Review: Outsiders on the Inside by Billy Boyce

William E. Boyce. Outsiders on the Inside: Understanding Racial Fatigue, Racial Resilience, and Racial Hospitality in Our Churches. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2022. 146 pages.

Since its founding in 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America has professed a commitment to welcoming all races. However, putting this commitment into practice has proven more difficult. Despite our denomination’s efforts to repudiate the racial sins of our past, racial minorities—and especially African Americans—often express a persistent sense of alienation and fatigue in our churches. What is the source of these ongoing racial barriers? And what can be done to overcome them? These are the questions that animate Outsiders on the Inside by Rev. Dr. Billy Boyce, a PCA pastor in Arlington, Virginia, whose doctoral research led to the publication of this volume. (In the interest of full disclosure, Billy is a good personal friend of mine. We attended Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis together over ten years ago, and he is also one of the founding contributors of this blog.)

The book is divided into two parts: Part I establishes a historical, biblical, and theological framework for understanding the principles of racial inclusivity and diversity, and Part II reports the results of Boyce’s personal interviews with twelve black PCA pastors, in which he asks them a series of questions regarding what it is like to be black in the PCA. The results of his interviews reveal a recurrent three-stage pattern in the experiences of these pastors: 1) being initially welcomed into the denomination, 2) experiencing subsequent racial fatigue as an outsider, and 3) finally learning to thrive in a renewed commitment to ministry in the PCA. These interviews are quite sobering, and I think they are essential reading for all pastors interested in bridging racial divides in their congregations and communities. It can be easy to underestimate just how many cultural hurdles minorities have to overcome in majority-culture spaces.

Boyce’s conclusions reveal that he is not satisfied with a color-blind solution to racial problems, where we simply “ignore race and treat individuals as individuals” (21). On the other hand, he does not accept the central presuppositions of Critical Race Theory either—though on occasion he critically appropriates certain ideas from CRT, such as “racial battle fatigue” (122). Overall, his approach aligns most closely with what sociologist George Yancey calls a “collaborative conversations” model (see his books Beyond Racial Gridlock and Beyond Racial Division). Such a model encourages good-faith dialogue between opposing camps. Further, Boyce’s commitment to the inerrancy and clarity of Scripture provides a healthy and necessary safeguard against the cynicism of critical postmodernism, which reduces all truth claims to mere power plays and treats any pushback as a mere cover to maintain one’s privilege.

While this book is full of insights to help churches (and not just those in the PCA) become more racially hospitable, it should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than as the end. It raises a number of questions that require further reflection. For one, although I recognize that a color-blind approach to racial differences may have shortcomings, I would like to know more specifics on how any alternative approach would square with the Bible’s teaching on impartiality (see Lev. 19:15). There is indeed a popular form of color-blindness that naïvely supposes that racial problems will go away if we would just stop talking about race; however, there is also a more sophisticated procedural color-blindness, which acknowledges the reality of racial inequalities but also affirms the principle of equal treatment under the same rules for all groups. I think procedural color-blindness requires more direct and thorough engagement.

To give one particular example, Boyce recommends that churches consider providing “social counterspaces” where racial minorities can come together as a majority and experience temporary relief from the burdens of their minority status (124). Now from a color-blind perspective, such a proposal may sound like “reverse segregation.” One might answer this objection by arguing that, in light of the disproportionate burden borne by racial minorities, and in light of the biblical command to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), certain race-conscious accommodations can be justified. On the other hand, we must also ask, how will we know when such accommodations serve the long-term goal of racial unity, and when they might unintentionally reinforce racial resentments?

In effect, a key question raised by Boyce’s work is whether—and to what extent—racial sin in the past warrants racial double standards in the present. If double standards are in some cases warranted, then we need to have clear limiting principles on their application (how will we know when such accommodations go too far, or do more harm than good?), as well as clear criteria for determining when they become no longer necessary or helpful. Perhaps reasonable answers to these questions can be given, but this is all the more reason to continue the conversation. I am grateful for this book’s contribution to that conversation, and I recommend it to all readers, and especially those serving in pastoral ministry.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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