On this day of national remembrance for a minister of the Gospel, I thought it appropriate to write a piece that both honors Dr. King’s memory while also issuing a fresh challenge for today to the church in the US. I’d like to briefly reflect on the Gospel in the New Testament with an eye toward how it might have implications for race, power, and table fellowship in US churches.
After Jesus’ ascension, and after the church was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit, God used Peter to share the Gospel with the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. Peter initially objected to this mission (Acts 10.9-23). He was a ”good Jew.” He obeyed the Torah, including the call to be undefiled, separate from “the nations.” Father Abraham was promised that his offspring would be a blessing, would reveal the Most High God, to the whole world—including the Gentiles. But by Jesus’ time, those who called themselves Abraham’s children saw the nations as enemies to be despised and avoided (Luke 10:25-37). Those who taught the Torah sought to justify themselves with the Scriptures (v. 29). But Jesus taught that even the despised Samaritans are ‘neighbors’ whom God’s people are to show mercy (v. 36-37).
Peter was slow to catch on to Jesus’ program, but eventually he got it. When he saw that the Spirit had led him to Cornelius, he said,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10.34-35)
And after he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Cornelius’ household, just as He had been given to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, he said,
“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (v. 47)
Peter’s declaration that these Gentiles should not be prevented from receiving water baptism is highly significant. Water baptism is initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ. Peter was so thoroughly convinced that Cornelius and his family were true disciples of Jesus, that he was willing to welcome them into the church and join them around the Lord’s Table in fellowship.
The Truth of the Gospel
Old habits are hard to break, especially if they those habits have been formed within one’s religion-culture-ethnic identity. Some men “came from James” to Antioch—which is to say some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. Quickly, Peter forgot the lesson God taught him in the vision of the sheet full of “unclean” animals, and in the home of Cornelius. Just that quickly, Peter became ashamed of the Gospel for which he had previously praised God. All the sudden, it was no longer glorious of God to have open up the Gospel to all nations under heaven in Jesus—it was shameful. Peter didn’t want to be judged by his Jewish brethren. Peter wanted to please them, win their approval (Gal. 1.10).
Paul has risked his life for the Gospel on many occasions. Once, when the Jews heard a rumor he had brought Titus into the Temple courts, they were going to kill him! (Acts 21) Paul would not tolerate the Gospel’s perversion to uphold cultural taboos. For Paul, the cross means God has opened up the Kingdom to all people. For Paul, keeping Torah was a cowardly act of capitulation and fear of persecution (6.12). For Paul, keeping Torah meant being alienated from Christ, traveling beyond the realm of grace (5.4). Paul was pissed! (5.12)
Peter wasn’t just being “cliquey”, he wasn’t just being snobby; Peter was ashamed of the Gospel! Paul says Peter was not acting “in line with the truth of the Gospel.” (2.14) Instead, Peter had been deceived, thrown into confusion, and believed “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all”. (1.6-7)
Some groups of evangelical Christians in the US today would like you and me to believe that issues of race and ethnic identity are peripheral to “the Gospel.” For them, “the Gospel” is the forgiveness of their individual sins. For them, “the Gospel” is just between you and God—a “personal relationship with God.” Paul disagrees.
For Paul, those who advocated for the Judaizing of the Gentile believers rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that the Messiah of Israel is the Lord of All Nations!! For Paul, those who relied upon their ethnic identity as Jews who keep Torah, were not trusting in their New Identity as followers of the Way: the One New Humanity (Eph. 2.15).
Paul rebuked Peter saying,
“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2.14-16
Regarding Paul’s rebuke of Peter, N. T. Wright comments:
“The force his statement is clear: “Yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines.” Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ to come into right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’ […] for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.
What, then are the ‘works of the law,’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’ in this sense? Again, the context is pretty clear. They are the ‘living like a Jew’ of Galatians 2:14, the separation from the ‘Gentile sinners’ of Galatians 2:15. They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile: specially, in the context of this passage (and we have no right to read Galatians 2:16 other than in the context of Galatians 2:11-15) the ‘works of the law’ which specify, however different Jewish groups might have put it at the time, that ‘Jews do not eat with Gentiles.’ What one might gain by such ‘works of the law’ is not a treasury of moral merit, but the assured status of belonging to God’s people, separated from the rest of humankind.”
– Justification, p. 116-117
Power and the Gospel: What does Race have to do with Power?
Table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians is the backdrop behind Galatians, and many (if not all) of Paul’s letters. But even the racial segregation and injustice that Torah-keeping secured in the church wasn’t the ultimate issue—Power was. Ethnic identity secured for the Jewish Christians their privileged position of power in the fledgling Christian community. As long as one had to become a Jew (be circumcised and keep the Torah) to be a full member of the Church, then Jewish Christians held all the power. How could Jewish Christians, who have the proud, holy tradition of being Abraham’s children, God’s “called-out ones,” give equal standing in the church to those “Gentile sinners” who often persecuted and oppressed them? This is the Gospel Paul was willing to die to protect:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
– Philippians 2.5-11
Jesus had all the power in the universe: equality with God. Yet, it was precisely his divinity that compelled him to take on flesh, dwell among humanity like light exposing darkness, and lay down his life for his enemies. Jesus divested himself of power because he was God, not in spite of that fact!
Dr. King famously called Sunday mornings the most segregated time of the American week. While fighting for the civil rights of African Americans, he prophetically called the US church to account. He challenged us to consider the implications of the Gospel on race and power, economic oppression and war. He was a minister of the Gospel, and it is important for us not to let his legacy get hijacked or co-opted.
Power Dynamics in the Church: Then and Now
In the sixth chapter of Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah helps us see the application of first-century Gospel power dynamics better, so that we can more easily discern how they are at work in the US church today. To establish the historical context of his exposition on Acts 15, he writes:
“The dramatic increase of Gentile believers into the Christian church surprised many of the Jewish believers, creating an unexpected and maybe even unwelcome diversity in the early church. Having formerly operated in a fairly rigid (Jewish customs and traditions) and strict single-ethnic cultural context, the early church was now becoming racially and ethnically pluralistic. Racial heterogeneity was becoming the norm.” (p 115)
Rah points out that Peter’s prejudice wasn’t uncommon. Jewish Christians in the first century had many reasons to distrust and discriminate against Gentiles. Is the US in the 21st century any different?
“A number of similarities exist between the context and ethos of the early church and the current context of American evangelicalism. First, the impact and history of racism and racist perspectives are evident in both contexts. The dramatic changes that form the backdrop for Acts 15 were complicated by the history of animosity between Jews and Gentiles. As an occupied power, Jews were antagonistic toward their Gentile conquerors.
The history of Jewish separatism had also led to a sense of racial segregation and hostility toward Gentiles. A common prayer of the Jewish male thanked God ‘for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave.’ This perspective had historical roots that informed how the Jewish Christians would receive Gentile believers.
In the American church context, there also exists a history of animosity in race relations. There is no denying the long and well-documented history of racism in America[…]” (p. 116-117)
Racism existed in the first century, though they didn’t use the same categories we use today. Jews separated the world into two groups: themselves and everyone else. After all, they are God’s chosen people. But God’s chosen people had a long history of exile and oppression. They carried deep-seated resentment toward their Pagan oppressors. Keeping Torah wasn’t just the way first-century Jewish Christians maintained their ethnic identity, it was also the way they maintained power in the church. Theirs was the faith in the One True God, and theirs would be faith in His Messiah: Jesus.
To maintain this power dynamic in the church, the “agitators” Paul spoke of in Galatians (1.7, 5.12) were requiring Gentiles to become Jews to be accepted into the Christian church family. Rah writes,
“A way to define racism from a biblical-theological framework is the establishment of human standards that replace the standards of God. Racism, therefore, could be seen as the product of prejudice and power. [The agitators] sought to maintain their power by asserting their racial preferences above and beyond the standards set by God. [The agitators] believed that they had the right to demand a physical likeness (via circumcision) above the spiritual likeness demanded by God. [The agitators] were asking the Gentiles to ”become like us in order to belong to the church.” (p. 118)*
In Acts 15, the leaders of the church formally confront the issue of Gentiles entering the church. Rah’s comments on this monumental event are helpful for my purposes:
“…the early church leadership makes the correct choices that lead to the unleashing of the gospel to move beyond the confines of Jewish culture. They focus on the essentials of faith that served to unite the community. […]
Peter asserted that we are all saved by grace and that there is nothing distinctive about us that merits God’s love. Therefore, there is a unity and a commonality in our salvation experience. […]
The historical doctrinal clarification that ensued—salvation by [God’s grace] through [faith]—gave Jews and Gentiles unparalleled equality as members of His body and shifted the sharing of the power from issues of race and culture to those of interdependence and giftedness. […]
When a majority culture is dominant, it is that culture that determines how power is used and distributed. The danger in a multicultural church context is that we would repeat the mistakes the early church was making prior to the Jerusalem Council. The dominant group in power was not yet willing to yield its cultural values for the sake of those who were marginalized or alienated from that power.” (p. 119-120)
Tumbling Today’s Cultural Taboos
The contemporary US church has a lot to learn from the Middle-Eastern church of the first-century. For starters, it could recognize that the church wasn’t Western, wasn’t white, and wasn’t “American.” Perhaps letting the context of the New Testament challenge our American exceptionalism and Western pride would serve us well. But more than that, letting the context of the New Testament speak for itself would allow us to see more precisely how the Holy Spirit moved in that community when racial and socioeconomic diversity descended upon it.
Today in the US, many churches fein a type of multi ethnicity or multiculturalism. But lurking just below the surface is a dominant culture fighting to preserve its privileged and powerful position. The only cure for such worldliness is for the church to look to Jesus the self-emptier, Jesus the power-divester. He did not see his privilege and power as something to be grasped, but instead took on the nature of a servant and laid down his life for others—even others who despised him.
There are groups in the US with power and privileged. The Gospel of Jesus calls on those groups to take on the nature of servants, laying down their power, even their lives. There are also groups in the US who are marginalized, alienated from power. The Gospel calls these groups into the church to be known and to know others. The Gospel comforts the powerless, even while it discomforts the powerful.
In your community, identify the weak, the vulnerable, those who are cast out. Who are they? Are they known to you? How has your church either excluded them due to cultural differences, or embraced them across boundaries? What could you do to divest yourselves of power, invite them into interdependent service along-side yourselves?
Praise be to the God of Abraham who threw open the way of salvation to all people by choosing for himself a people through whom he would demonstrate his covenant faithfulness. This God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, African Americans, caucasians, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and people from every tribe and tongue. And one day we will all sit at His banqueting table together in glory. Let us strive to reflect that reality now.
* “Judaizers” was changed to “agitators.” As N. T. Wright points out, “[Paul] was, in short, under attack from people whom scholars have come to call by a variety of names, but perhaps most straightforwardly (and following what Paul himself says in Galatians 1:7), ‘agitators.’ They are not, we note, ‘Judaizers,’ despite often being called that; that word, properly, refers to Gentiles who are trying to become Jews—which is what the erstwhile pagan Galatians, having come to faith in Jesus the Messiah, were not being urged to do. The agitators, in other words, were trying to get the Galatians to ‘Judaize.'” (Justification, p. 113)