Christian TraditionsChurch HistoryEducationReformed

Goals and Motivations for Presenting Sin in Church History

During the past several months, I have had the privilege to take part in weekly small group discussions, sponsored by a local ecumenical organization, on Christian responses to racial injustices in the United States. The curriculum, designed by Latasha Morrison, leads participants through several liturgical phases, a few early steps of which are acknowledgment, lament, and confession. These steps, particularly acknowledgment, with its emphasis on knowing the history of racial prejudice, have forced me to re-examine the difficulties a Christian historian faces when encountering sin in church history. Specifically, it has forced me to think about what the ethical and pedagogical goals should be in teaching history of sins within specific denominations or traditions. What should one’s goals be in sharing about the historical wrongs of a church with that church?

One goal of such teaching, I believe, should be to provide Christians who see themselves as descendants of this or that branch of the church with concrete examples of the sins of their own forebears. For example, I do not believe it is much of an acknowledgment of sin, or much of a basis for confession or repentance of sin, to teach statements such as “in the past, people in our tradition believed that white people were racially superior to others.” Indistinct statements like this are liable to be disbelieved, or vaguely believed but soon forgotten. Specific names, specific documents, and specific dates are all critical for a strong awareness of past sin and concrete repentance and turning away.

In my case, this has meant reading up on the rather niche history of the denomination in which I grew up. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, a widely-appreciated recent history, has many specific examples of racism in US churches, but Tisby’s intention is to cover a wide variety of groups and a wide sweep of time. The steps of acknowledgment and confession can be enacted in a more clear and focused manner, however, when you teach history that is in as close proximity to your audience as you can find. So, I turned to For a Continuing Church by Sean Michael Lucas, which is a history of the Presbyterian Church in America. And, sadly, this book turned up an even greater abundance of denominational sins, all painstakingly documented. Most striking to me was many southern Presbyterians’ commitment to stark social separation of black and white people, an opposition which extended not only to interracial marriage but even to interracial youth gatherings.

This book gives the names, the dates, the publications, and the statements that are necessary to specifically and concretely lament and confess sin, especially for those of us younger people whose lived experience does not extend into the 20th century. For example, Lucas describes how the Southern Presbyterian Journal, the periodical of the conservative wing of the southern Presbyterian church, tried to hold together the various views of its contributors on racial segregation in 1957. What constituted a middle-of-the-road platform for this group, however, was a policy statement upholding the idea of “racial integrity,” or social separation of blacks and whites, and a statement that “interracial social relationships, rather than being the ideal to which the church should work, are actually compounding the problems they seek to solve.”[1] Lucas also notes that one reason that the conservative side of the southern church opposed reunification with the northern Presbyterians was because such a plan would have eliminated the segregated black-only synod which then existed in the southern church. He records how the Journal repeatedly published articles with highly offensive language about the children of interracial marriages, and with condemnations of the northern church’s attempts at “complete social equality between the races.”[2]

Teaching specifics like these provides a strong ground for acknowledgment of and lamentation over sin. For example, in the worship service at my church, we allow a time of corporate confession in which we all read a generic prayer which broadly describes sins of omission and commission, lack of love for others, ungratefulness toward God, and other sins of which all people of the congregation are undoubtedly guilty of committing during the week. But we also have a quiet time when people can make more pointed silent confessions from their own lives. Acknowledging and confessing historical sins that are close to you—sins that are from your tradition and your direct forebears and not simply generalized from the church at large—is an act parallel to taking this liturgical time for personal confessions.

One goal to avoid while teaching on sin in Christian history, however, is something I call “reputation preservation.” I became aware of this pitfall when I was reading a chapter in which James Cone, a black theologian, criticized a past theologian for not more actively promoting racial justice in his lifetime. Since I am white, as was that theologian, I found myself wondering what I could have done, if I had been that person, to avoid Cone’s future criticism. Studying sins in the past can open us to that sort of temptation. In a way that is very self-oriented, both teacher and students can start to ask themselves “How can I avoid future condemnation? How can I avoid being criticized later on?” Avoiding this pedagogical pitfall can be tricky, because the move toward “reputation preservation” has a thread of legitimacy to it—we do not want to poison the church’s witness through our actions, or lack thereof. Therefore, to some extent, we do study sins of omission and commission in the past in order that we not become similarly guilty ourselves.

However, the focus of teaching about past sin is not about preserving the public reputation of individuals or institutions. It is about faithfulness to the gospel. When we look at the past, we do not say “Oh no! The church has a bad reputation!” Rather, we say “Oh no! The church has not been faithful!” Concern about reputation leads to an obsession with one’s own, or one’s institution’s, image. On the other hand, concern about faithfulness leads to a proper obsession with rightly living as members of the body of Christ in a way that witnesses to the kingdom of God.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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