The History of Race Relations in the Church of Christ

I just finished reading a short book by Daniel Blankeship that I encourage you to read. It’s lengthy title is Race Relations in the Church of Christ During the Civil Rights Movement.

Daniel does a good job of describing the racial tensions endemic within churches of Christ in the 1960’s. The book was first written as a course requirement at Harding School of Theology. As a consequence it is well footnoted and has a helpful bibliography for anyone wanting to study the topic further.

As I read the book I kept asking myself, “How does this historical information impact me now?” The answer I came up with revolves around reconciliation.

The first step in any process of reconciliation requires acknowledging problems. It’s my experience that many churches today want to act as though there is no problem. Many Christians seem quite content to have both black and white churches existing in the same towns all over the country. Blankenship points out the problems with this arrangement,

Many white Christians believed their duty to the black church was to provide them with finances for a building, yet few white Christians desired authentic relationships with their black brethren. Perhaps providing a building to the black Christians was a way of segregating the church in an non-threatening way. Whites could claim to abhor racial prejudice and offer [financial] support to black churches, preachers and schools, even while maintaining segregated colleges in the South and generally ignoring the discrimination against blacks in economics, education, politics and social customs. White churches made sure that their black brothers ans sisters had separate places to worship.

When Christians and whole churches deny that racial tension has ever been a significant issue among Churches of Christ they are incapable of taking the first step toward reconciliation.

Just as our eternal salvation requires repentance for sin so that we can reconcile with God, personal and racial reconciliation also begins with confession and repentance.

In 1999 Abilene Christian University demonstrated what this confession and repentance look like when they publicly apologised to the African-American churches of Christ for the many years in which they excluded black men and women from their student body. (You can read more of this apology HERE.) Lipscomb University in Nashville has also gone through the process of confession and repentance as it builds bridges to the African-American churches in the region. (This process is well described HERE.)

I highlight these universities because, as Blankenship demonstrates, for so long they stood as icons for the racial segregation and discrimination that existed among churches. Their steps to reconcile with the black churches provide an important model for congregations around the country.

I don’t know that each and every congregation must have a special event to apologise to their African-American community for actions taken in the 1960’s. However churches must have enough familiarity with their own history and the history of Churches of Christ in general to acknowledge injustice when appropriate. The “appropriate” time may be in personal conversations, or during decision making processes, or maybe just slipped into a sermon from time to time. Pretending the Churches of Christ have never had any problems between racial groups is simply not an option.

I encourage you to take an hour and read Daniel’s book. It’s a good introduction to the historical issues confronting the church. For $5 how can you go wrong? You can purchase it HERE.
If you’re looking for a more complete study of the topic then Wes Crawford’s book “Shattering the Illusion“, might help you out.

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2 thoughts on “The History of Race Relations in the Church of Christ

  1. In addition to, or perhaps in place of, public uttering of repentance for what other people did, one can do what several congregations (all churches of Christ) with which I have worshiped have done: welcome people of all ethnic groups, teach and live the good news that walls are broken down by Jesus, and serve the community in which they’re placed.

  2. Thanks for your feedback Michael. I agree completely. This blog exists to explore what it means for churches to “welcome people of all ethnic groups”. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s what what we’re called to do.

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