Four Ways the New Testament Identifies Ethnicity in the Church

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Apologist Dr. James White of The Dividing Line left me a string of tweets this weekend regarding his view of a “race”- or ethnicity-blind new covenant reality in the church. For context, Dr. White replies to a snarky reply I posted to a snarky comment from Phil Johnson wherein I say Phil doesn’t understand the gospel. So as to represent Dr. White correctly, I post his tweets to me in total here:

I want to offer a brief treatment of how New Testament authors do, in fact, talk about “race,” ethnicity, skin color, and even the cultural sins of entire groups of people.

Eschatalogically

First, and easiest to demonstrate, about which I don’t think Dr. White and I would disagree, the New Testament talks about ethnicity in terms of the eschatological reality the church is headed toward. Around the eternal throne of the Lamb will be people representing every tribe, nation, language and so on (Rev. 7:9). Heaven will forever praise God not only for his redemptive work in the people groups of the world, it will in that way acknowledge human diversity for all eternity.

Missiologically

Second, the New Testament speaks of the church’s missions in terms of ethnicity-specific strategy. Again, I don’t think Dr. White and I would disagree about this. When the apostle says he was “an apostle to the Gentiles” while Peter was “an apostle to the Jews” he teaches us about “race” or ethnicity driving their gospel missions (Rom. 11:13). In one of the most remarkable passages in the NT, Paul uses his freedom in Christ to intentionally put on and take off aspects of his identity so that he might by all means win some to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Whatever we say about the apostle, we cannot say he is “blind” to ethnic or “racial” differences as some say.

Ecclesiologically

Third, the New Testament speaks of diversity within the body. Dr. White points out the egalitarian unity of Col. 3:11 in which Paul says there’s neither “Jew nor Gentile,” and so on. Of course, Paul cannot mean these things cease to exist. For in the parallel passage the apostle says there’s “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28) and Dr. White would be the first to point to the enduring reality of sex or gender and the need to maintain those realities in our present culture. But, of course, these egalitarian passages that describe our essential unity in Christ and equality through our union with him are not the only passages in which the apostle specifically identifies “race” or ethnicity. Let’s just stick with Colossians since that’s the text Dr. White chose. Read on into Colossians 4 and you will see Paul noting the ethnic or racial backgrounds of a good number of people he greets. He points out who among them are Colossians, laments that he only has three Jewish laborers with him, and even points out who is a slave (Onesimus) on his team (Colossians 4:7-17). So whatever Paul means by Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28, he does not mean we end up in a color-blind and race-blind and class-blind status in the Church. Indeed, when it serves his apostolic aims for equity, inclusion, affirmation, and so on, Paul intentionally mentions those things.

Harmatiological

Finally, and this is where our disagreement is sharpest, the New Testament does indeed sweepingly speak of ethnic, national, or “racial” groups and their shared guilt and need due to sin. Again, we’re keeping with the New Testament, which is good because the Old Testament examples are legion. Consider Titus 1. The same apostle Dr. White evokes in support of his color-blind/race-blind ethic, speaks pretty bitingly about the Cretans. Hear the apostle in his own divinely-inspired words:

One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.

Whoa! That’s strong language by any measure! The Spirit of God gave Paul those words—carried the apostle along to write what God wanted written. Now, I make no such claims for my words—in any respect! But if the NT is our pattern, if we’re meant to conform to the pattern of sound words, then my critics who often speak sweepingly and harshly themselves (as Dr. White once did about a young African-American man passing in front of his car) are not just vexed with me but must also be vexed with the apostle. He speaks of “Cretans” generally. He uses a secular source—”one of their own prophets”—to establish his claim. He affirms what was generally or culturally true of them regarding their sins: liars, lazy gluttons. He even characterizes them as “evil beasts”! His remedy was to call Titus to “rebuke them sharply,” not find cozy words that leave them in their sin, but sharp rebuke so “they may be sound in the faith.” Which is another important point: sound faith sometimes comes from sharp rebuke. It’s what kept the Cretans from devoting themselves to myths and legalism and is what should be used to keep people enamored with the myths of the American past from continuing in their error.

Conclusion

So, you see, the New Testament is actually a pretty ethnicity- or race-conscious collection of writings. From the eschatological vision of consummated unity down to the harmatiological rebuke of sin, the Bible pays careful attention to who God made us to be, how that’s gone wrong, how it should be considered in spreading the gospel, and how pastoral ministry must address it.

I’m inclined to think the biggest harm to reconciliation and unity isn’t saying something wrong about “race.” That happens all the time, and we must all be big enough to work our way through it when it happens. The biggest wrong is minimizing or denying that racism exists or assigning meaning and emphasis to “race” where the Bible does not. I contend that’s what Dr. White has done, not me. I contend that evangelical churches have failed to call out these things with sharp enough rebuke for far too long.

To put a fine point on it as a closing: When it comes to racism, especially during the original period I was addressing in my first post (1950-’60s), white America is Cretan in its understanding and actions. That does not mean every single white American was a racist—”as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” Reasonable people know better, and they’ve shown so by other tweets not mentioned here. I praise God for those white Americans who had their consciences awakened, marched for equality, stood against injustice, and even gave their lives in the cause. So far from being guilty, such persons are among the righteous who will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just. But by any estimation they were vastly in the minority among white Americans of the period who were either racist or complicit in their silence and inaction. To what should be white America’s shame, it took the force of secular law rather than Christian preaching, and the force of military presence rather than friendly solidarity, to curtail the wickedness of that era. Paul would instruct pastors today to rebuke Cretans en masse for continuing in the myth of an America where racism is minimized and to rebuke the Cretans en masse for sin so widespread it’s cultural. So I do.

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