The Spirit in the Black Church
The traditional dispute cessationists have with the charismatics usually ends in a sharp separation, but not so with all evangelicals who are cessationists. Some evangelicals firmly hold to a cessationist position, disallowing the operation of sign gifts for today, but they also fellowship with evangelicals who are charismatics and who argue for the continuation of the sign gifts. This essay presents a plausible understanding of evangelicals who, although cessationists, embrace evangelicals who are charismatics. Finally it addresses the question “Are such cessationists merely a misguided exception; or is the biblical basis for their position sound and thus commendable to all evangelicals who are cessationists?”
There they were together on Christian television and there was an obvious comfortable fellowship between them. The scene was the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas; the characters were Pastor Anthony (Tony) Evans and Pastor Joseph Garlington.
Dr. Evans is a distinguished scholar, theologian, radio preacher, author and noncharismatic pastor. Evans, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, holds both the masters and doctorate in theology. Dallas Seminary is well known for its cessationist views. On the other hand, Pastor Garlington is Senior Pastor of the very successful Covenant Church of Pittsburgh located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is internationally known and respected for his leadership within the charismatic movement. His gifted worship ministry has influenced churches of all types and worship styles, charismatic and noncharismatic. But it is inevitable that some one will ask, “How is it that Evans and Garlington are able to come together in light of their opposing views on the Holy Spirit?”
The question could be asked this way, “When would a high profile noncharismatic pastor invite another equally high profile, but charismatic, pastor to lead his cessationist congregation in worship?” The short answer is, “When the noncharismatic cessationist is a black pastor.” The type of a comfortable fellowship experience seen between Evans and Garlington has been rather common between noncharismatic blacks and charismatics for a long time. However, I clearly recognize the dilemma the above scenario creates for cessationists. I am a product of the black church and a cessationist. I welcome an opportunity to give what I believe is a plausible explanation.
This essay seeks to wrestle with the question, “What is it about many noncharismatic black Christians’ view of the Holy Spirit that allows them to be comfortable worshiping with charismatic Christians?”
This essay paints a generalized picture of a slice of black evangelicals. There are many who would frame the ideas here in a different way than I have and I accept that. But my purpose is to argue that black evangelicals in general relate to the Holy Spirit in a certain way and there is a special reason for that. My objective is to argue that we are comfortable with the Holy Spirit at the existential level as well as at the intellectual level. We see no contradiction in praying for something God promises and not having a rational explanation for how God kept his promise. Instead, experience has conditioned us (and scripture too, when we pay attention) to ask in child-like faith. To keep asking and keep expecting him to graciously answer. Since we are told that his ways are past finding out, why get hung up on not being able to find out? We see no discrepancy when human suffering and brokenness are laid before God in what becomes unanswered prayers, while the capacity of those who prayed to believe God grew stronger.
First, in the black church tradition an authentic encounter with the God of the Bible is synonymous with an experience with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this encounter with the Holy Spirit does indeed happen in the context of corporate worship. But it begins long before Sunday in the day-to-day life of the individuals who bring this dynamic to the Sunday morning worship services. Finally, it would be nearly impossible to discuss the topic of the black evangelical church without at least calling attention to the racially hostile environment out of which the black church was born. And this environment has persisted for much of the time since its birth. Otherwise, apart from some understanding of its roots, it is doubtful that one can adequately appreciate the black evangelical church or its contributions. For I am convinced that the black church owes its spiritual power and resilience to black people’s struggle for survival. Because the fact is, the church in America has been divided along racial lines since slavery. The “great debate” over the operation of sign gifts has always been much more of a “white Christian” phenomenon than a “black one.” For there is a long history of fellowship between noncharismatic blacks with both black and white charismatics.
In the instance of Evans and Garlington, if we grant each of them integrity, then we must conclude that there is something else at work here that goes beyond either their ignorance of the issues, or doctrinal compromise. I will explore these ideas further in this essay as I seek to reconcile noncharismatic blacks worshiping with charismatics.
Both black and white saints are equally flawed sinful creatures, desperately in need of the grace of God. If my portrayal of the black church seems too rosy and uncritical it is only because I wish to make a point. And if I seem somewhat too critical of my white brethren, that is not my intention. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, there would be nothing worthy of reporting about either of them.
My Parents Were Devout Christians
My mom and dad were married in October of 1936, and four years later I was born, the oldest of five boys and one girl. The faith of my parents was typical of many older blacks two and three generations removed from slavery whose walk with God would in ways be reminiscent of what some consider the charismatic Christian extremes of today. But living as they did in the crucible of punishing daily experiences, the reality of black Christians’ faith was their only real means of survival. To these folks their encounters with the Holy Spirit were not sensational, but they were indispensable.
The Faith of My Parents Was Deeply Rooted in Their Bible Knowledge
I would describe my parents’ home as devout and Bible believing. They were by convictions not Pentecostal themselves but they had Pentecostal family members. While neither mom nor dad had much formal education, both were literate and avid Bible readers. My parents’ philosophy of life was shaped from start to finish by their detailed knowledge of the Bible and their obedient reverence for it. We were taught to read as children by our parents before entering public school. The Bible was our textbook. Each of us came to personal faith as children at our parents’ knees.
In retrospect, I am deeply impressed by the theological sophistication of my simple parents. My theological education consists of three plus earned degrees, each from white conservative evangelical institutions. Nevertheless, I found no glaring doctrinal contradictions between my formal theological training and the biblical convictions instilled in us by my parents as we were growing up during the 40s and 50s in Dallas, Texas.
Over the years they told us many stories about their lives as sharecroppers in rural south Texas. My folks were confronted with many of life’s harsh realities for blacks under Jim Crow. Yet, they clearly viewed their hard daily experiences in the light of God’s providence and his sovereignty. Mom and dad drew strength from a faith in God’s goodness and his absolute power and authority. They saw themselves and their experiences through the biblical characters in the Bible. I grew up in an atmosphere in which the Bible was taken seriously as a survival guide. For white Christians (or blacks for that matter) only familiar with the post-civil rights era it might be a little difficult to imagine this daily struggle just to stay alive in America.
Prayer Was My Parents’ Constant Companion
The day-to-day struggles of inequality were a special challenge for black families committed to living by faith. For those families prayer became a constant companion.
We were consistently taught as children to hold no animosity toward whites for their abuses toward blacks. Instead of animus toward whites, we were frequently gathered around mom and dad’s bed to pray for those who persecuted us. It was a daily routine for my parents to seek the Holy Spirit’s divine intervention in the affairs of their day. If my folks were to be successful in earning a living, God would have to touch the heart of white contractors making them willing to do business with dad’s small trucking operation. When a misunderstanding occurred in the context of business dealings, and they did frequently, dad usually suffered whatever loss there might be. I recall on two occasions dad had the same bad experience. One of his better paying contracts was moving materials around the city for a major railroad line in Dallas. Twice on Sundays as our family was preparing to drive off to church my dad was visited at our home by two railroad policemen. Each time instead of going with us to church that Sunday he would have to pay workers to undo a job he had paid them to do earlier in the week. Why? Because as a joke white railroad yard foremen had given dad a bogus work order. Technically my dad was guilty of railroad materials theft. Dad paid his workers wages to retrieve the materials and return them to where they belonged. But dad earned nothing for his efforts because this had been a way for some powerful whites to have a little fun at his expense. I remember how grateful my dad was that the railroad line accepted his explanation and didn’t press their technical case against him. The railroad line was definitely in a position to press theft charges against my dad. We children could anticipate that we would be praying for those white foremen that night. When on occasions like this we asked our parents why they loved whites so much they rehearsed for us what the Bible says about loving those who spitefully use you. Dad was absolutely dependent upon the Holy Spirit to negotiate for him. Their confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit was evident in the way they would apply to themselves promises made to the disciples. In their situations they took literally such promises as the following: “For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20); or “for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you must say” (Luke 12:12).
I can recall periods growing up when my dad would stop by home during the day for family prayer. Looking back I can imagine dad might have been asking God for enough work that week to meet his financial obligations. There were times when we were aware of problems in our extended family. We prayed about a marriage that was failing, for an uncle who had a run-in with the law, about a household that was out of work, for some one who was seriously ill. For my mom and dad the Holy Spirit and his power were not an abstraction, nor was he far away in time and place. For them the Holy Spirit came near everyday and made a difference. In their decision-making my parents applied scripture with confidence. In those matters requiring wisdom as to which direction to take, which course of action to follow. In legal matters, in questions about rights of citizenship, like the nation of Israel in Egypt, my parents knew the Holy Spirit was where our help would come from. No area of our family life was exempt from an expectant dependence upon the hand of God.
My Parents Experienced the Living God Every Day
I grew up during a time and amid conditions that required black Christians to expect miracles as the routine way of survival. I repeat. For those unfamiliar with the pre-civil rights era it is not easy to conceive just what a daily struggle it was for blacks to stay alive in America.
When my parents sang on Sunday, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” they were reflecting back on the experiences of the week just past. When they quoted the Psalmists and the song writers “I love the Lord, He heard my cry … as long as I live when trouble rise I will hasten to His throne” they had just gone through such experiences in days prior. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” was more to my parents than just great Hebrew poetry, God was a living reality. He had opened closed doors for the community. The Lord had rescued a helpless neighbor from injustice at the hands of the powerful and the unaccountable. The answers to prayer they were witnessing were victories for individuals otherwise powerless. The black church is inextricably rooted in the context of black struggle. This unique history gives the black church many of its characteristics. For most of the black church’s existence the black Christian has lacked the power and privilege enjoyed by the white Christian and as a result has been forced to be much more intentional in relying upon God.
Neighborhood Prayer Bands Were Gatherings Across Denominations
Beyond family prayer, a common institution emerged across black communities everywhere called prayer bands. These prayer bands were not organized around denominational traditions but around the simple confidence that God answers prayer. When trouble invaded our community word went out to the prayer bands. We children often attended the meetings of those prayer bands. Listening to the adults talk to God in prayer we learned about the latest community struggles with inequality. There was prayer about the most recent incidents with the police. God’s help was sought for the black community schools that were in a perpetual crisis. There were the out-of-work households needing the Lord to open up jobs for them. There was prayer about the pending trial for a defendant from our community who was facing death in the electric chair. This type of prayer request would likely lead to asking the Lord to help parents to rear their children well. Black parents perceived whites to have such capricious attitudes that it produced in the parents a kind of healthy paranoia. Obedient children would avoid all unnecessary contact with whites for it could only lead to trouble. Dallas was an especially mean-spirited city and whites exercised a near absolute power over blacks. Years later the Kennedy assassination came as no surprise to many in the black Christian community. The silence of evangelical white Christians is still condemned in private conversations by black Christians knowledgeable of the then rampant hateful spirit in our city. When commenting on the moral conscience of Dallas the observations of Leslie were sobering but well placed. “On the surface, at least, integration in Dallas was a brilliant job of execution. It did not, of course, have a moral basis. An appeal to moral values could not have accomplished integration; only an appeal to material values.”1 And blacks who resisted were severely punished one way or another. The pastor of our Baptist church would regularly warn church families that even to associate with civil rights groups was to put their jobs at risk. We knew of people being fired because someone in the family took out a membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). All of us were familiar with stories about black youth, usually males, whose lives were ruined by the false charges of an angry white. I can only imagine the stress mom and dad were under, considering that their children consisted of five sons and one daughter. They felt compelled to interpret each answer to prayer for us. By so doing they were hoping to persuade us to wait upon God instead of ever taking matters into our own hands. They would seldom allow an opportunity to pass, so as to dramatize the futility of trying to fight the system. And there seemed to have been no shortage of failed attempts to challenge that system. Our community grieved with neighbor families when they lost sons to prison and to untimely deaths fighting the system in Dallas. It was considered a proud accomplishment and an answer to prayer when a black family’s sons reached adulthood without in some way being permanently marked for life.
My mom and dad had grown up under circumstances even harder than those they reared us under. The important lessons their experiences had taught them about trusting God, they desired to pass on to us. They had a dreadful fear for our very survival in this country. And to them survival was dependent upon how well we learned to rely upon God for each day. Our parents worried that one of their five sons might succumb to the temptation to fight the white system, something tantamount to flirting with death. There was no real difference between the results whether or not they were fighting with legal or illegal means; either way you lose. My parents’ point was proven later during the civil rights era as the legal nonviolent protests were plagued by death and violence. Many mostly white liberal Christians stood with the blacks. But how disheartening when prominent conservative white pastors and churches openly opposed equal rights for blacks! No wonder in black Christian homes the daily warnings to frustrated black youth were “You are no match for the absolute power of the white man; leave him to God.” As a consequence of these hopeless struggles, our parents were faced with the choices either to despair, or to rely upon God. My own serious faith today is directly related to seeing the living God at work in my parents’ lives. I am grateful for their choice.
The Black Tradition of Relying on Prayer Was Not Unique to My Parents
But just how unique were my parents’ experiences as compared to their Christian neighbors? According to what I saw and heard at the Baptist church we attended, mom and dad weren’t really so unique at all. What I was experiencing in my parents’ home was similar to the experiences of other black youth in my community who had Christian parents. These parents were carrying on a black Christian tradition of relying upon the Spirit of God that extends all the way back to the days of slavery. It would matter little whether or not our neighbors were Baptists, Methodists, or Pentecostals. They were Christian people with a good, disciplined understanding of God’s word and who, by experience, and believed in the power of prayer.
The Exposure of Slaves to the Bible Doomed Slavery
Blacks were first introduced to the gospel during slavery and the experience left a profound effect upon the institution of slavery. In the same way that no other ethnic American church has developed in a vacuum, neither has the black evangelical church. It should not come as any surprise that some characteristics of the black church can be documented to have their origins in the slave masters’ church. Observations such as the following made by these scholars support this suggestion.
But again it is not easy to tell how much of their ‘heathenism’ the slaves learned in the whites’ churches and at white revival meetings. One Sunday morning … the slaves were permitted to hold their own services before the whites occupied the building. Such a medley of sounds, I never heard before. They exhorted, prayed, sung, shouted, cried, grunted and growled. Poor Souls! They knew no better, for when the other services began the sounds were similar, which the white folks made; and the negroes only imitated them and shouted a little louder … In short, the religion of the slaves was, in essence, strikingly similar to that of the poor, illiterate white men of the antebellum South.2
Yet black styles of worship which blacks actually borrowed from whites during slavery are mistakenly labeled today by some as African. Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Euliss ‘Sonny’ Dewey, a white preacher in the movie “Apostle,” reminded me that my parents had laughingly told of us about white preachers who preached just the way black preachers did. Mom and Dad said the black shouting in the Spirit was learned from the white preachers. “The tradition of lined hymn singing in the Black church commenced in the early nineteenth century. Its precursor was the psalm-lining of the Calvinists, which was perpetuated in the American colonies by the Puritans… The Black Methodists and Baptists endorsed Watts’ hymns, but the Baptists ‘blackened’ them.”3
As stated previously, blacks would be totally unaware of “how to do church” prior to the white introduction of “doing church.” To be certain, blacks took the idiom or the genre to another level and made it their own. But what we learn here is, that in developing the black church tradition, the slaves imitated the whites. Besides giving blacks their example, whites also, though grudgingly, gave the slaves the scriptures and the scriptures proved to be a much more persuasive influence in the formation of the black church tradition than the example of white Christians. Thus was the beginning of the black and white Christian relationship, deformed from the start.
The Bible Has Profoundly Influenced The Worship of the Black Church
In addition to the white church model, another powerful and important source of influence in the development of the black church as an institution was scripture. Then, within the context of the institutional black church, there is the black Christian experience. This is critical because the black church as an institution depends upon the individual black Christian experience. This is where the scriptures’ shaping influence has been most apparent. For the slave, knowledge of the Bible became an indescribably valuable resource. The record shows that even white slave owners recognized the inherent risk and danger in giving slaves the word of God. It was that awareness that led to grudgingly selecting what the slaves should be taught from the Bible. But it was in the purposes of God that the slaves should be taught the scriptures.
The gospel gave the slave a whole new philosophical framework, a different rationale for interpreting his condition. The slave met the God of the Bible and he was totally different from what the slave was accustomed to in his white Christian slave master. The God of the Bible was engaged in facilitating the liberation of the oppressed. The evangelistic preaching of the cross introduced slaves to the theology of man’s total depravity and Christ’s substitutionary atonement. The slave’s God is one who sets the captive free by breaking the chains of spiritual bondage from sin, as well as the chains of physical bondage from slavery. He was a God of impartiality, being not only the Heavenly Father of the white master, but of the slave too. The slaves found a whole new and elevated sense of self-worth through their exposure to the Bible. However, the slave gained something else just as important as higher self-worth; he gained an objective and divine standard by which to form opinions about white Christians. A relationship deformed from the start became even more complicated. As slave conversions began to occur after the introduction of the Bible, that new relationship was gradually affecting everything. This irreversibly altered the slave and slave-master relationship from the perspective of heaven. Slaves now saw God as their final authority, not their master. The slave recognized not only a new accountability to God, but also a powerful new ally in God. There was more going on than cowering docility. It is reasonable to conclude that the ministry of the Holy Spirit was having an ameliorating effect on slaves and slave masters.
I believe out of that convoluted experience, mixing slavery and the Bible, a universal conviction emerged among black Christians: “The Bible can be trusted, but white Christians’ interpretation of it cannot be trusted.” Some black students of theology have a difficulty with the study of systematic theology. The difficulty is not necessarily their inability to grasp systematic theology. Their problem is a hesitancy to accept a systematic theology organized and articulated according to white cultural bias. This problem is not as restricted to liberal theology as some conservatives might wish to suggest. This ability of blacks and whites to arrive at different interpretations of scripture remains a historic point of division between black and white Christians today. But accepted wisdom says prior experiences do influence one’s emphasis even in the scripture. Many whites and blacks view race differently today just as blacks and whites viewed slavery differently during the time of slavery.
Black Christians have had a solemn reverence and love for the scriptures since the time of slavery. This reverence is even found among some blacks who profess no faith in Christ. It’s not surprising then that black Christians automatically cast intense suspicions upon Christians appearing to circumvent what the text says. Black Christians in large numbers today continue to be incredulous about white Christians’ interpretation of scripture. Those black skeptics believe that whites have ulterior motives and they read the Bible selectively. Whites, according to the skeptics, underscore those portions of the Bible which serve their agenda, but they either ignore, or explain away portions of scripture which reflect unfavorably upon their actions. This might provide a partial answer to why blacks are attending white charismatic churches by the tens of thousands and are mostly avoiding white cessationists churches like the plague. I happen to know personally many such blacks who attend white charismatic churches. But by convictions they are not charismatics. These blacks appear to be less skeptical of white charismatic churches than they are of white cessationists churches. Why? I would speculate that if given an opportunity to survey the opinions of those black laymen, I would guess it would be hard for cessationists churches to explain to those black skeptics why they reject the sign gifts—gifts which are in the Bible. I cannot agree with the logic, but I might understand where these black skeptics were coming from however. Historically, blacks are accustomed to white interpretations of the Bible that are somehow a disadvantage to blacks. The black and white Christian relationship that was crippled during slavery has yet to fully heal. Perhaps a benchmark was established in slavery when white Christians used the Bible to teach slaves to submit to their masters. But on the other hand, blacks read the Bible and saw the promise of liberation.
The institution of the black church owes its origin and existence to slavery and there was no escaping whatever shaping-influence slavery exerted. While the modern version of the black evangelical church is hardly homogeneous, there are undeniable family resemblances. Those observable common practices among black evangelical churches cross denominational traditions. These family resemblances can be largely attributed to a black church tradition of reverence for the examples in scripture. This forceful sway is particularly true of historical narrative texts. The scriptural anecdotes (stories) are particularly authoritative, even when the result has been to embrace theological positions that are contradictory to one another. For example, it is not uncommon for the same person in the same service to affirm and deny the security of the believer.
Through the years the black church has established a reputation as the court of first resort for the poor. This sometimes too aggressive pursuit of advocacy for the poor, in the view of some, involves the church too much in social justice. But most black Christians would see advocacy for the poor as an essential aspect of the gospel. Conservative black preachers are more likely to favor the narrative texts in preaching than the epistolary literature. The story text is much less complicated. The anecdotes provide in story form a pattern or an example to follow. Lessons drawn from the anecdotes are not considered systematic theology by black preachers. Among black evangelical churches the scriptural anecdotes are divinely inspired guides for faith and practice. This reflects a high view of scripture, acknowledging its trustworthiness and authority. Some may wish to quarrel about certain black church interpretations of the scriptures. But there is very little room to deny this historic tradition for devotion to the scriptures in the black church. In past generations older black Christians exhibited a phenomenal knowledge of the Bible. I witnessed that with my own parents. What they lacked in familiarity with other literature they made up for with their thorough Bible knowledge. If in spiritual maturity the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the word of God, then their powerful walk with God is understandable.
My late-wife’s parents were not unlike my own parents, they too were careful students of the scriptures. For almost four decades I enjoyed a wonderful fellowship in the word with them. Until the death of my late mother-in-law (Willie Mae), she and I spoke at least once a week by telephone. My late father-in-law and I have sat up the entire night more than once, discussing the scriptures. He told me that he wished to learn from my formal training. My late mother-in-law’s usual inquiry was to ask me about my studying and my preaching. This simple little lady never completed high school, but she had hidden so much of the word in her heart that she could engage me in an extended animated discussion of a passage without holding the text in her hand. She usually sent me away with a wonderful story-illustration of how God had fulfilled that passage in her life. I marveled that I had twelve years of theological training and yet in the word she was every bit my peer. Her secret was that she believed the word of God to be a living book. She knew the promises in it and understood that they are available to you and me. I can remember how when my late wife and I were barely getting by financially during my student years in the 1960s. Again and again her late mother would repeat the story of some biblical character facing a difficult situation. Then she would say, “Remember how God came to the rescue of that person? Well, the same God that helped that person will help you too.” In the years after those days she reminded us of those difficult times and of how faithful God had been to us.
It was my sad honor to give her eulogy in February 1999. She and I had been true soul mates. The days before she died were typical of the way in which she lived in relation to the word of God. In those days before her death, she directed the songs, prayers, and scripture-reading from her sick bed. In the very moments before she passed away that night, I had completed the reading of a long series of promises from God’s word. The reading was followed by the singing of her favorite hymns. She opened her eyes, rose up off the pillow, stretched her arms toward heaven, and died peacefully. I was asked by the family to give the eulogy for my late-father-in-law in the following year, July 2000. In March of that next year 2001, my wife died. Thus our family sustained painful losses in three consecutive years.
I have heard numerous stories told about the Bible being the only book many older blacks could read. They could read no other literature. I can’t explain that, but I do know that a tradition of devotion to the Bible has served the black church well. For since I believe that one’s spiritual maturity is developed, I believe that the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the word of God.
Black Church Worship Has a Striking Resemblance to That of Israel
The testimony of many whites who seek out the charismatic church is that they love the high-energy worship experience. They often have a sound biblical point. One can easily recognize the influence of the Bible in the worship styles of the black church. There are some definite characteristics of black church worship. Blacks usually object to stereotypes for good reasons. But, if we mean by stereotype “something conforming to a standard pattern,” then I am willing to admit to a stereotype of black church worship. I agree with the basic argument of Lincoln and Mamiya in their chapter “The Performed word: Music and the Black Church.” They give a persuasive explanation for the origin of what has become known as the traditional black church style of worship.4 That black church tradition born during slavery was a new institution that never before existed. But I would argue that the ministry of the Holy Spirit had an important role in the formation of the traditional black church style of worship. Neither my parents, nor my slave forefathers would need anyone to explain why the ministry of the Holy Spirit was prominent in the formation of the black worship experience.
The Black Church’s High Energy Worship Has Biblical Precedence
Formal corporate worship for black evangelical churches is a high energy celebration experience. Celebration and high energy are basic elements to any black worship experience. Regardless of the denominational tradition, most black evangelicals expect to find these basic elements present and would be disappointed by the absence of either element. Most black worshipers will quickly remind critics and seekers alike that the Bible is the model for this style of worship. The Psalms are just as well loved by black worshipers as they are among other worshipers. The basic elements found in the worship of the Psalms—high energy and celebration—are also found in corporate black worship. Two good examples are Pss 95 and 100. In these Psalms the people of God are exhorted to come before his presence in a spirit of celebration. The Lord’s people are exhorted to express joy and gladness—high energy and celebration. In addition to singing they were required to testify to their personal confidence in the faithfulness of God. Allen Ross commenting on Ps 100 says this is “a call for praise and joyful service … People everywhere … should shout … they are not to be subdued in their praise of Him …”5 This sounds like the description of a black worship experience.
So the more familiar you are with both the worship of Israel and the black worship experience the more you are able to see a striking resemblance between the black church’s high energy celebrative worship and that of Israel in scripture. Look at Ezra’s description of the Jews’ worship service when the temple foundation was laid. This could easily refer to the Sunday morning worship of many black churches.
With antiphonal response they sang, praising and glorifying the Lord: ‘For he is good; his loving kindness toward Israel is forever.’ All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the LORD was established. Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders—older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established—were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. People were unable to tell the difference between the sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off (Ezra 3:11-13).
John Martin said regarding the Jewish dedication service for the second temple, “The two sounds, the joy and the weeping (from sadness), mingled together and were so loud that they were heard far away.”6 He might well be describing any black church on any Sunday morning.
Summary and Conclusion
Cessationists and Charismatics Have a Common Bond in Jesus Christ
A very basic reason why cessationists can come together with charismatics is a common faith in Jesus Christ. Paul laid down a principle in Romans that teaches Christians to receive one another in spite of differences and without the intention to disagree. Our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a sufficient basis as cessationists to come together with charismatics.
Christ Has Made Christians Different Which Requires Tolerance and Acceptance
In his article, “Worshiping With Your Eyes Wide Open,” Towns list six worship styles, pointing out the merits and weaknesses of each one. “Christians worship differently. That’s because we are different; different mixtures of spiritual gifts, different callings, different personalities, different backgrounds and different doctrine.”7 But to be different in Christ is no justification for refusing to worship together.
Black people are traditionally tolerant—slow about excluding people—regardless of who they are or what they might be accused of doing. Black Christians are even more accepting of others. We have an unspoken tradition in the black community to champion the underdog. Perhaps as blacks our painful history of experiences with rejection, exclusion, and demonization has conditioned us against being quick to treat others that way. This potential virtue has time and again proven to be a liability, but I don’t expect to see it dropped any time soon. The crying need for tolerance and acceptance remains. Perhaps as black Christians we feel more of an emotional need to connect with others than do our white brothers. Maybe we are more willing to admit needing our charismatic brothers as brothers, if not as charismatics. Just watch black Christians in a friendly setting and you will discover that they know how to come together. Everyone’s speaking at once. There is hugging, hand and back slapping all over the place.
Personal Tolerance and Acceptance Put to the Test
My own capacity for tolerance and acceptance was put to the test a few years ago when at Christmas my youngest brother announced to the family he was dying of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, popularly known as AIDS. We were crushed from several directions at once. First, there was the shame that was attached to his admission—years of struggling with the secret sin of homosexuality. Then there was the horror of the accompanying physical pain and suffering before his eventual death.
James was appropriately and convincingly remorseful, ready to courageously accept the consequences of his bad choices. Then it was our turn to respond as a family and as individuals. Being the oldest of our family I was expected to go first, to set the pace. I paused for a few moments—but it seemed like an eternity. I thought about the purpose of the cross. I thought about how Christ’s forgiveness was for folks exactly like James and like me. We all wept together sharing the wave of grief that was swept over us by this reality. We then set off to locate for our brother James the best AIDS hospice care available. For the next twenty months we loved James on a daily basis. A couple of times his attending physicians made the comment, “If you were not taking such excellent care of James, he might have died much sooner and cost you much less expense.” The tolerance and acceptance we exhibited toward James was not wasted on my own adult children. The conversations they have had with me since then indicate that God used my response to James to increase their appreciation for his grace and forgiveness. The Lord’s name is seldom damaged more than when as saints we behave in intolerant and unkind ways toward members of the family that needs us. I think as cessationists and charismatics God has given us a compelling need for each other.
How many of our assumptions as cessationists and charismatics about the presence of the Holy Spirit are misguided? How much is a reflection of our culture and personality? More than many are willing to admit.
When in 1998, my late wife was diagnosed with liver cancer it turned our lives upside down. After being together for nearly forty years this was sobering to say the least. We had friends who were cessationists and friends who were charismatics. There were those praying for my late wife and me who were careful not to embarrass God by asking too much and putting him on the spot. We listened as others ordered God to help us as if somehow he were our opponent. We believed in healing and miracles. But we had no faith in miracle-workers and healers. We were praying for healing by any means God so desired. As time passed we learned so much more about the Lord through that experience. We were blessed by the witness of the Holy Spirit as we walked through that trial. He comforted us during our encounters with our human frailty. We were blessed by the enduring fellowship of the saints, an obvious work of the Holy Spirit. Another evidence for us of the Spirit’s presence was his ministry of laying upon other believers a prayer-burden for us. My late wife exhibited such a noticeable peace in spite of her serious medical condition that she was asked repeatedly about that peace as if there were something wrong with it. We believed that her peace came from the Holy Spirit.
“What is it about many noncharismatic black Christians’ view of the Holy Spirit that allows them to be comfortable worshiping with charismatic Christians?” The black church has always been comfortable with experiencing the supernatural nature of the work of the Holy Spirit. Noncharismatic blacks and charismatics worship together because they focus on their commonality in Christ, which is much larger than any sign-gifts disagreement between them. The black church may be more predisposed by history and tradition than is the white church to the necessary tolerance and acceptance for worshiping with charismatics. Fellowship is possible for so long as what each believes regarding the operation of the sign-gifts is respected without attempting to impose that view upon each other.
What I have proposed in this essay is a simple idea: the context of struggle has been an indispensable ingredient in forging black evangelical attitudes toward God the Holy Spirit. When black evangelical attitudes toward the Spirit are looked at from that angle, one will understand their reluctance to distance themselves from charismatics.
1 . Warren Leslie, Dallas: Public and Private (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1998) 73-74.
2 . Hart M. Nelsen, Raytha L. Yokley, and Anne K. Nelsen, The Black Church in America (New York: Basic Books, 1971) 61.
3 . C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African Experience (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990) 354-355.
4 . C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African Experience (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990) 346-381.
5 . Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985) 865-866.
6 . John Martin, “Ezra,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary 680.
7 . Elmer Towns, “Worshiping With Your Eyes Wide Open,” Worship Leader 6.4 (July-August 1997) 22.
Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)