A good friend emailed me with this question yesterday:
“Is it accurate to apply the texts involving Gentile-Jew relationships of the 1st century to White-Black (or white-anything for that matter) relationships today? Are the principles the same?”
This was my (too lengthy) response:
“It’s a great question. I so appreciate your “Can you get this from that text?” caution. I admire men who seriously ask that question.
And I’ve heard this concern from seminary profs and commentaries. I distinctly remember, for example, an NT professor I had warning the class not to preach ‘racial reconciliation’ sermons from Ephesians 2:11-22, because in his mind that’s not what that text is about. And, on the one hand, I think I understand some of his concerns:
First of all, the text is directed to specific people groups in a specific time and place, and principles that apply to 1st century Jews and Gentiles, as you’ve alluded to, don’t necessarily apply to 21st century white-black (or “white-anything”) issues.
Second, the situation behind Ephesians 2 (and other “Jew-Gentile reconciliation texts”) isn’t really parallel to our situation in some significant ways. Most notably, while the Jews were a distinct group of people, the Gentiles were really not. Gentiles are just everyone who’s not a Jew, so that includes a thousand other races.
Third, I know that some scholars would say that while the Jew-Gentile issue was a religious issue, ‘our’ issues are race-based issues, so the situations really are not parallel.
Fourth, it’s a valid observation that texts like Eph. 2:11-22 really aren’t about racial reconciliation. Ephesians 2 is mainly explaining how non-Jews, who formerly were outside of God’s family, have now been brought in to God’s family through the work of Christ. This text explains the implications, for Gentiles, of vv. 8-10—that salvation is by grace through faith, not by obedience to the Jewish Mosaic law. Similarly, a lot of racial reconciliation sermons get preached from Colossians 3:11 because that verse isolated seems to be saying that there are no longer significant distinctions between races, but in context it’s obvious that what Paul is getting at is that race no longer makes any difference whatsoever in terms of access to God through Christ.
So, I think these things are where my professor’s cautions were coming from. But, even with these things in mind I think there are still very good reasons to preach racial reconciliation from these texts. Because (1) everything in the Bible is contextual. That doesn’t mean we cannot reapply them in our context (otherwise we could make use of nothing in the Bible!). It just means we need to do it with care and wisdom, carefully discerning where the contexts allow reapplication and where they do not;
(2) I don’t think the fact that the Gentiles were not, technically, a race really matters because the fact is that the Jews viewed them as a distinct race. In the Jewish mind there were Jews and Gentiles, and that’s it. The Jews hated the Gentiles as a category of people, and in that way their racism is quite similar to racial issues in our country.
(3) The Jew-Gentile issue was not nearly so simple that is could be categorized as a “religious” issue. The hatred between them, even if it had ‘religious’ roots dating back to the Exile or to Egypt, by the time of Paul had become very multifaceted and complex. Jews didn’t hate Gentiles (or vice-versa) merely because they ‘believed the wrong things.’ They hated them because they were different (in all sorts of ways). The sinful human inclination to hate and ostracize those who are different is the same sinful impulse that exists in people today.
And, (4) just because these texts aren’t about racial reconciliation, per se, doesn’t mean they have nothing to say about racial reconciliation. Ephesians 2:16 clearly says that the result of reconciling Jews and Gentiles to God through one savior was that the hostility between them was killed. I would think that this principle, if it were owned and embraced by races in the U.S., would still hold. If white and black people (or whoever) were truly and deeply to grasp the fact that God has embraced both of us only by unmerited kindness, hostility would be killed just the same. The fact that racism still exists in segments of the church merely demonstrates that segments of the church do not truly grasp the gospel.
My apologies for the novel, brother. I was thinking this through as I wrote.