Tell the Whole Truth
The benefit of preaching through the redemptive historical narrative.
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Some weeks back, I began teaching an African American Church History course. When assembling the syllabus, my initial concern centered on where to start the story of black church history in America. You can imagine that this is a sticking point for ethnic minority students, let alone the professor! Depending upon who you consult some scholars, and noted itinerant preachers from the 18th century, actually think that African slaves were gifted Christianity as a perk of their enslavement. Some noted American church leaders owned slaves, participating in the dehumanizing enterprise while writing books on the sovereignty of God. The reality is that African people, and those of African descent, were Christian long before the transatlantic slave trade, including some of our most influential church fathers like Augustine, Origen, Athanasius, and Tertullian–to name a few were North African. Some of the oldest and strongest Christian witness hails from Ethiopia, Nubia, and the Kongolese.
This ignominious intersection of racism and American Christianity confronts the serious student of Biblical preaching. The repeated question for me is, “How did these things happen from the Christian pulpit?” Before we give quick, pragmatic answers we might want to consider that some of the exegetical fallacies that undergirded the church’s complicit support of slavery linger on.
Who can forget the audacious claims that the Bible endorsed chattel slavery? Who is not haunted by the intentional, inaccurate use of Biblical texts to justify the denial the Imago Dei in African slaves? Motivated by the exercise of free labor to build the wealthiest nation these preachers manipulated Scripture. To assuage their consciences by using the Bible they promoted the very antithesis of the gospel. The Bible was no mere pawn in the hands of learned men. It was a toy meant to dehumanize and exploit an entire people group for the benefit of another.
This article is not about racism per se. By looking at this incident from African American history, I hope to provide a case study (a case study with a sober warning, that is) that will lead us all toward a healthier Biblical exposition. We need to interpret Scripture in its context and in the larger context that includes the whole story of the Bible. In other words, I am arguing that when preachers consider the redemptive historical narrative in their interpretation of a singular Biblical passage, the resulting sermon is more likely to accurately reflect the intention of Scripture. Those of us concerned about getting the message of God right should submit the specific argument of a particular text to the larger theme of the overarching Biblical story. No text should be used to make a point that the superintending canon of Scripture disallows. I submit that there are simple ways to ensure that our preaching says what God has already said in his Word.