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REPENTING A SIN OF OMISSION


We want to praise the Lord for the wonderful things he does. We were praying for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America as they were considering a public confession concerning racism, both during the time of Civil Rights and even up to today, and a commitment to struggle against it. In the Lord’s mercy such an Overture was passed as they (we) met down in Mobile, Alabama. I take this to be a very good thing for our denomination, and an evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

It doesn’t mean racism is ended, for that kind of sin is very human and will plague us until Jesus comes back again. Yet, it is good for the Church to try to come to grips with it in both its history and its present existence. One of the challenges I think we all have is to decide to love people who perpetuate racism through either their ignorance, but especially through their obstinate defense of it. Often they don’t see what they are doing, or failing to do, as sin.

It can be hard for people to see that something they are not doing is actually sin; we call these “sins of omission.” It is the standing by and doing or saying nothing that often leads to the perpetuation of injustice.

“Rescue those being led away to death, hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Proverbs 24:11-12)

In my opinion much of the sin for which the founders of the PCA and even continuing into the life of the PCA are culpable, in regards to racism, is a sin committed by omission. That sin particularly is failing to hold individuals and congregations to accountability for their racist attitudes and actions. One of the objections to the overture was that the PCA has no official statements or actions of racism so therefore there is nothing for the whole denomination to repent about. Ironically, there was even the call that if anyone has sinned they should be held to account through church discipline according to our standards. How peculiar this demand is when the history of our denomination shows very few instances of such discipline, and in one case I know about, when discipline was sought, how much abuse was suffered by some of the Pastors who brought the action.

Evidently, to those who say we should now bring discipline, there must have previously been no racism in our congregations, or in the individuals who make them up, since we haven’t found anything to discipline. One major point in seeking the Overture is that there has been an obstinate refusal to see racism as sin, and therefore a resistance to go after individuals or churches who perpetuate it through discipline in the church courts. The evidence of this neglect is overwhelming, and it is damning evidence against the PCA. This has resulted in some having felt comfort in the church to hold such attitudes and conduct themselves in ways that have damaged persons of other ethnicities and brought dishonor to the name of Christ in our denomination.

What this action of the PCA has done is a corporate way of distancing ourselves from, and even renouncing, what many African American and ethnic communities have considered to be the reputation of some local PCA congregations (and thus the denomination). Those reputations may have lingered from before the PCA existed, but many churches and the buildings (which are the public reputation and geographical landmark) in which they worship, surrounded by ethnic communities, have publicly exhibited racism and exclusion. The building in which my congregation worships in Chattanooga, Tennessee had that very reputation until 1990, (the year we took it over) well into PCA years. Where was the cry for discipline against that congregation then?

One congregation (which told me this story) in South Carolina, came into the PCA after the First Presbyterian Church in their city (from which they divided,) decided to racially integrate. They were welcomed by the local PCA Presbytery, in the guise of leaving a liberal church. That congregation no longer rejects African Americans, hallelujah! Yet this action of General Assembly now acts as a means of renouncing that determined act of segregation. Again, hallelujah!

The plea of some not to repent as a denomination but rather to pursue in discipline specific individuals is a perverted call to engage in a “witch hunt.” Surely this is not what they want, and this is not what I desire. I know some of our founders will die never having realized the extreme meanness (let alone horrible exegesis and terrible Biblical interpretation) of their arguments for segregation, nor the shame they have brought the church they loved so much, nor the offense and stumbling block they have caused brothers hoping they could join a fellowship of Reformed believers but wondering about our latent hypocrisy.

This repentance helps set us right in acknowledging our attitudes, statements, and actions (of either omission or commission) were and are wrong, while in patient love we leave the judgement concerning some of our founders to God. Hopefully, moving on from here, our church courts will hold individuals, and congregations, accountable. We are waiting for Jesus to smooth out all our blemishes and make us a radiant bride, we claim no perfection until then, but we are grateful when he holds a mirror up to our face and we see things we should have faced long ago.

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