Carl Ellis helps us understand the difference between “Side A theology” (propositional theology arrived at through rationality) and “Side B theology” (ethical theology arrived at through intuition). He unpacks how the evangelical church fell into cultural captivity during the lion’s share of the 20th century, resulting in deep ethical failures, especially in sins of omission during the civil-rights movement and beyond. Our concern for ethical theology is critical for a skeptical world in a secular age. Ellis also explores some of the more obscure, yet highly influential, figures of the historical black church. The group discusses:
- Introduction of Carl Ellis (1:07)
- Side A and Side B theology and how it affects race conversations (4:03)
- Clarifying parameters of Side A and Side B theology (13:10)
- Why churches struggle with Side B theology (17:09)
- How deficient Side B theology hinders churches in carrying out Christ’s mission (27:41)
- The importance of Moses to the historic black church and Side B theology (32:11)
- Tuskegee Airmen, the GI Bill, and being shut out of the commercial airline industry (40:49)
- The civil-rights movement as a Christian; cultural apologetics (46:28)
1. How would you have traditionally defined “theology”? Does your answer betray an affinity towards “Side A theology” (propositional theology arrived at through rationality) or “Side B theology” (ethical theology arrived at through intuition)?
2. Does your church have more of an affinity for Side A or Side B theology?
3. What does it look like for a church to champion Side A theology? What about Side B theology?
4. To meet this modern movement, what would a biblically grounded Side B theology look like?
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Carl Ellis: American Christianity went along with cultural sin. There’s good things in a culture and there are bad things in a culture. So, if you’re in cultural captivity, you conform to the culture including cultural sin. Racism, slavery, Jim Crow are all these things that are cultural sins that we conform to, and if we conform to that, then we’ve sacrificed our prophetic voice.
Matt Kenyon: You’re listening to As In Heaven, a Christian conversation on race and justice. In this episode, Dr. Carl Ellis unpacks his philosophy of A Side and B Side theology and explains how Christians can better engage a culturally divided world. He also explores some of the more obscure, yet highly impactful figures of the historical black church. Jim Davis is your host. Mike Aitcheson is your co-host. Mike Graham is the executive producer. My name is Matt. I’m the technical producer.
And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of As In Heaven with Dr. Carl Ellis.
Jim Davis: Welcome to As In Heaven, season two. My name’s Jim Davis. I am joined by my co-host, Mike Aitcheson, and we have the privilege today of talking with Dr. Carl Ellis, who studied under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri in Switzerland.
You have done a number of varied kinds of ministries in your life. You’re currently the Provost Professor of Theology and Culture at Reform Theological Seminary, and you’re also the Associate Pastor for Cultural Apologetics at New City Fellowship. You have written books like Saving Our Sons, Free At Last. One of the things that I find most fascinating is that your dad was a legit Tuskegee Airmen. There are just so many reasons we are thankful for your time here today and just thank you for joining us.
Carl Ellis: You got it. My pleasure, my honor.
Mike Aitcheson: Doc, any time I get an opportunity to hang out with you, I’m always so blessed. I shared with you over the years that my first encounter with you was in high school when I attended Glendale Missionary Baptist Church. Sister Eloise Davis, who has gone on to be with the Lord, gave me a going-away gift and a big trunk, and one of those things in that trunk was Free At Last, signed by you.
And so, it was after I finished up college and the Lord had called me to ministry, I came back to Miami to do my internship, I devoured that book. And then, fast forward, that was my first school encounter with you, and then more recently when you came to visit with us here in Orlando, we went out to dinner, and you asked me an A Side B Side question.
You said, “Well, Mike, why did the PCA start?” I said, “Well, the mainline wasn’t being faithful to the Bible or to God.” You said, “That’s right, biblical infidelity.” Then the next question was, “Why weren’t slaves allowed to worship?” I said, “Well …” and you stopped me. You said, “Biblical infidelity.” I said, “Ah, you got me.” Then you proceeded to explain Matthew 23, not neglecting the former or latter portions of the law. So, so excited that you’re here to help us navigate this important subject again.
Carl Ellis: Maybe the second time we encountered each other was at North Shore Fellowship in the [inaudible 00:03:45]
Mike Aitcheson: Okay. My friend was getting ordained and you said, “Hey, Mike, I’m not trying to recruit you, but why not the PCA?”, and I said, “Oh Doc, I’m number 46.” Of course, you being the number-two black ordained teaching elder in our history.
Jim Davis: Well, Dr. Ellis, you have been very patiently writing and speaking about racial justice several decades now. No one can certainly accuse you of jumping on some bandwagon this year. You really are looked at as sort of a father figure for those who care deeply about biblical justice. And our hope today is to unpack what you’ve been doing for quite some time, and if I could give this episode a thesis it would be, why engaging in civil rights and racial justice it advances the mission of the gospel and how and why not being engaged hinders the mission of the gospel.
And so with that in mind, we’ve already mentioned it a little bit, Mike has, would you help us to understand your categories that you developed of Side A and Side B theology and how that affects the conversation on race?
Carl Ellis: Okay. Side A theology. Let’s talk about theology itself. Most people in the West define theology as the study of God. Right? Well, okay, but that shows a Side A bypass. Now watch this. Side A of theology, okay, before I say that, let me define theology according to the definition I use. In all fairness, this comes from Dr. John Frame, who just retired as professor at the Orlando campus of RTS, but he was my professor when I went to Westminster, so that’s where I got it from.
He, or we, define theology as the application of God’s word by persons in every area of life. So one of those areas would include the study of God, but it does include other things, every area of life. That would include not only what we think, but what we do. So Side A theology would be mostly concerned with what we should know about God. It’s a wonderful thing. You know? A lot of great things. You know? He’s infinite and that kind of thing. You’ve got the [inaudible 00:06:05] and all those kinds of things, so great stuff, great stuff. But then there’s a side B, which is not so much what we should know about God, but how we should obey God. There you go. And so what happens in Western theology, Western theology developed… because it developed under the challenge of unbelieving philosophy in science and all the rest of that, Western theology tends to be highly slanted toward Side A, and very weak on Side B.
The other thing, too, is that when you are in a situation like America, if you’re in the dominant group, the systems of that society deliver their best to the dominant group. They never deliver it as well to the non-dominant group. Case-in-point would be the book of Acts 6 where they had a system of distribution for the widows. The widows from the dominant group, namely the Hebraic widows, it worked fine for them. But the widows of the non-dominant group, or the sub-dominant group, it didn’t work as well. So they complained. You know? Eventually what happened is that the church, it wisely picked seven deacons to run the whole distribution system, but they picked seven Greeks because they knew where the bugs were. All right? That’s reality, right?
What happens is that if you’re in the non-dominant group and the system doesn’t work as well for you, as a matter of fact the system works against you, you’re going to be more concerned with issues of ethics. All right? Whereas in the dominant group you don’t have to worry about that so much because the system works for you very well. All you have to do is worry about, I like the term epistemology. The epistemological aspects… that is what we should know about God. Epistemology is how you know you know anything, and so I like to give the example of an epistemological song that all of us who went to Sunday school learned. “Jesus loves me, this I know for my epistemological base tells me so.” Okay?
So the Side A theology and the Side B theology. And so really what we should do, what we need to do today is we need to work hard on developing a robust Side B theology, as robust as, maybe even more robust than Side A. Then we need to be able to move between these seamlessly. All right? One of the reasons why I champion the cause of civil rights is because first of all, we are in the body of Christ, and we in the body of Christ should not be conformed to this world’s system. We should operate according to the principles of the kingdom of God. And there’s no place for racism or discrimination in the kingdom of God.
I mean, look at Romans, I mean look at Revelation 7:9. There it is. I mean, it’s like, every nation, every tongue, every tribe. The church, then, should not operate according to how the surrounding society operates. Now, God tells us to in the Great Commission, he tells us to engage the culture as we communicate the word of God. But he tells us not to be captive to the culture, not to come under cultural captivity. That’s a balance. We’ve got to engage the culture, but not come under cultural captivity. Because if you engage the culture, that’s a good thing to do, but what happens is that as Jesus said, “The world loves its own. It will not like you.” All right? So, if we do not fall in the cultural captivity, the culture will become hostile toward us where there’s a clash between our values and the values of the culture.
See, some cultural values agree with scripture by common grace, but then, some of those values are in disagreement with scripture and that’s when the rub comes. So when you fall into cultural captivity then, what happens is that you go along with culture sin. You know? It’s one thing to go along with customs of the culture. It’s just like a pie, if everybody in the culture wears Bermuda shorts, then I’m going to wear Bermuda shorts. You know what I’m saying. I got no problem with that, but if the culture says that I have to cheat on my wife or something like that, then I’m not going to do that. And even if it means that I fall under hostility, I’m going to still not do that. What happens to the church is, that the church was designed by God to be a movement, okay? A movement. A movement that is showing forth with the glory of God and showing forth what the kingdom of God should be about.
We should be operating by the principles of the coming kingdom not the principles of the present kingdom, and so, as we do that then that’s the movement. But what happens is that we begin to develop an institutional aspect of the Church. You got it? And we develop an establishment, so when the Church… when the culture threatens the Church and says, “If you don’t conform to what we’re doing, we’re going to come against you.” They’re going to come against the institution. And, a lot of times people will sacrifice the movement for the sake of preserving the institution. That’s precisely why Jesus was crucified. You had this movement namely called Israel, and Jesus comes as the messiah. What Jesus was doing, and the implications of what Jesus was saying was going to be a danger to the institution, and so they threw Jesus under the bus in order to preserve the institution. And that’s exactly what happens today.
So what happens in America say… the American system says, “Okay, you’ve got freedom and liberty and those are good things, but you’re going to have go along, especially in the South, you’re going to have to go along with slavery and/or segregation and Jim Crow.” And if the Church doesn’t conform to that, you might get burned down. You might get shot or whatever, but that’s par for the course. You know? In order to preserve the institution of the church, American Christianity went along with cultural sin. You know?
There’s good in the culture, and there are bad things in the culture. So if you’re in cultural captivity, you conform to the culture including cultural sin. Racism, slavery, Jim Crow are all these things that are cultural sins that we conform to. And if we conform to that, then we’ve sacrificed our prophetic voice. I can’t go out there and change society necessarily. I can’t… the Church can’t reform all society, but what the Church can do, the Church can live according to what the kingdom of God says and in so doing, indict the society. Indict the system of the world. Okay? So that’s one of the reasons why I’m a champion of civil rights. This is one of the areas where the Church has failed miserably. And so I do what I do not only for the sake of my people, as I would say, but I also do it for the sake of the glory of God. I’d say that last reason is the strongest reason why I’m involved in this.
Jim Davis: Well I really appreciate that, and it’s probably worth mentioning that there are other people using the same… similar verbiage of Side A and Side B that you would not be associated with. Could you speak briefly to that? Just so there’s no mistake made.
Carl Ellis: I’ve been using the Side A, Side B terminology for a good while, 10, 15 years or so. But recently, there was a discussion that emerged in the PCA, and people used Side A, Side B to determine whether you are tolerant or affirmative of LGBTQ or not. I’m not sure which one they say, but a Side A Christian… let’s say a Side A Christian is not tolerant and the Side B Christian is. But in that case, they’re talking about Christians. They’re not talking about theology like I do. I just want to make it very clear that my Side A, Side B has absolutely nothing to do with gender confusion or whatever, LGBTQ. It has nothing to do with that. I’m just talking straight up what the Bible says. And Jesus, as Mike said earlier, Jesus tells the scribes, the Pharisees, “You go out of your way to do a tithe and mint and cumin and all the rest of that, but you neglect the weightier things of the law.” Okay?
So in first century Israel, the letter of the law was Side A, the spirit of the law was Side B, and he said, “You didn’t do the weightier things. Justice first, then your faithfulness.” And then he says something interesting. He said, “You should have observed the latter without neglecting the former.” So there’s a lot of people out there, a lot of Christians out there who mean well. They see the missing Side B, so what they do, they jump over and say, “We’re just going to do Side B.” And they neglect Side A, and when you do that, you fall into error. Of course Side B, if you go Side A rather and neglect Side B, you fall into ethical error. And when you look at the Bible, when God brings judgment upon the people in the Bible, in just about every case, correct me if I’m wrong but… I’ll say in most cases, the overwhelming majority of the cases of the issues were Side B issues.
Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? You’ll find it in Ezekiel 16:49. I always ask people “Why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?” Everybody says, “Yeah, because, well you know for the obvious reasons, right?” God’s stated reasons were that they were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. They did not care for the poor. They were haughty and did detestable things. Now all the rest of that, sexual perversion and all of the rest of what they were into was an outworking of that first thing. You got it? That was the fruit, not the root. Whenever you have a society that is overfed, unconcerned, etc., etc., etc., self-indulgent, then eventually you’re going to produce that kind of thing. But God gets at the root of it.
I’m saying this because when I run into LGBTQ people, I affirm the fact that they are image-bearers of God, and I respect them, and I will be the first to stand up against any persecution or whatever that people bring on them. You know? If a law passed that all LGBTQ people are going to be sent to the death camps and stuff like that, I’d be like Corrie ten Boom. I’d be hiding them in my house. You know? That kind of thing. So that’s kind of where I’m at because they’re human beings. I do not affirm the lifestyle. I do not confirm the outlook, but I affirm the fact that they’re image-bearers. Now that kind of an attitude because I don’t affirm their lifestyle, that makes me a bigot in some of their minds, but in others it’s not. That’s just where I’m at.
Jim Davis: At high level, you already answered my next question which was why is it that churches struggle with Side B theology? You talked about cultural captivity, dominant and sub-dominant cultures, systems working for dominant cultures, but, is there anything else you’d add to that to answer that question? Why is it?… Let’s even go… today, our moment, our cultural moment, why is that churches really struggle still with Side B theology?
Carl Ellis: In America, I think… my wife has this term Americentral Christianity, all right? And I think that’s a result of cultural captivity. Here’s part of the problem, the people of God through 99 percent of biblical history have always been a cultural minority. They’ve always been an oppressed minority. They have never been a part of the establishment. The American church is the anomaly. Christianity in America was part of the establishment. That’s not where we’re supposed to be, okay? If you find yourself part of the establishment, you should not consider yourself that way. The Bible tells us that.
Consider yourselves to be pilgrims and sojourners and that kind of thing. That’s what the Bible [inaudible 00:18:18]. No matter what they do, even Daniel. Daniel was part of the… I mean he was a muckety muck, as the British would say, in Babylon, and yet he never considered himself to be part of the establishment. He was always a prophet. And even at the end, toward the end of his life, you see him, he never assimilated into the Babylonian way of thinking. Even at the end, he continues to pray three times a day towards Jerusalem and continued to do it probably knowing that the SWAT team was going to come and get him and throw him to the lions. He wouldn’t compromise on that. The Bible tells us that, but I think in America somehow, we got to thinking, “Well, you know, this is the way it’s supposed to be, and we don’t want to give up our privilege. We don’t want to give up our good life, as it were.” We just fell back on that.
That’s a tendency… look, it happened to the Christians in Jerusalem. Jesus tells us to go onto all the world and preach the Gospel, and they reached everyone in Jerusalem. They were in a nice little niche, you know? “Hey, we did it! Kick back. Enjoy ourselves.” Then, of course, then the persecution came because of Stephen. Then they went into all the world. It’s a human tendency, so that’s why the Church has been weak.
The problem is that we’ve been operating on theology. Well, let’s put it this way. Much of the Church has been operating off of theology that’s been done on a dominant cultural context. All theology, all theology is done in context. There’s no such thing as a theology that is objective, okay? All theology is done in context. If you are of the reformed persuasion, you know, then everybody who’s reformed knows the so-called five points of Calvinism. Well those aren’t the five points of Calvinism. Those are the five points where Calvinism disagrees with Arminianism, right? Because the Church is under attack on those points.
Or some people talk about the fundamentals of the faith. You know what I’m talking about. There’s like five fundamentals of the faith. Well, if the Bible is our ultimate reference point for doctrine, where does the Bible say those are the five points, that those are the fundamentals of the faith? It doesn’t. Although the Bible does teach those things. Yes. And those are fundamental to the faith. Yes. But the Bible says that… it doesn’t list those as fundamentals. And why? The reason that we came up with those fundamentals of the faith, so-called, is because the Church is under attack at those points. That’s why.
But, the Bible does have two lists. There’s two lists of fundamentals that I see in the bible. One is: love God with all your heart, mind and soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the one. And then, the other one I find in Micah 6:8: God has shown you oh man what is good and what does the Lord require of you. Correct? But to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Those are the kind of things… I call those the fundamentals of faithfulness.
Now, I’m not saying I disagree with the fundamentals of the faith or the five points of Calvinism. I believe all of that. I’m just saying that when we look at those contextual things and make them universal, then we get into some trouble. And I think we fall into theological laziness. Okay? See theology is something we should always do. It’s not just something that we believe. It’s something that we do. You don’t just study theology. Yes, you do study theology, but you’ve got to go beyond that and do theology, to apply God’s word.
And I think sometimes, the Church today especially in the dominant culture has fallen into theological welfare. The one example though is the African American Church. Now, the emergence of the African American Church, it didn’t happen because black people wanted to have a black church. That was never… that was not our desire, but the reason that a black church came because the white church… they were guilty of biblical infidelity on Side B. If you studied history and the emergence of the black church, our white brothers treated our black brothers and sisters like dirt, and so eventually you had black denominations pull out of the Methodist, Episcopal and then you had Baptists, and so forth and so on. Presbyterian, the same thing. The black church emerged because the predominantly white church was not biblical.
But what you see though in the black church is a church that begins to do theology in its own context. You see an indigenous theology emerge. The indigenous African American theology is primarily a Side B theology because black people are living in a situation… being in a non-dominant situation, the system wasn’t working as well for them. The system was working against them, and therefore, they had a lot of ethical concerns. They weren’t worried about the communicable attributes versus the incommunicable attributes. They weren’t worried about refuting the doctrine of the [inaudible 00:23:19] or whatever. You don’t find that in African American theology, but you do find a whole lot about treating people right. There was a strong development of a Side B theology, the ethical side of theology.
When the Civil Rights Movement came on the scene, what people don’t realize is that the Civil Rights Movement was driven and powered by this Side B theology. The evangelicals totally missed it because they had lost touch with that. They were out of balance on the other side, so they totally missed the Side B for us of what was happening. I’d say that carries on until today. Now what’s happening today is that a whole lot of brothers and sisters who were raised… who came to Christ under evangelical auspices or reformed auspices, and they’ve come to realize that they need a Side B, but instead of doing the theological spade work they need to do, what they’ve done, they’ve tried to synthesize the Side B using secular ideology like Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and things like that.
The best analogy I can give to you on that is I had dialogue with a good friend of mine, and I expressed… I did a blog in which I expressed my rejection of Critical Race Theory. Although, Critical Race Theory does say some true things, you know? Satan himself says some true things, right? But he says, “Well, Critical Race Theory can be used as a tool for us.” And I said, “Yeah, it can be used as a tool like if a fly is crawling on your expensive picture window, you want to kill that fly. A sledgehammer can kill a fly. You can use the sledgehammer to kill the fly, and it can kill a fly. But whether you miss or hit, you’re going to do lot more damage than what it’s worth. So yeah, you can use Critical Race Theory as a tool, but it doesn’t have the nuance that you need. The best thing to have is a fly swatter.”
What you can gain from Critical Race Theory causes you more problems. It’s like the cure is worse than the disease. It causes you more problems to solve. Who needs Critical Theory anyway? Look, I’ve got the Bible. The Bible is far more radical than that. The Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. I don’t see how you can get any further than that, you know? Don’t get me started. I can get off on these things in a minute, at the drop of a hat.
Mike Aitcheson: Well, it’s all good Doc. We are, you are just busting us. You know, I’m reminded of that song with reference to A Side and B Side. I’m going to stay on the battlefield for my Lord ’til I die. And then the next verse is, I’m going to treat everybody right ’til I die.
Carl Ellis: That’s right, that’s right! [crosstalk 00:26:13] It’s all unethical. Remember ethics and theology are not two different things, they are two sides of the same… no, no, it’s not even… you’ve got theology, you’ve got epistemology on the one side, ethics on the other. Those are the two sides of the same coin. That’s the way I see it. I don’t see them as separate studies. Another way of looking at it…
Jim Davis: That’s the message.
Carl Ellis: [crosstalk 00:26:36] Side B is you have propositions and you have narratives. Propositions is A B C 1 2 3, right? I notice a lot of people in the reformed tradition like to teach out of the Epistles. I wonder why that’s because there’s a lot of propositions in there, but I like to preach from the Old Testament. I like those stories, you know? I like both. Don’t get me wrong. There’s propositions, and then, there’s narratives. What happens is theology is based on the propositions, but we don’t base our theology on the narratives. And the narratives is just the support. If the narratives are not important, then why the heck did Jesus go around preaching by telling stories? You know what I’m saying.
I’ve concluded that as I look at the Bible as it comes to us, the Bible is primarily a Side B book. However, having said that, I deeply appreciate the Side A work that’s been done by our Western ancestors. You know what I’m saying. I really appreciate the Side A theology that’s been done because we needed to do it. Let’s keep that, but let’s rediscover the methodology that God used when he was in the act of revealing himself.
Jim Davis: Well, I want to connect these dots very clearly, so can you explain how churches with a deficient Side B theology are hindered in the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Carl Ellis: Well, it’s like you’re trying to clap with one hand or something. You know what I’m saying? It’s like [inaudible 00:28:06].
Jim Davis: That’s well said.
Carl Ellis: How do you do the work of God without having a full arsenal, you know? What begins to happen is that we begin to develop these little clubs around our particular brand of Side A. “Oh no, stay away from them. They’re Arminians.” Well, if you… funny thing, I met a… if any of you listeners don’t know what I mean by an Arminian or a Calvinist, let’s just say this. Arminians believe that God is not absolutely sovereign. That his sovereignty ends where human freedom begins, and also that you can lose your salvation. Calvinists would say God is absolutely sovereign, and our freedom then is not negated by God’s sovereignty but is an expression of God’s sovereignty.
A number of years ago I met a young lady who identified herself as an Arminian. I said, “Oh my goodness! We’ve got to go out for dinner. We’ve got to talk about this.” And we had a long talk, but I wanted to understand why she had a problem with the Calvinist view. And, like I said, I don’t identify myself as a Calvinist as such, I follow Jesus, but I agree with Calvin in terms of what he taught. And I understood her objections because they had to do with what she perceived that Calvinists believed based on our lousy communication abilities. You got that? We don’t communicate very well, and we found out that we agreed on just about everything. The only disagreement we had was maybe psychological or emotional, but it was a very interesting talk.
A lot of times our differences aren’t what they appear to be. What happens is that we get hung up on Side A, and therefore we divide some people believe in supralapsarianism, some people believe in infralapsarianism. They split over that. All that kind of crazy stuff. God never… I don’t see supralapsarianism in the Bible. I don’t see that. I just see what the Bible teaches. All right? So that’s our problem.
We get hung up on that instead of focusing on what God told us to do and that is go onto all the world and make disciples. I belong to a denomination that puts a lot of emphasis on church planting. I’m all in favor of church planting. I’m not against it. When we think of that, let’s go to first things first. Let’s return to first things. What does Jesus tell us to do? He didn’t tell us to go plant churches. He told us to go and make disciples. Now, if you make disciples, you’ll automatically get churches. Seek first the kingdom of God and all those other things will be added. Right? You make disciples, you’ll get churches. If you make churches, chances are, based on what I see today, chances are you will not get disciples. There’s very few churches that I know that actually disciple.
We have to think that through. So what does it mean to disciple someone? Well, there’s all kinds of things. It’s just teaching people to obey all things that Christ commands. That’s it. It starts when you encounter the person. You don’t wait until they get saved to try to disciple them. You start discipling them right away, and then, in that process of discipleship they come to faith. I think what’s happened is that we want God to make the disciples, and we will make the converts. We can’t make converts, only God can, but we can make disciples. I think sometimes we lose the first things, the first principles. I think that’s one of the reasons why I think we in the Church fail so much. We fall short. We get hung up on stringing up the neck, but we swallow the camel.
Mike Aitcheson: As we continue to move down the fall with understanding A side B side, I want to go back to the Old Testament a little bit and ask you to help us unpack what Moses means to many from the historic black church and how that relates to the concept of A side and B side theology.
Carl Ellis: Okay. Well when you look at historic African American theology, now when I talk about African American theo, I’m not talking about the stuff that came out in the late ’60s. Cone and all those guys. That’s modern African American theology. I’m talking about historic African American theology. It goes all the way back to Henry Highland Garnet and George Liele, people like that. George Liele was America’s first missionary. He beat a Hudson by about 30 years. Okay? That’s interesting. He’s not been acknowledged as that. George Liele was America’s first missionary and before America even started, back when we were all British, there was an African Americans, and some Native Americans, and some European Americans who were involved in missions work too.
So anyway, George Liele was the first missionary to leave America after America was founded. He was African American. You know. He was a slave. And interesting about George Liele, he was led to Christ by his master. And he was taught to read and write by his master, and so when his master died, his master freed him to do his work. But when his master died, his children intended to re-enslave him, and he said, “Oh no.” So he embarked for Jamaica and began to preach and all the rest of that. He’s America’s first missionary. Anyway-
Mike Aitcheson: The mongooses.
Carl Ellis: Yeah. So Henry Highland Garnet and others. Now, African American theology developed streams as it were. There was a southern theology and a northern theology. Okay? Now, both theologies dealt with all the salvefic stuff, saved by grace through faith, and all of that. It dealt with all of that, but it also carried with it a theme. All theology tends to… when we do theology, we do it around a theme. We do it in a context.
Well, in the South, of course, African American were almost all slaves, and the general theme was the theme of suffering. So the African American theology to emerge in the South was a theology of suffering, and whenever you see… remember I said the narratives have a lot to do with what the Bible says. God gives us the narratives. So what happened was in the South, the theology of suffering revolved around the paradigm of the Exodus. And so the whole idea, “Go down Moses way down in Egypt’s land, tell ‘ol Pharaoh to let my people go.” Now, they weren’t singing of… when they talk about Pharaoh, they weren’t singing about some Egyptian. They knew who Pharaoh was. That was that Exodus paradigm that encapsulated the Southern African American theology of suffering. As a matter of fact, that paradigm even exists today. If you go to a traditional black church, you’ll hear it. Even Dr. King in his last speech was speaking from the paradigm. “I’ve been to the mountaintop and I looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
That was the Southern theology, but in the North, where slavery died as an institution, the problem up there wasn’t so much suffering, but it was marginalization. The Northern theology became a theology of empowerment. Okay? Remember it dealt with all the salvefic stuff, but it was a theology of empowerment. The Northern African American had to think in terms of the predicament of their fellow people of African descent in various parts like Brazil, Caribbean, the South, and in Canada. They began to couch their theology around the theme of the Exile. They began to think of themselves as part of the African Diaspora. So you had those two theological strains going on within the… these are indigenous theologies.
I can tell you what happened to them later on, but suffice it to say that the overwhelming majority, 95 percent of African Americans in America before 1900, or I’ll say 1890, they lived in the South. The overwhelming majority of African Americans had a theology of suffering and the Exodus paradigm. And then, you come to the twentieth century, you had the great migrations from the South to the North, and they brought their church up there, their theology with them. I would say the dominant theological strand in the traditional church has been the theology of suffering. And you hear it all the time. “I’ve been buked, and I’ve been scorned, and I’ve been talked about, sho’s you born” and all that.
The Northern theology got sucker punched I would say because what happened is that the Northern guys… it was the Northern theology that introduced the whole concept of Pan-Africanism, of the earliest form of Afrocentrism was a Northern theological phenomenon. If you look at the early black Christian institutions, the first black denomination was called The African Union Church. Okay? The second black denomination was the African American Episcopal Church. The third-
Jim Davis: AME
Carl Ellis: … of Zion. That’s right. All that. The very first black church under black leadership was called the African Baptist Church, and African this and African that. The first black para church organization or one of the oldest was called The Free Africa Society. You have all these things. They understood African identity and all this. So we’re talking about way back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And so all of that. That’s not a 1960s thing, you know? This whole idea of going back to Africa and all that, I mean that was happening as the great missions movement came out of the Northern church. You had scores and scores of people going over to Africa doing missions work and all the rest of that. The connection with Africa, the motherland was the word. So that was a Northern thing.
What happened was that because blacks in the North had more access to formal theological education, what happened is that as the heresies, of the humanistic heresies that we call liberalism came into the seminaries, it began to poison all the theological education. And what happened to the Northern African American theology, it got, like I said, it got sucker punched. The vitality of it was gutted. The Northern church had this tradition of engaging the culture, addressing concerns such as dignity, identity and significance. But what happened is that as the theology got gutted, it fell into more of a sociology than a theology. So the Northern church carried on the tradition of engaging the culture, but it didn’t engage it anymore theologically.
Now, out of that you have churches that serve as political bases like Abyssinian Baptist Church, like Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and several other churches. Rev. Jesse Jackson comes out of that tradition. He’s a minister and all that, and yet, so when you hear him preach, it sounds like he’s preaching Bible, but actually is preaching politics and all the rest of that using biblical paradigms. Brilliant, brilliant stuff, you know. So that’s what happened to the Northern theology. What we need now is a new kind of a theology. A new kind of African American theology, shall I say, that is B sided, biblically grounded, and it deals with empowerment at the same time and stands beside what we already have not that we want to replace it.
I’ve given you 500 pages of manuscript in about two minutes here.
Jim Davis: That’s been fantastic. You know we had our mutual friend, Dr. Ligon Duncan, on this podcast, and he talked a little bit about your dad. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your dad and how the A Side, B Side that we’re talking about intersects with you dad being a Tuskegee Airmen and his inability to receive the GI bill and ultimately being shut out of the commercial airline industry?
Carl Ellis: Yeah. Well, that was interesting. That was a common experience among African American servicemen. These pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, were, I mean, I don’t say it just because he was my father, but these guys were about the best pilots that were in the whole Army Air Corps. They really were.
And I’ll you why because the standards for the Tuskegee Airmen were way, way higher. My father told me about good pilots that were just washed out because if everybody’s making a 100 on the exam, and one person makes 99 1/2, you’ve got to take out one. You take out the 99 1/2, but that person with a 99 1/2 would’ve been on the top of the class anywhere else. These guys were the best of the best. They never lost it, but they had to escort bombers over Germany and over different places. They never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.
Matter of fact, my dad tells me that these bomber squadrons were always requesting the Tuskegee Airmen to protect them. They racked up an incredible record, but when they came back here, of course, my dad wanted to be an airline pilot. Of course, he wasn’t even given the chance. Your only chance if you wanted to continue to fly, you stayed in the military. I knew an number of my father’s friends, fellow Airmen, who stayed in the military. I grew up thinking that everybody’s father was a Tuskegee Airmen. I didn’t know any different because they stayed in touch with each other. They had kids. They were my playmates. I didn’t know. Yeah, they really were able to amass a great record, and I think the airline industry has missed a great gift by not tapping into this talent pool.
GI Bill. I think my dad got some benefit from it because when he got out, he went to optometry school. He became an optometrist. Okay? I think that part of that was GI Bill. But a lot of African American veterans were not able to… were kind of blocked from taking advantage of… but that was common practice in those days. When Social Security was set up, the professions that were dominated by the African Americans were not included in the Social Security system. Things like that.
I can tell you all kinds of stuff that happened back in those days. That’s systemic racism. Okay? Matter of fact, just let me make this comment. Today, yes, there is systemic racism, but I believe that most of it comes from the left, those people who claim to be progressives and all those folks like [inaudible 00:44:02]. One example is this call to defund the police. Well, if you ask African Americans, how they feel about it, most of us say we don’t want to defund the police, but these elitist leftists are coming along saying, “Oh no, no. You don’t know what you need. We know better.” That’s institutional racism. That’s systemic racism.
Anyway, don’t get me started on that. By the way, for the sake of this thing, I am not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a conservative. I’m not a liberal. I don’t find any of those political views or ideologies worthy enough for me to identify myself with that. I’m biblical. I have agreements and disagreements, but I don’t have enough agreements with anyone to be one.
Mike Aitcheson: Doc, is it fair to say that you’re a none of the above Christian?
Carl Ellis: That’s right. That’s about right. I have problems identifying myself as an evangelical not for theological reasons, I mean, I beat evangelical theology, but at the same time though in America evangelical has come to mean a fringe group of the conservative movement. And I’m just not that. Now, I cringe when somebody calls me an evangelical, but overseas now I, yeah, I don’t have a problem with the term evangelical because I’m a global evangelical, but I’m not an American evangelical. Does that make sense?
Mike Aitcheson: Mm-hmm.
Carl Ellis: Because on the global scene, it’s not tied to politics, and I don’t like it when people try to pin me down on one particular thing. It’s kind of like trying to put me in a coffin or something. I like to break out of it. Of course, I’ve been called liberal and conservative. I’ve been called an Uncle Tom, and I’ve been called a Marxist. If you read any of that stuff about me, just know none of that’s right.
Mike Aitcheson: Yep. We’re well aware of that, Doc.
Carl Ellis: Yeah.
Mike Aitcheson: It sounds like you’re disrupting everybody which is right where Jesus was.
Carl Ellis: That’s about right. That’s about right. I think that’s where God wants me. Who needs Marxists when you’ve got Jesus. You know what I’m saying? Marxists’ an amateur compared to Jesus, you know?
Mike Aitcheson: Well, as we continue to move the ball across the goal line. I want to finish up by talking about the Civil Rights Movement as a cultural apologetic in our final episode with Soon-Chan Rah we will talk a bit about how objections to Christianity are changing from sort of fact or truth-based questions to moral ones. People are asking whether the Bible is true. They are wanting to know whether Christianity is helpful or beneficial. And you pointed out at different points that the Civil Rights Movement was a Christian, cultural apologetic on how to love your neighbor as yourself. Could you expand on that and help us understand that a little more?
Carl Ellis: Yeah. Well, the Civil Rights Movement was an ethics apologetic. That’s what it is. When we think of apologetics, we think of arguing with somebody, evidence that demands a verdict, that kind of thing, or pre-suppositional apologetics, that kind of thing. Well, yeah okay, but that’s Side A apologetics, but there’s a Side B apologetics too.
And what the Civil Rights Movement did, it… well in the South. It was primarily a Southern strategy. The Civil Rights strategy didn’t work that well in the north because it was a different ethos there, but in the South, there was a strong Christian ethos. Now, mind you, that the Christian ethos was corrupted in a lot of ways. Okay? It had a lot of syncretistic stuff going on. For example, there’s something called the theology of the lost cause. People think that the Confederacy was a fight for righteousness and all that and in a lot of Southern churches you had stained glass windows that had Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, those kinds of things. So it was kind of syncretistic.
But there was enough of a Christian in anything. Everybody’s Christianity is to some extent syncretistic. Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect. But there was enough of that there that Dr. King came along and used that Christian ethos. What Dr. King did, he took what the South prided itself on, and he used it… it’s like pre-suppositional apologetics, he used their own beliefs on certain levels against them and showed that you say this is where you are, well we’re going to love you. We’re going to be non-violent. We’re going to do this, that and the other. It just really, really broke the back of segregation in a lot of ways.
A lot of the people in the South, a lot of the white people in the South were… they felt betrayed though a bit. They felt hurt. I mean, here was the attitude, “We’ve always loved our neighbors. We’ve cared for them, and how dare… you know, we just feel hurt that they came out against us like that.” Well, of course, that kind of love, loving your Negroes is a love that negates the fact that you’re in the image of God because you love your Negroes the way you love your pets or something like that. Does that make sense?
And so, it was the thing that, the Civil Rights Movement kind of blew that whole box that the Southern segregationists had us put in that we were in some way less than human. And that was just a real eye-opener. And so that really had a great… it was an apologetic really, actually. People who are only on Side A missed it. As a matter of fact, remember when Jesus told the scribes and pharisees, he said, “The kingdom of God has come and you don’t even know it.” Remember that?
And so that’s what happens, so if we’re not on Side A and Side B, we’re going to miss the mood of God in a lot of ways. I’m not saying the Civil Rights Movement was perfect, and nor am I saying that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement understood what I just told you. I don’t think they really understood it. I don’t think they had the theological tools to understand, but they knew something was happening. They could feel it. You know what I’m saying? Given the education that God has given me at Westminster and places like that, now I have the Side A tools to explain what Side B was. You know what I’m saying?
Jim Davis: Dr. Ellis your voice in this is not only helpful, it’s necessary. We, in this podcast, we want to introduce the Side A, Side B terminology in hopes that it would be just very commonly understood as we continue to, as churches, figure out how to navigate our current cultural moment. But I just can’t thank you enough for the work you’ve done, for giving us your time here today. We’re deeply thankful for you.