Ellis: A Dysfunctional Church — Part 1

Dr. King was misunderstood by many in both the Black community and the White. The most acute misunderstandings came from the predominantly White, so-called Bible-believing community. Dr. King’d theological dynamic gave him a biblical message and method that conformed neither to the White conservative agenda nor to the White liberal agenda.

Sadly, many White evangelical, fundamentalist, and Reformed churches were caught sleeping with no oil in their lamps at the outbreak of this move of God in the land. They had evidently been rendered dysfunctional by a defective view of theology and culture. They failed to distinguish between White standards and scriptural standards. Their theology had led them to a preoccupation with private salvation.

The importance of personal salvation should never be diminished, But the whole counsel of God revealed in the Scriptures goes far beyond the scope of the private realm. According to God’s Word, even, salvation itself finds its significance in terms of a much larger picture—namely,the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1-2). But many leading evangelicals never came to grips with the big picture of God’s purposes. They never saw the broad cultural implications of the Great Commission. This is why their Christianity never had application beyond the private aspects of life. Many believed that America’s racial injustices would fade away automatically as more individuals had conversion experiences. This naive view completely ignored the patterns of racism that had been woven into the American system.

The fundamentalist reaction was much harsher. Fundamentalists and right-wing politicians branded Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as “communistic.” Though there was no evidence for such allegations, the label effectively scared off some potential supporters. The Civil Rights Movement and the words of King were beginning to strike at the very root of the White Christianity-ism that supported the political, economic and social system in which they had a vested interest.

Many fundamentalists and evangelicals saw the message of Brother Martin as an experience in futility in light of the total dichotomy between “the sweet by-and-by” and “the nasty now-and-now.” They saw Dr. King as absurdly “bothering to polish the brass and rearrange the furniture on the Titanic.” According to them, “he should have been getting people ‘saved’ in these ‘last days’and not been concerned with eating at lunch counters….”

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 81-82.

Ellis: Slavery: A Dehumanizing Practice

The whole basis of this dehumanizing practice [slavery] was an illegitimate view of humanity—a view in which skin color determined not only a
person’s status but indeed the presence or lack of the image of God. It became a time-honored belief among many adherents of White Christianity-ism that the uprooted African had no soul. Black people were therefore classified as nonhuman—in later history as three-fifths human. So raping a female slave was not a crime,nor was it considered fornication or adultery.

Yet something positive began to develop in the consciousness of the enslaved Africans, something so significant that it would have a profound effect on African-American culture from the days of slavery up to the present. The slaves learned new things about God.

The early masters, with few exceptions,had never intended that their slaves should become Christian. However, this did not prevent the slaves from experiencing the power of the Word of God. As I pointed out in chapter three, resistance to oppression is itself an expression of God’s grace. When a people are subjected to such oppression, they are driven inward, to the depths of the very humanity the oppression is trying to negate. Any cultural expressions that emerge from such a suffering people will come from those human depths. Other human beings who encounter these expressions will be affected at comparable depths. This, I believe, is what LeRoi Jones meant when he described us as the “Blues People.”This cultural depth and the skills to express such depth are what is today popularly known as “soul.”

Humanity is made in the image of God,and through it God reveals his personhood and power. The deeper we go into our humanity, the more we experience God’s power. This is part of the reason soul culture is so penetrating. It is also one reason the existence of God was never a matter of argument in our historic thinking. African-American culture always presupposed God. Soul culture thus became fertile ground for the gospel.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 43.

Ellis: The White Church in Transition

Many White Christians had been faithful to the cultural mandate of Jesus Christ during Reconstruction. They brought education and other forms of help to the former slaves. When the pressure of Jim Crowism arose in the late 1870s, however, they were forced to abandon the African-American community, leaving us to face the horrors of the Southern racist backlash alone.

Another concern was drawing White Christians’ attention. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the “battle for the Bible” was heating up. On one side were those following in the footsteps of others who a century earlier had given in to the basic assumptions of secular humanism. As a result, their Christianity had eroded into an empty Christianity-ism, with a god whose substance depended on human definition and human opinion. For them Jesus was a mere man—a prophet at best—and the Bible was merely a human book containing some passages that might be considered “inspired” in some vague way. These people became known as “liberals” or “modernists.”

The liberals had lost their theological direction and had nothing to do but play connotation word games. This all changed in 1907, when Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis. Advocating social action and neglecting personal salvation, his “social gospel” breathed new life into the liberal movement.

On the other side of the battle were those who, reacting against the liberals, advocated personal salvation and orthodox doctrine over social action. They became known as fundamentalists or “conservatives.” Those who stood for the conceptual authority of Scripture took the fundamentalist side, while those who stood for the ethical authority of Scripture took the liberal side. To make a sharp distinction between themselves and the liberals, many fundamentalists abandoned all social involvement and concentrated on merely getting people “saved.” They wrongly identified social action with liberalism rather than Christian action. Furthermore, the fiascoes of Prohibition and the Scopes trial made fundamentalists feel the heat of cultural defeat. This effectively closed the books on fundamentalist cultural involvement and opened the door for secular humanism.

The Bible itself never sets up such a dichotomy between personal salvation and social action, between conceptual and ethical authority.

So in essence both sides lost the battle of the Bible.

Between 1877 and 1930 the White Bible-believing churches developed a double isolation from the Black community: They capitulated to White racism, and they adopted a socially impotent gospel. The rift was deep, because social ethics and the quest for freedom and dignity lay at the heart of historic Black theology. The social retreat of White Bible-believing Christianity made it resemble White Christianity-ism.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 55-56.

Newton: I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it bas been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The bidden evils of my beart;
And let the angry powr’s of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own band He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

-John Newton

Ellis: True Freedom

A’nt Jane

Oh, Freedom,
Oh, Freedom,
Oh, Freedom over me!
And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

This old freedom song is a clear indication that historically our struggle has not been a quest for independence from God. On the contrary, it shows that our quest has been rooted in a desire for God’s lordship. Here freedom is not seen as something to be “over,” as in recent humanistic thinking, but as something to be “over me.” Freedom is being under the right authority; it is being home with my Lord and under the freedom function of God’s lordship.

The strength and resilience of the African-American church are another indication that our historic struggle has been a quest for God’s freedom. Let’s not be hasty to jettison the biblical perspectives of our heritage, as the secular militants did. Maybe we should have listened
to A’nt Jane a little more closely.

It is time for a new generation of Joshuas to learn from what has gone before us and, while “reflecting back” on the Word of God, to build the basis of a renewed African-American culture—a renewed culture that will give us a new vision. For “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 32-33.

Ellis: Lordship Over Us Through Freedom

“There are aspects of the creation which God controls through manipulation. I’m thinking here of the physical and biological laws that determine the behavior of the inanimate world, plants and lower animals. But that is not the way God chooses to control us. He exercises lordship over us through freedom.

Human freedom is derived from God’s lordship and not independent of it, for by definition nothing can be outside God’s sovereignty. As Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Our difficulty in understanding freedom as a function of God’s sovereignty is like the difficulty the Flatlanders had in understanding the third dimension. That it is hard for us to understand “freedom control” does not mean that it is not true. To rebel against God’s lordship is to rebel against our own human freedom. If we leave the freedom function of God’s lordship, we find ourselves under the manipulation function. To be under manipulation is to be under the slavery of sin (Romans 6:16; Galatians 5:1). These are our only two options.

When Adam sinned, for example, he was not exercising free choice; he was rebelling against freedom of choice. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 2:16): this was the range of freedom. “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge [determination] of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17): Adam and Eve were not free to choose to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree so long as they lived under the freedom function of God’s sovereignty. Death in this context was not the result of a free choice. On the contrary, it required a willful rejection of freedom in order to partake of this fruit and die.

If our cultural quest for freedom has been a quest for God’s lordship, then Martin Luther King’s parting words to us will be fulfilled. We will cross the River Jordan into God’s rest—a rest with worldwide implications. But if our cultural quest for freedom has been a quest for independence from God, we will end up on the junk heap of the nations—a junk heap of slavery far worse than what we have ever experienced.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 31-32.

Ellis: An African-American Quest

“A central theme in the flow of African-American history has been the quest for freedom and dignity. There is only one basis for human dignity: the scriptural teaching that man and woman were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). God’s personal dignity is the original personal dignity. Our dignity is derived from the dignity of God. In other words, if God is somebody, which he is, then I am somebody because I in some ways resemble God.

But what is the nature of freedom? Some would say that freedom equals independence. Independence from the oppression of other people is a valid goal, but to attempt independence from God is utterly futile. Think of how an airplane flies. Does a wing produce lift because it becomes independent of gravity? Of course not.

The wing produces lift precisely because of gravity. A wing’s lift is an expression of the law of gravity. Trying to be independent of gravity would be as foolish as stepping off the top of a building and trying to walk on air. For a few fleeting seconds you might think you had succeeded, but your illusion would end abruptly when you reached the pavement below.

God’s rule over us is like gravity: our attempts to resist it are utterly foolish. God laughs at the nations’ plots to rid themselves of his sovereignty, because God knows that they simply cannot escape his lordship (Psalm 2). “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Perhaps we can best learn what his lordship means by determining what it does not mean. We are not robots. God’s sovereignty does not mean manipulation. Manipulation is our human way of controlling things. For example, as I type this on my computer, I control what it does with the keyboard and the mouse. I can make the computer do exactly what I want—that is, I can manipulate the computer. Because we tend to see God as having our limitations, we may imagine that God’s sovereignty means that he manipulates us the same way I manipulate my computer. But this is not the case.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 30-31.

Ellis: Grace As Base

“Unrighteousness is toxic. It destroys humanity. It is only by the grace of God that our humanity has not been totally destroyed—that we can still resist unrighteousness at all. If we had lost that ability, the oppressed would be unable to resist oppression.

How does resistance relate to righteousness, oppression and our need for God’s salvation and grace? Let’s look at this next.

1. Resistance and the righteousness of God. Theologian James Cone has affirmed that God is on the side of the oppressed. What does this mean? It means that the oppressed, when they resist oppression, are resisting unrighteousness. It does not mean that the oppressed are more righteous than the oppressors. It does mean, however, that they have the opportunity to demonstrate more righteousness. Why? Because resisting oppression is more righteous than giving in to it or inflicting it on others, especially if the oppressed resist righteously. (This will be discussed in chapter fourteen.) God is the God of righteousness, and in resisting oppression the oppressed align themselves with God. They advance God’s justice.

2. Resistance and the ungodliness of the oppressed. If ungodliness is imposed on people whose own ungodliness has already diminished their humanity, then the imposed ungodliness is in harmony with their own ungodliness. Consider the prostitute. If she ‘turns a trick’ she cannot charge her ‘john’ with rape. Though her sexuality has been abused, it was her willful intention to execute the transaction. Her intentions complemented the intentions of her john. Nevertheless, the fact that her intentions matched those of her oppressor does not mean that she has simply gotten “what she asked for” or that the oppressor ought not to be judged for his oppression. She became a prostitute in the first place partly because her sense of humanity had been brutalized by oppression and mistreatment.

There is never perfect harmony between oppression and the ungodliness of the oppressed.God set a limit to this unrighteous harmony after the Fall, when he put hostility between Satan, the ultimate oppressor, and humans (Genesis 3:15). By so doing God ensured that for every oppression there will be a corresponding resistance.

3. Resistance and the oppressed’s need for salvation. If the oppressed focus on their humanity (which oppression is trying to destroy) and try to defend that humanity, they will be acting righteously. Their own ungodliness will be driven beneath the surface. When liberation comes, however, their ungodliness will resurface with all its negative effects. The oppressed must fight to break the back of oppression so they can seek God’s solution to their own unrighteousness.

Israel learned this lesson under the judges. They disobeyed God in the first place by not driving out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Judges 1:27-2:2). The Canaanites regrouped, regained their strength and came back to oppress the Israelites. Israel resisted. They cried out to God for help,sought God’s ways and were delivered from oppression. But each time they were liberated, their ungodliness resurfaced, and they betrayed their call to be a light to the nations. They had to face their own need for salvation.

4. Resistance and the grace of God. It is God who has preserved our humanity from total destruction by unrighteousness. He has not let ungodliness and oppression whittle down to nothing his image in people.God cares about justice and has compassionate love for suffering people (Isaiah 58:3-12; Amos 5:10-15, 21-24). God’s compassion is rooted in his grace. It is because of God’s grace that oppression will ultimately cave in to the resistance of the oppressed.

Thus it is God’s grace alone that provides the basis for resisting oppression. It is his grace that provides the power to resist oppression. It is God’s grace that provides the will to resist oppression. If we leave God out,we leave out the very possibility of freedom.”

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 29-30.

Ellis: When People Lack a Basic Commitment to God, Unrighteousness Follows

“When people lack a basic commitment to God, unrighteousness follows. Scripture describes at least two types of unrighteousness: ungodliness and oppression. Ungodliness happens when people rebel against God and his revelation. Disregarding their responsibility toward God and others, they themselves suffer the consequences of their wrongdoing. Oppression occurs when people impose their ungodliness on others, causing them to suffer the consequences. For example, if a person has a racist attitude, he or she is guilty of ungodliness. If, however, that person imposes his racism on others, forcing them to live in substandard conditions, then he is guilty of oppression.

Unrighteousness is seldom exclusively one or the other; it is usually a combination of both. Oppressors are people whose unrighteousness is primarily, but not exclusively, oppression. The unrighteousness of oppressed people is primarily, but not exclusively, ungodliness.”

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 28.

Ellis: A Third Way

As I poured through books by Black Consciousness thinkers in a quest for understanding, I faced an obvious choice: either acknowledge this new cultural challenge and dispense with my faith, or cling to my faith and disregard the new cultural challenge. Being a transcendent nonconformist, I rejected both options. Instead, I started reading a modern translation of the Bible beginning with Genesis 1:1—a portion of the Bible my theology said did not apply to today.

Letting the Bible speak for itself quickly bulldozed my inadequate theology and eclipsed it. God’s sovereignty over history and over his covenant people came into sharp focus. In the prophets, I saw God’s deep concern for justice and the plight of the oppressed—the very issues Black militants were debating in the streets. These discoveries moved me to seek God’s wisdom about the contemporary cultural upheaval. As I grew in understanding of a biblical worldview, I was more than able to hold my own as I engaged militants in street debates. But what I fervently prayed for was a way to debunk the notion that Christianity was the “White man’s religion” while clearly communicating biblical wisdom-preferably in the form of a book.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 7.