1 Thessalonians: Chapter 1:4-10

1-thessalonians1:4-5

(1 Thess. 1:4-5 ESV)  4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.

Does it bother you when you stumble across a seeming Calvinist verse? I mean, what does “chosen you” mean if it doesn’t mean unconditionally elected by God for salvation before the Creation? It just sounds so Calvin!

But that’s because our 21st Century minds have been trained to think in these terms, even when we disagree. We see much of Christianity as a giant debate between the Calvinist and the “free will” or Arminian positions. And so we endlessly debate that 16th Century question. But Paul was no 16th Century writer. Nor was he a fan of Augustine, on whose speculations many of Calvin’s arguments are based. The trick to a correct understanding, therefore, is to think like Paul — a First Century Jewish rabbi, who studied at the feet of Gamaliel.

And to a First Century rabbi, “chosen” recalls the fact that Israel is God’s chosen (ekloge = elect) people. Continue reading

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1 Thessalonians: Chapter 1:2-3

1-thessaloniansVerses 2-3

(1 Th 1:2–3 ESV) 2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Paul normally begins his letters with a complimentary salutation, expressing his thanks for the congregation he’s writing to. (Galatians is a notable exception, evidently because Paul couldn’t think of anything nice to say to a church that was divided along racial lines.)

Paul speaks of mentioning the church in his prayers to God. We likely should think of this as intercessory prayer, that is, prayer to God for the benefit of someone else. Our children are often very good at this, while we adults tend to focus on our own problems, I think.

In Paul’s two earlier preserved epistles (1 Thes and 1 Cor), Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love. Some see this as a clever bit of rhetoric, but I think it’s an insight into Paul’s theology. Continue reading

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GraceConversation.com

grace7Back in 2009, Todd Deaver and I engaged in a dialog with Greg Tidwell, Phil Sanders, and Mac Deaver regarding the scope of grace — that is, how do we determine which sins or errors damn and which do not? The dialogue was posted over a series of several months at Graceconversation.com.

The site has recently had more activity than usual, even though the last post was seven years ago. I thought I’d check the traffic data at Google Analytics.

There have been 118,958 pageviews since the site was established. These views involve 8,607 unique visitors. The day with the highest traffic (April 27, 2009) generated 1,943 views.

I’ve kept the site up ever since we wrapped it up, in hopes it would be of benefit to anyone studying the scope of God’s grace.

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1 Thessalonians: Chapter 1:1

1-thessaloniansWe now begin a verse-by-verse study of the text.

(1 Thess. 1:1 ESV) Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

Silvanus is a longer form of the name Silas, who traveled with Paul. More precisely, “Silas” is a Jewish name and “Silvanus” is Latin. Silas was likely given parallel Jewish and Roman names by his parents, to facilitate dealing with the Gentiles, just as many in the US of Japanese or Chinese origin adopt an American name similar to their native name.

Although Paul speaks of the church in Thessalonika as a single “church” in v. 1, he later writes,

(1 Th 5:27 ESV) I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

If the church met in a single location, they couldn’t help but read the letter to all the members. Therefore, it seems probable that the Thessalonian congregation was a single congregation under a single leadership but meeting in multiple houses. The letter thus would have been circulated among the houses to be read aloud until the entire congregation had heard it. Continue reading

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1 Thessalonians: Introduction

1-thessaloniansSo I thought I’d work through 1 & 2 Thessalonians. For a couple of reasons.

First, I’ve never studied these books. Ever. And yet they’re not long. They’re even about the right length for a 13-week Bible class. So is someone hiding something? Why don’t we ever cover these books?

Second, 1 Thessalonians may be the oldest NT book. There’s a good case for 1 Cor, which we cover all the time, but for some reason, 1 Thes never gets any attention. Why not? Why is this a step-child of our adult Bible class curricula?

Third, some scholars question the Pauline authorship of 2 Thes — which seems surprising. What’s the deal?

Fourth, 2 Thes has this passage on “the lawless one,” sometimes tied to the Anti-Christ or one of the monsters in the Revelation — and yet we never preach or teach about this passage. That just has to be interesting — and may be the reason we never cover these epistles in Bible class. I don’t know …

Fifth, there’s the whole Rapture thing based on 1 Thes 4:17. So there are some truly interesting passages in these two short letters. Continue reading

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The Church and Race: Ron Highfield

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ron Highfield

Ron Highfield is a professor of religion at Pepperdine University. He’s working on a book about Christianity and social justice. Today, he posted an article making a couple of points that fit well with the current theme, although not specifically about race: “Is Social Justice Ministry a Substitute Gospel?”

Highfield is no rightwing, legalist opposed to social justice. In fact, he has quite a strong history in social justice. And he’s quite the thinker. Some of his work has been extensively reviewed by Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed. Smart theologians read Highfield.

Regarding social justice, Highfield suggests that there are three ways we might do it. Continue reading

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The Church and Race: Confession

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Blue Like Jazz

On the other hand, I can think of one thing we can do today to improve race relations. Donald Miller tells this remarkable (true) story in Blue Like Jazz —

I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.” I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke. But Tony thought it was brilliant. …

“Okay, you guys.” Tony gathered everybody’s attention. “Here’s the catch.” He leaned in a little and collected his thoughts. “We are not actually going to accept confessions.” We all looked at him in confusion. He continued, “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (p. 117-118). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

I was going to tell Tony that I didn’t want to do it when he opened the curtain and said we had our first customer.

“What’s up, man?” Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He told me my pipe smelled good.

“Thanks,” I said. I asked him his name, and he said his name was Jake. I shook his hand because I didn’t know what to do, really.

“So, what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?”

Jake said. “No.”

“Okay, then what? What’s the game?” He asked.

“Not really a game. More of a confession thing.”

“You want me to confess my sins, right?”

“No, that’s not what we’re doing, really.”

“What’s the deal, man? What’s with the monk outfit?”

“Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know.”

“I see. Strange place for Christians, but I am listening.”

“Thanks,” I told him. He was being very patient and gracious. “Anyway, there is this group of us, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff . . .”

“Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that He is God and all, and He represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent Him well, but it can be very hard.”

“I see,” Jake said. “So there is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”

“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh. 

“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”

“You’re serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.

I told him I was.

He looked at me and told me I didn’t have to.

I told him I did, and I felt very strongly in that moment that I was supposed to tell Jake that I was sorry about everything.

“What are you confessing?” he asked.

I shook my head and looked at the ground. “Everything,” I told him.

“Explain,” he said.

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, you know.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle.

“It’s really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this.”

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (pp. 122-124). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

One of several key statements made by Miller is, “Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.” It’s really easy to confess the sins of our ancestors. Confessing our own sins — well, that’s much harder, and yet nothing will more surely lead to much-needed change.

I don’t think the church can apologize for our ancestors’ mistakes and suddenly be qualified to heal racial divisions in our communities. Words are cheap. But, of course, true confession, that is, confession of our own sins, can be very powerful.

I think of Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A lot of healing takes place when people confess their sins.

So what if the church avoids the usual cliche, secular solutions — reconciliation talks, speeches, telling unbelievers what to do and how to live their lives — and suppose that we made no demand on the world at all. Suppose that the church were to instead meet with community leaders to confess its present sins, the ones committed by the Christians in the room — not apologizing for what someone else did.

What if we confessed our sins — loudly and publicly? And begged the community to forgive us for not demonstrating a better way, the Jesus way? What if we said we — the people speaking — are sinners, have failed our communities, have let the police, the black community, everyone in town down? What if we shouldered the blame for our sins? What if we admitted that had we lived the gospel we claim to believe our towns would be very different, and much better, places?

What if we confessed our fault because we are called to be a light set on a hilltop, and we have failed? What if we declared that Jesus wants us to live free of racism of every kind and we’ve not worked very hard to honor his teachings even among ourselves? In fact, we’ve sinned by engaging in racial segregation — in the name of Jesus! — long after we knew this to be sinful.

What if we asked for our communities, neighbors, and friends to help us do better?

How would that change things?

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The Church and Race: Objections

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Objections

There is a rebuttal argument, of course. Let’s consider it briefly: Because the church loves its neighbors, and because the victims of illegal police shootings are our neighbors, shouldn’t we do something to help protect them from illegal police violence?

Of course.

Shouldn’t we then do what we can now, rather than waiting the decades it would take to clean up the church’s internal racism?

No. Because the solution is Jesus, and we have no credibility to make that claim until we’ve allowed Jesus to defeat our own racism.

But we can still put social pressure on the police and local government to clean up their messes.

Not really. After all, we have no credibility with this massive log stuck in our eye. And we have no solution that the government isn’t already pursuing. All we can say to the Justice Department is “Atta boy! We agree that this needs to be fixed!” which will assuage our consciences but contribute nothing toward an actual solution.

And that approach risks the worst of all possibilities – the delusion that we’ve really helped and therefore can deal with racism by telling non-Christians to please stop being racists – while not preaching Jesus and continuing our internal racist practices.

No, the authors of the open letters are entirely right to point out the racism that remains within the churches. Fixing that, though, is not a step toward a solution or part of the solution. Jesus is the solution, and our job is to become credible to preach his gospel to those who desperately need it.

But can’t we preach the gospel today? Can’t we talk about Jesus in the public square?

Of course, but those who’ve not submitted to Jesus are under no obligation to obey Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to re-order the world. He came to establish the Kingdom and to invite the world into the Kingdom. And those in the Kingdom are not allowed to be racists.

Those outside the Kingdom are subject to a very different set of rules.

(Rom. 1:28-2:1 ESV)  28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,  30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.  

Paul describes those who do not acknowledge God as given by God over to dissolute lives, including murder (v. 29). This is what happens to those who deny God. The solution to murder, therefore, is to acknowledge God (which includes Jesus as Messiah, of course).

Therefore, we have nothing to offer the world when it comes to ethical living besides submission to God and Jesus. We don’t have a better system. A better morality. A better set of rules. We have a better God. A better Savior. A transforming Spirit. And a better society — except we’re doing a very poor job of building our faith communities on Jesus and everyone knows it.

Remember that one of the major themes of the Bible is that we cannot circumcise our own hearts (Deu 10:16) and so must have God change our hearts for us (Deu 30:6, and many other verses we’ve covered a great many times).

So what should we do?

  1. We really need to clean our own houses. Yes, black lives matter to us — so much so that we can’t imagine continuing to segregate black and white in God’s church. It’s wrong. Immoral. Sinful. And it deeply undermines the witness of the Kingdom. We have to change, and we have to change soon. There’s no room for delay.
  2. We need to preach Jesus to the lost. To the police. To the rioters. To the politicians. To the victims of police overreach. To the criminals. To those who’ve lost family and friends. To those wrongly accused. To the media. To the rabble rousers. To the entire world. I mean, isn’t it obvious that we are seeing the fruit of rejecting God? Aren’t the dreadful things we see on TV and read about in the news obviously exactly the sorts of things that Paul describes in Rom 1? Then why would we attempt a solution other than the gospel?
  3. I might add that most of the police who are guilty of racist practices and most of the black rioters and assassins are only a few generations removed from Christianity. If their parents didn’t go to church, their grandparents did. Therefore, it’s not outrageous to see the whole problem in terms of the church’s failure to be the church God calls us to be. But doing church as we’ve always done church would seem guaranteed to lead to contraction of the church, a further erosion of Christian values, and even more societal breakdown. It took years for us to get this messed up, and it’ll take years to clean up the mess — but make no mistake: It’s our mess. We have failed countless families by being nearly indistinguishable from the world in our attitudes to race, wealth, etc. So there’s your problem, and there’s your solution.
  4. We have to resist the temptation to think in worldly terms, to offer worldly solutions in the name of Jesus, and to thereby reduce the gospel of Jesus the Messiah to a civil religion that sanctifies the work of the principalities and powers. We are not them. They are not us. And our job is not to shout “Amen!” as the secular powers offer their impotent secular solutions. No, our job is to demonstrate a better community, a better way of living, because we serve a better King who, through the Spirit, empowers us to live the gospel.

This, by the way, is exactly how the church overcame the Roman Empire. The church didn’t offer its blessing to sanctify the use of Roman power to bring about the Pax Romana (Roman peace). The church didn’t lobby the Roman senate to enact laws that would ensure peace. The church offered a Kingdom in which could be found a better peace.

No, it seems to me that if the church could do something that really makes a difference, it would not be the usual forms of civic engagement at all. It would be something very Jesus-like. (Continued.)

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The Church and Race: Thinking Theologically

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

A little theology

As stated by James Davison Hunter,

The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicization of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer. A vision of the new city commons [in which the church participates] … leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization. This would not mean civic privatism [permanent withdrawal from the public square] but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Kindle Locations 3876-3882). Kindle Edition. (Emphasis in original.)

Interesting, isn’t it, that one of our deepest and most influential thought leaders regarding the church and culture thinks the American church is not ready to enter the public square and present our case. Why not?

Well, in part because when we do this, we often do a truly dreadful job of it. Too many of our leaders say things that don’t help at all — that even hurt the cause of Christ. And we’re so eaten up with the American culture that we think we have nothing to offer but the same, failed solutions offered by secular powers: better laws, better policies, and political activism (get the vote out).

We seem unaware of what make the Kingdom different. We have some regrouping and rethinking to do.

Stanley Hauerwas advises,

[W]e content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity—lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent. Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him. Both groups [the left and the right] imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community. Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization. The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion.

All our ethical responses begin [in the church]. Through the teaching, support, sacrifice, worship, and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some rather extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts or abilities, but rather by having a community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices. …

As Barth says, “[The Church] exists … to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to [the world’s] own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise” (Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2).

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (pp. 81-83). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis mine.)

In short, yes, we should certainly support racial reconciliation in society. But the reason the church supports racial reconciliation is that the joining of the nations into a single community is a part of God’s mission, going all the way back to Abraham. But God’s solution is not community forums, retraining of police, DOJ oversight of local police departments, and new laws. God’s solution is Jesus – and thanks to the work of Jesus, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Therefore, once the church takes the log out of its own eye and finally has the credibility to suggest a solution, that solution is going to be Jesus.  (If it’s anything else, why is the church giving such advice? I mean, the church as the church is not a consultant to the principalities and powers on secular, Jesus-less conflict resolution. We are called to preach Jesus.)

And so, as Hauerwas says, we’re going to find it very difficult to talk to the powers and principalities. We will be speaking from the only worldview that the church has, the worldview of Jesus, a worldview in which racism is being defeated by the transforming work of the Spirit. And if we seek, as the church, to change the world for the better without Jesus, we’re effectively declaring that Jesus is not needed. And this we cannot do and still be the church. And we’d be very wrong. There is no other solution.

Richard Beck says it well in his blog, Experimental Theology (emphasis in original):

In the bible justice flows out of the worship of God. Spiritual revival is the prerequisite of political change.

Political and economic systems orbit spiritual values and priorities. And until those spiritual values and priorities are brought into alignment with the kingdom of God political and economic systems will be stubbornly resistant to change. People with good intentions might agree that our political and economic systems are unfair and unjust, but until we begin to live with new values nothing much will change, politically and economically speaking. As the gospels tell us, the kingdom of God begins with repentance, a spiritual change that results in a new pattern of life. And change is what no one wants to do. It’s too costly and inconvenient. And so the political and economic systems of the nations roll on unchanged. Even as we name them as unjust and oppressive.

This is why calls for social justice are often so impotent. These calls frequently ignore the deep spiritual rot that is at the root of oppression. As the bible teaches us, the root cause of oppression is idolatry, worshiping the “god of the nation,” the animating spirituality guiding our political and economic arrangements. The bible discerns the diabolical aspect of these reigning spiritualities, a religious perspective many social justice warriors lack.

Amen! Amen! Amen!

And not only are we limited to the Truth — the Truth who is Jesus — but this is a truth that the world does not want to hear.

God, Jesus, and the Spirit are not welcome in the public square. Because of the First Amendment, the government will not be able even have such a conversation – and so it will continue its humanist program of making better people with better laws – a “solution” that cannot succeed. (Obviously enough, the civil rights laws have helped in very real ways, but they’ve not solved the problem — because they can’t. Only the Spirit can change us to be like Jesus.)

If my imaginings were to come true, the church would at least have the credibility to offer Jesus as a solution. If the log were out of our eye, the suggestion that Jesus is the answer may be unacceptable to the powers and principalities, but it wouldn’t be unbelievable.

But the principalities and powers can be very jealous. They want to be the solution so they can have the loyalty of and thus power over those they’ve delivered from oppression. They will not easily let Jesus take credit.

Boil it down to the individual level. Without Jesus, how do you persuade a secular police officer to arrest, rather than shoot, a man he considers a danger to society? Fear of the law? The law already makes this illegal. Fear of being fired? Police departments and unions already consider vigilante justice wrong. The problem is not a problem of law and policy and training but a problem of the heart. You can’t have enough cameras and laws and workshops to change the heart.

But if the individual policeman sees a community made of people transformed to love and live together as one across racial and ethnic lines, maybe he’ll see the wisdom of giving up racial bigotry. But how will a heart be changed without the Spirit?

(Rom. 7:18-19 ESV)  18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

The solution?

(Rom. 8:13 ESV) 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

There is a rebuttal argument, of course. Let’s consider it briefly: Because the church loves its neighbors, and because the victims of illegal police shootings are our neighbors, shouldn’t we do something to help protect them from illegal police violence? That’s for the next post.

PS — One of the difficulties of having this conversation in the Churches of Christ is the denial of so many of the work of the Spirit to transform the individual Christian into the image of Christ. Without that doctrine, we really have nothing to say about racial hatred other than it’s wrong. We have no solution for it. Anyone can preach the superiority of a life built on love; only Jesus offers the Spirit as a Helper to actually do it.

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The Church and Race: The Sins of Our Ancestors

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.

Our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors

The scriptures are fairly clear that we’re not responsible for the sins of our ancestors.

(Deu. 24:16 ESV) “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

(Jer. 31:29-30 ESV)  29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’  30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.”

(Ezek. 18:2-4 ESV)  2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?  3 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.  4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”

God damns those who sin for their own sins — unless they find grace in Jesus.

So if that’s true, how can we be charged with sin because our ancestors divided the church over race and we did little to undo the damage? Are we duty bound to fix all the sins of our ancestors? Surely not!

Well, look at it this way.

You visit an unfamiliar church. It’s 100% white in membership, in a town that has 30% black residents and 70% white. Two blocks down the road, in a much more poorly built building, is a 100% black church.

You walk into the white church, and up over the baptistry is a sign saying “Coloreds Not Welcome Here” — just above the Jordan River wallpaper baptismal scene and behind the communion table saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”

You ask one of the members about the sign. He says, “What sign?” You point to the words above the baptistry. The member replies, “I guess it’s been up there so long I don’t even notice it. It’s been there for decades. No one pays it any attention. It’s not who we are today. It’s just a sign that’s been long forgotten.”

You ask another member about the sign. He says, “Well, I certainly didn’t hang it up there. It was here before I even joined this church. I didn’t hang it, and so it’s not my fault that it’s up there. Don’t blame me. Besides, blacks should judge our hearts, not our signs. If they were more God-like in their discernment, they’d not see any problem with the sign since it’s not who we are today.”

“Then,” you ask, “why not take it down?”

“Well,” a deacon now enters the discussion, clearly tired of these kinds of questions, “it’s a part of our heritage. My granddaddy carved those letter by hand, and when I see that sign, it reminds my of my late PawPaw. I just couldn’t bring myself to tear down what he worked so hard to build.”

An elder happens by. He adds, “If were you, I’d worry about my own sins, not the sins of the ancestors of other people. I agree that it was wrong to hang the sign up like that, and I certainly would oppose it if it came up for discussion today, but what’s past is past. Let’s leave the past in the past!”

What do you conclude about this congregation? Are they racist? Are they just too lazy to take down the sign? Or are they too in love with their own past — engaging in something akin to ancestor worship?

Who would argue, with a straight face, that these members are followers of Jesus who want to be just like their rabbi? Who would argue that their behavior is based on the gospel?

Some scriptural arguments

  1. Paul (and the rest of his generation) did not create the Jew/Gentile divide or the racism of the Jews against the Gentiles. I mean, the Torah nowhere declares Gentiles unclean, and yet the Jewish rabbis had for generations said that Jews must not associate with Gentile “dogs” because they are unclean.
  2. Phillip (and the rest of his generation) did not create the bigotry of the Jews against the Samaritans.

And yet such men dedicated their lives — at great personal risk — to unite Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into a single church.

The gospel compelled the church to take the gospel to the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. It was the church’s charge to correct the racial and ethnic divisions even though the church did not create the divisions. After all, the gospel’s promise of unity of all peoples, races, nations, and ethnicities is not about whose fault these separations are. The gospel requires the church to overcome these divisions, by the power of the Spirit, because that’s the nature of the Kingdom that God wants to create. Our mission includes working with God to heal these rifts — not just to heal the rifts we are personally morally responsible for, but to heal all such rifts.

 

Ultimately, the race issue has nothing to do with whose fault the separation of the races is. Fault-finding and blame-placing are a distraction from the gospel. It’s human excuse making, not real theology. What matters is what the gospel calls us to be and to do.

What is that?

(1 Cor. 1:13a ESV) 13 Is Christ divided?  

(1 Cor. 12:13-16 ESV)  13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 

(Gal 3:28 ESV) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

(Col 3:11 ESV) Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

(Eph. 3:6 ESV)  6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

(Eph. 4:1-6 ESV)  I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  4 There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call —  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 

(1 Pet. 2:9-10 ESV)  9 But you are a chosen race [singular], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [singular], a people [singular] for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 

And then there’s the OT.

(Ps. 2:8 ESV)  8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 

(Dan 7:14 ESV) And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Notice that Daniel prophesies a single “dominion” and a single “kingdom” in which the Ancient of Days (God) will be worshiped by all peoples, nations, and languages. That is, the nations will be joined into a single Kingdom.

Ps 8 says the same thing, as there will be but one King who rules over “the nations.”

The Revelation

(Rev. 5:9-10 ESV)  9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

People from many tribes, languages, peoples, and nations become, in God, a single “kingdom.”

The early church

The early church called itself a “third race, ” meaning (a) a single race that (b) was neither Jewish nor Gentile. And yet we know from scripture that the early church included Jews, Samaritans, Ethiopians, Romans, Greeks, Galatians (Celts), and many other races — all of which became a single race through Jesus.

Conclusion

My church may not have a racially offensive sign above the baptistry, but it may be just as offensive because only whites are ordained as elders or deacons, only whites lead communion meditations, only whites teach Bible class, and only whites make announcements. Do that, and you’d may as well hang a sign over your baptistry saying “Coloreds Not Welcome Here” — even if your members have no objection to letting black Christians join — so long as they know their place.

But white churches aren’t the only ones with this problem. I know of a white congregation that approached a black congregation with a merger proposal. The white church felt that racial division was plainly anti-gospel and so they wanted to merge to honor the gospel.

The black church declined, saying they felt they had a mission to the black residents in their neighborhood that couldn’t be fulfilled as a racially mixed church. The white church offered to assure the continuation of their ministries. The black church still declined. It seemed clear that they feared being absorbed by a larger, white church — and they’d lose their identity, their positions of influence, and their control — which was a very legitimate possibility. A smaller church merging into a larger church will struggle to maintain the feel of a small church. Leaders will shift from control to mere influence.

And yet it was, I believe, plainly the wrong decision. The gospel says to unite. The gospel says that we are but one race and should not divide along racial lines. All that is anti-gospel is sin — no matter how natural and ordinary anti-gospel feels.

No one promised an easy gospel.

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