On Nov. 7, Rev. Andy Wilson, a PCA pastor from Grace Presbyterian Church in Laconia, New Hampshire, published an online article titled “Dear Covenant College Students: Jesus Can Set You Free from the Yoke of Being Woke.” In it, he disagreed strongly with Jemar Tisby’s Reformation Day chapel lectures, accusing Tisby of setting up works-based requirements for believers beyond the Gospel. Wilson’s article is available online at The Aquila Report, where our letter was also published. We also emailed this letter to Rev. Wilson.
Dear Rev. Wilson,
As students of Covenant College, we wish to offer a humble response to your recent article, “Dear Covenant College Students: Jesus Can Set You Free from the Yoke of Being Woke.” We present our own views in this letter, not the views of the College, nor of all our peers. We hope that this reply helps inform your perspective on the condition of academic and theological debate at Covenant. We further hope that our response will be a productive contribution to the broader dialogue that has surrounded Jemar Tisby’s recent Reformation Day lectures on our campus.
For the record, we do not agree with all of Mr. Tisby’s assertions. Students at Covenant are critical consumers of information—we are more than willing to question controversial or debatable assertions made by chapel speakers. His lectures sparked lively discussions on campus regarding several of the issues which you address in your article, including his creative rephrasing of Scripture, his stance on the centrality of activism, and his views on universal healthcare. However, we aren’t threatened by Mr. Tisby rightly pushing us to recognize weaknesses within our own Reformed tradition. As spiritual heirs of the Protestant Reformers, we do not assume that our theology has arrived at its terminus. In light of our cultural blind spots, we need to keep reforming our tradition in light of Scripture (sola scriptura!). Thankfully, God has given us the Body of Christ with many members from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is vitally important for our tradition to listen to those voices when they tell us we are falling short in significant ways.
In 1973, O. Palmer Robertson delivered an address to the first General Assembly of the PCA. In that address, he affirmed that, “The Continuing [Presbyterian] Church commits itself to ‘the faith’ as it affects the totality of man’s existence ... it searches out the implications of Scripture for the totality of human life.” We believe that this commitment, drawn from the genesis of the PCA’s doctrinal foundations, has significant implications for the modern discussion of race and ethnicity within the church, and we call for interpretation of Mr. Tisby’s lectures in this light.
Biblical Justice and Collective Repentance
Justice, as you have defined it from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?, is “equal treatment under the law.” While this is a component of justice as laid out in the Scriptures, Christ takes us a step further. His explicit call to love our neighbor as ourselves, through our actions, thoughts, attitudes, and judgments, is a call to live justly (Matt 22:39). In Deuteronomy 10:18, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Doing justice, then, entails action that goes beyond creating a fair legal playing field. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick, and welcoming strangers are acts of mercy that must be involved in the administration of justice (Matt 25:35-39). By failing to welcome in and pray alongside our black brothers and sisters in Christ, the North American church—and more specifically, the PCA—failed to enact justice. We committed corporate sin by failing to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In some evangelical circles, talk of “corporate sin” is controversial. Properly understood, we don’t think it should be. The Reformed theological tradition contains robust support for the notions of corporate sin and repentance, beginning from the earliest pages of Scripture. The Fall affected the totality of human existence. With the sin of Adam and Eve, all subsequent generations sinned as well; individual sin impacted and continues to impact the body of Christ as a whole (WSC Q.16). While the doctrines of the fall and original sin are clearly a special case, they suggest that a corporate understanding of sin is woven into the biblical way of thinking. In the questions regarding the Lord’s Prayer, the Westminster Larger Catechism notes that “we pray for ourselves and others” for the remission of sin—such prayers would include the sins of people and their institutions from earlier generations (WLC Q.194). Thus, there is strong evidence throughout all our doctrinal heritage for collective, corporate sin and repentance (along these lines, see Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America [P&R, 2015]).
The 30th General Assembly in 2002 addressed the need for the PCA to repent of racist elements of its past: “We therefore confess our involvement in these sins. As a people, both we and our fathers, have failed to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the laws God has commanded. We therefore publically repent of our pride, our complacency, and our complicity.” This was followed in 2004 by an extensive Pastoral Letter, “The Gospel and Race,” adopted by the 32nd General Assembly. The 44th General Assembly’s 2016 lament for the collective sin of racism “does recognize, confess, and condemn these past and continuing racial sins and failure to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures in accordance with what the Gospel requires; and be it further resolved, that this General Assembly praises and recommits itself to the Gospel task of racial reconciliation.” We gather that this 2016 denominational decision was contested at the time; nevertheless, through these formal actions, the PCA has affirmed collective responsibility for racist sin, and for the PCA’s past role in perpetuating injustice.
Individual repentance for individual transgression is called for throughout the Bible, but this is not the only sort of repentance with biblical grounding. Throughout the Bible, the entire people of God are treated as an entity that can be called to corporate repentance. All of Israel, in Amos 5, is condemned for their oppression of the poor and for turning their backs on the responsibility to carry out justice. Ezra prayed as an individual for the collective and historical sins of Israel (see Ezra 9 and 10). The prophet Jeremiah exhorts the Israelites to repent of their own individual sins and the sins of their ancestors (Jer 3:25; 14:20); in Isaiah, the Lord chastises the people for “both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together” (Isa 65:7). In a similar vein, we should not forget Daniel’s heartfelt prayer in Dan 9:1-19. In the New Testament, as Stephen is condemned in Acts 7, he traces the sins of the Jewish leaders all the way back to the sins of Israelites who went before them—the effects of collective sin can span millennia. The body of Christ today should confess its collective failure to bring justice to those oppressed through the sin of racism.
An individualistic view of salvation is devoid of the important contributions of kingdom and resurrection theology—cornerstones of the Reformed tradition. The resurrected King Jesus, the righteous king who renders justice to the oppressed (Psalm 72), is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:19-20). This redemption is cosmic. Christ will stand as preeminent Lord over all creation, with the Church as the primary instrument for the advancement of his Kingdom. The Gospel’s power is far broader than individual salvation—it’s about renewing creation to be the temple of God’s dwelling that it was always meant to be. Many lay believers forget that much of the goodness we take for granted in our governmental structures, marriage, education, medicine, business, scholarship, and the like, is directly related to past Christians proclaiming God’s kingdom far and wide. Hospitals, for instance, are the legacy of gospel-centered Christian stewardship (e.g., see Charles Rosenberg, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System; and for earlier Christian influence, see Gary Ferngren, Medicine and Healthcare in Early Christianity). Wilberforce and other evangelical abolitionists labored tirelessly to make the English slave trade illegal. American checks-and-balances style government had its inspiration from the Presbyterian understanding of total depravity. Literacy and liberal democracies grow in a more robust fashion in countries around the world which received proselytizing Protestant missionaries (e.g., see the Christianity Today article by Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”). The renewal of the gospel is not limited to personal salvation, but extends into all creational structures.
Equal Treatment in Modern America
We have noted already that much of the discussion within the PCA turns on how we define justice. In your understanding, justice is “not about equality of outcome, but about equal treatment under the law,” and you assert that in America today, “people of all races do receive equal treatment under the law.” Even accepting this definition of justice, modern “equality under the law” is not a factually supportable claim. The racist attitudes of the past, which you are right to decry, have cast a long shadow. In his 1978 book Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling found that if a population has been segregated, segregation will continue unabated even in the absence of discriminatory laws. Accomplished justice requires a new behavioral impetus, not mere deletion of the old.
Discriminatory structures are still present in America today. A brief perusal of national headlines provides ample evidence, as does widespread academic documentation and research. As one example, in May of 2018 the Vera Justice Institute published an evidence brief titled “An Unjust Burden,” which found statistical evidence to support the conclusion that past structural racism has placed minorities at a present disadvantage in America. Even beyond this source, we have little reason to believe that implicitly racist attitudes have disappeared from our country. Substantial research has shown that mild biases of individuals are capable of producing a broadly unjust system—systems are products of the sinful people who inhabit them, not creations of neutral written codes.
Your article assumes an individualistic, meritocratic interpretation of modern American social structures. This attitude has never been broadly accepted outside of Western cultural contexts. Research indicates that white Americans have always been more likely to believe in general social fairness than members of any minority. This difference in perception should alert us that we may be missing important information which is obvious to our nonwhite brothers and sisters. Indeed this is precisely what some of our nonwhite brothers and sisters are presently trying to tell us.
In America today, mortgage loan research indicates that people with “black” sounding names typically need to have a credit score that is 71 points higher just to receive the same response rate as identically situated whites. In emergency situations, whites call for help if the victim is white 75% of time and only 38% of the time if the victim is black. White-sounding names get job interviews at a 50% higher rate than ethnic-sounding names even when the resumes are comparable. Black people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white people charged with the same crimes. Juries are more likely to find blacks guilty, compared to similar white offenders. These are but a very, very few undisputed facts, and they are not representative of a fundamentally fair, fundamentally post-racial system.
The Yoke of the World and the Yoke of Christ
You object to the notion that Christians ought to do penance for social ills they haven’t directly caused, or for implicit racism. Since we are free from guilt and sin in Christ, we shouldn’t feel obligated to work out our repentance through acts of social justice. Calling such an obligation a manmade yoke, you call us to cast aside this burden and instead take up the easy yoke of Christ. We wholeheartedly agree with the picture of grace presented by your argument and join you in gratefulness for Christ’s lifting of every heavy burden.
Nonetheless, we believe that the notion of “Christ’s yoke” does imply action. To assume that there are not difficult tasks involved in the Christian life verges on cheap grace. While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Eph 2:8-9), the apostle Paul goes on to say in the very next verse, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Jesus Himself specifically says that he will commend us or condemn us at the Judgment based on our works (Matt 25:31-46). As you said at the end of your article, “living under Christ’s yoke includes the call to strive, as best as you can, to extend comfort to those who are distressed, to defend those who are vulnerable, and to further the outward estate of others.” Our motivation is not penance; it’s to follow God’s call to be doers and not merely hearers of the Word (James 1:27).
Although your article claims that Mr. Tisby wants to make Christians feel guilty, at the end of his final lecture, Tisby also affirmed the danger of guilt. He distinguished a self-centered guilt from what he calls “Godly grief.” The former seeks resolution so that the sufferer may feel better about his or her own character; instead Godly grief appropriately recognizes injustice against our brothers and sisters and seeks resolution, not out of a desire for catharsis, but out of a desire to comfort the hurting. To ignore such feelings of sorrow would be a sin of omission (James 4:17). You also rightly condemn a wide range of racist attitudes, but fail to acknowledge that not actively opposing racial injustice allows an unjust system to persist. If we are to comfort the hurting and champion the vulnerable, then we are necessarily at odds with any systemic problems that put them in that position.
We write to you neither as apologists for Jemar Tisby, nor as enemies of your view. Instead, we wish to encourage you to consider the broad doctrinal and social evidence for the necessity of a justice-oriented Church. We proclaim this stance from within the doctrinal standards and confessional commitments of the PCA itself. We share your conviction that Jesus frees us from the burden of guilt and every burden imposed upon us by the world. At the same time, we are excited to be the sweet aroma of Christ in all places and to all people. Jesus frees us from paralyzing guilt to something far better, something that is much closer to what Reformation Day is all about: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
For our sources, see Jillian Olinger and Kelly Capatosto, “Chipping Away at Implicit Bias,” Aug 23, 2017, available at: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/chipping-away-at-implicit-bias/; Jonathan Kunstman and Ashby Plant, “Racing to Help: Racial Bias in High Emergency Helping Situations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96.6 (2008): 1499-1510; Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94 (2004): 991-1113.