Racial Reconciliation

Preston Sprinkle —  January 12, 2012 — 19 Comments

I’ve been studying the Bible for over 16 years now, but only recently thought about what the Bible says about racial reconciliation. Racial tension is as old as Noah, and with Martin Luther King Day approaching, I thought I’d blog about what I now consider a theologically crucial topic.

So what does the Bible say about racial reconciliation? Is it icing on the cake—something you should try to accomplish once you’ve mastered the more important issues? Or is it essential to the gospel?

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that it’s important, but we need to focus on the more important issues, like Bible studies, discipleship, and evangelism. But after reading the Bible, I discovered that God cares much more about racial reconciliation than most churches do. Consider Ephesians 2:14-16

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Speaking to Gentiles, Paul says that Jesus died to tear down the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jews and Gentiles. The goal of the cross—at least in part—was to “reconcile us both (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing hostility.” The implication is critical and convicting. The “one new man in place of the two,” which describes the church God intends to build through the blood of Christ, is a multicultural phenomenon.

Put simply, the cross intends to create multicultural communities.

If you have a better reading of Ephesians 2, please let me know. But before you offer it, consider Galatians 2. Paul confronts Peter for not eating with Gentiles even though he used to eat with Gentiles, and he says that Peter was “not walking according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). By creating ethnic divisions in the church, Peter was violating the “truth of the gospel.” So this is not optional; it’s not icing on the cake. Multicultural gatherings show the world that Yahweh is not a racist and that the blood of Christ is powerful enough to break down walls and mend broken relationships.

There are many other passages I could look at, and perhaps we’ll look at them over the next few posts. But for now, let me ask you a few questions. If God intended to create a multicultural church through the blood of Christ (Gal 2:11-14; Eph 2:11-18), then why don’t our local churches reflect this? Why is it that 5.5% of American evangelical churches could be considered multi-ethnic (where not one ethnicity makes up more than 80% of its congregants)?

Five and a half percent!

And we live in a melting pot, where ethnic diversity abounds. But it doesn’t abound in the church. My aggravating question is: Why? Ethnic diversity can be seen in several areas in our society—in hospitals, athletics, places of work, and even our neighborhoods to some extent. But segregation is still evident in at least three places: bars, prison, and the American Evangelical church. If Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 (and many other passages) didn’t exist, then this wouldn’t be a big deal, but they do exist and so it is.

The only answer I can come up with is this: We as a church do not believe that multiculturalism is essential to the gospel. I suggest that we need to revisit the Scriptures and move this discussion to the top of the list of our next church meeting.

Stay tuned, there’s more to come…

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Robert

    Hi Preston,

    Thanks for your blog. I would say Peter’s experience in Acts goes much deeper than different races being united in one body. It is in fact different religions. Up until Acts 10, only Jews could be in the church according to the apostles. This means over a month with the resurrected Jesus,after the Day of Pentecost, the entire church believed salvation was for Jews only..Acts 10: 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles….. For the disciples to change at this point, and recognize Gentile sinners as a part of Gods people, it would be the equivalent of Christians today saying Hindu’s are a part of the church.

    Regards
    Rob

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Well, sort of. Certainly, Gentiles could be saved and were saved prior to Acts 10 (Matt 8; 15; Acts 8; and many others). But prior to Pentacost, their salvation consisted in becoming a Jew (circumcision, dietary laws, and the whole lot). So again, it’s not the mere fact that Gentiles are getting saved that’s the real shocker in Acts 10, but that Gentiles AS GENTILES are getting saved; i.e. they didn’t have to CHANGE THEIR ETHNICITY AND BECOME JEWS to get saved. Therefore, there is a significant racial dimension going on.

  • torri

    AMEN. THANK YOU.

  • Marissa Williams

    Thanks for the affirmation Preston. Good to know it wasn’t just me. I really hope to see all of the church look like this. Thanks for the blog topic.

  • Marissa Williams

    Last Sentence: *…now that I have tasted and seen this diversity as good.*

  • Marissa Williams

    I recently decided to take a drive up to the Bay Area–specifically San Francisco. I have friends over there (both Christian and non). I spent some time walking alongside of them in their life. One of the places I visited was City Impact and some of the other ministries in the in the Tenderloin district (inner city). I was able to go to a Sunday church service at City Impact. The first thing that jumped out at me was the overwhelming love among the body. People loved one another and they were loving to me. It was authentic. Unmistakingly, barriers that I have previously observed, were being broken down. There was so much ethnic diversity and it was one of the most refreshing things that I have experienced since I have been a Christian. There were people of so many different races, age groups, and backgrounds, worshiping Jesus alongside of one another. There wasn’t even self-imposed segregation in the seating at this service. Regardless of ethnicity, these people loved one another and they were on the same mission together. Although the Tenderloin district is a dangerous place, all I want to do is go back because I saw a glimpse of the Kingdom (and it was indescribably heartwarming). Although this next issue is not exactly related to the racial cohesion in the body, I also noticed that the women had more roles and the entire environment felt lighter and more inviting than other places that I have been. I would go live up there in the inner city just to do ministry with people of such diversity. Honestly, its challenging to go back into to a church without this ethnic diversity that I have tasted and seen as good.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Marissa, I was in the same place last November, and I had a really hard time leaving as well! If it wasn’t for my family and job back at Simi, I might have stayed :)

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Tons of good stuff here Adam. I’ve got some minor things to quibble about, but overall you bring some very provocative points to ponder. Thanks for dropping in!

    • Adam F

      Thanks Preston … also blessed by your blogging on beer (some alliteration right back at you). Randall would often talk about Shechar and how it should be translated “beer”. Cheers!

      • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

        Ha! I didn’t even intend the alliteration! Nice catch! Glad to hear that Randall confirms the meaning of Shechar.

  • Adam F

    Hey Preston,

    Great article. Yes, I totally agree that the church is pretty segregated in America, perhaps because people feel more comfortable that way. Just a couple thoughts I’d like to add … although the Ephesians passage definitely supports the view that God tore down divisions to make his people one, I would say Paul’s main argument was to help his gentile readers understand that they have been saved into the community of God WITH Israel. That is there new identity. Why has the church totally omitted Israel from “God’s plan of salvation”?

    The Fall of Man God chooses a people Jesus died on the cross.
    We have removed about 80% of the Bible when we remove God choosing Abraham and making a nation through him out of God’s plan of restoring the world.

    Paul seems to really drive home the point with these Ephesians that they were once “aliens”, “separate from Christ”, “excluded from citizenship in Israel”, and foreigners to the covenants” etc … so there’s a lot more than simply God removing racial barriers here … he is letting them know they were once apart from God’s covenant people, with whom God dwells. I never hear this taught from the pulpit – it’s not that they were once far away from God and now they are saved individually into right relationship with God. Sure that’s part of it, but they are now saved by being grafted into his people Israel! Peter also said “You were once NOT a people” right after encouraging them that they were a people belonging to God and a “royal priesthood”.

    Also regarding Ephesians 2, it can also be translated – “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing fence, by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances (dogma) … and might reconcile them both in one body …. having put to death the hostility.”

    The NIV would suggest that God destroyed the Law of commandments (the Torah), but I don’t think that is what Paul’s getting at here. He mentions “hostility” twice in this passage … the hostility is what he has killed and not the Torah of God which promotes loving the alien and foreigner. Rather what fueled the hostility was the “dogma” influenced by the restrictions of Torah … I really like how you said they became “into more of a way to put boundaries around their ethnic heritage” … they built “fences” around the law (same word here as in letter of Aristeas) … this Ephesians passage seems very similar to the section in Colossians about the “man made” (2:8,22) “dogma” that brought “hostility” – “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees (dogma) against us, which was hostile to us” (Col 2:14). This is why God had to give Peter the vision to visit Cornelius, because he explained to them that it was “against his law” or common practice to enter a gentile house. He realized that God accepts anyone who repents and turns to the God of Israel.

    All this to say – can the church really grasp the concept of racial reconciliation when they refuse to actively embrace God’s chosen people, the Jews, whose God given culture is often mocked from the pulpit as full of hypocrisy and legalism?

    • Adam F

      It removed some of my statement above, I guess it thought I was using code! :

      The Fall of Man — cut — God chooses a people–cut—Jesus died on the cross

  • Nathan Hoff

    I agree with you 100% Preston. In all honesty, the only thing I lamented about after coming to EBC was the lack of diversity, it really bothers me. How do you suggest we remedy this issue?

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      It’s gotta start with leaders seeing it as an “issue.” Until that happens, you’ll be slamming your head up against a brick wall.

  • http://joelperez.net Joel Perez

    This is a good stuff Preston. Michael Emmerson’s book is good. I would also recommend Living in Color by Randy Woodley. There are a lot of things to consider from your post. I have been on this journey as well and talk a lot about this students that I work with at George Fox University. Thank you for your thoughts on this.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks for dropping in, Joel. And I appreciate the very helpful resource and affirming thoughts! You’re at GFU? Do you know my cousins, Jere and Wade Witherspoon?

      • Jere Wiitherspoon

        Yes! Joel does know me. In fact I sent Joel your blog! :) And we are good friends to boot!!! LOL!

  • http://gregsrandomness.blogspot.com/ Greg M

    For further opinions on this issue, you might read Church Diversity by Scott Williams. I acquired the book because I was interested in the supposed problem. Most of the way through, I felt I was being blamed for many things, including slavery and segregation all the way through the fact that certain people like different kinds of worship and people choose what congregation they join by their preferences. But I was impressed by his passion for diversity.
    I guess I have thought of the passages you referenced not as a racial question but a belief topic. The people of the Old Testament were taught not to associate with those with other religious beliefs. Paul, I thought, was telling Peter not to draw lines by virtue of religious beliefs. Hey, I could be wrong.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Greg,

      Thanks for dropping in. I haven’t heard of that book, but there’s a ton of other ones that I’ve found helpful over the last few years. “Divided by Faith” by (I think) Emerton is crucial, as is “The Color of Church” by Rodney Woo. Ya, I don’t think it’s helpful to heap piles of guilt for what our ancestors did. This doesn’t really move things forward.

      I agree that Eph 2 is about “belief” (though I’m not quite sure what you mean), but I don’t see “belief” and “racial question” as two different things. Many Jews believed that their ethnic heritage placed them in higher standing with God, and that Gentiles could only be right with God by first becoming a Jew (proselyte). But Paul says that God wants to create through the cross “one new (multicultural) man (= the church) out of the two.” Since “the two” refers to different ethnic people, the “one” must mean a group of people that showcase God’s love for all people regardless of ethnicity. While the food laws and other “separatist” laws observed by the Jews were intended to keep them pure of pagan influence in the OT, by the NT times they have turned into more of a way to put boundaries around their ethnic heritage. Some of the most pagan Jewish leaders of the day (e.g. Alexandar Jannaeus) still observed certain “ethnic” laws and even forced others to do so with the threat of the sword.