In late June, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery and hundreds of black church leaders around the country participated in a three-day black clergy conference in Dallas that focused on combatting "Christian conservatives they say have used gay marriage and abortion to distract from larger moral issues such as the war, voting rights, affirmative action and poverty." Conference organizers called for an aggressive mid-term election strategy aimed at bringing out black voters and pusing Democrats to take a tougher stand on social issues.
I read this article and thought... it's well past time to reform the model of black pastoral leadership at play at the national and local church levels.
Since the earliest days of an independent Black church, Black church pastors have played the role of community leader, organizer, and public intellectual. Historically, those roles were necessarily played by pastors because the church was the one institution controlled by African Americans and often pastors were among the better gifted and educated leaders in the community. There was no sufficient political infrastructure for mustering resistance to social and political injustice outside of the local church prior to the late 1960s. And once Dr. King became the icon of the Civil Rights movement, with television broadcasting the poignant protests of church leaders and community members into American living rooms, the pastor-as-Civil-Rights-leader became the dominant paradigm for successful pastoral leadership.
But is today's church in the same situation as the Black church of the 1830s or the 1950s? Must it play the same vanguard role? Are there no other worthy players?
I think the answers are no, no, and yes. No, today's church is in a substantially different situation than that of the 1830s or the 1950s. Far more resources flow through black churches, and far less is expected of most preachers. Also, the political infrastructure is significantly more developed for tackling tough social and political issues. The number of national and local organizations dedicated to social justice, civil rights, and community development is mind-boggling compared to even 40 years ago. And not surprisingly, the "intelligentsia" has also mushroomed. There exists competent and committed Black leadership at every level, both inside and outside of government, with education and expertise surpassing that of most African-American pastors.
So, the kind of leadership typified by a Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Joseph Lowery has, I'm afraid, played out.
The African-American church needs leaders that are not as concerned with political wars and public policy as much as they are concerned with a faithful proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mid-term elections pale in comparison to the serious assaults committed by the enemy of our souls against the church and African Americans. While the church has given its brightest and best in the cause of social justice, she has suffered a significant drain on her leadership resources and her primary mission of making disciples. Consequently, today's Black church may in many ways be weaker than the church in 1830!
The church of 1830 boasted men like Lemuel Haynes who managed to keep a hawk-like eye on gospel orthodoxy (his most famous publication was a tract against Universalism) and THE pressing political issue of the day--slavery (consider his excellent essays on the incompatibility of slavery with Christianity and Republican ideals, True Republicanism and Liberty Futher Extolled). Haynes' understanding of the gospel defined his political stance. Too many of today's pastors have abandoned the gospel to grope for politically relevant positions.
Another example.... The Black church of 1830 practiced church discipline in an effort to protect the integrity of the gospel and the local church (Greg Wills' Democratic Religion is an excellent treatment of this subject). It maintained a community wide concern for the welfare of all African Americans, but a significant number of churches attempted to maintain distinctions between the world and the church. Today, church discipline is unheard of as high rates of illegitimacy, sexual immorality, and substance addictions plague the church and the surrounding community. Homosexuality is gaining a stronger and more public foothold in many churches, as are women preachers.
The African-American church is in desperate need of biblically-qualified, gospel-preaching, Christ-treasuring, church-loving, evangelistic, intellectually-rigorous men to lead her, protect her, sacrifice for her, serve her, reform and strengthen her. We can not withstand another generation of Sharpton and Jackson-like preachers who give more attention to politics (liberal or conservative) than they give to feeding the Lord's sheep and watching over the flock of God entrusted to their care. This world is fading away and people are perishing. I shudder to think of that stricter account we ministers of the Gospel will give to the Lord of creation on that day when judgment begins at the household of God.
Jackson contends that the effort produced by the clergy conference is a "fight for America's soul." The real fight for souls in America involves fighting for gospel faithfulness inside the church--black, brown, yellow, and white.
Sharpton complains that Christian conservatives "have used gay marriage and abortion to distract from larger moral issues such as the war, voting rights, affirmative action and poverty." Certainly abortion, which has multiplied the number of deaths of Vietnam, is not a smaller moral issue than the war in Iraq or voting rights, etc. But choosing anyone one of these causes over steadfast proclamation of the truth that a holy God is angry with sinful man but has laid his wrath upon His one and only Son in their place so that the repentant and faithful shall be saved is a colossal blunder. If the church abandons the gospel to pursue partisan politics, who will preach the gospel? Who will send the preacher? How can man be saved?
We need a biblical model of church leadership. Now is the time to leave politics to others.
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