As an ordained minister within the Presbyterian Church in America, I “sincerely received and adopted the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church.” This is a reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the accompanying Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. To many readers not from a confessional background, this may seem strange.  The Westminster Standards, the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, are NOT a replacement for the Bible. They are my understanding of how the Bible’s rich, diverse, and sometimes difficult teaching, scattered through 66 books and all sorts of different types of literature, can be accurately summarized.  I made a declaration on the day of my ordination that I found these standards as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, the Westminster Standards are an important part of my life as a Presbyterian minister. More than my own life, though, these Standards are foundational for my denomination as a whole and for the brothers and sisters who labor alongside me within the Presbyterian church.

In the past year and a half, the United States has seen a growing awareness of still-existing racial injustices and divides. The deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police and others have highlighted important conversations. Unfortunately, much of this discourse is marked by self-righteousness and vitriol. These same conversations in our church are hardly better; in fact, they are often worse.

What does this have to do with the Westminster Standards I’ve already mentioned? I suggest that much of the disagreement we experience revolves around how we gain wisdom on matters of race and justice and where we find that wisdom. To this, I humbly suggest that we already have the sources we need and we might be surprised at how those sources instruct us.  While this is written directly to those of a Presbyterian background, I hope and pray the implication will be similar in many other Christian traditions – the problem often is that we do not live up to the standards we already have – and that a look at the practical import of the Westminster Standards, written centuries ago by only white men, might help us all see the value of a confessional faith and of long-dead theologians for current issues.

In this piece, my thesis is simple: As followers of Jesus, particularly within the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we have an extraordinarily helpful perspective for a robust engagement of race and justice in the Scriptures, helpfully summarized in our Standards. In other words, the Scriptures and our Standards are sufficient to orient our conversations on these topics. It is helpful and important here to offer a caveat. I am not saying that we should dismiss or disregard non-Christian approaches to the issue of race and justice. Indeed, my tradition gladly affirms the fact that God’s common grace to humanity means that truth can be found outside of the Christian tradition. So, I agree with Augustine that all truth is God’s truth. This includes truths related to the pursuit of justice. So, instead of a dismissal of non-Christian approaches, my thesis is a positive affirmation that the Scriptures and Standards will aid us immensely in our engagement of these topics.

It is helpful to consider this larger topic under two headings. First, we will examine how the Scriptures and the Standards help us to have these conversations about race and justice within the body of Christ as brothers and sisters. Second, we will explore how to engage these topics with our neighbors who are not yet a part of the body of Christ. 

Beautiful Community Within the Church: The foundational concept as we consider the rich diversity of humanity is the image of God. Herman Bavink, a Dutch theologian from the 19th century put it best when he wrote,

The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being however richly gifted that human being may be. It can only be somewhat unfolded in its depths and riches in a humanity counting billions of members…existing across time and space both successively one after the other and contemporaneously side-by-side… Only humanity in its entirety – as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole creation – only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.[1]

In other words, to get the whole picture of the image of God, you have to go to the end of the story. You must go to that stirring passage in Revelation 7 where John records the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This is where the church is headed. In the meantime, what are the controlling principles for our life together?

The Westminster Confession of Faith does a wonderful job of summarizing key themes of Scripture on this topic in Chapter 26. This chapter, titled “Of the Communion of the Saints,” lays out the implications of what it means for the church to confess itself as the body of Christ.

  1. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.
  1. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
  1. This communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor doth their communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety which each man hath in his goods and possessions.

To make my point, I’d like to suggest a brief thought experiment. Was there a time where our Presbyterian forefathers and foremothers did not affirm the Westminster Standards as a faithful representation of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture? No! More specifically, upon examination, candidates for ministry within the Presbyterian church are required to state their exceptions to the Standards. In other words, ministers make public the areas in which they disagree with the Standards. How many people in these exams took exception to the last sentence of paragraph two of the chapter quoted above? How many people rejected the idea that communion was to be extended to all who call upon the name of Jesus? I am not the Lord. I am  a mere finite creature. Yet, I feel confident in asserting that no one has taken exception to this.

How is it possible, then, that we have esteemed Presbyterian theologians on the record who argued for segregation of races? Who actively supported slavery? Who confidently supported laws that rejected freedom from slavery for slaves who became Christians?

The truth is as painful as it is simple. The reality is that those who did so were more captivated by cultural commitments than to the Word of God and to our Standards which summarize that Word. They refused to live out the implications of what they, and we after them, believed.

As we think about this, we must look back to the first sentence of this chapter because it theologically grounds everything else. The communion of saints is determined by and grounded in our union with Christ. It is from this union with Christ that the rest flows. In an exposition of this idea, one of the Westminster Divines, William Perkins, wrote the following, “We must here be admonished not to seek our own things but to refer the labors of our callings to the common good. Lastly, considering we are all knit into one mystical body, our duty is to redress the fault of our brethren and to cover them. For love covers a multitude of sin.”

Within the church, we are well-equipped to think faithfully and wholistically about issues of race and justice. Indeed, we are equipped to exist as the body of Christ, united to him who is our head. We must remember that it is not the case that we have not thought about the implications of these theological realities; instead, we’ve failed to live up to them. The love called for among the saints is not one that is based on mutual attraction, but it is one that literally overcomes divisions and reconciles those contrary to one another. This love brings into communion those who might not have anything in common except that Christ gave himself for them.

Beautiful Community Among Our Neighbors: Let’s turn from thinking about this just within the body of Christ to considering what it means to relate to the world more broadly. Specifically, the key theme to explore here is that of justice. If you were to read through the Westminster Standards with an eye for justice, you would identify two categories of justice pretty easily: vertical justice and horizontal justice. God’s justice – vertical justice – is throughout the Standards. Chapter three discusses the justice of God’s eternal decree. Chapter five addresses his justice through providence. Chapter eleven deals with justification and God’s just decision to accept Christ’s death in place of ours.

The Standards establish that God himself is just. Yet, this is not an idea that the Standards established on their own. The Standards are only helpful insofar they are a faithful representation of Scripture. The justice of God is not an abstract notion relegated to endless theorizing. His very Word reveals to us his justice. Psalm 89, for example, tells us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne. He works righteousness and justice for the oppressed. God in himself is just and all of his ways, therefore, are just. Verna Harrison, a theologian and author, puts this idea in helpful perspective. She writes, “When Christians look at the human experience from God’s perspective, the differences between men and women or owners and slaves look small compared to the issues all people face, such as divine judgment and salvation.” Importantly, this is not to say that those are small issues in and of themselves. Instead, the proper starting place as a Christian is to recognize the immense grace and mercy they have been shown, which then equips them to turn and respond to their neighbors accordingly.

The Standards, though, also deal with horizontal justice, or justice among humanity. This idea of horizontal justice is found primarily in the Larger Catechism (WLC) questions and answers regarding the second table of the Decalogue, identified by the Standards as the moral law. Indeed, the moral law is “the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding everyone to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto…” (WLC Q93). The moral law of God binds everybody – believer and unbeliever – alike for all time. So, if we want to ask what it looks like to engage our duties as the people of God to our neighbors, this is the place to go.

The second table enumerates of the law our responsibilities to our neighbors. The WLC exposits the Decalogue in such a way that it recognizes that wherever a sin is forbidden, so the opposite duty is required (and vice versa). Consider these questions and answers on the sixth and eighth commandments through the lens of historical and modern racial injustice.

134. Which is the sixth commandment?
The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.

135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.

140. Which is the eighth commandment?
The eighth commandment is, Thou shalt not steal.

141. What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?
The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; … and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

142. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?
The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.

Remember, these words were written and adopted in the mid-17th century – 200 years before the United States would go to war over the question of slavery. From the outset, the Westminster Standards were theologically sufficient to quash slavery. Notice the third sin forbidden by the eighth commandment: manstealing. It is well-documented that the practice of chattel slavery was built upon the pillaging and theft of people from their homes and villages. One might venture that if the eighth commandment were taken as seriously as the Standards encourage, slavery might not have become such a foundational component of the American economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We need not limit our consideration of these Standards to history, though. We can also consider how these might apply today. Because the moral law applies to everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, and across time, it is relevant today. It is striking how sweeping the moral law is, even if we just consider the two commandments above. In the command to not kill, the Standards condemn the “neglectful or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life.” It also forbids oppression of any kind.

In the eighth commandment, the duties required include “an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others.” We are to endeavor to preserve and further the wealth of others! This is no socialist manifesto – it is a faithful exposition of the eighth commandment. What might it look like to take these commands seriously in our lives as faithful followers of Jesus?

My point is, in the end, simple and twofold.  First, when it comes to race – and to many other areas of trouble in our world and society, those of us in robust confessional traditions have robust helps in place to know what to do.  Where there are flaws – and society makes it manifest that there are many – there are two options: either we do not know our standards’ exposition of Scripture or, if we know them, we only selectively apply them.  Brothers and sisters, we can, should, and must do better.  Second, when it comes to theology, a confessional system is not oppression; it is a great blessing!  It can challenge us, point out our selective readings of the Bible, and lead us into a more ethical, more robust, more lived faith, one that could change our world.

[1] Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, 576-577.

Rev. Dr. Irwyn Ince, a native of Brooklyn, New York and resident now in Washington, DC, is the Coordinator of Mission to North America in the Presbyterian Church in America and the former Director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Mission. He holds an M.A.R. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from Covenant Theological Seminary.

Meet Rev. Dr. Irwyn Ince