Is Reformed Worship Ethnic?

While nursing a bad cold yesterday (which seems to be more, but heck if this child of Depression Era children is going to see a doctor), I went to the website of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah and heard a couple of fine catechetical sermons by senior pastor, Terry Johnson. One was on effectual calling and one on justification and adoption. I believe I heard mention of “union” twice. But I digress.

While at the church’s website I also ran across a series of posts by Terry on Reformed Worship and Ethnic Churches. It is smart and reflects Johnson’s own work on the history of Reformed worship. Terry also shows the welcome capacity to read outside biblical and theological sources to understand the common realm of culture. What follows is from the second part of the series:

There would seem to be many who think that the only “authentic” black worship is of the Pentecostal variety. The DNA of African Americans, so the theory goes, requires “emotionally expressive” music, preaching and congregational interaction. Thomas Sowell, scholar at Stanford University, Hoover Institute, offers another perspective. He connects inner-city African-American culture, including black dialect and music, the ghetto culture of violence, promiscuity, and indolence, as well as the oratorical style and the emotionalism of African-American church culture, with the northern Britains who populated the Southern states in the eighteenth century. They brought their social pathologies with them from the lawless, violent, barely civilized border regions of late 17th to early 18th century northern Britain including Scotland, and northern Ireland, and perpetuated them in what became white “redneck” culture. Poor “crackers,” as rural southern whites are sometimes called, provided the cultural context within which slave and post-emancipation African-American culture developed. It was “cracker” social and religious behaviors which southern blacks often mimicked.

Whether you agree with Johnson or Sowell, this is a perspective worth considering and one that you seldom hear from sappy evangelicals.


22 thoughts on “Is Reformed Worship Ethnic?

  1. Dr Hart, you might want to read something else by Terry Johnson. Now, I don’t say you should agree with it. Perhaps you can tell me if this is “old school” or “new school” puritanism. Extra credit if you can get the name of Jonathan Edwards into your answer:

    Grace Boys, by Terry Johnson: “Oh, we’d love to think that none of the hundreds of warnings, threats, and exhortations applied to us. We’d love to believe that the Apostles never appeal to duty, hard work, sacrifice, and fear. We’d love to think we were beyond rewards and punishments. Yet we aren’t and they do.

    I know a little about God’s grace. I’ve experienced God’s grace in Christ in my own life. I’ve written three books with grace in the title. I’ve preached grace as an ordained minister for 28 years. Yet I am disturbed by certain ministries that only preach grace. They proclaim no other message. They know no other motive for the Christian life. They recognize no other gospel and insist that any formulation of the gospel that differs from their own is no gospel at all.

    Essentially what the grace boys preach is this: sanctification by realization. Realize what Christ has done for you; realize His great love; realize His costly sacrifice; realize His gracious gift of salvation; realize your adoption and your security in Christ; realize the ongoing gift of the Spirit of Christ and His power for sanctification; realize all this and you will have all the motive you need to enter and sustain the Christian life.

    When we succumb to temptation, or when we indulge our lust, when we bow to the idols of materialism and success, when we act selfishly or fail to love it is a sign that we need more gospel. No, we don’t need to be scolded (what the Bible calls “rebuked”) or warned or reminded of our duty, or threatened. No, no, no. When we indulge carnality and worldliness we don’t need LAW (a very scary word in these circles). We need to hear more, ever more about God’s love, His grace, His gifts, His Christ. These alone will provide the proper incentive to live the Christian life.

    Is there a problem with this? Indeed, there is. The grace boys are being one-sided in a realm in which they need to be multi-sided. Undoubtedly they have identified the central motivation for the Christian life. Love mixed with gratitude is a powerful incentive. When we realize what God in Christ has done how can we not want to please, honor, and serve Him in return? Those who (realize that they) are forgiven must love much (Lk 7:47). We can even say that love/gratitude is the highest motivation for Christian living.

    What we can’t say is that it is the Christian’s only valid motivation. Not by a long shot. What might be another valid motivation? Fear. “Conduct yourselves with fear,” says the Apostle Peter (1 Pet 1:17). “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the writer to the Hebrews warns (Heb 10:31). “Terrifying?” Is this a part of the vocabulary of the justified? Apparently so.

    Any others? Sure. Threats. God motivates believers by threatening them. He does this in Scripture all the time. In that great Epistle of Justification, Galatians, the Apostle Paul warns the church that those who practice the deeds of the flesh “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21). He threatens the same to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9, 10). Threatening believers (it is to them that he is writing) with exclusion from heaven is a powerful incentive to obedience, is it not?

    The holiness of God is meant to motivate us. We are to be holy because God is holy (Lev 11:44ff; 1 Pet 1:15, 16). His holiness is an incentive for our own. Yes, the cross is a great motivator for the Christian. So also is the holiness of God. The goodness of God, not just His grace, is also meant to motivate us. Because God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, we are also meant to be good to all (Mt 5:43-48). Warnings play a significant role in the motivations for obedience throughout the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Mt 5:21-48; 7:21-23). Both the promise of rewards (Mt 5:3-12; 2 Tim 2:5, 6; 4:8) and the threat of punishments (1 Cor 3:12-15; 4:`18-21) are valid incentives for Christian living.

    What about the countless exhortations to do and go and be (not just “realize”), but actually get off our duffs and mortify, even crucify the flesh, die to self, put on the new man, and be filled with Christ’s Spirit (Rom 6:12ff; 8:12ff; Gal 5:24; 2:20; Eph 4:22f; 5:18ff; etc.)? Certainly we are exhorted in light of who Christ is and what Christ has done (e.g. Rom 12ff follow Rom 1:1-11; Eph 3-6 follows Eph 1 & 2). However, the facts of redemption are not endlessly repeated (as though the problem were, oops, I forgot again! Please remind me. What has Jesus done for me?), or worse, used to nullify the threats, warnings, and exhortations of Scripture.

    The grace boys seem to recognize none of this. Human beings, even redeemed human beings, are complex. God uses a variety of means to motivate us. He uses carrots. He uses sticks. The richness is lost and the whole counsel of God is buried when the grace formula is imposed on every text of Scripture. In fact, distressing volumes of preaching in our day, even in our ecclesiastical circles, has become predictable, cliché, and boring. All of the Bible’s sharp edges have been blunted, ignored, or explained away in the name of grace preaching.

    Simply put, it ain’t so. Oh, we’d love to think that none of the hundreds of warnings, threats, and exhortations applied to us. We’d love to believe that the Apostles never appeal to duty, hard work, sacrifice, and fear. We’d love to think we were beyond rewards and punishments. Yet we aren’t and they do. And we don’t do anyone any favors when we hide these biblical appeals in the name of preaching grace. We’re not sanctified merely by realization, unless we include the realization that we’re about to “get slapped upside the head,” as we used to say, if we don’t shape up. Realization, mortification, vivification, study, prayer, discipline, and consistent attendance at public services are all necessary ingredients in a successful and fruitful approach to the Christian life.

    Terry Johnson, a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah,


  2. The work of Dr. Thomas Sowell (whom everyone should read extensively) that Dr. Johnson is pointing to specifically is “White Liberals and Black Rednecks”. It is a great read, as is all of Dr. Sowell’s corpus. “The Vision of the Anointed” and “The Quest For Cosmic Justice” are particularly good at getting at the genesis of liberal ideology (and social justice/transformationalism as well).


  3. What Sowell says makes sense to me. As a good Southern boy, I’m surprised more people haven’t noticed that black culture in general, especially hip-hop culture, has much in common with white “redneck” culture. Many of the mannerisms, cadences of speech and even some expressions and trappings used in the hip-hop culture were prevalent in the south in the latter half of the twentieth century among poor folk both black and white. (I’ll spare you the examples.) As I said, I’m surprised more people haven’t noticed and I surmise it’s only because there is little social overlap: poor white “rednecks” don’t listen to much hip-hop and few hip-hop artists and watcher are involved in the poor “redneck” community.


  4. The most important warning of all is perhaps II Peter 1:10. Make your calling and election sure. A lot of puritans are attempting to make their calling sure with their works. Some of these folks have never repented of “dead works”. They seem to think “works is works”, and thus have no fear of any kind of any works. But II Peter is clear that we cannot obey any of the imperatives in a way that pleases God unless we are first sure of our calling by the gospel..

    To attempt to determine that indicative by resort to imperatives is the exact opposite of what II Peter teaches. Of course Jonathan Edwards taught us that even God in justification takes into account what God is going to enable to do by way of obedience to the commands.

    I am not saying that some Christians need to repent of being less “gospel awake” than they should be. I am saying that some need to repent of justification by our repentance instead of justification by Christ’s obedience to death.


  5. I am not exactly sure how far back we should start talking about old vs new school, or even about the precedents of that controversy. Edwards? John Cotton?

    Stoever, A Faire and Easy Way: “John Cotton professed himself unable to believe it possible for a person to maintain that grace works a condition in him, reveals it, makes a promise to it, and applies it to him, and still not …trust in the work. Even if a person did not trust in the merit of the work, he still probably would not dare to trust a promise unless he could see the work?”

    Cotton: “Grace and works (not only in the case of justification) but in the whole course of our salvation, are not subordinate to each other but opposite. As that whatsoever is of grace is not of works, and whatsoever is of works is not of grace.”


  6. Michael,

    I am also Southern born and bred, and while I think your larger point is correct, I would quibble with you on the last sentence. In fact, I have noted the irony(lost on the participants) of the not uncommon pickup truck that displays a Confederate Flag sticker but at the same time blares rap music. If you don’t believe me, truck it down to Gulf Shores, AL this Spring Break and cruise “the strip” in the evening. Sowell’s analyis kind of makes sense of this irony for me.


  7. While there is probably a great deal of truth in what Sowell/Johnson have to say about the influence that impoverished British immigrants*, their music, speech, and other habits had on the African/American slave culture of those early centuries, historical evidence suggests that things are not quite so simple.

    While the slaves certainly mimicked many things they saw in the poor white culture around them, they also brought many traditions with them from Africa. It could easily argued, for example, that the use of stringed instruments (guitars) in “blues” music came from the British/Americans – these devices were almost non-existent in African music. On the other hand, “poly-rhythmic” drumming most certainly came from Afro-Cuban sources. These two (along with brass, reeds, and others) made a fine blend into what eventually matured into music forms entirely unique to this continent.

    However, one must consider the fact that drumming often served an entirely different purpose than just “signaling” or messaging in African tribal culture. It was also used to provide the steady beat necessary for dancing and a near-frenzy instigated by the tribe’s religious leader, the witch doctor. It was believed that only through enthusiasm would the “spirit” come to the worshipper. This has not changed much over the centuries and is still held as a common belief in all forms of Pentecostal-type congregations – the so-called “second baptism” or baptism of the spirit.

    So in this regard, who influenced who? While it seems obvious that a great deal of African/American behavior was adopted from the British immigrants, it also appears that at least some things worked in the opposite direction and into poor white worship practices.

    *Many of these British immigrants also came from “pauper prisons.” The Brits had a serious over-crowding problem, probably brought about by famines and the side effects of the first industrial revolution, and they shipped many of these prisoners to the colonies in this country and in Australia.


  8. Mark, I think Johnson’s point could be summed up by saying that the Christian life is one of grateful obedience, and it’s a good one. Still, I worry, perhaps too much, about anything that would downplay grace.


  9. Zrim, I like your translation. I am not sure that Johnson and Evans would appreciate it, however. To describe all obedience to imperatives as “grateful” seems a little bit like “Sonship realization”. And to puts all the eggs in that one “gratitude” basket, well, “sola” is a bit unbalanced don’t you think?

    What about “mortification”? Have you forgotten about the “beauty of gospel threats”? To get balance, you need tension, and to get tension, you need to mix in some “synergism”, depending of course on the situation….


  10. I don’t know, Mark, I think I might have the whole third part of the Heidelberg Catechism on my side, which is entitled “Of Thankfulness” and spells out the law, starting with:

    Question 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

    Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

    I sure get grateful obedience from all that.


  11. Me too, Zrim, me also. And I don’t think it’s a “debtor’s ethic”, as John Piper and Dan Fuller suggest. It’s not us saying: now what can we do for you in return. It’s God’s grace that keeps us believing the gospel and keeps us thankful for what Christ has done

    Charles Hodge: “one’s interpretation of Romans 8 verse 4 is determined by the view taken of Romans 8:3. If that verse means that God, by sending His Son, destroyed sin in us, then, of course, this verse must mean, “He destroyed sin in order that we should fulfill the law” — that is, so that we should be holy. But if Romans 8:3 refers to the sacrificial death of Christ and to the condemnation of sin in Him as the sinners’ substitute, then this verse must refer to justification and not sanctification.”


  12. I see some validity in what Sowell says but it’s much too simple and takes gratuitous advantage of the fact that there remains only one class of individual in this company who is fair game for guilt-free assault: the white, southern male. Seems all savages are noble unless they like grits and have necks that sunburn easily.


  13. Very Interesting….It would explain the sudden breakout of tribal music at 3:36 in the following
    Scottish Drumline, Top Secret Drum
    One of the best 6 minutes on YouTube, In my opinion.

    Hope you are feeling better.


  14. I bought Johnson’s book on family worship and it’s very good. He’s very Old School Presbyterian.

    So in this regard, who influenced who? While it seems obvious that a great deal of African/American behavior was adopted from the British immigrants, it also appears that at least some things worked in the opposite direction and into poor white worship practices.

    Exchange is rarely one-sided.


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