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National Black Evangelical Association

National Black Evangelical Association


Founded in 1963 as the National Negro Evangelical Association, the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA) functions as an umbrella association of individuals, organizations, and churches. A theologically conservative organization, the NBEA is of the same theological genus as the larger, modern, white American fundamentalist movement. This modern American fundamentalist movement had its beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the fundamentalist-versus-modernist religious controversy. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), founded in 1942 as an outgrowth of this controversy, brought together evangelicals from a variety of theological positions, including fundamentalist, dispensational, Calvinist, Reformed, covenantal, Pentecostal, and charismatic. These all hold in common the belief in the historic "fundamentals" of the Protestant tradition: the Reformation and Arminian doctrine of complete reliability and final authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice; the real, historical character of God's saving work recorded in Scripture; personal eternal salvation only through belief in Jesus Christ; evidence of a spiritually transformed life; and the importance of sharing this belief and experience with others through evangelism and mission works.

In the early twentieth century, a distinct group of Christians within the African-American community aligned themselves with the fundamentalist movement and developed separately from traditional African-American churches. Traditional African-American churches, some of whose history dated back to the seventeenth century, emphasized moral and social reform in the areas of personal piety, slavery, and discrimination. They generally saw themselves as "Bible believers." Black fundamentalists, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on conservative, propositional, and doctrinal aspects of faith. The black fundamentalists charged that African-American churches were one of two types: poor congregations, who were "otherworldly" and emotionally focused in worship; or middle-class congregations, who were theological liberals and embraced modern science. This history caused some strains between these two movements. Some black evangelicals characterized the historic black church as "apostate and un-Biblical," and some in mainline black churches labeled black evangelicals as doctrinaire and schismatic "fanatics." This history led to the presence of African Americans in white fundamentalist and evangelical bible schools and seminaries in the late 1940s and 1950s. Black alumni from these institutions helped to develop the NBEA.

At the time of its founding, the NBEA did not view itself as racially separatist but as an association focused on developing African-American leadership to minister with clear evangelical emphasis to the black community. During this early stage many black evangelicals were also frustrated with the white evangelical movement. This tension focused on what blacks perceived as white evangelicals' indifference to and lack of sympathy for the evangelistic needs of the African-American community. This frustration eventually led some black evangelicals to charge their white counterparts with a spiritual "benign neglect." Eventually the charge of neglect evolved into a stronger allegation of racism. From the beginning its social-action commission raised social issues within the NBEA, yet major social concerns were not in the forefront of its work. Instead the NBEA concentrated on strategies for effectively communicating its particular brand of evangelicalism within the African-American community.

Like all social movements, black evangelicalism has not always been unified in its efforts. The movement could not avoid confronting the civil rights and Black Power movements and their attendant black theology movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The challenges of these new movements, with their emphasis on social justice and self-determination, created anxiety, ambivalence, and dissension within the black evangelical movement. These rifts became evident in several of the annual NBEA conventions.

The civil rights movement forced black evangelicals, in several NBEA conferences between 1968 and 1970, to look at the issues of social justice and racial discrimination and their relationship to presenting the gospel. The conservatives in the movement felt that their first priority was the promulgation of personal salvation rather than attacking social injustice. If society were to be changed, it would be through the changing of human hearts rather than through altering the individual person's social condition. The activists within the black evangelical movement argued that social action and the verbal proclamation of the gospel were equal tasks in evangelical missions. The whole truth of the gospel could be received only when the social concerns of the individual were met.

The Black Power movement challenged the black evangelical movement with issues of self-determination. This was reflected in several NBEA conferences from 1970 through 1975. Activist black evangelicals, drawing from Black Power advocates, believed that white evangelicals were too paternalistic in their support and that blacks were too dependent upon whites. The activists argued that African Americans should develop institutions and support within their own communities. They were not completely opposed to white support, however. Whites could contribute to the cause but without any conditions attached. The conservative wing countered that this stance smacked of divisiveness within the body of Christ. They argued for a more conciliatory role with their white evangelical counterparts, emphasizing Christian reconciliation. This debate forced the movement to look anew at its historical links to the black church as a source of strength and self-determination. These discussions led to another major debate within the black evangelical movement revolving around the role of black theology and African-American culture in the movement as interpretative tools.

Black theology as a movement and the challenge of African-American history and culture were the catalysts of a major debate within the black evangelical movement. This rift surfaced in several of the NBEA conferences in the late 1970s. Some within the black evangelical movement, such as William Bentley and Columbus Salley, closely followed the writings of black theologians. They disagreed with some black theologians' liberal assumptions regarding biblical authority. Yet these activist black evangelicals agreed with black theologians' interpretative critique of both the liberal and conservative European and white American theologians' claim of universality and, therefore, repudiated the appropriateness and normativeness of white theology in all situations. To these black critics, all theology was culturally bound and, therefore, culturally specific. Theology, then, had to be culturally relevant, and this was especially so for the African-American community. The conservatives countered that what was at stake in the activists' critique of conservative white theology was the very essence of the theological foundation of this movement. They felt that the use of black theology, with its liberal theological foundation, compromised too much. It contradicted the very basis of their faith. The conservatives also feared that the activists placed too much emphasis on the importance of black culture at the expense of the gospel message.

These issues drove the NBEA to examine the historic role of the black church as an institution and its relationship to social issues. This was evident in the 1990 convention in which the delegates discussed the viability of dropping the term evangelical because it conjured images of political conservatism, which, some felt, further alienated the movement from the historic African-American church.

The NBEA's numerical strength is unknown, but its leadership estimates its mailing list at five thousand, with a larger black-evangelical constituency of between thirty thousand and forty thousand. Its annual convention draws several hundred participants, and smaller numbers participate in the meetings sponsored by local chapters. The NBEA has been an arena in which the differing factions of the black evangelical movement have been able to dialog, to discuss disagreements, and to reach compromise. It has been a delicate balancing act over the years. It remains to be seen whether the movement, and especially the NBEA as an organization, can continue to hold its various camps under its umbrella and simultaneously continue to stretch the canvas to include and win favor with the historic black church community as well.

See also Theology, Black

Bibliography

Bentley, William H. "Bible Believers in the Black Community." In The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing, edited by David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge, pp. 108121. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1975.

Bentley, William H. The National Black Evangelical Association: Evolution of a Concept of Ministry. Chicago, 1979.

Bentley, William H. The National Black Evangelical Association: Bellwether of a Movement. Chicago, 1988.

Marsden, George, ed. Evangelicalism and Modern America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1984.

Pannell, William. My Friend, the Enemy. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1968.

Pannell, William. "The Religious Heritage of Blacks." In The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing, edited by David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge, pp. 96107. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1975.

Quebedeaux, Richard. The Young Evangelicals: Revolution in Orthodoxy. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Salley, Columbus, and Ronald Behm. What Color Is Your God? Black Consciousness and the Christian Faith. Rev. ed., Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981.

albert g. miller (1996)

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