I get the concerns about what has been labelled “wokeness” as the product of secular ideologies that are sweeping the broader culture and infiltrating the church. In my opinion, these ideologies are unmoored from the scriptural witness of how we are to view and value each other. Even as a tool, I do not think CRT and anti-racism premises and methodology take us to a healthy place to actually be reconciled with each other as believers in Christ as the other-cultural entity that are we. In fact, as I wrote about here, they are likely to have the opposite effect and create unwarranted division in the body of Christ.
However, I have another concern some Christians are so adamant about refuting wokeness and CRT that any discussion on race and justice gets dismissed as a product of liberalism and a sign that the koolaid from the broader culture is being imbibed.
The problem is that actual racism does exist where mindsets deem the “white” race as superior even in subtle ways. I’m not saying this is true of white evangelicalism as a whole and I personally have a disdain for those generalized accusations. Nor should we impose the weight of historical injustices on to present circumstances and paint dishonest pictures. But we really aren’t doing Christ’s church any favors by ignoring racism where it actually exists. Unfortunately, anti-CRT campaigns have the tendency to do just that and will give cover to racial partiality because “wokeness” is deemed the real enemy.
In 2020, I learned of a story that happened in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. The story was published in Faithfully Magazine and the link is here. In a nutshell, a couple of families had moved from Idaho where they had been involved in white supremacists organizations. Even though they had come out of this affiliation, they convinced the pastor they left those kind of teachings behind. Apparently not, since the men became elders and began teaching racial superiority precepts in bible studies such as the “black” race doesn’t have the capacity for complex thought. The article is rather lengthy but here is the relevant portion to my point;
In the middle of that monthly gathering, the Rev. Craig Bulkeley, pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, North Carolina, requested that the other pastors pray for him due to a recent decision he had made.
Bulkeley revealed that he had asked one of his church elders to step down due to racist statements this elder had been making publicly. This elder, Neill Payne, and his brother-in-law, Kirk Lyons, had both moved to the Black Mountain area after a long history of deep involvement with white supremacist organizations in Idaho and Texas. To this day, Payne and Lyons remain under investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their connections to hate groups.
“Not to be sensationalistic, but the facts are the facts,” Hutchinson said as he recounted Payne’s background. “[Payne] had been the ‘grand poobah’ of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a chapter in Houston, Texas, and had been one of the ones who had conducted paramilitary training for KKK members, including the techniques of how to burn boats, particularly, Vietnamese fishermen’s boats in Galveston, Texas.”
Upon hearing Bulkeley’s request for prayer, Hutchinson believed that it would be a cut-and-dried case. Yet, in response to Bulkeley’s request for Payne to step down as an elder, the man and his brother-in-law quickly put a retaliatory petition before the small, family church to instead strip Bulkeley of his role as pastor.
By the skin of his teeth—just one vote—Bulkeley was able to keep his position. In a surprising turn of events, the congregation instead voted to remove all three elders—including Payne—from their positions.
Due to the nature of Presbyterian polity, particular church congregations are able to request assistance from higher courts composed of elders and ministers within the denomination. In response to a request from Friendship for assistance regarding the removal of Payne, the Western Carolina Presbytery (the church’s governing body) appointed a commission of six pastors and elders to assess whether there was justification for the men’s removal.
I spoke with Bulkeley, the former pastor of Friendship, at length over the phone about his recollection of the events. At the time, Bulkeley had been unaware of the depths of the connections Friendship’s ruling elder had with white supremacist ideologies and groups. Yet, he was convinced that the presbytery would make the right decision simply based on what he thought were the clear teachings of Scripture about the image of God, the universal nature of sin, and the equalizing work of redemption in Christ.
But instead, “the presbytery made its fateful, vile, and wicked decisions to defend the white supremacists,” Hutchinson said. “That’s when my eyes got opened up. I just couldn’t believe it! I had been living with and ministering with and serving on committees with and worshipping with and exchanging pulpits with men in the presbytery that thought that this white supremacy was an area of Christian liberty. I just couldn’t believe it.”
As a church officer of the Western Carolina Presbytery, Hutchinson had equal voting authority with other church officers to make decisions brought before the body.
However, Hutchinson was more surprised by his fellow churchmen in the presbytery’s defense of white supremacists than the views of the white supremacists themselves.
Instead of swift removals, as Hutchinson had expected, the presbytery’s committee came back with heartbreaking recommendations.
“The breakdown of some of the deepest friendships I had ever had in my life began to happen through all of this,” he said. “My associate pastors were two of my best friends in the whole world. And then things just disintegrated between us. The one key person in the presbytery that gave all his time and energy to defend the white supremacists and all their positions was a pastor who had been one of my best friends in the ministry.”
The committee ultimately decided that the real cause of conflict was not Payne’s white supremacist views, but that Bulkeley had made his disagreements with Payne public. As recorded in the minutes of the presbytery meeting, the committee believed that Payne had not sinned by virtue of the views he held but only by the manner with which he held these views. He was simply too argumentative and pushy, they claimed. Lastly, easily the worst of the recommendations, the committee argued that Payne was free to believe and propagate his white supremacist views because the Bible did not clearly refute the idea that Black people were created inferior to White people. As J. Daniel Hays writes, this idea of the inferiority of Black people centers around a teaching called “The Curse of Ham” that gained prominence before the Civil War.
Hutchinson joined the embattled Bulkeley in voicing multiple complaints to the presbytery to reconsider their decision regarding Payne and his views. But Hutchinson found himself in the crosshairs for daring to challenge racist ideologies.
“I just kept thinking about that phrase in Ephesians (6:12), ‘principalities and powers.’ There’s just something strange going on here. There’s something bizarre going on here. There’s something spiritual and demonic. There’s demonic oppression,” Hutchinson said, reflecting not only on the stunning “defense of the indefensible,” but also on witnessing one man’s powerful sway over the denomination.
“Morton Smith was the first stated clerk of the PCA. He was the one that these white supremacists reached out to when Craig [Bulkeley] told Payne to resign. Later, Morton got himself really involved giving theological cover saying things like, ‘Well, there is the Curse of Ham and that’s a view that has a pedigree in Presbyterianism.’”
The “Curse of Ham” is a heretical teaching held by some southern Presbyterians who argue that God eternally cursed people of African descent to a state of inferiority. It was created in order to give biblical support to the practice of chattel slavery.
As one of the founders of the PCA, Smith was deeply embedded in the inner workings of the denomination, despite his publicly held views on racial segregation.
During the case, Smith repeatedly argued before the presbytery that “it did not damage the church and Christ’s reputation for an elder in the church to teach that God has created the races in different gradations of intelligence.” Rather, Smith insisted, what harmed the church and its reputation was daring to oppose that teaching. In fact, on occasion, Smith argued that if the PCA were to follow Hutchinson’s route of condemning racist teachings, “it will cause the liberalization of the PCA.” Smith’s suggestion that the PCA was in danger of wading into the liberal waters of its estranged PCUS brethren had powerful rhetorical sway with denominational leaders, who had a deep aversion to anything that could be perceived as theological progressivism.
In November 2008, the presbytery met again, and despite all odds, the body of pastors and elders sustained one of Hutchinson and Bulkeley’s complaints, thereby reversing their previous ruling regarding Payne and his views.
To complicate matters even further, in June 2009, the 24-member Standing Judicial Committee (SJC) of the General Assembly, the highest court of the PCA with nearly 2,000 of the denomination’s pastors and elders in attendance, ruled that the presbytery had erred in finding Payne guilty of the sin of racism because of a lack of due process—a technicality. In response, the presbytery created a committee to meet privately with Payne to convince him that he was, in fact, guilty of the sin of racism. Instead of attending the meeting, Payne decided to leave Friendship and requested removal from the church’s membership rolls.
In a phone interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report in 2010, Lyons continued to contend that both he and Payne had been falsely accused of racism.
“White supremacism [sic], racism, has absolutely nothing to do with the issues. Anything else is a falsehood and a defamation and an excuse,” he told the organization.
In a sense, Payne’s ultimate removal and subsequent denominational statements of repentance are signs of progress in the denomination, especially given the PCA’s history. Yet, that optimism is tempered by the sobering fact that the events that transpired during Hutchinson’s tenure were only over a decade ago.
At the time, church leaders representing one of the nation’s largest and oldest conservative Evangelical denominations agreed that it was not only OK for a church elder to hold white supremacist views, but that the Bible posed no disagreement with those views.
More recently and relatedly, the son of an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a sister denomination of the PCA, emerged as a mass shooter. John T. Earnest, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, gunned down four innocent people at Chabad of Poway, a synagogue in San Diego county in southern California. Before the April 27, 2019 shooting, Earnest had published an anti-Semitic and racist screed riddled with Christian theology on a controversial online messaging board. How could someone with such hateful views find comfort in a church?
How did Payne and his ardent defenders not see any conflict between their heretical views of racial hierarchy and what the Bible says about the image of God in all of humanity?
These are just some of the questions to ponder as more and more church leaders find themselves thrust into conversations about racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism. How many church leaders are willing, like Bulkeley, to immediately confront and rebuke even the faintest hint of racial sin when they see it? How many church leaders are ready to challenge leaders who hold authority and influence in order to make clear that the church is no place of refuge for these views?
As I understand it, Hutchinson was fired from his pastoral position for his involvement in this case, for defending the peace and purity of the church. While we rightly should be concerned about hailstorm against white supremacy that really is critical race theory masquerading as “justice,” we should also be rightly concerned about racial hierarchy thinking that can get dismissed because of sensitivities to secular ideologies disrupting the church. And we would be remiss to think this was just an isolated incident, though hopefully, not very prevalent. But as long as there are leaders in the church who think like these men, who endorse views of racial hierarchy and defend historical figures who thought the same, we should be sensitive to this as well and not give cover to racists for fear of siding with “wokeness.”