Faith that Lacks Biblical Authenticity

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The rainbow flag, and Black Lives Matter sign, and cars with bumper stickers outside let me know this was a very liberal community of faith. That, and the members of a multi-generational, multi-racial choir with at least one trans person who sang their faces off on  “The Stone That the Builder Rejected (became the cornerstone of a whole new world).”

This “Afternoon of Challenge and Hope” at the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut almost came to an abrupt halt when the special guest, The Reverend Dr. William Barber, II, declared pointedly, that he was, and is, a “theological conservative.”  

Barber is the President and Senior Lecturer of the Repairers of the Breach, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He is also a past president of the North Carolina NAACP, and the founding director of, and Professor in, the Practice of Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. Those interests, and those affiliations, usually land one squarely in the land of liberals.  Barber meant to challenge even more than the labels that day. 

“Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we’re silent,” he said. 

Nothing in our faith—active and socially conscious as it is—should operate outside of the preeminent Word of God, yet, it has become natural and normal for people of faith to roll into church without it, Barber charged.  

The conservative practitioners on “the other side of the aisle,” who claim to operate upon Biblical principles got a swipe from the Bishop, too. If you take an office, and take an oath of office—raise one hand while placing the other firmly on the Bible—you should at least know what’s in it, he said.

The Missing Piece 

Citing a 2019 Pew Research Center Study that “scraped” and analyzed close to 50,000 online sermons from more than 6,000 Christian churches, Barber noted a dearth of sermonic treatment regarding the poor—a topic of importance to Christ Himself. Even historically black Protestant Churches, while leading the array in sermon length, seemed to fall short in this area. (The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Sermons Online) 

The Pew study, admitted its analysts, wasn’t representative in that it was a relatively small sample when compared to the number of churches in the U.S., and the churches were more urban and larger than most. Still, Barber correctly noted the tiny rate at which ministers of these churches even said the word “poor.” This critique of public policy and religion from the guy who founded the school of it, held a measure of credibility for me.

Neglect of the poor and the oppressed is one practice roundly condemned in Scripture. On an urban expedition to survey the plight of the homeless poor in Connecticut, Barber found himself trekking through the woods with a group of activists. Along a dirt path, in the shadow of a Christian church whose signage indicated “Gay People are Going to Hell”, he saw the “eerie” indications that children lived in the surrounding woods. Sure enough, God’s children—the young and old, people of all races—were there, and living like animals amidst the brush. 

Barber said his conservative Christian upbringing never taught that there was any distance between Jesus and justice. A people of the Scriptures can’t overlook Isaiah 58’s divine interrogatories: “Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5, NLT) 

A people who know the Scriptures, can’t shrink from the messianic mission statement of Luke 4:18, 19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” 

Other non-biblical trends threaten to put human priorities and values ahead of the Bible’s priorities. Prosperity gospel, it turns out, has an effect on the beloved community. Scholars have been evaluating its effect on the cohesiveness and effectual work of the black church community. Once powered through the biblical teachings of justice and mercy, “name it and claim it” goes to personal, and material gain instead. “Call It and Haul It,” Barber said, stemmed from the opportunism of a New Deal Era preacher who set out to “own” God’s pulpits. That proved relatively easy-to-do when one buys off the congregation by preaching what members want to hear rather than the Word of God, in all of its sometimes inconvenient truth. Christian Nationalism, Barber said, takes similar liberties.  While it may be a political party’s value system to vote against gays, for tax cuts, a women’s right to choose, it doesn’t follow to say that’s the platform of Jesus. 

“[W]hat doth the Lord . . . suggest?” Barber, asked, spoofing Micah 6:8. “ Recommend? That’s not the question. ‘What does the Lord, require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’”

This article is part of our 2024 May/June Issue
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