White-centeredness highlights the actions of the majority culture as normal, authoritative, and foolproof. White supremacy, on the other hand, can be defined as the belief that white people are inherently superior to people from all other racial groups, and are therefore rightfully the dominant group in any society. Lately there has been much conversation, and even scholarly works, around modern day white supremacy.

To ensure there will be no dismissal of very real concerns and problems that ethnic minorities face, it is important to define terms here. The misuse of words often conjures images of skin-heads, and burning crosses, and thus prompts many people to tune out the truth.

Racism no longer mainly rears its ugly head in the explicit, crude language and actions of racial slurs. It has evolved into something much more subtle, revealing itself in implicit biases, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, and systemic policies/practices baked into the very fabric of this country.

White-centeredness has not only had a profound effect within American society, but also on the American evangelical church. A brief historical recap would quickly reveal how predominantly white, evangelical American churches have been complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Most churches have shown such complicity not just by their direct actions, but by their inaction. Their silence only allows racist systems, policies, and people to sin for them.

White-Centered Discipleship

Many POC love and serve Jesus in predominantly white Reformed churches, or mixed churches with predominantly white leadership. I praise God for that! But much like homogenous groups of whites in the world, the homogenous groups of whites inside the church, especially leaders, are largely blind to their own nuanced elitism and ethno-cultural preferences.

This blindness extends to their application of ethnocentrism into the lives of others through discipleship. POC have long been victims of white cultural norms shrouded in a veneer of biblical manhood and womanhood. This has caused many POC to leave churches feeling hurt and misunderstood, or to assimilate at the expense of what it means to follow Jesus in the context of their own culture and circumstances.

When white church leaders are ignorant or willfully blind to this, they end up thinking they are discipling their members to be more like Jesus when they are really discipling them to be more like middle-class, white men and women.

If these leaders remain blind to their own cultural preferences, then their members of color will become collateral damage—disciples (to some degree) of Jesus, while also disciples of white, middle-class cultural norms passing as biblical Christianity. Discipleship then becomes cultural assimilation for one, and cultural imperialism for the other.

What Do You Mean, Ameen?

Privilege usually blinds those who have it, because it masks itself as normalcy. It’s easy to think your culture’s way of doing things is normal and right when your culture is the most represented and affirmed in society. Of course, what’s normal for your culture is, in fact, abnormal for others. But blindness to this reality causes you to make your “normal” the standard for everyone else. White cultural dominance is perpetuated when white cultural norms are considered “normal” in society, and “biblical” in the church.

This Western version of Christianity makes the white way synonymous with the biblical way. For many white leaders, following Jesus means following the Bible, but unintentionally applying it according to their own cultural norms, particularly in regards to social justice, appearance, vocation, and family dynamics.

On The Outside

For instance, white leaders may suggest that some POC change their appearance by acquiring a different style of dress. Urban apparel (sneakers, hats, baggy and/or ripped jeans, skinny jeans, extended t-shirts, hoodies, etc.) along with tattoos or piercings, are considered immature, grubby, or reminiscent of illegal lifestyles.

Having hair coloring, braids, dreadlocks, twists, or an afro can be discouraged as looking unprofessional and untamed, associated with unruliness and distraction. I know a black brother who cut off all of his hair because his white pastor told him he would look more professional that way.

A person’s vocabulary or dialect (e.g. Slang/Ebonics)[7] may have to change in order to be perceived as educated and sophisticated, and thus “godly.” A person’s musical tastes may need to be tweaked in order to match the church’s musical taste, a major factor in what’s considered “proper worship.” Drum beating, hand clapping, foot stomping, tambourine shaking, and dancing tend to be associated with possessing poor doctrine. A preference for hip hop music is often perceived as ghetto, troublesome, and deviant. In other words, not conforming to white cultural norms often means you can’t be taken seriously in many white American churches.

Cookie Cutter Callings

White church leaders may even suggest the revision of their members’ vocations to something a bit more “respectable” or “missional. The most ideal calling a man of God can have, then, is to be a full-time, vocational pastor or an overseas missionary. Another respectable call is to be a corporate professional, so long as he is teaching church history or Sunday school on the side.

Other callings are perhaps viewed as legitimate, but not as honorable as these. A man of color may believe biblical male leadership is limited to being a professor of theology, church planter, or missionary to every country and people group, except those in his own urban neighborhood.

The pressure is on for women of color as well. Too often has it been explicitly and implicitly suggested the highest calling for a woman of God is to be a wife and a stay-at-home mom who homeschools. She must also be a leader of a cell group or some other ministry at her church. The devotion of all her energy must be toward her husband, children, and home.

Her calling can be only to them, not also to the kingdom of God within society, her neighborhood, and her own passions. Any deviation from these models violates what is considered a truly biblical man or woman in many white church spaces.

These virulent norms bleed into marriage and family roles, creating a paradigm based off of middle-class, white cultural norms that are not everyone’s reality or desire. Men of color are left searching for the quintessential wife they will more easily find in predominantly white, middle-class spaces. This may contribute to the lack of black men marrying black women in their communities who don’t fit this mold of “biblical womanhood.”

These standards could possibly leave women of color expecting their husbands to provide enough for them to stay at home, and thus fulfill the supposed ultimate duty of womanhood. If this is the case, disillusionment is just around the corner when a husband simply can’t make enough money to provide for this lifestyle.

These virulent norms bleed into marriage and family roles, creating a paradigm based off of middle-class, white cultural norms that are not everyone’s reality or desire. Men of color are left searching for the quintessential wife they will more easily find in predominantly white, middle-class spaces. This may contribute to the lack of black men marrying black women in their communities who don’t fit this mold of “biblical womanhood.”

These standards could possibly leave women of color expecting their husbands to provide enough for them to stay at home, and thus fulfill the supposed ultimate duty of womanhood. If this is the case, disillusionment is just around the corner when a husband simply can’t make enough money to provide for this lifestyle.

The Scope of Biblical Womanhood

The white, middle-class model of discipleship is noxious because it turns biblical manhood/womanhood into an expectation of white, middle-class norms. It leaves those outside of its idealized circumstances feeling like unwanted pariahs. It doesn’t consider intersectionality.[9] It doesn’t consider the differing economical, educational, and vocational opportunities and plights faced by POC. It doesn’t consider their differing family structures, dynamics, and backgrounds. Ultimately, it doesn’t fully consider the Bible’s scope of discipleship.

What if the single black woman in her mid-30s, working in corporate America doesn’t have a husband or even see one on the horizon? What if the single black mother has to constantly juggle work with ministry and daycare? What if a wife can’t homeschool, but instead needs to work a full-time job for the sake of her family’s financial stability? What if a wife doesn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom, but rather work in investment banking?

What if her career intersected and contributed to her being the quintessential Proverbs 31 woman who showed tremendous entrepreneurial skill, economic wisdom, community involvement, generosity, and family devotion (Proverbs 31:16, 18, 20, 24)? What if she desires to be a woman who is financially independent just as the proverbial woman clearly was? Can some women be like Lydia, the “seller of purple goods,” whose conversion was evident through her faithful hospitality, and not necessarily a career change (Acts 16:14, 40)?[10]

Did Jesus and his twelve disciples look down on the many women “who provided for them out of their means,” (Luke 8:1-3)? Was Priscilla not living “biblically” enough, because she was an entrepreneur alongside her husband with a tent-making business in the mainstream economic realm (Acts 18)?

If the teachings and representations of biblical womanhood in churches mainly exalt women who are wives (usually to pastors and ministerial leaders), and exclusively stay-at-home mothers, then where do these women fit in? Where is the representation for them?

The Scope of Biblical Manhood

What if a man decided to forgo being a professional theologian, pastor, or overseas missionary, and instead became a mechanic, entrepreneur, barber, writer, educator in his local public school system, tattoo artist (uh-oh), rapper (bigger uh-oh), or any honest job that would enable him to provide and witness to folks in his community?

God isn’t calling every man to be a pastor or overseas missionary. Since our whole lives are worship (Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:17) and ministry (1 Corinthians 10:31), our vocations, recreational activities, and neighborhoods are all platforms for us to build relationships and share the gospel with our neighbors.

Some are fishermen who don’t leave their vocation to plant churches, but they still learn God’s Word and bring God’s truth to other fishermen. God calls his people to various vocations that help fund and advance his mission. Priscilla and Aquila’s tent-making business helped fund Paul’s missions, resulting in “all the churches of the Gentiles [giving] thanks,” (Romans 16:3-4; see also Acts 18:1-3, 18-23).

There are many vocations, skills, and passions other than being theologians and pastors. For some, being placed in a theological ivory tower would block their calling and opportunity to meet the needs of their communities. Don’t make them feel conscripted into a narrow set of “acceptable” vocations. Instead, help guide them to do what God wants them to do, even if that task doesn’t fit your cultural paradigm.

On Appearance

As far as one’s appearance is concerned, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,” (1 Sam. 16:7). Jesus was “not swayed by appearances,” (Matthew 22:16). The kingdom of God is a matter of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” not food preference, musical style, or fashion sense (Romans 14:17).

I wonder what some of our American church leaders would have thought of John the Baptist’s unprofessional dress code (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6). Surely a man of God wouldn’t look so unkempt and out of touch with the dress code of the religious elite of his day! I wonder what they would have said about David’s style of worship (2 Samuel 6:12-23; see also Psalm 150:4). Would they have despised him in their hearts as an undignified and ill-taught man for dancing before the Lord “with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14)?

Furthermore, a woman’s inner beauty—“a gentle and quiet spirit”—is God’s focal point, not the material and color of her clothing or hair (1 Pet. 3:3-4). Paul’s call to women in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 is not to prohibit the wearing of pearls or costly attire; it is to promote modesty as a priority. Women shouldn’t carry themselves in a way that’s ostentatious and seductive. A modest appearance is much deeper than hair and clothing; it is an issue of character.

Burdens and Yokes

Through personal relationships, books, and conferences, many white leaders in the American church reinforce their cultural ideals and norms in the name of discipleship. Have we not learned from the Jerusalem Council that we should repudiate any attempt to conflate cultural tradition with biblical teachings as the standard for salvation or sanctification (Acts 15)? Didn’t that council conclude the Gentiles shouldn’t be troubled with Jewish traditions and standards as a measure of their standing before God? Why should Christian POC be troubled to change non-sinful aspects of their culture in order to be deemed acceptable and sanctified in many white churches?

Not only is the pressure to assimilate to dominant culture troubling many POC, but it is “putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples” (Acts 15:10). Placing the burden of cultural assimilation on Christian POC means creating a cultural hierarchy that does not exist in God’s kingdom (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).

Peter was confronted with this fact when Paul “opposed him to his face” for separating himself from the Gentiles once the Jewish party arrived (Gal. 2:11). Peter had engaged in the intersection of cultures by eating with the Gentiles (something Jews strictly did not do). But out of fear of the Jewish aristocracy that came to town, he retreated to his Jewish cultural supremacy by no longer eating with the Gentiles.

By doing this, Peter hypocritically treated the Gentile believers as if they were second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. The prophet Jonah also expressed this cultural supremacy, only much more bluntly than Peter (Jonah 1:1-3, 4:1-11). But Peter’s more-subtle ethnocentrism was just as offensive to God. Paul saw Peter’s discrimination as a gospel issue, defying the very essence of justification by faith (Gal. 2:11-21). Peter’s sin shows us cultural supremacy breeds man-pleasing, discriminatory attitudes and practices that deny the very truth of the gospel and oppress our own brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is most disheartening when this oppression is internalized, and POC believe that white-washed standards of discipleship makes them in step with biblical principles. POC then join many whites in looking down upon the black church and urban ministries as primitive in their practices, improper in their worship, and likely heretical in their doctrine.

What masks itself as sanctification and alignment to orthodoxy for many POC is just internalized racism, a sanctified self-hatred. When white cultural norms are propagated as true examples of what it means to be a biblical man or woman, disciples of Jesus are no longer empowered by his gospel, but etiolated through cultural assimilation.

A Better Way

My desire is for middle-to-upper class, white Christian leaders in particular, and white Christians in general, to do some self-inventory:

  • Consider the ways white-centeredness can mask itself as cultural normalcy and mold your ideas of discipleship.
  • Befriend other urban, non-white leaders and Christians who can help point out your blind spots (as Paul did for Peter in Galatians 2). and share your experiences (as Paul and Barnabas did on behalf of the Gentile believers in Acts 15).
  • Talk to those non-white leaders about what discipleship and biblical manhood/womanhood looks like in their context.
  • Spend time with people who will help show you that your ideas of discipleship and manhood/womanhood are not ultimate, nor always biblical.

Making one’s cultural norm the standard of mature Christianity is unbiblical, prideful, and injurious. But you can’t repent of what you can’t see. We need to listen to the diverse, marginalized voices in the Body of Christ to help us see where we may be assuming our cultural standards are signposts of biblical obedience.

At the end of the day, discipleship is not an aspiration to see men and women develop into people who meet normative cultural standards. It’s an aspiration to look more like Christ.

Ameen Hudson

Author Ameen Hudson

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