The Churches of Christ have a language problem when it comes to race.
With recent national attention on racial issues, Church leaders increasingly refer to race using words like “equal” and “love,” words whose normal meaning does not include discrimination against others.
Why is that a problem?
Those words are commonly used, and consequently defined, in the Churches of Christ differently than their normal meaning: a meaning that instead includes — even mandates — discrimination against other people based on an immutable characteristic.
Women and girls are said to be “equal” with males and “loved,” for example, but they are completely prohibited from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service in the vast majority of Churches of Christ due to their sex.
When Churches of Christ leaders today use the same such words, like “equal” and “love,” when speaking about another immutable characteristic — race — those words then often have empty meaning, questionable credibility, and diminished moral-force because of the way those words have already been defined by those leaders and others to include and allow for discrimination against people.
We Stoked and Fueled the Word-Mangling Fire
This problem, one of defining words unnaturally in support of discrimination against people based on an immutable characteristic, is not a new problem in the Churches of Christ.
An article in the 1912 Gospel Advocate by one of the most successful Churches of Christ preachers of his time explains, for example, “there can be no disputing the fact that the Negro is our neighbor.” The article then goes on to say “though I do not mean by this that there should be social intercourse between the races …” (thereby defining “neighbor” contrary to its natural meaning).
And well into the mid-20th century, many Churches of Christ leaders used words like “equal” and “love” as allowing for discrimination based on race, including actively supporting segregation. Harding University, affiliated with the Churches of Christ, fought integration until late, actively maintaining a racially segregated school until 1963, when federal legislation forced Harding to admit black persons.
In a 1966 sermon, Harding’s recently retired president asserts “Before God, all men are equal,” but “there is no reason to think the Lord wants a mixing of the races and the creating of just one mongrel race.”
One can hope that the mode of thinking that uses the Bible to defend discrimination against people based on an immutable characteristic has disappeared over the years, but it has not.
Today, it impairs the Churches of Christ in efforts on race.
Some are More Equal Than Others
The fire of that mode of thinking can be seen most easily today in sex discrimination, as it is in the open in Churches of Christ and other churches that follow complementarianism and patriarchal traditionalism. Words have been re-defined by church leaders and members in defense and justification of their exclusionary practices relative to women and girls.
They assert women are “equal” with men and are “loved,” but bar women from all or the main speaking and leadership roles in the assembled church.
They say men and women are “equal,” but then say men can have authority over women but not vice versa. Girls are “equal” to boys and we “love” our girls, but then say girls must sit and watch while we encourage boys to participate in serving in the assembly. Treat our “neighbor” as ourselves, but male elders and preachers insist women and girls must sit and be silent while those men and other men can stand and speak. It goes on and on.
If words like “equal” and “love” do not have anti-discriminatory meaning relative to women and girls they know well — indeed, their own daughters and daughters of their friends — then what anti-discriminatory reliability and sincerity do their words have relative to black people?
Prohibitions on Women & Girls Impact Heart, Head, and Language
There is a plethora of other words whose moral force has been eroded in this defense and justification of doctrines and traditions placing exclusions on females. One is that females are “valued.”
If “valued” means discrimination against females, then what does black lives “matter” mean?
Some claim prohibiting females from serving as an elder or from preaching or otherwise speaking while encouraging and allowing males is “not discrimination.” They make such a claim even though it is the very definition of discrimination to deny an opportunity to all females while not doing so for males.
If that is “not discrimination” for a complementarian or traditionalist, then what does their urging that we “not discriminate” against black persons mean? What credibility do they have?
Mangling Words to Accommodate Discrimination Against People
Some church members call their church “welcoming” to people of all races and say church members are “welcoming.” “Welcoming,” in its normal sense, does not include discrimination against people welcomed. In the Churches of Christ, they say the church is “welcoming” to women and girls, too, but women and girls are discriminated against, banned in the vast majority of such congregations from speaking in the worship service and more.
So when a person has used “welcoming” for so long to include discrimination against females, what does their use of “welcoming” mean now when they use it to refer to race?
Of what use from them are such words — like love, equal, valued, neighbor, welcoming — when those words have been mangled by them to include discrimination against people?
Bible-Citing and Word-Redefining
That a person believes the Bible declares race-discrimination or sex-discrimination to be God-ordained does not mean it is “not discrimination” or right. Does a person thinking the Bible calls for banning black people from marrying white people make that person’s support of such a prohibition not racist?
If a person supports prohibiting black people from leading in the worship assembly if white people are present, is that not race discrimination? What if that person thinks the Bible tells them to do it? If a person supports prohibiting women from leading in the worship assembly if men are present, is that not sex discrimination?
Indeed, the belief that race-discrimination today is endorsed in the Bible was, until relatively recently, a widely and openly held view of Christians, and it remains one held by too many. The Curse of Ham, the Curse of Cain, anti-miscegenation, pro-slavery, pro-segregation, and similar interpretations of scripture have all been used to justify participation in discrimination against black people.
Following Scripture? Or People?
Similarly, some Christians seek to justify their participation in discrimination against women and girls by saying they are only trying to follow scripture. How deeply have the vast majority of those participating in church services that discriminate against women and girls actually studied scripture on the question? People much more often instead are not truly following scripture, but are instead following other people on this — following what the preacher says and does and what the good church people around them do.
Regardless, the focus here is not on the practice of prohibiting women and girls being contrary to scripture (though it is).
A Language Problem, But Not Just a Language Problem
The focus here is on a language problem for addressing racial discrimination, a problem wrought and furthered by Churches of Christ practice relative to females: words needed today to fight racial discrimination have been and are undermined by the justification and defense of that discriminatory practice against women and girls.
By no means is this only a language problem. It goes much deeper. It is a heart problem, a head problem, a credibility problem, a hypocrisy problem, a sin problem, a moral problem, a ….
Discrimination is heartbreaking all the time, but the language problem is highlighted now, when meaningful words are needed from Christian leaders to encourage substantial anti-racist actions.
Actions speak louder than words, of course. Little girls watch their moms and their friends’ moms and their female friends and themselves be discriminated against by the preacher, elders, and members every single Sunday in church. They learn.
And little boys watch little girls and women, including their mom, be discriminate against every Sunday. They learn.
All while the preacher, the elders, and church members proclaim “love” for others, “love for one another,” “equal” before God, treating others as your “neighbor,” treat others “as yourself,” worshiping God with “all” your heart, soul, and mind, ….
What do those actions, on display every Sunday, communicate about how people ought to be treated? What do those actions communicate about what the preacher, the elders, and church members mean when they use those same words to discuss race? The children learn.
While black persons face racial discrimination, systemically and individually, do the preachers, other leaders, and members take action in an anti-racist manner to eliminate discrimination? Or do they talk about “love” and “equal” and “welcoming” and “value” and …. What do those words mean when they say them now, after using them openly all this time to include discrimination against people?
Actions toward women and girls and defense of how they are treated in the church have badly mangled and re-defined the language of love, equality, and similar concepts in the Churches of Christ and other complementarian and traditionalist churches to include support of individual and systemic discrimination against people based on an immutable characteristic, sex.
And now, at a crucial time, the use of such language by Churches of Christ preachers and members when discussing discrimination based on another immutable characteristic, race, often sounds hypocritical and hollow.
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Sources & Notes
I would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Jeanine Thweatt for her comments on an earlier version of this article.
Actions speak louder than words. We are seeing how the action of using words to combat racism in this critical moment could greatly benefit the kingdom of God, but we are also seeing how the needed words, when used by Churches of Christ preachers and other leaders — like “equality,” “love,” “value,” etc. — have been gutted of anti-discriminatory import when used by them, most recently through actions of using those needed words in attempts to justify actions of discrimination against women and girls. In our vision and in our ears is a tragedy for the kingdom of God.
Other Christians, from whom such words retain credibility and moral weight, Christians whose actions define such words, when coming from them, as standing opposed to some images of God discriminating against other images of God — people — based on an immutable characteristic, are stepping up and taking anti-racist action, fortunately. Agnostics and atheists and other images of God are also stepping up, many of whom are able to use those same words like those other Christians, with those words having the anti-discriminatory meaning needed today when coming from them, and are taking action, showing love for their neighbor. I hope it is enough.
“They will know that we are Christians by our love.”
Cites / sources for material in the body of the article—-
“equal,” “loved,” “value,” and “not discrimination” includes prohibiting women and girls from functions and roles in the church and home include: See, e.g.,
1912 Gospel Advocate: Price Billingsley, “Our Obligation to the Negro,” Gospel Advocate (December 5, 1912), at 1308.
Successful preacher: https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/tennessee/billingsley,price.htm
See generally Edward J. Robinson, Hard Fighting Soldiers: A History of African-American Churches of Christ, Knoxville: University of Tennessee (2019); Wes Crawford, Shattering the Illusion: How African American Churches of Christ Moved from Segregation to Independence, Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press (2013).
Then it was called Harding College.
https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2012/06/06/despite-school-sentiment-hardings-leader-said-no-to-integration (forced by federal legislation)
Benson sermon: Key paper, page 141. Also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_S._Benson
See also: “On Jan. 7, 1956, in a chapel speech titled “Harding College and the Colored Problem,” he put to rest any notion that Harding would soon integrate, chiding the students’ youthful idealism and calling on them to trust “the judgment of elderly people of experience” such as the Harding Board of Trustees.
According to his prepared remarks, Benson explained that integration “now” was not the “voice of wisdom,” and he argued that immediate implementation would cause Harding to “lose 50 or more whites” and “much standing in the community — community not yet ready.” The Supreme Court decision, Benson said, was “a great shock to much of the South” and “time is required to absorb it.”” https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2012/06/06/despite-school-sentiment-hardings-leader-said-no-to-integration
“belief that racial-discrimination is endorsed by God in the Bible was, until relatively recently, a widely held and openly expressed view of Christians”: See above; also see, e.g.,
Steve Gardner, “Interracial Marriage: Banned Citing God’s Will Until Just 50 Years Ago This Week,” Authentic Theology (June 17, 2017).
Curse of Ham generally.
practice of prohibiting women and girls in this way is “contrary to scripture”: See, e.g.,
Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 22, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 9, 2019).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Timothy 2:12 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).
For a discussion regarding female elders, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 3, 2019).
For a discussion regarding Christ’s example, see Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 17, 2019).
For scriptural discussions from various Churches of Christ, see these three articles: Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” AuthenticTheology.com (April 24, 2019); and Steve Gardner, “4 More Churches of Christ Open Speaking Roles to Women,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 26, 2019).
Updated: 10/5-6 (added welcoming paragraph, added anti-racist action paragraph, moved and shortened parts for clarity)
“Negro equality runs high here. Negroes ride in the same coach, go the same school, eat at the table with white people, and sometimes sleep in the beds of their white neighbors; all of which, I am glad to say, is not tolerated in ‘heathen Texas.'” J.D. Tant, “In Kansas,” Gospel Advocate (Feb. 3, 1898), at 71.
“Some who raise a great outcry against negro equality at the same time not only equalize themselves with the negroes, but on the very lowest level. So prevalent is this sin of the white man in South Africa that a law has been passed making it a crime for a white man to have intercourse with a black woman. Not so long ago one of the high officials was up before the court for this offense.” J.M. M’Caleb, “On the Trail of the Missionaries No. 14,” Gospel Advocate (September 26, 1929), at 922.
https://scholarworks.harding.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=mcnair-research (discusses race and gender intersection at Harding University)
Here’s an easy-to-understand example of systemic racism: (a) The leadership of a high-school Parent-Teacher Association is chosen each year by outgoing leaders. They ask their close friends to serve. When the school began in the 60s, it was 95% white. The school, as a result of school-desegregation laws and busing lawsuits beginning in the 70s, is now 50-40-10 White-Black-Hispanic. The white parents have no-to-few close black friends. So no-to-few black parents are asked to serve as leaders of the PTA. (b) None of the leadership makes an individual choice to ask a white person instead of a black person. It isn’t because the leader parents are making an intentional racially discriminatory decision to choose a white person instead of a black person due to race. It is largely because the white parents live in neighborhoods with few black people, attend churches in those neighborhoods with few black people, and get to know few black people through their PTA leadership activities. Their close social circle — the people they ask to take their place on PTA leadership — is white. (c) Why? Restrictive racial covenants for neighborhoods, the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation in churches, etc., kept black people out of their neighborhoods, churches, schools, etc., and out of their close social circles. This helped spawn and maintain racially discriminatory systems, like this one for PTA leadership. (d) So there is a leadership-selection system now in place that itself is racist, as it discriminates against the black parents without any individual parent in leadership choosing to make an individual-focused racist decision.
G. P. Bowser, Directory of the Churches of Christ Colored (1942), https://digitalcommons.acu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1390&context=crs_books
Picture by libellule789 at Pixabay.
I appreciated reading this article. Thank you. The topics deserve a much wider and more active discussion.