Divisions, Race, and the New Testament

Last Wednesday at our Dyer campus, our Wednesday night service featured a panel discussing the issue of race and how Christians should think and approach the issue in light of the tensions that our nation has been experiencing and the weekend's message from Psalm 133 on praying for unity. I was not part of the panel but was asked to offer some biblical-theological reflections on the topic, as I think Scripture and the gospel has some very important things to say about the subject. Of course, it is a bigger topic than a single discussion or a single blog post can address, but I hope these insights help us think through the issues in a new light.

Something to know is that much of the New Testament actually speaks to the issues of race and divisions, as the early church had to deal with the conflict and division that existed between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). Around the time of Jesus and his first followers, there was ill will and distrust between these two groups. Many of the Jewish people of the time viewed the Gentiles with disdain, labeling them as unclean and sinful people; the Jewish people had been commanded in the Old Testament law to have customs to keep them separated from the other nations and sought to do so, which drew the ire of many Gentiles (especially Romans). Meanwhile, the Romans often disliked the Jews, with the historian Tacitus describing the Jews as hating everyone else, in part because of their customs that separated them from the rest of the nations. There were many lies and false beliefs about Jews that circulated around the time of Jesus, leading the writer Josephus to defend Judaism (see his work called Against Apion). Therefore, there was a form of ethnic racism during the time of the early church.

Turning to faith in Christ did not immediately cause a change in the life of believers. For example, we read in Acts 10-11 how Peter would have to have a special vision from God to bring the gospel message to a Gentile person and learn the Gentiles were not unclean. An issue in the early church was Jewish believers in Jesus telling Gentiles that they needed to follow all the Jewish law in order to be saved, changing not just their beliefs but their culture (read the book of Galatians). Gentiles, however, could bring their dislike of the Jews to the Christian faith, as Paul had to warn the Gentiles not to look down on Jews in Romans 11:13-24. This warning seems to be because many Gentiles believed in Jesus and many Jews did not, but the anti-Jewish baggage of his audience may also have been a factor. Throughout church history, the Gentiles have displaced the Jews as leaders in the church and at times spread hatred towards Jews.

The book of Romans is less a “systematic theology” textbook (though it does have some of the clearest theological statements about the Christian faith in all the Bible!), but a letter designed to help Jews and Gentiles to get along in the church and overcome these issues, as the Jews had been expelled from Rome, the Gentiles had taken the church over, and now the Jews were back - how can these cultures not just coexist but be unified even in the midst of different customs (as it seems that Jewish worshippers of Jesus still kept the food laws and other ceremonies that God had given them and that they had grown up with)? Paul’s letter to Romans was designed to build a multi-cultural community, one in which there was toleration and blessing of cultural differences because of the unity found in Jesus Christ. The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 is a similar call for a multi-cultural community, seeing how the Jewish law did not apply to Gentiles but they should follow some key moral teachings. The vision for the Christian community was to have unity but not uniformity, to allow diversity to be bridged not by all adopting the same cultural practices but by all sharing faith in Christ even with cultural differences.

The early church offers a reminder to those who are in the majority or places of influences because of cultural history (like myself as a white male in America raised in an upper middle-class environment) of how easy it is to impose our own culture or views upon others, seeking to have them conform to our culture rather than seeing how the cultures can not just coexist but also enhance each other for the sake of Christ. The gospel teaches us, and the Apostle Paul’s example in his ministry shows us, that it is our call to reach out and find ways to build bridges and interact with other cultures for the sake of the gospel message. We have this responsibility in light of the privileges we have experienced.

Therefore, I think the Christian faith and the Bible itself has resources to help us address the issues of disunity that we often find in the Christian church and to be a sign of a new humanity that shows the world that there is a better way (which it needs to hear and see!). This better way, however, comes in and through Christ, as in and through Christ we see that we might be different but are all in a similar need, as we are all in the image of God but all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). In Christ, we are able to acknowledge the fact that we live in a broken world in which racism and prejudice is often true, and we need not be afraid to acknowledge that this has been true of Christians and that it is true of ourselves as well. We can acknowledge the past, but also have hope in the future, as the transforming power of Christ through the Holy Spirit renews us in a way that puts to death the old way of life, the natural tendencies in ourselves that often come from factors that have shaped us in our upbringings, and bring to life a new person. We have been made new in Christ -- may we walk in this newness of life in this area of race and culture.

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