Making Good the Claim

Holiness and Visible Unity in the Church of God Reformation Movement

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Rufus Burrow Jr.
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , February
     2016.
     312 pages.
     $36.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498237659.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Making Good the Claim: Holiness and Visible Unity in the Church of God Reformation Movement, esteemed scholar and professor of Theological Social Ethics, Rufus Burrow Jr., addresses the shortcomings of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) with respect to the church tradition’s failure to live out its theological claim and commitment to Christian visible unity. The book argues that the Church of God’s theological foundations of holiness and visible unity should have produced a thorough-going witness of interracial visible unity that has not been a reality. Burrow goes on to state that it is not too late to “make good the claim,” but that doing so will require serious reckoning with issues of white privilege and the persistence by black leaders to move beyond the acceptance of, and satisfaction with, a version of elite “only one” tokenism to satisfy the theological demand for racial equality. 

The book proceeds through seven chapters. The first presents the sociological stages of the Church of God. In the second the example of John Winebrenner is considered to contrast Winebrenner’s, and the Churches of God (General Eldership)’s, explicit statements on race with the relative paucity and silence from D. S. Warner and the Church of God (Anderson) in chapter 3. In this third chapter, Burrow does the heaviest lifting to re-cast the way Warner’s treatment of racism should be understood. The fourth chapter considers the failings of the next generation and the missed opportunities and failings to live out visible Christian unity in a tangible way that was not merely spiritualized. A key point here is the consideration of a regrettable decision in 1912 to end the mixed race camp meeting tradition in Anderson. The result was white camp meeting organizers separating races and energy going into a pre-existing, but newly established, primarily African American Church of God camp meeting at West Middlesex, PA. The fifth chapter considers and critiques the third sociological phase—complex organizational development. Sixth, Burrow offers instructions on a way forward for the Church of God to change course, including revisiting the initial theological commitment to visible unity and reevaluating the way power is distributed. Finally, Burrow considers three conditions previously identified by James Earl Massey and four of his own that are necessary for there to be realized visible unity. Importantly, the appendix includes a very helpful essay on the importance of taking oral history seriously within certain contexts (like many of the historical events discussed in this book). 

Burrow’s expertise in theological social ethics and sociological life-cycles of denominations serves as the method by which he considers the ways that the Church of God has taught and lived a theology of visible unity across its history. Burrow has roots within the Church of God but is now addressing the tradition from a healthy academic distance that appears to have enabled him to uncover a failure of Church of God historians to investigate the “standard party line” regarding the way the first generation of church leadership was committed to interracial visible unity. Burrow convincingly demonstrates that the early pioneer leadership in the Church of God does not leave adequate evidence of an original zeal for visible interracial unity. That said, Burrow also goes on to solidify the points made by Church of God historians and theologians (e.g., James Earl Massey) that there is an implicit theological commitment to Christian unity that has been interpreted and warmly received by African Americans in the Church of God (often in spite of the failure by white leadership to proclaim and live out racial equality as a mark of holiness living).

The standard history has been that the first generation, and especially founding leader D. S. Warner, were zealous about interracial unity that waned in the first half of the 20th century. Burrow’s approach to Warner and the first generation of Church of God leadership reminded me of the way that James Cone critiques Reinhold Niebuhr in The Cross and Lynching Tree. There was every theological reason in the theological positions of the Church of God for the group to take an explicit and bold stand for thorough-going visible interracial unity; and yet, that was not what happened. There were a few positive occasions, but those have carried too much historical weight. Furthermore, the slide away from any initial racial unity stances began earlier than would be sociologically expected, a reality that leads Burrow to lament Warner’s failure to make more explicit claims regarding visible unity with respect to race. 

Any future work on race in the Church of God will have to take this work into account. It will also be an interesting study for others who are interested in investigating why minority groups remain within predominantly white ecclesial bodies. Burrow offers a crucial challenge to current adherents within the Church of God, one which would also serve to be instructive for others who are interested in the ways that theological commitments might be realized in the future—especially regarding issues dealing with racism, sexism, and other ways that church bodies have not consistently lived up to ideals of equality that have too often been left as implicit positions instead of explicit ones. 

This book could have been more concise by adhering to its main and most substantial contributions—the critique of overly positive historiography about the early generation’s zeal for racial unity and the articulation of continued failings by the Church of God to live out visible unity instead of opting for a merely spiritualized unity. While the sociological life-cycle material was interesting, it is mostly derivative on previous sociological work and distracted from the main argument of the book. Additionally, much energy was spent parsing out Warner’s failure to be explicit about racism, and yet Burrow invoked Warner as the model for the church to return to in order to make good the claim. This back and forth was repeated several times with reference to sociological stage expectations. A clearer progression—there was a theological commitment, which was not adequately made explicit, that needs to be recalled and made a reality—would have helped the persuasive weight of the book’s argument. There were also several tangents that I found fascinating, but these are only probably relevant to the deeply invested Church of God historian or theologian. Overall, while there were authorial decisions that I judged to have expanded the project beyond the scope that is most accessible to the people within the Church of God for whom Burrow offers such important insight and guidance, I am grateful for his scholarship to call the Movement back to its theological foundation and endeavor to make good the claim of visible Christian unity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathan Willowby is Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Anderson University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rufus Burrow Jr. is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theological Social Ethics and Black Church Leadership at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He is the author or coauthor of fourteen books, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the Theology of Resistance (2015) and A Child Shall Lead Them (2014).

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