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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Romans, Race, and Reconciliation

This is a guest post from Bruce A. Baker. Bruce is the Senior Pastor of Jenison Bible Church in Hudsonville, MI. Listen to his podcast at The Word Will Stand, and enjoy more of his biblically insightful reflections on his blog at Becoming Mature. Also look for his forthcoming book The Road to Maturity.

First of all, I'd like to thank my good friend Bobby for allowing me to guest blog on his site. We were discussing this issue the other day, and he suggested others might like to listen in on our discussion. So here is a summary:

My outlook on life and ministry changed after I studied the book of Romans.

I realize that statement could have been made by nearly anyone down through the history of the church. But in my case, Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has caused me to rethink my attitudes towards racial reconciliation within the church. I have become dissatisfied with the status quo.

The church is still the most segregated place in America. Sunday morning is the most segregated time. Understanding Romans forces us to realize how displeasing to God this is.

Paul wrote Romans to address a problem: a racial problem.

In 49 AD, there was a race riot. The city was Rome, the rioters were Jews. While it’s not entirely certain, it appears that they were rioting about the Christians.

We’re not exactly sure what caused the riot, but we have some clues:

First, the Jews didn’t like the Christians to begin with because of their claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah, while the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem had been instrumental in his execution.

Second, while there were some Jews coming to faith in Jesus the Messiah, the majority of people being added to the church were Gentiles. The Jews considered Gentiles dogs.

Third, the church services (before the riot) were conducted as an off-shoot of the synagogue system. Thus the Jews who rejected Christ not only had to put up with the Jews who followed Jesus, but they also had to put up with more and more Gentile dogs coming to their synagogues.

Eventually the tension between the Jews and Christians became so great that the Jews rioted. This wasn’t a little disturbance. This so disrupted Roman life that Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. There was a racial cleansing in the city, so to speak.

As a result, the Gentiles believers had no place to worship since the synagogues were gone. So they did the only thing they could do. They started their own churches. As the churches grew, they wrote their own hymns and started their own traditions.

Then in 54 AD, Claudius allowed the Jews to return to Rome. As they trickled into the city, the former synagogues were re-established. The Jewish believers continued to worship there. The Gentiles, whose churches were now well established, continued in their churches.

And so there was in Rome a picture of what we have in the USA. Two churches, divided by race and culture, by style and suspicion, that didn’t exactly hate one another, but had little to do with one another either.

In God’s providence, Paul had placed on his heart a missions trip to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28). In order to accomplish such a large undertaking, he would need logistical support from Rome. But herein lay an obvious problem. To which church should he appeal? In all probability, neither was large enough by itself to financially support such an endeavor.

So while Paul wintered in Corinth for three months in 56–57 AD (Acts 20:2-3), he wrote this divided church a letter. It was to be a letter of introduction since they hadn’t met him before (Rom 1:13) that would explain the Gospel he would preach in Spain (Rom 1:16, 17; 15:20). But it was also to be a letter of healing. It was meant to show that the Gospel transcends race and culture.

This explains where there is almost no teaching in the entire book about the person of Jesus Christ. One would think that a letter devoted to the subject of the Gospel would have Jesus’ name written on every page, but that isn’t the case. Except for a brief mention in the introduction (Rom 1:3-4), there is very little said about him.

Instead the book is written from the human perspective. While it doesn’t say much about the person of Christ, it tells us a lot about ourselves. In fact, Paul goes out of his way to show that everyone (regardless of race or culture) has sinned, that they have earned the penalty of death, and that the solution is faith in Christ. Additionally, the way to live righteously is the same for everyone (walking in the Spirit—Rom 8:4).

But what about those deeply-held beliefs that make us so culturally different?

Rom 15:5-6 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Rom 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

I’ve made it a goal for me personally and for the church I shepherd to break down the racial barriers which divide God’s people. The progress is slow and the steps difficult. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when believers, regardless of race or culture, may, with one heart and one voice, glorify God together.

Now for the question: What can you do that you’re not doing to make this dream a reality?

I would begin by reading the book of Romans through in one sitting. That is the way it was intended to be read anyway. It will only take about 45 minutes. As I read, I would underline the all inclusive words such as “all,” “none,” “everyone,” “no one,” “the whole world,” etc.

Then I would try and meet other believers on the other side of the great divide. Make friends and fellowship with them. It is especially important to pray with them. Pray not only for racial reconciliation but also for their requests and concerns.

Finally, I’d ask my pastor what could be done in our community to partner with another church of like faith so that we could be a living example that the Gospel transcends culture and race.

I am convinced that God is displeased with the state of disunity that exists within his church—a chasm that is not caused by the tension of truth vs error, but one that is cause by tradition, suspicion, lack of forgiveness and apathy. We have an obligation to do all within our power to bridge that chasm.

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