Did God give fathers a special and specific command to be responsible for the godly training of their children? That’s precisely what Paul declared in his letter to the Ephesian church: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4). But where has the black church stood on this issue? And in what ways do the dynamics of the black church differ from the challenges faced by Christian brothers and sisters with different cultural backgrounds? These are the questions that form a vital background as we consider the interaction between churches and African-American fathers, mothers, and children in the Christian formation of present and future generations.
The black church has functioned as a central organizing institution in the African-American experience (1). As such, the history of the black church coincides with the general flow of the lives of former Africans in North America: slavery, Reconstruction, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the post-Civil Rights era (2). Each of these periods influenced the African-American family in ways that often undercut the influence of fathers and established de facto matriarchal structures. Necessary and well-intended family leadership from mothers, grandmothers, and aunts unintentionally created a legacy of “fatherlessness” in the African-American family and—by extension—in the black church.
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILY FROM SLAVERY TO CIVIL RIGHTS
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has referred to slavery as America’s national “birth defect” (3). Her graphic description provides a beginning point for examining the long-term effects of the early Africans’ plight in North America and how their plight influenced the trajectory of African-American families. The slave was primarily an object in the system of chattel slavery; therefore, all other aspects of the slave’s life, including family structures, were secondary. In most cases, it would have been impossible for slaves to have practically or functionally prioritized family roles, particularly fatherhood.
African-American Family Structures Prior to the American Civil War Slaveholders held little or no regard for family relationships among their slaves. Even before reaching America, many slaves had been terribly destabilized and “broken” in order to be resocialized into the slavery system.
The human cargo which [the slave traders] collected were the remnants of various tribes and clan organizations. The manner in which men and women were packed indiscriminately in slave ships during the Middle Passage tended to destroy social bonds and tribal distinctions. The process of “breaking” the Negroes into the slaves system in the West Indies, where they often landed before shipment to the colonies and the United States, tended to efface the memories of their traditional culture. In the colonies and later in the southern United States, the slaves were widely scattered on comparatively small plantations where there was little opportunity to reknit social bonds or regenerate the African culture (4).
Until the early nineteenth century, male slaves out-numbered female slaves. In many cases, male slaves had sexual encounters with Native American women; these encounters resulted in children without functioning fathers, outcasts from the communities both of their fathers and of their mothers. Female slaves were subjected to their masters’ sexual whims. In some cases, their biracial children received a measure of status from their slaveholding fathers; in other cases, the children remained unrecognized and unwanted, except as living property.
In an economy where property was currency, masters often sold or traded slaves. In what certainly laid the foundation for matriarchal family structures, mother-child relationships were protected in many of these transactions while husband-wife relationships held no dependable status. On some economically-stable plantations, it was possible for slaves to develop family structures that mirrored the family of the plantation patriarch. Such situations seem to have been rare, however. Some manumitted slaves did develop reasonably stable family structures. The families of these “freed blacks” manifested a peculiar form of patriarchy that differed from the typical patterns that characterized the century leading up to the American Civil War.
African-American Family Structures during Reconstruction and Segregation After the American Civil War, one might have expected the newly-freed slaves and families to have flourished. In reality, there were still many challenges to be faced. If the slavery era of African-American history represented a time of general instability for families, the era after the Civil War brought about total destabilization.
Slaveholders had bought and sold slaves without regard for marital status. Now, what could the previously-sold male do when he returned to his previous plantation to reclaim his wife, only to find that she had remarried? How could a man reunite his family when he had fathered children on different plantations in different states? These were real-life questions that faced many former slaves in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
Matriarchal leadership was deeply entrenched by this point in African-American history. For example, many freedmen were afraid to offer public support for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election. Their wives, however, proudly wore their husband’s pins and pictures of Grant. If husbands refused to hand over these items, wives were known to defy their husbands, boldly marching into town to buy their own (5). For these women, emancipation provided confirmation of the spirit of self-sufficiency that they had learned in slavery (6). The mother was “the supreme authority in the household,” so much so that daughters were reluctant to leave their mother’s household to live with their husbands (7).
After decades in which slaveholders had ignored marital relationships among slaves, former slaves viewed marriage as a means of economic cooperation instead of a covenant rooted in God’s creation and a fundamental basis for societal structuring. Wives described their marital arrangements not in terms of a lasting covenant but as “working with a man.” Such perspectives did little to promote meaningful roles for husbands and fathers.
Until “the Great Migration” of African Americans to northern cities in the opening decades of the twentieth century, an overwhelming number of former slaves remained in the South. For these persons, tenant farming often replaced slavery. During the Great Migration, close to two million African Americans moved north. Nearly one-fourth of the migrants relocated in one of three cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York City (8).
Unfortunately, northern cities lacked the famil- ial folkways and community structures—such as the church and the lodge—that had marked the rural South. Rates of illegitimacy increased. Unwed urban mothers were not viewed as having the same innocence as their southern counterparts in previous generations. In this context, communities generally expressed stronger disdain for illegitimacy, resulting in higher rates of desertion among fathers.
Patterns in African-American Marriage and Family Life: An African Heritage or a Creational Structure Distorted by Slavery?
It is important to point out that scholarship focusing on African-American history has held differing views on the family history that I have described here (9). The two primary perspectives are associated with the work of E. Franklin Frazier and Melville J. Herskovits in the mid-twentieth century.
Frazier’s main contention is that the Negro family contains no appreciable African influences and is a product of the condition of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, … Herskovits views [African-American family structures] as rooted in West African cultures; Frazier views matriarchy as a sign of social disorganization, Herskovits views it as playing an essential role in the survival of the black community in America (10).
Frazier’s thesis criticized high rates of illegitimacy and female headship in African-American families as well as patterns of male headship that included over-involved mothers-in-law. In contrast, Herskovits’ thesis ascribed a certain nobility to the very patterns that Frazier considered to be maladies in African-American families—high rates of illegitimacy and a dominant role for mothers with a resulting passive role for fathers. According to Herskovits, “the responsibilities of upbringing, discipline, and supervision are much more the province of the mother than of the father” (11), and these patterns are holdovers from a West African past. Where Frazier saw weakening and harmful patterns of family life, Herskovits saw a heritage from Africa.
Because some see matriarchy and looser marital structures as remnants of Africa, the pursuit of biblical manhood and womanhood may be perceived by some as an attempt to rob African-American families of their cultural past. This has been a particular challenge because the black church has institutionally borne a burden of cultural preservation and protection that has competed at times with Gospel priorities.
In this context, it is crucial that pastors proclaim biblical manhood and womanhood with charity, clarity, and conviction. Even if some patterns in African-American family life are relics from Africa—a claim that is far from certain!—biblical expectations for men and women are rooted in divine creation, not in cultural innovation or historical heritage. It was God, not culture, who designed marriage as an institution to unite one male with one female for life. It was God, not culture, who wisely designated particular roles for men and women. It was God, not culture, who commanded the man to “hold fast to his wife” and to “become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).
African-American Family Structures during the Civil Rights and Post-Civil Rights Era After more than three centuries of slavery and state-enforced segregation, African-Americans began to gain legal protections during the Civil Rights era. Unfortunately, during this same era, African-American families were the first to suffer from the “sexual revolution,” which was contiguous with pathologies that were already prevalent. As a result, when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Moynihan issued a report on the African-American family in 1965, the report did not paint a healthy picture: “That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might have simply died out, as indeed others have” (12). Despite misconceptions to the contrary, he clearly noted that there were great discontinuities in family structures in the United States. White households differed from African-American households and, just as importantly, African-American middle-class families differed from those found in the African-American lower class.
Independent black churches emerged in an environment where matriarchy was already embedded, due to prevailing societal circumstances. Nothing in subsequent history has altered this fact. Over time, this matriarchy became the accepted norm. At this same time, emerging theological trends were further undermining practices of biblical manhood and womanhood in black church families. Broader opportunities for theological training became available. In some cases, the agendas of radical feminism—as well as other perspectives that weakened biblical perspectives on marriage, family, and sexual ethics—increasingly infiltrated black churches.
The Public Emasculation of the Black Church
The decade surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century was a decade of public emasculation for the black church. The downfall began in 1997. Rev. Henry J. Lyons—president of the National Baptist Convention—was exposed as an adulterer and indicted on charges of fraud, extortion, money laundering, conspiracy, and tax evasion.
As the most prominent male African-American church leader was plunging into disgrace, women were ascending to the top. In 2000, the African Methodist Episcopal Church—the oldest independent African-American denomination—elected Rev. Vashti McKenzie as its first bishop. In 2000, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook was elected the first woman president of the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, the largest interdenominational gathering of African-American clergy. Evangelist Joyce Rodgers has become one of the premiere preachers of the Church of God in Christ.
MOVING TOWARDS FAMILY MINISTRY IN THE BLACK CHURCH
Despite the biblical command that fathers must teach and train their children in godliness (Ephesians 6:4) and in spite of male spiritual leadership in the household being a qualification for local church leadership (1 Tim 3:4-5), the black church has been historically influenced by matriarchy in ways that have hampered its ability to produce a generation that has been trained in the fear of God.
So, should pastoral leaders in black churches simply give up? By no means! Historical challenges to the black family in America should in no way discourage the black church or its leadership from faithfully pursuing God’s design for the family and discipleship. The power of God beyond us and within us is greater than the power of history behind us. Our overarching metanarrative is not slavery and Jim Crow, segregation and Civil Rights. As believers in Jesus Christ, the metanarrative of our lives is creation and fall, reconciliation and consummation. Long-standing maladies will, however, require healing and correction that only God can give.
Given the biblical truth that matriarchy—whether de facto or de jure—does not reflect God’s design for his church, it will be helpful for the pastoral leader to discover what roles are presently in place in the black church before seeking to implement biblical reforms. It is possible to identify at least five roles that women play in black churches. To illustrate each one, I have provided an illustrative parallel from the narrative of Scripture, as well as some suggestions for how a pastor might proceed in this situation.
A Responsible Woman in a Context of Passive and Irresponsible Men “Deborah … was judging Israel at that time,” the book of Judges tells us (4:4). Israel was in a state of captivity, slavery, and calamity. That background was the setting for Deborah’s leadership as a judge. Later in the narrative, she asserted her leadership by urging Barak into battle against the Canaanites (4:7-9). Barak should have been the hero of the narrative, but Barak remained passive until Deborah agreed to go into battle with him. Because of Barak’s failure to lead, the honor of victory went not to the Israelite Barak but to a Canaanite woman named Jael. Such de facto consequential matriarchs as Deborah are very prominent in the black church. The consequential matriarch might be a single mother, divorced or never married. She may be the responsible caregiver for her aging parents. Increasingly, she could be a grandmother raising the offspring of her irresponsible adult children. Whatever the particulars of her situation may be, there is a single common element in her situation: She is taking a leadership role because the men have failed to do so. She is not, by nature, a usurper. If the men in her world would fulfill their responsibilities, she would gladly step aside; however, she has seen too much male passivity, disobedience, and outright ungodliness. She could be bitter and angry, but she isn’t. In many cases, this woman affirms biblical complementarity. The main word to describe this woman is “responsible.”
This woman should not be attacked. She has not created the problem; she has merely responded to the problem. She is probably eager for men to “step up to the plate” and to embrace roles of biblical manhood. Her particular role has emerged over an extended period of time—and the matriarchy of the black church developed over three centuries! Such recognitions should steady the pastoral leader for patient and deliberate course corrections. Congregational life must become a safe haven for the pursuit of a counter-cultural model of family over an extended time, not only through instruction but also through re-enculturation. Perhaps most important, male discipleship must become a pressing priority in the black church. Instead of focusing on Deborah, the black church must properly situate and disciple Barak (13).
The One Who Usurps the Pastoral Leader’s Authority King Ahab of Israel “took for his wife Jezebel” and followed her religion (1 Kgs 16:31). Thus begins the ancient narrative of an idolatrous queen and her spineless husband. The narrative presents a de jure matrifocality—a setting where a male is present, but he is weak and his office of leadership has been usurped by an influential female. In the examples of Deborah and Sapphira, the women are simply responding to their circumstances. The sort of woman exemplified in Jezebel is actively shaping her circumstances and aggressively usurping biblical leadership.
Black churches must recognize that this pattern represents active opposition to God’s good order. If the true nature of this opposition remains disregarded, the church will lack the necessary boldness for confrontation. This woman must be confronted with truth and love for the sake of the biblical betterment of the church.
Some seem to believe that the black church belongs to the black community instead of Jesus Christ. As such, the pastoral leader must be willing to endure criticism and scorn from persons in the community who may not even be part of the church. Even in this circumstance, every choice must be made deliberately. A particular his- tory with peculiar turns has led to this point. It is likely to take some time before Jezebel is thrown down from her balcony (2 Kgs 9:30-37).
The One Who Despises Manhood
“When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family of the house of Judah” (2 Chron. 22:10). When there was no possibility that Athaliah could unofficially rule the kingdom through her own offspring, she decided to kill all other contenders for the throne and to declare herself queen.
In the context of the black church, this woman is not simply resistant toward biblical manhood. She despises male leadership in any form. She sees men as the problem. She may be reacting in frustration against the sins of male passivity or mistreatment of women. Her hatred of male terminology even extends to negative attitudes toward “Father” and “Son” in the Godhead, distorting her understanding of God and the Gospel. For this woman, everything must be viewed in light of whether it promotes or hampers women’s issues in the church. The pastoral leader must be prepared for the potentially hostile nature of this engagement. If the male leader fails to honor biblical guidelines for sexual purity, he may find himself rightly hamstrung by an antagonist such as this one. Even leaders who are biblically qualified for their role may struggle to deal with women of the Athaliah variety. Godly females must support and share in this battle for biblical order—but the battle is spiritual, and carnal implements must never constitute the leader’s weaponry (2 Cor 10:4). Otherwise, the leader will have simply stooped to the same level as Athaliah.
The Servant of the Church
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe,” Paul wrote to the Romans, acclaiming a particularly faithful female servant that he would soon be sending to Rome. The black church is filled with many such faithful sisters who love the Lord and graciously and dutifully serve his church. African-American women have been described as the “backbone” of the black church. Unfortunately, such women may be the sole servants—and sometimes the primary leaders—in many churches.
The servant has no ill intent; she is seeking to love her God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. The problem is not her presence; it is, rather, her disproportionate presence and influence. The lack of a balancing male presence has fostered an unfruitful environment for her ministry. Males must be challenged to become faithful servants in local congregations. In the black church, this involves a re-coupling of church membership and discipleship—which assumes a prior re-coupling of commitment to Christ with commit- ment to the body of Christ in its local expression.
Such a shift also will involve highlighting areas of faithful Christian service for men beyond the titled ministries of “pastor” or “deacon.” In too many congregations, preachers and deacons are seen as the “men of God”—but every faithful God-honoring brother should be viewed as a man of God. The problem is not the exis- tence of women like Phoebe; the problem is the nonex- istence of men like Stephen and Philip (Acts 6:5). The solution is not calling men to become like Phoebe; the solution is calling men to serve in the ways that God has called them to serve, so that Phoebe is not serving alone.
The Woman Partnered with Her Husband Partnered with their husbands, some women may present particular problems, while others may present positive opportunities. In the book of Acts, Sapphira fits into the problematic category. Her husband sinned by taking from the offering that he had committed to the church. Not only did he sin but his wife also participated in his folly (Acts 5:1-11). Several chapters later, another picture of husband-wife partnership emerges: Priscilla and Aquila were a faithful team that supported missions and corrected inadequate teachings (Acts 18:26; Rom 16:3-4; 1 Cor 16:19).
Many wives in the black church mirror their husband’s spiritual maturity or lack thereof. Some, like Priscilla, may manifest characteristics in congregational life that reflect how their husbands have edified them. Many women in black churches stand on the legacy of an Aquila-like husband or father who loves his wife as Christ loves the church.
Other wives, like Sapphira, may exhibit characteristics that stem from fear, wounding, or manipulation that has been caused by their husband. These women may not trust the church’s leadership because of how sin has characterized their husbands’ lives. In order to effect godly transformation, pastoral leaders must acknowledge the oneness of marriage as they seek to disciple both husbands and wives. If a woman has an ungodly or spiritually immature husband, little Gospel benefit will be gained by attempting to circumvent the husband in the discipleship process. Even if a woman is celebrated as a faithful model for others, little will be gained if her husband is not somehow called to account in that process.
Such discipleship processes will also require the black church to present a radically counter-cultural model of marriage and family—a model that reflects biblical truth about gender and marital relationships. The role of the husband must be elevated to the status of a wife’s primary human relationship. This will necessarily require the mind of Christ to replace physique, career, and hobbies as the central sources of identity for African-American Christian men.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
If pastoral leaders desire to implement family-equipping ministries in black churches, they must carefully con- sider the structures of resistance that they will face. Yes, it is difficult “to perceive the effect that three centuries of exploitation have had on the fabric of Negro society itself” (14). And yet, constrained by Holy Scripture and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the pastoral leader can deliberately, patiently, and effectively call forth men and women in black churches to assume their divinely-ordained roles to the glory of God.
1) The term “black church” functions here as a historical designation rather than a theological or ecclesiological reference. Black churches—like other churches— fall into the theological categories of fundamentalist, moderate, and theologically liberal. “Evangelical” is not a popular term in some segments of the black church due to the political assumptions sometimes associated with the term.
2) James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick).; John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (McGraw-Hill. Inc.: New York, 1988); Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African American Odyssey (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2000).
3) Washington Times (March 28, 2008), http://diversity- inc.com/content/1757/article/3347/.
4) E. Franklin Frazier, “The Negro Family in America” in The Family: Its Function and Destiny (Harper & Row Publishing: New York, 1959), 65.
5) E. Franklin Frazier, “The Matriarchate” in The Negro Family in the United States (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1939), 125.
6) “The Matriarchate”, 125.
7) “The Matriarchate”, 144.
8) James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 2001), 216-217.
9) The works cited of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier represent a view counter to that put forth by Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Harper & Row Publishers: New York, 1941).
10) John H. Bracey Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, Black Matriarchy: Myth or Reality? (Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.: Belmont, CA, 1971), 1-2.
11) The Myth, 169.
12) Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965), chapter 4.
13) For analysis of the black church in particular see Jawanza Kunjufu, Adam, Where Are You?: Why Most Black Men Don’t Go to Church (self published, 1994).
14) Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965), chapter 2.
About the Author: Kevin L. Smith (Ph.D. cand., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of Watson Memorial Baptist Church. Before being appointed to the faculty of Southern Seminary, Kevin served as the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow at Southern Seminary. He has been a church planter in Tennessee and a pastor in Tennessee and Kentucky. He is a frequent conference speaker and has served in short-term missions in the Caribbean and Africa. Kevin is also a member of the Organization of American Historians and of the American Society of Church History. He is married to the former Patricia Moore; three children and two great-nephews complete their family of seven.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2.]