Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Discipleship: Jesus Calls… …We Follow

Discipleship Series Pic “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die,” wrote the German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his influential classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer understood perhaps more so than many contemporary Christians that following Jesus may call for our death — martyrdom — as a witness of Jesus. For his own commitment in following Jesus led him to lead what became known as the Confessing Church which became a movement resisting Nazi power, which ended for Bonhoeffer on the gallows at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine.

This coming Sunday, August 5th, I am starting a new and fairly short, four week, message series for the Newark Church of Christ on the subject of discipleship. While we will likely never be called to suffer any physical persecution, much less death, for following Jesus here in America (or at least anytime soon), we are nonetheless called to follow Jesus and this call is always counter-cultural. Discipleship is a life of living-sacrifice and obedience unto Jesus whom we confess as Lord. As I wrote in a Wineskins article back in 2013, Discipleship or following Jesus is about “learning to living in the way of Jesus.”

In this message series on discipleship, my aims to help the church (re)imagine the sort of kingdom vision Jesus is calling us to follow him in living, and broadly what that requires of us. In doing so, this series will cover four passages of scripture, one from each Gospel, beginning with Luke 4:14-30 followed by Mark1:14-20, Matthew 22:34-40, and John 13:1-18. Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading then here are two book recommendations that deal with the subject of discipleship.

  1. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. A very practical book, the author explores how following Jesus and living the kingdom life relates to relevant life issues such as love, peace, and church, and even sex and vocation. This is a book that I have given to students graduating from high school or already in college because it deals with challenges and question everyone faces in adult life.
  2. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Though still accessible reading, Camp offers a primer on what it means to be a Christian. The book serves as a counter vision to the easy pop-Christianity that has so easily co-opted American idealism, going back to scriptures and the cross-shaped vision Jesus calls people to follow him in living.

Surprise Justice: Mercy, Not Sacrifice

We live in a society that is severely lacking in the ability to show much mercy, if any at all. I won’t spend time trying to defend or explain it. I’m just sharing this observation up front because as a pastor, this is what I come with as I enter the text of Genesis 4:1-16.*

Surprise Justice PictureYou likely know the story of Cain and Abel. It’s the first recorded account of murder in the Bible. Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel, who presented a more acceptable offering to the Lord, so Cain took his brother out.

Literally, Cain took his brother out. He murdered his very own brother and the way the text reads, it appears to be a very calculated and cold-blooded killing. But this is exactly where the story becomes real interesting. You see, after the Lord confronts Cain with his brother’s murder, the Lord notifies Cain that he has come under a curse. For Cain’s part, he believes this curse will end in other people (whoever those people are) hunting him down and killing him. That’s understandable because that’s how people often pursue justice… an eye for an eye and a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh.

But justice in the form of blood for blood is not how this story goes. Cain is still cursed and he will have to live with that fact, brought about by his own evil deed, for the rest of his life. Nobody is ever going to trust him anymore (who would?), so he’ll live his life as a wanderer without any place to call home. But the Lord will not allow anyone to avenge Abel’s death by killing Cain. Instead the text tells us in v. 15, “…The Lord put a sign on Cain so that no one who found him would assault him.”

With this sign or mark placed on Cain, the text introduces to a surprising form of justice. The sign expresses both guilt and mercy for Cain (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 60). In other words, justice here means that Cain is still guilty which comes with consequences of not have a place to call home anymore. However, justice doesn’t mean Cain’s guilt requires vengeance either. Instead, with this sign, the Lord is extending mercy to Cain. This sign of justice includes mercy. In fact, throughout the Old Testaement justice, often closely tied with righteousness, isn’t just a forensic concept concerned with legal proceedings but is associated with kindness that is expressed in showing mercy (Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, pp. 35-36). So in this story, the Lord is not only showing mercy to Cain but also serving notice that he expects others to show such mercy too.

This means we must thing about what it means to show mercy. So consider Exodus 34:6 says, “The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness” (cf. Num 14:18; Ps 103:7-14; Jer 32:18). This confession of faith was repeated throughout the Old Testament because it was fundamental to Israel’s core understanding of who the Lord is and how he deals with people. The Lord is a merciful God and deals with people in merciful ways. In fact, even the Law of Moses was a way of ensuring that Israel lived a righteous life that expressed mercy. Of course, like any law, application takes wisdom and some people didn’t get this. The Pharisees focused on keeping the letter or the law to the neglect of showing mercy and so, when they encountered Jesus settings aside the law in deference to mercy, they questioned Jesus. So Jesus responded in Matthew 9:13, quoting the prophet Hosea, saying “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice…”

Do we understand how important showing mercy is?

As I suggested earlier, we seem to live in a culture that severely lacks in the ability to show mercy and sadly, this sometimes includes Christians too. Now I’ll explain some more because people seem more preoccupied with upholding law and national boarders than showing mercy to foreigners and undocumented immigrants — even though scripture is full of passages calling for mercy upon such people. I don’t know what the answer is to illegal immigration in America and as a pastor, it’s not my job to have that answer but I do know that people are called to show mercy. Yet the rhetoric I so often encounter lacks any imagination for what it means to show mercy. And for Christians, this is the antithesis of who Jesus is and the life he has called us to live as his followers. Or are Christians still interested in following Jesus?

So Christians… Mercy is not a political issue for us to debate, it is a God-ordained virtue for us who follow Jesus to learn and live as an example of what the kingdom of God is like. When Jesus comes again, we will not be judged on whether we follow CNN, FOX, and MSNBC News and whether we support the President of the United States and other elected officials. But we will be judged on whether we have followed Jesus and Jesus went about showing mercy, even to the point of suffering death on the cross. That is the game-changer. us then, learning to be merciful means we must start with God’s word embodied in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit in the community of other followers of Jesus where we can discern together what it means to show mercy and not sacrifice.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 4:1-16 called Surprise Justice, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

Free Falling: The Slavery of Self

July 4, 2018 is coming soon. Two weeks from today America will celebrate another Independence Day with parades, backyard barbecues, fireworks, and so much more. This is the festive holiday in which Americans celebrate one of her most cherished values, freedom.

Free Falling PictureFreedom as Americans understand, is a “We the people” thing that embraces democracy and individual rights. In other words, America regards freedom as the ability of each person to think, speak, and act without restraint so long as such expression neither harms nor violates the freedom of another individual. So every person is individually autonomous and decides for themselves the sort of life they wish to live.

I’m not sure where this idea of freedom originates but we find it thoroughly embedded within modernism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined freedom as, “…the alone unoriginated [sic] birthrite of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom” (The Metaphysics of Ethics). Freedom then, according to Kant, is the right of self-rule for every individual by virtue of their birth. In other words, freedom is a part of the created order of life. Among America such freedom is also understood as a truth that all people have posses by virtue of their creation. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While freedom from the tyranny of oppressive rulers is a good thing and something I do appreciate, there is a problem for Christians with how freedom is understood in America. To put it bluntly, nowhere in the Bible is this understanding of freedom found. That won’t stop some people from misusing the Bible by proof-texting a passage of scripture from here or there, to make it affirm the American idea of freedom. Nevertheless, freedom as it is generally understood in America is not a part of the Bible. Those that try making it so offer one more example of how people co-opt the Bible to a later developed worldview. The Bible has a different view of what freedom entails but understanding that requires going back to the beginning Genesis and the original sin.

“The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule.”

You might recall how after placing the man and woman in the garden, God gave them permission to eat of any tree except the one tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17). So although much permission was given as to how these two people would utilize there abilities in taking care of the garden, they never were given total liberty. They were prohibited from acquiring the power to determine for themselves what is good and evil. However, the desire for having that knowledge and the freedom it appears to offer, rather than relying upon God, is too much to resist. So in comes the the serpent saying to the woman “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The text goes on telling us how the woman saw how good the tree would be — even for the purpose of gaining wisdom. So she eats from it and gives some to the man to eat as well.

And there it is… Verse 7 says “Then they both saw clearly…” They got what they wanted but at what cost?

Since I read the Genesis creation narrative as a text offered to Israel during her exile, the story is more than just about the origin of sin. The sin here is the sin that Israel continued making and it’s the sin that we continue making as well. The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were made to live dependent upon our Creator and that dependence means listening and obeying his word.

What America considers to be freedom is the first form of slavery. You see, once we take the power of knowing good and evil so that we can determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, freedom becomes a good we never can fully acquire. There is always another obstacle in the way… another war to fight, an appeal to make before the Supreme Court, and some more money spent chasing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So freedom has become the pursuit of removing anything that hinders or restrains us from living as we have determined for ourselves. This pursuit itself then becomes the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104) which makes it an idol we serve, making us slaves to the grind.

But for those of us, like me, who love freedom, there is some good news. Jesus once said to his followers, “You are my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So if it is freedom we want, then know that it is Jesus who gives us the opportunity to be free again. This opportunity isn’t a path where we can say whatever we want, live however we like, chasing after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, Jesus gives us the opportunity to live life as God created us to live, free from the tyranny and slavery of our autonomous selves. With this opportunity we gain the freedom to truly live as humans by recognizing Jesus as Lord so that God may rule over us again. That’s why Jesus says that we’ll know the truth that sets us free if we remain faithful to his teaching. True freedom is living in submission to King Jesus, as his servants, by remaining faithful to his teaching so that God’s will is done in our lives as it is in heaven.

The Imago Dei: It’s Who We Are

Someone once said, “If you want to change the world, tell a different story.” That’s because storytelling is a very formative means of shaping our imaginations for how we live. In fact, Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” So if you want people to see the world differently and live differently, then the need to hear a different story.

Imago DeiA different story is what the Genesis Creation Narrative offers us.* In a world where ideas and objects are idolized as gods, the Genesis story of creation reminds us that there is only one God who has created humanity in his image and likeness. The point of the story is not to offer us a scientific account of how creation came about within history. Though we may have many questions about the scientific origins of human life within the history of time, forcing the text to answer all these questions — an issue that was never an issue among the Ancient Near-Eastern context — only obscures us from the real question of who we are as God’s creation and what this means for how we should live.

Ultimately, the vision for understanding our existence centers on our creation in the divine image. As Genesis 1:26-27 says, “The God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB).

“Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.”

Genesis chapter one, which vv. 26-27 occurs within, portrays a cosmic temple scene in which God dwells among his creation as a king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). This temple imagery has implications for our own creation in the image of God, as it means we are the royal subjects of God the king who by nature possess wealth and prestige. So even though the recent royal wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry locates royalty within a certain bloodline, the truth is that every person by virtue of their created nature possesses royalty. So just as God has given us the responsibility of serving as stewards of his creation, we serve as his royal priests with the vocational task of ensuring that life flourishes as God intends.

To this end, we must become more discerning about how God created us to live life. Currently, we live in a world that often assigns human value based on external factors… wealth, athleticism, intelligence, race and ethnicity, and certainly sexuality. Such external values are nothing but lies! Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.

There are many implications of possessing the divine image that need our attention. I’ll just briefly mention two.

  1. Sexuality. The value of both men and women is not determined by sexual willingness and performance, the physical shapes and abilities of their bodies, or by their specific genders. Both men and women are equally bear the divine image, the image and likeness that gives them an equal value of immeasurable wealth.
  2. Discrimination. The value of people are not determined by the color of their skin, their ethnic and national origin, social-economic status, or religious and political beliefs. All people are born bearing the divine image and so there is never any place nor time when racism and discrimination is acceptable.

So rather than seeing people as sexual objects to overcome for our own perverse satisfactions or viewing people as unequals whom we can oppress for our own gain, we must learn to love all people as subjects — human beings — made in the image of God. We must also learn to see ourselves as people made in the image and likeness of God. This is the beginning point for living the life God has created us to live. And when we learn to regard all people, including ourselves, as people who bear the divine image, then we’ll learn to start seeing people as Jesus sees people and do for people as Jesus does for people.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 1:1, 26-31 called Imago Dei, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

The Questions of Declining Churches

Empty ChurchAround the country, Churches of Christ continue to decline in numbers of local churches and individual members. You can read this article from the Christian Chronicle that provides and explains the data. Such decline raises the anxiety among elders and ministers along with raising questions about the reason for such decline. However, sometimes it seems like some people just want to keep asking the same questions that lead to the same answers.

I haven’t seen a copy of the Spiritual Sword in almost ten years but that changed when someone sent me a copy of the April 2018 issue (Vol. 49, No. 3). Dedicated to the legacy of N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, the editor Alan E. Highers concludes with an editorial titled “What Can We Learn?” Speaking of the Churches of Christ, which in his sectarian view constitutes “the body of Christ”, Highers writes:

Why have some young people forsaken the body of Christ and moved into a denomination, a community church, or back into the world? In all likelihood they have not heard the preaching on the sin of religious division and the identity of Christ’s church, perhaps in their lifetime. Why have some among us minimized the authority of the scriptures and concluded that instrumental music is marginal and unimportant? (p. 47).

The answers he provides to his own questions are unfounded assumptions. That is, there isn’t any evidence cited to support such answers. In fact, I doubt very much that a thorough social analysis on why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and regard opposition to the use of instruments in Christian worship as unimportant would ever yield the conclusions that Higher’s asserts.

Alan Higher’s and his associates are free to regard as important whatever set of beliefs they want to hold on any issue they like. However, the conclusions that Highers assumes reveal just how out of touch with reality some Christians and Churches of Christ are in this postmodern and post-Christendom American society we live among. There are likely several reasons why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and why people, myself included, don’t regard the use of instruments in Christian worship as sin. I can only speak for myself but whatever the reasons are, apart from the person who has just abandoned following Jesus entirely, they have nothing to do with a lack of preaching/teaching on church unity and a minimizing the authority of scripture. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and have a high-view regarding the authority of scripture. I’ve even preached on the subject of Christian unity and on the authority of scripture, it’s just that I’ve reached a different conclusion about what the scriptures teach on the issue of Christian unity and singing in worship.

However, I’m going to push further and say that by drawing the conclusions which Higher’s does is more a means of scapegoating than anything else. Such conclusions allow local churches to blame those who have left or no longer adhere to the traditional Churches of Christ dogma for their decline. By scapegoating these issues, local Churches of Christ by means of their leaders can then ignore the deeper questions about their church and mission. These are questions that might open their gospel imaginations regarding their own contextual theological praxis, resulting in new ways of embodying the gospel as participants in the mission of God. This may be the biggest challenge facing Churches of Christ: Do local Churches of Christ have the faith to ask different questions that would lead them in a new direction as participants in the mission of God? Alan Highers is only one voice but his voice says “No!” and that is lamentable.

If a local church just keeps asking the same questions and imposing the same answers on those same questions, they’ll end up with the same results. In psychological terms, that’s called insanity. Drawing on a biblical metaphor, it is to remain safely in the water even though Jesus is calling the church out into the water. Until local churches by means of their leaders have the courage to step out into the water, which requires faith rather than dogmatic certainty, continued decline will happen as participating in the mission of God gets lost from the safety of the boat.

So let me suggest that rediscovering how God is calling a local church to participate in his mission requires us to ask better questions that anticipate different answers. Ergo, instead of asking “why someone has become a part of a local community church?”, how about asking instead “how is our church doing in the practice of hospitality and charity towards one another?” That question might lead to inquiring about whether the people in the nearby neighborhoods find a welcoming and friendly environment among us (which can only be answered by asking the people in the neighborhoods). Such questions open space for learning and rediscovering ways as well as opportunities for how the local church might embody the gospel among the neighborhoods and begin extending the kingdom of God into the neighborhoods rather than just continuing in decline.

This is something to think about. However, by all means, let’s quit scapegoating the reasons for why Churches of Christ are declining.

Romans, Reconciliation, and The Gospel

People ReconciliationOne doesn’t have to look very hard to see the problem of racism is a difficult issue in America. Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream that got him killed still has yet to be fully realized. Now I don’t make any claims of fully understanding the problem of racism or knowing how to fully address this very complex issue. However, I am a pastor who believes that local churches should be communities where racial-reconciliation is practiced because these churches are called to be a living embodiment of the gospel. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, following my previous post Racial Reconciliation and the Romans Road to Salvation from a couple weeks ago, I want to sketch how Romans instructs us on the practice of reconciliation.

The Racial Tension Among Churches

I had just begun a new ministry with a church that was very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. So here I was sitting at a table outside an ice-cream parlor where folks from the church were meeting for some milkshakes and fellowship. Sitting at the table with me, a White person, was a elderly man and his daughter who were both Black and another woman who was White. At some point in the conversation, the White woman sitting next to me mention how her dog did not like Black people.

Though I can’t recall the context of the conversation that preceded that comment, I can recall the look on the face of the Black woman sitting across from me. The offense and hurt was plainly evident on her face, and understandably so. Though the White woman wasn’t trying to discriminate or make any racial insults, her remark was unwise and lacking in any sensitivity. I could only imagine how such a remark aroused the memories of those times when this Black woman was given “the look” when she walked into a boutique full of White women, when she heard co-workers laughing in the break room at a “harmless” about Black people, and so forth.

As a fairly young minister at the time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. However, I knew something like this had the potential to become very divisive, disrupting the Christian unity that God was forming among this diverse church.

But there’s also another point to be observed from this story: reconciliation in a church is much more than the fact that people of different skin colors and ethnicities worship and fellowship together. As I said in my my previous post:

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.

So even though worshiping and fellowshipping together is important, reconciliation that springs from the gospel of Jesus Christ is much more. Reconciliation is the embodiment of the gospel vision and that means that it is the practice of the ideal.

Putting The Gospel into Practice

In my previous post I was trying to show that we miss the point of Romans when we reduce salvation to the individual justification of sinners. Such reductionism comes from asking the wrong questions when reading through Romans which then obscures us from how Paul is trying to instruct a divided church of Jews and Gentiles to live as the people of God. Ergo, the church, where a person’s statues as justified before God is experienced, is a community. So even though salvation is a gift from God to each individual believer, the gift of salvation is fellowship within the community of God and his people. However, the embodiment or practice of reconciliation is necessary for this vision of salvation to exist as a concrete reality.

While a large portion of the New Testament speaks to this very issue, I will briefly draw our focus in this post on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In doing so, let’s assume that we understand that we all are guilty of sin and thus lack any foundation for passing judgment on one another. Let’s also assume that we are humble enough to know that it is only by the grace of God that we have been justified as sinners and are being sanctified. In making these assumptions, we not only embrace are large portion of what Paul has addressed in the first eight chapters but we are humble enough to have made the commitment of living as obedient children of God (baptism into Christ).

This is good. Now we are able to continue in presenting ourselves as living sacrifices while also recognizing that we are just a portion of the body, in need of the other portions whose skin color and ethnicity may differ from our own. But what happens when we encounter tension, when we do something that causes injury and offense, as I recalled in the story above? This is where Paul’s instructions about practicing love and equality with each other is so necessary. to hear again. Romans 12:9-10 says, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other” (CEB). Then in chapter fifteen Paul instructs with the admonition to “welcome each other, in the same way that Christ welcome you…” (v. 7).

As people committed then to loving each other, treating each other as equals, and extending hospitality to one another, we realize that at times we will have disagreements. We also recognize that because we are still sinners, we will at times say do things that offend each other. However, our love unto, equal regard for, and welcoming of each other regardless of race and ethnicity means that we are humble enough to repent and forgive each other. That is, when we offend, we go to those we have offended and confess our sin against them. We remain humble enough to listen so that we are able to learn from our mistake rather than repeat them same sin over and over again. Likewise, when we are offended and the offending person comes to us confessing their sin against us, we remember the we too are sinners forgiven by God and so we forgive the person who has sinned against us.

A Final Word…

This is what it means to practice the ideal of reconciliation and embody the very gospel of Jesus Christ through which we have been reconciled to God and each other. By embodying this gospel in the practice of reconciliation, which Romans provides instructions for doing so, we demonstrate what a true community of people belonging to God looks like. We show the world what love, equality, and hospitality truly are and then we are poised to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, explaining to the world how this good news is received from God. And we all know how much our neighbors among an increasingly diverse America, where racism and discrimination continue, so desperately needs to see and hear such good news.

Racial Reconciliation and The Romans Road to Salvation

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.

People Reconciliation

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)!