Ask any group of Christians what there favorite book of the Bible is and more than a few will mention Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Then ask these Christians how Romans might speak to the issues of racism that have never gone away in America and you’re likely to see some very puzzled facial expressions. And this might just be part of the problem and a reason why the issue of racial-reconciliation, and lack there of, is still a glaring problem among Christianity in America.
Racial Reconciliation and the Christian Church
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Christian church is to be a reconciled community of believers from different races, ethnicities, and nationalities. That much should be clear to anyone reading through the New Testament. But the ideal of a reconciled church body and the reality are never the same. The later is always a work of God in progress. Nevertheless, Jesus was crucified in order to reconcile all people to God and each other as one new humanity. Thus, as the Apostle Paul said about Jews and Gentiles, that God’s purpose was “…to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).
Despite the ideal, Christians have woefully failed at times to embody this gospel throughout history and that is especially true in America. The painful history of racism and racial discrimination that resulted in the practices of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and many other racial injustices has resulted in a racially divided church throughout America. This is descriptors such as “predominately White churches” and “Black churches” are part of the Christian vernacular in America. It is why everyone knows the cliché that “Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America.”
Of course, in the last twenty-five years or so, it has seemed like racial reconciliation was happening among Christianity in America. To begin with, most Christians today disapprove of racial discrimination/segregation and condemn hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. More importantly, many churches are becoming more racially diverse. In fact, as a minister, I have visited and spoken among many local churches and while most of these churches were still predominately White, the churches are becoming multi-racial communities. However, this recent article, A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches, published by the New York Times reminds us of how little of racial-reconciliation has actually taken place. The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.
Romans: Asking The Wrong Questions
Reconciliation is hard work and that is why the much of the New Testament is speaking either directly or indirectly to this challenge. Reconciliation is hard work for God, who gave up his Son Jesus in death to reconcile all people. Reconciliation is also hard for us to practice reconciliation because it calls for us to humbly repent and learn how to love one another as Jesus has loved us (cf. Jn. 13:34). However, reconciliation is made even more difficult when we misread the vary letters among the New Testament addressing this very issue that is at the heart of the gospel.
One of those letters that I am speaking of is Romans. Does that surprise you? The suggestion that Christians in America have misread Romans should shock many Evangelicals, for whom Romans has sort of served as the go to text on the gospel of Jesus Christ—the message of salvation. In fact, Evangelicals has so relied upon Romans as the message of salvation that it was quite common to speak of the Romans Road to Salvation. However, the Evangelical understanding of salvation in Romans has to do with the individual justification of sinners in a legal (forensic) sense so that each justified believer may be forgiven of their sins and henceforth saved.
The problem with this traditional Evangelical understanding of Romans is that it has been shaped by the lens of sixteenth century Reformation questions rather than the first century context of a Jewish and Gentile church struggling to embody the gospel. To put it another way, Evangelicals have walked the Romans road asking the wrong questions while selectively cherry-picking certain passages that seemed applicable to these Reformation questions. In doing so, these cherry-picked passages have become proof-texts to uphold a view of salvation that is individualistic rather than communal and vertical (between God and the individual rather than both vertical and horizontal (where Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another as one people belonging to God).
A New Walk Down the Romans Road
Space will not allow for much survey of the text of Romans, let alone any detailed exposition. There are numerous commentaries, theological books, and even sermon series available that attempt this. I do want to suggest is that in light of the lack of reconciliation that exists within Christianity among America, what is needed in terms of reading the Bible is a new walk down the Romans road. However, this new walk must pay attention to the entire road rather than just a few selective spots, lest we only reaffirm what we already assume (which hasn’t resulted in reconciliation). In doing so, we not only will discover how God is reconciling both Blacks and Whites as well as many other races/ethnicities to himself and each other but we will learn the sort of new behaviors that are necessary for living as a reconciled people—a community baptized into Jesus Christ who are now empowered by the Spirit to glorify God by treating one another in Godlike ways (Gorman, Becoming The Gospel, p. 295). This is the salvation that God is bringing everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)!