That statement clearly needs to be unpacked. They key phrase would be "historical definition [of] a true church."
Following from the Reformation, a true church is defined by three marks: right preaching of the word, right administration of the sacraments, and implied in the first two, church discipline. Another, less often mentioned but probably also implied, would be love as the mark of Christian discipleship (John 13:34).
Towards An African American Definition
Now, some might argue that's a eurocentric definition of "true church." That's what Luther, Calvin and the other boys thought, but what about black folks' own definition of a true church?
Well, it's interesting. I think there's enough evidence from things like slave conversion stories and written sermons to suggest that, early on, African Americans would have held a fairly similar view as that above with one pretty important addition. So, slave testimonies are just littered with slaves' recounting the fact that white plantation preachers never really taught the gospel or the whole counsel of God, only "slaves obey your masters... slaves don't steal master's chickens." The language "right preaching of the word" isn't used, but the idea is clearly there. Greg Wills demonstrates rather conclusively that African American churches once practiced discipline at rates comparable to everyone else (Democratic Religion). And surely, to be Methodist was to be disciplined. The same was true of AME churches early on. The practice of discipline evidenced a strong membership culture... which usually lead to a right administration of the sacraments.
The one thing that the African American church historically adds to the definition of a "true church," is a much stronger sense of the gospel implications for social justice. I hesitate to borrow the term "social justice" because of a lot of what parades under that banner. But it must be said that from the start, given their situation as chattel and subjects of oppression, African Americans have always understood the church to bear significant responsibility for engaging society in the pursuit of just causes. And on this point, I'd have to maintain that such churches, earlier in the history, were in fact stronger, more biblical churches than their white counterparts.
The Problems As I See It
This could take a lot of space. So, let me just bullet point the issues and invite all to add to the list or challenge some of the observations below:
- The Word is not rightly preached in most African American churches. That is, the biblical Gospel is wholly absent in far too many churches. Forget about a commitment to exposition... topical rules the day and ironically, many African-American preachers sound like white plantation preachers (only it's not "slave don't steal massa's chicken," it's "black folks, you gotta vote democratic down the line or God wants you rich"). Different lyrics, same tired tune.
- Related to the above, I think we can find reverence for the Bible but either a poor or absent understanding of its sufficiency and authority in the life of the church. A spiritualizing, liberal hermeneutic is commonplace.
- The tyranny of "culture." Much of what gets justified in African American churches makes an appeal to culture. "You know how we do it." So, for example, black preaching gets traced back to plantation exhorter who couldn't read and did a heroic job in dreadful circumstances... but nobody asks if slave preaching is suitable for a post-slavery, post-civil rights, basically educated and freed people. "Culture" and history make the question irrelevant.
- When's the last time you were in an African American church and saw "the table fenced"? I hope more recently than I. When's the last time you attended an African American church where conversion, baptism, church membership, and the privileges of the Lord's supper were connected and taught?
- With the loss of a clear and distinctive notion of membership has come a view of the church membership that's co-terminous with the African American community at large. In other words, the idea of regenerate church membership is pretty much lost in favor of an over identification with the community. As I read the history, such an identificatio nhas always been there, and has been necessary since the social and political condition of African Americans has historically been predicated upon group membership (race). But there was a time when the church held more firmly a distinction between church and community while also advocating for the just cause of the community.
- Church discipline? What?
- Social justice. Let me just say that the church has been hijacked by political suicide bombers who crash her into every quixotic windmill that makes a claim to "discrimination" or "equal rights." Women preachers. Gay rights in some quarters. Economic empowerment. Voter registration drives. Consequently, there is neither gospel or justice in too many churches.
I think the historical assumptions of African American's about what constitutes a true church is really quite powerful--the full counsel of God preached, church membership that distinguishes the Christian from the world, right administration of the ordinances, and love working itself out in church discipline and social action. But I think this definition began to lose ground around 1830 with the radicalization of the abolitionist movement, and certainly became lopsided in its emphasis on social justice post Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era... until it's basically vanished today.
Is this definition of a "true church" a good (sufficient) one? Is this kind of church recoverable among predominantly African-American churches?