Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dr. King Is Not the Right Model for Black Preachers

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.


ajcarter said...

Brother TA,
This is a word that needs to ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.

Thanks for your courage and insight.

Bokey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks, Thabiti, for this excellent post. My leadership like yours be multiplied among the African American church and beyond.

Lazlo said...

I wouldn't disagree with most of what you say here (I wouldn't be qualified anyway!), but it seems like your problem is not with Dr. King.

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.

That sounds like Dr. King, but not necessarily like Revs. Sharpton or Jackson. I don't know if you were trying to be provocative with your title, but everything Dr. King preached was Biblical. He was incredibly thoughtful, and was concerned with politics as much as the Bible had something to say about them. He did not interepret the Bible a priori from his political beliefs, but read the Bible with politics in mind, and let the Spirit guide him. From this understanding, he made a "faithful proclaimation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" (as you say).

Every church needs more people like Dr. King -- but I can't say we need any more publicity-seekers like Sharpton and Jackson.

FellowElder said...

Welcome to all my non-African-American friends! Know that your thoughts are welcomed and encouraged here. You don't have to be an "expert" (by which I think a couple of you may mean "African American") to have good thoughts and insights to share. As the post suggests, I think there are plenty of African Americans who would be "unqualified" to speak about some of these issues.

Lazlo, thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, and much to my own dismay and grief, I can't agree with you about Dr. King. I love the man--he is a hero to me--for his sacrifice in the cause of Civil Rights. But his theology was deeply liberal in the worst way. He did not hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, he denied the virgin birth, and I haven't read a sermon or address yet where the gospel was proclaimed faithfully. Attempt to bring a "prophetic voice" to the issues of his day he did; call men to repent of their sins and believe in the One and Only Son of God by whom they must be saved he did not.

If you're interested in reading more about his theology, you can pick up some nuggets in Carson's The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr and some of his published essays and addresses in The Papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But you're correct. My intent with the post wasn't to critique King per se. I raise his name because I think he has become paradigmatic for African American views of the ministry. I don't think he set out to do so, but the success of his public efforts combined with his eloquence thrust him into that role. What's lost, if you assume that paradigm, is any substantial focus on the spiritual mission of the church and the primacy of the gospel. That's a tragic tradeoff. One we should re-examine in light of today's African American church.


postmodernegro said...

How's is King's leadership style and message the 'dominant' model in today's black church? I don't see it? What sources are you using to suggest such a thing?

FellowElder said...

Can you think of anyone who has had a more profound impact on our notions of what black pastoral ministry looks like than Dr. King? I'd be interested in your thoughts about who that might be....

postmodernegro said...

I am not suggesting that King has had no influence on black pastoral leadership...but I do not consider him paradigmatic nor a dominant model. King did exemplify the black preacher as center of the black church and community. But his message was not paradigmatic.

There is much in King that is not paradigmatic.

What has had more of an influence on black preachers today is the image of the CEO/Mogul/Nobleman. This seems to be paradigmatic of black pastoral leadership. I do not see King exemplifying this. If anything his message seemed counter the very context that creates the Pastor as CEO/Mogul/Nobelman.

There is a certain rhetorical style, aesthetic, and concern for civil rights that is a part of King's legacy. There are aspects of this that has had influence on many black preachers. But there is a side to King...the deeply prophetic side of him that I do not see as paradigmatic. This is not to suggest that there are no black pastors that have taken seriously. There are plenty of black pastors that have taken King's thought to heart. But these Pastors are rarely heard from in the mainstream.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate what you've said here and thank anthony the postmodern negro for cluing me in on your blog. I'm really concerned that people like Jackson, Sharpton, and West feel comfortable attacking the Church. I just read a piece from West in the Harvard Educational Review on Heterosexism and transformation. He sounds nuts. West seems to pervert who Jesus was and has some off the wall idea about what it means to be a Christian.

I'm glad that there are folks out there concerned with the basics. Keep up the good work.

FellowElder said...

Perhaps we should nuance this conversation just a little bit. I guess I tend to see a generational divide (which I think you allude to) when it comes to the dominant pastoral paradigm in play. I think you're largely correct that most of the post-Civil Rights era is attracted to a CEO/entrepreneurial model of church leadership. If they're African Americans, they are often enamored with the likes of T.D. Jakes, Cashflow Dollar, and Eddie Long.

Among an older cadre of preachers I think a King-like understanding of the pastorate is still the main view. And, I think many of those men would understand themselves to at least be attempting a "prophetic" ministry of sorts.

As to which is most dominant, this is speculation but I'd have to guess that a King-like, Civil Rights view is. I'm basing that mainly on three assumptions: 1) it's the Jacksons and Sharptons who garner the most mainstream media attention when it comes to matters of social policy and any "prophetic" voice (Jakes, et al would be largely criticized for the absence of such a voice); 2) most Christians do not belong to mega-churches where the CEO model is most prevalent but to small to medium sized churches that are still "traditional" in operation; 3) and consider that whenever an agenda looks for social and civil validation (i.e., women preachers or gay rights) it's appeal is almost always to the Civil Rights mov't and to Dr. King.

But whether King as a model or the CEO as a model is most dominant is secondary. I think both models are unbiblical and unhealthy for the church. Both models advance another aim (economic development on the one hand, and Civil Rights on the other) above the Lord-given imperative of making disciples and spreading His glory among all nations. We need church leaders, in the wake of unprecedented Civil Rights gains and economic opportunity, to return to this basic mandate.

postmodernegro said...

I can only speak from my context. There are only a handful of churches in Charlotte that maintain the Kingian-type leadership. Which is not all bad by the way. I don't want to commit to an essentialist view of black preachers that are committed to this tradition. There is much in this tradition I think is beautiful and life-giving and still one of the few places where there remains an aesthetic space for blacks to nuture a healthy social identity...especially in a culture that is still dominated by a white aesthetic. As we both know there are very few black pastors that are all the way committed to 'theological liberalism' least not the academic version of it. I also don't want to commit to the view that 'none' of the Kingian preachers are not "biblically-qualified, gospel-preaching, Christ-treasuring, church-loving, evangelistic, intellectually-rigorous men to lead her [black church], protect her, sacrifice for her, serve her, reform and strengthen her".

There is a contextual element to black preaching and praxis that was birthed out of the black experience in America.

As far as this being paradigmatic...I am not so sure. The pastor as CEO/mogul/nobleman is not only in 'mega churches' but is being courted by many black preachers in mainline traditions. It is also in black storefront church...which is, I believe, the fastest growing expression of the black church. This is where I got my start with the Christian a small storefront in the back of a firehouse. Many of these neo-Pentecostal megachurches had their start in storefront settings, hotels, and homes. In my sojourn...this seems to be the growing dominant expression. Faith Center this...Family Life that...etc.. I am not suggesting I am against (while I do have some serious theological concerns) these types of churches.

R.G. said...

I would also have to disagree with the idea that the King model of pastoral leadership is dominant. Even if Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson remain some of the most well known African-American political voices, we have to look at influence, not in terms of constituents, but congregants.

Most African-Americans are not looking to Sharpton or Jackson for political or spiritual direction(and I consider these dimensions to be integrated and not mutually exclusive). As you rightly mentioned, Jakes, Dollar and Long are much more influential along with Jamal Bryant. The latter two (Long and Bryant) have taken positions on social and political issues at times though not necessarily in the traditional model of King and other would-be successors. We would actually be better served with black preachers who understand that faith and spiritual is inextribly tied to one's social context. This is the traditional Jewish worldview that Christ operated within.

I did have a question in regards to your statement that, "Homosexuality is gaining a stronger and more public foothold in many churches, as are women preachers." Are you concerned about gay women preachers or is the idea of any woman serving as a pastor that disturbs you?

FellowElder said...

Thanks for your comment. A couple of things:
1. As I said in an earlier comment on this post, I think what we are probably observing is a generational divide on this quesiton of dominant model of leadership, with some younger pastors operating more like CEOs. Even so...

2. It's hard to tell who has the most influence. For example, according to Drew Smith's work down at Morehouse, only about 10% of black churches could be considered activist churches using a civil rights-like definition. But, according to Vinson Synan, about 1/3 of black attenders of Baptist and Methodist churches are neo-Pentecostal, the church approach most likely to produce megachurch pastors/CEOs. that means that 2/3 are still likely in more traditional churches which are more likely sympathetic to King-styled leadership, which is the older more established model.

All of this is rough... but that's generally how some scholars are breaking out the numbers.

3. For clarity's sake, my issue isn't really which is more dominant. I think they're both less than the model put forth in scripture and what we need is a return to biblical faithfulness.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that you have skipped over the comment about the problem of women preachers becoming more common in churches. If you have a problem with women preachers you should take it up with God because He said that in the last days He will "pour out his spirit upon all flesh. His sons and daughters shall prophesy." I believe that it is time for you to come out of your old covenant world view as well.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the author of this piece needs to come out of his old convenant ideas about the role of women in the church. Sexism is not a religious idea. In Joel, it is written that in the last days God will pour out his spirit upon all flesh. His sons and DAUGHTERS shall prophesy.