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 do not include discrimination against others.
Why is that a problem?
Those words are commonly used, and consequently defined, within the Churches of Christ differently than their normal meaning: a meaning that instead includes — and 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 ones allowing for discrimination based on race, including actively supporting segregation. Harding University fought integration until very late, actively maintaining a racially segregated school until 1963.
In a 1966 sermon, the recently retired president of Harding asserted that “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.”
While one can hope that the mode of thinking that uses the Bible to defend discrimination against people based on an immutable characteristic and that argues that such discrimination constitutes equality and love has disappeared over the years, it has not. The fire of that way of thinking has been stoked and fueled in Churches of Christ and other churches that follow complementarianism and patriarchal traditionalism by leaders’ and members’ defense and justification of their exclusionary practices relative to women and girls.
Today, it impairs the Churches of Christ in efforts on race.
Some are More Equal Than Others
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 the daughters of their friends — then what anti-discriminatory reliability and sincerity do their words have relative to black people?
Prohibitions on Women and Girls Impact the Heart, the Head, and the 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?
Another example is that some complementarians and traditionalists will claim that prohibiting females from serving as an elder or from preaching or otherwise speaking while encouraging and allowing males is “not discrimination.” They will 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 a complementarian or traditionalist urging that we “not discriminate” against black persons mean? What credibility do they have?
Bible-Citing and Word-Redefining
That a person believes the Bible declares such sex-discrimination to be God-ordained does not mean it is “not discrimination.” Does a person banning black people from a church not engage in race discrimination if the person thinks the Bible tells them to? Is a person advocating a law prohibiting black people from marrying white people not engaging in discrimination if the person thinks the Bible tells them to?
Indeed, the belief that race-discrimination is endorsed by God in the Bible was, until relatively recently, a widely held and openly expressed 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.
Following scripture is an admirable quality.
But one can debate whether discrimination against women and girls in the church is truly following scripture. How deeply have the vast majority of those who participate in doing so actually studied the scripture on the question? People much more often instead follow 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).
Not Just a Language Problem
The focus here is on a language problem for addressing racial discrimination, a problem wrought and furthered today by complementarian and traditionalist practice relative to women and girls: 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 ….
This language problem is one of the results of a deeper one. This language problem is particularly heartbreaking now, though, at a time 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? The children learn.
Actions towards women and girls and defense of how they are treated in the church has 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.
Benson sermon: Key paper, page 141.
“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: 6/24 (added Benson sermon quote; minor edits); 9/25, 27 (edits for sentence, paragraph clarity and adding to the concluding paragraphs)
“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
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