 22:3-5; Mic. 6:7-8) but whether the victim is black, which is a clear disregard of the biblical admonition in James 2:9 to not show partiality.
Such sinfully prejudicial reasoning is precisely why many black churches, and their leaders, unhesitatingly and unquestioningly supported the agenda of Black Lives Matter because the truth, if we are being honest, is that the word ‘Black’ mattered more to them than the word ‘Matter.’ I find that interesting since no black person—or person of any ethnicity for that matter—had anything to do with the skin color he or she possesses (Acts 17:26). Were the opposite true, then, perhaps I might understand why someone would have a sense of pride concerning that particular aspect of their personhood. But we have no involvement in it—none. Therefore, there is nothing about ourselves about which we can boast before God (Gal. 6:14). For, as the psalmist declares in Psalm 100:3, it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.
But, I digress.
A fundamental problem with the twenty-first century Black Church is that it is content to operate under the historical shadows of what initially gave rise to it in the eighteenth century, namely, the erroneous and fallacious hermeneutic that black people remain an enslaved people, and that the only salvation that is to be found for them is that which manifests itself in economic and political liberation from their white oppressors. Those who insist on preaching such a spuriously erroneous message would do well to heed this exhortation from the nineteenth-century abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, who urged,
“Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial. God himself has pleaded against it. The enlightened nations of the earth have condemned it. Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence. Give it no respite, but let it be ignominiously executed.”
Garnet made those remarks in 1865, the year the American Civil War ended, and yet the Black Church today, as you’re reading this, refuses to “let slavery die.” It is that refusal that serves as the sole basis for the continued propagation of black liberation theology in many black churches. They view slavery as being tantamount to the unpardonable sin, culturally speaking (Mk. 3:28-30). Consequently, they cannot—and will not—let it die because to do so would suffocate any hopes they have of profiting, personally and collectively, from the sufferings of their ancestors who may actually have been slaves.
The irony that the Black Church continues to hold so dogmatically to a social gospel of liberation is that it is that same hermeneutic of oppression that enslaves it today. I use the word “enslaves” quite intentionally, for liberation theology, with all its varied interpretations and applications, is a theology that does not liberate from the spiritual captivity to sin that is at the root of the oppression and injustice we see in the world (Rom. 5:12; 8:5, 19-22). And yet the divisive and schismatic “gospel” of liberation continues to be preached from the pulpits of increasing numbers of black churches across America.
Regardless of what social, cultural, or political evils may have providentially contributed to the founding of the Black Church (Prov. 16:4; Lam. 3:38), the Black Church exists today to fulfill the same ecclesiastical mission upon which it was originally founded in the early 1800s, to proclaim to a sinful world the saving gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), not the false gospel of black liberation theology. For apart from the gospel, my dear brother and sister, your ethnicity, regardless of what it is, has no meaning whatsoever (Acts 17:26-27). In fact, apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, your very existence in this world has no meaning (Eph. 2:10).
With apologies to Raphael Warnock, the Black Church is not “salvation’s instrument,” the gospel is (Rom. 1:16).
What does it mean to be black and Christian?
In light of the gospel of Christ, nothing.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Darrell B. Harrison
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. — (Gal. 3:28, NASB)
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. — (2 Cor. 5:17-20, NASB).
 Raphael G. Warnock, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, & Public Witness, New York University Press (2014), hardcover, p. 113.
 Wayne E. Croft, Sr., A History of the Black Baptist Church: I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired, Judson Press (2020), paperback, pp. 1, 3, and 6.
 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, Penguin Press (2021), paperback, pp. xix, xxiii, and 1.
 Thomas Brooks, The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3, Chapter 1: The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, The Banner of Truth Trust (2001), hardcover, p. 12.
 Derrick Bell, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, Basic Books (1979), paperback, p. 6.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ: 25th Anniversary Edition, Orbis Books (1994, 2019), paperback, p. xx.
 James H. Cone & Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Theology: A Documented History, Volume One: 1966-1979, Orbis Books (1993), paperback, p. 112.
 https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/02/16/a-brief-overview-of-black-religious-history-in-the-u-s/ (scroll to the second paragraph under the heading After 1965).
Image credit: Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on Jan. 12, 2018. David Goldman—AP
2 thoughts on “The Black Church and the Insignificance of Ethnicity in Light of the Gospel of Christ”
Excellent! Thank you for the tremendous amount of supporting documentation to enlighten me regarding the history of liberation theology and its impact on the social gospel mindset of many preachers.
I have long struggled with trying to understand how any person who claims to be a pastor could ever openly support on-demand abortion and LGBTQ2S+ rights.
Your post shows us just how far the church has deviated from the path that Jesus walked.
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