Some religious people may get uncomfortable when doubt peaks its sneaky little head through the veil of faith. Some may stuff doubt back into the dark corners of their psyche, out of the sight of their pastor or grandma; or daringly embrace it as they trudge along the mysterious path to spiritual awakening.
If you grew up in the Black church, although everyone’s experience is different, there may have been this unsaid rule to never question the pastor, or never question the written text of God. Even though the pastor may preach on the Bible’s most compelling stories about faith and doubt, there is always that surviving bit of forceful encouragement which says, “When you get through doubting, I better see you back on the front pew next Sunday.”
Bishop Edwin Derensbourg of United Christian Fellowship in the Antelope Valley says there is absolutely room for questioning in the Black church.
“Some things need to be questioned … I teach my people to ask questions,” he commented.
However, the pastor believes that lack of understanding and education, when reading the Bible, can lead to doubt. “I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God … I think the questioning comes from people who have not been properly educated about how to interpret the Bible.”
He said without the proper understanding or tools, anything can be taken from the Bible and the foundations of anyone’s faith can be shaken. The bishop, who has been academically schooled in theology, mentioned that denominational division partially comes from the lack of training and divisiveness among believers and leaders alike. Derensbourg added that division in the church is evidence that leaders and followers are not properly equipped for interpret the Bible. Therefore a lack of understanding of the Word of God leads to room to doubt and questioning. However, if Christians are well rounded — with education, tools, and the right spirit–the truth will be revealed to them and doubt will essentially subside.
Rev. Monica Coleman, professor of constructive theology and African American religions at Claremont University, concedes that although there are Black churches that nurture an environment conducive to a questioning membership, generally Black church culture has been of an unquestioning respect.
“I would think that the more people in the church (who) feel comfortable questioning their leadership– by which I mean, asking questions for clarification, even challenging– the more comfortable they will be doing the same thing with the Bible,” Coleman explained. “Inasmuch as members of Black churches fail to question the authority of the pastor, they might not be so willing to question the authority of the Bible. Since many Black churches greatly respect the role of the pastor and the pastor’s authority, Black churches may very well be cultivating a culture that does not accept questioning the Bible or God,” added Coleman.
The professor also said if church leaders shared their experiences of doubt or questioning, Christians would be more comfortable in expressing their own. According to Coleman, historically the Black church has been one of the only places in which African Americans were given a position of authority and respect. As a result, members of churches have entrusted their souls to the person who leads the flock.
The infallibility of the Bible, a dominating view in the church in general, gives the Bible a sense of authority. Although every church is not the same, many Christian believers walk in the faith that the Bible is in fact the words of God and contains no error.
Professor Vincent Wimbush also from Claremont University says the idea that the Bible is infallible is a White, Westernized theology.
“It was really White Protestant and Catholic ideologies that created and intensified notions of infallibility,” he stated. “African traditions are too fluid and dynamic to accept such notions. So the extent to which Black folks fall into notions of infallibility and fundamentalist stances, they reflect the unfortunate inordinate influence of Western White ideologies. Fundamentalist ideologies among Black folk are a relatively recent phenomena, and are cause for heightened alarm. (It) reflects ignorance and abandonment of history of a rather different (Africanist) world view and orientation.”
Coleman suggested that people question God and the Bible all the time, but rarely voice it among their peers especially other churchgoers. Wimbush says questioning is a part of our Black, human nature and history. Questioning is a part of growth and advancement. Whether or not there is an unwritten rule among Black churchgoers to hold your tongue, questioning is not as bad as we think. Like the good book says, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).