One type of strife we often face is the issue of race relations. For example, racial reconciliation has been one of the most blatant platforms of controversy in the American (and Western) church during the last couple of years. I watch this unfold from afar since I live and minister outside of the States, and I am praying for the purity of the proclamation of the gospel and the unity of my brothers and sisters as the church seeks God’s direction while trekking through this ordeal. Although the purpose of this article is not to deal directly with this issue in the USA, I will offer a parallel with similar problems outside of her borders.
In January of this year (2019), I was teaching a week-long module at a seminary in a Latin American country. I remember an odd conversation with a pastor who was attending after the first lesson on the first day, which I can only paraphrase from memory. He was noticeably agitated and asked in a manner I found offensive whether the teaching and arguments given (in this case, an argument against the gap and ruin-reconstructionist theory where millions of years are added between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2) were based on “Yankee” theology, thus having no objective authority or even of edifying worth in a Latino context. This really threw me back.
Or is there one true biblical theology for one true biblical worldview through which sons and daughters of Adam from all tribes, tongues, and nations can be made anew in one gospel under one Lord and Savior?
I had heard of this idea and had seen it in subtle ways throughout various countries, but never had I been faced with such a direct, accusatory interrogation. The answer to this pastor’s question is of eternal consequence, as I knew that his query went far beyond the “gap theory” and to the essence of the gospel itself. Is the gospel just an optimistic underpinning for each people group’s nationalistic ideology? Does Scripture support many worldviews, each one to their own relativistic convenience? Or is there one true biblical theology for one true biblical worldview through which the sons and daughters of Adam from all tribes, tongues, and nations can be made anew in one gospel under one Lord and Savior?
And what is “Yankee theology,” anyway? Basically, it is the idea that a capitalist, invader/conqueror uses the Scriptures to justify dominance and spread “Christian” democracy around the world in order to have a monopoly on resources, among other powers. The competing “theology” would be a type of socialist, liberation theology wherein the “Christian” mandate deals more with taking back from Satan and the capitalist nationalists what is due to them. This type of “theology” is even held at the date of the writing of this article by Nicolás Maduro, dictator of Venezuela. That is why someone of his repute calls himself “Christian.”
How terrible it is to watch people sequester the gospel this way for political gain! This problem not only exists in using the words Christian, theology, church, gospel, and even Jesus Christ in unbiblical ways, but it can also mislead true, but weak, Christians to take their eyes off Christ with promises of political and social retribution, no matter on which side they fall. We all come into covenant with Christ from different contexts, so it would be wise to consider this in our own hearts.
There is much complexity in multilevel, generational, social, and political intricacies and injustices, but in Christ we must never change our message to suit our bias, adapting the gospel message to accompany society’s insistence of focus on our day’s maladies. Instead, we must rely upon the infallible Word of God as our anchor. We must lift Christ up not only as the uniting factor for the church but as the One for whose glory is the church’s love and life therein. In this context, our unity within the church must be a description of means, but never an end.
Let’s take a step back and look at a more objective view of our differences as human beings from a panorama that supersedes our current context, in history. The entirety of the human race is and has been precisely that: the human race, not races. We have the same human origins, the same basic human needs, with the same existential queries. All of us are born into a fallen world and are trying to make sense of it within our own surroundings. We also share the same human problem of sin (Romans 3:23), and the Bible reveals an assured destiny for our shared terminal illness: death, the wages of sin. But the good news is that the Bible offers the same remedy for this one human race: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That said, we also have differences. Some are individual, some familial, some communal, some national, some traditional, some cultural, etc. These differences are due to many factors, which would necessitate a lengthy list to be exhaustive. For our cause at hand, it might be simpler to affirm what our differences are not. Our differences are not “racial.” Ideas of human races are not biblical or scientific1 A truly scientific (using observational science) anthropology knows nothing of biological races.2 A biblical anthropology knows nothing of biological races of human beings either.
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being” . . . (1 Corinthians 15:45).
The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living (Genesis 3:20).
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . (Acts 17:26).
Throughout Scripture is the universal understanding of one human race: an extended family from Adam and Eve. Geographical barriers after the Tower of Babel induced isolation. This isolation from interdependence and universal fellowship forms different groups and is a result of God’s judgment for our sins.
Before the flood of Genesis, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5), and one can easily err to conclude that the flood would eradicate it. Since evils of our world are simply a result of the perverse and unknowable hearts of post-fall humans (Jeremiah 17:9), it should come as no surprise that the society that formed even from Noah’s family after the flood would also become evil.
Because of their sin, they fell under God’s judgment, who confused their languages, forcing them to split apart and migrate (Genesis 10–11). Every people group, culture, etc. today has its formative origins in this biblical event at the Tower of Babel. One of the reasons this event is important is that it shows that our differences are not intrinsic. A people group’s way of thinking and acting as a society is not and cannot be a blanket excuse as their “identity” for not conforming to objective and universal biblical truths for Christ’s church. Nor can it be used to conform the gospel to their agendas. This is just as true for Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China as it is true for the USA or anywhere else. Yes, all of us can fall into this fallacy.
Acts and Athens
The Apostle Paul, in his famous sermon in Athens shows the commonality of “humanness” to present the universality of the gospel as the one and only remedy for mankind. Paul, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, accomplishes this by emphasizing intrinsic commonality with the Athenians to remove any cultural or religious excuse for idolatry:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us (Acts 17:24-27).
This sermon is vital because it reminds the listeners and readers of the importance of a biblical anthropology for understanding the gospel. Paul shows us how a biblical understanding of the gospel is not only based on who God is, but also on who man is. Since the gospel is about God glorifying himself through the salvation of sinful humans, how crucial it is to have both a biblical theology proper3 and a biblical anthropology! In many circles, much focus today is placed on the prior without a proper understanding and application of the latter. It is crucial to note that we can come to wrong conclusions if we miss the biblical anthropological teaching.
We see this, for instance, when the Apostle Paul found himself preaching to a group of Athenians from a different ethnic group, culture, and religion. It is interesting to note how Paul not only focuses on the attributes of God but also on those of mankind: “And he made from one [man/blood] every nation of mankind . . . .” He then appeals indirectly to what their own poets and philosophers had deduced from creation what is made known of God since the beginning (Romans 1:19–20). Notice how the worldview, culture, and religion of the Athenians provide no license concerning God’s holiness:
Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29–31).
We can learn much by taking into account how the gospel broke through religious, cultural, ethnical, and linguistic barriers (in fulfillment of Acts 1:8). Notice how it supersedes prejudices between Zionist Jews, Hellenistic Jews, Samaritans, at least one Ethiopian eunuch (ceremonially unclean), a Cesarean gentile, and even Athenian philosophers. Just imagine how much history between these groups could impede a united church in Christ: how many wrongs needed to be righted. We see that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not and is not a means of societal retribution, since the true teaching of the gospel is that we are all hopeless sinners before the one and true, holy Creator God. Our call is to repent of our own sin, not keep score of the sins of others. Among believers, reconciliation can and should happen, not for retribution but for a unified and redeemed body of Christ whose witness can show how being forgiven by God can overflow into forgiveness to our brothers and sisters. With all of the hot topic issues of today within and among different people groups, we must remember that the Bible paints a different picture of unity than just unity for its own sake. As the body of Christ, we have a higher and better call to unity. The true unity in the church is found in Revelation 7:9–10:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This kind of unity depends on at least a couple factors. First, those who are united are from all tribes and peoples and languages. As a church, we need to have a heart for all people groups because we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the best way to love other human beings is to desire and seek out what is best for them: salvation in Jesus Christ—and more importantly, the worship of our Lord and Savior from their lips and hearts for His glory forevermore. Second, this unity depends on being “clothed in white robes.” The washing of our sins is only through the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not strive to bring all nations back to the Tower of Babel, where their unity centered upon their own glory (of city and tower) but on God’s glory in Christ Jesus. Therefore, in this text, our commonality is not one language, one skin shade, or one culture. What brings us together is Who we are worshipping: the one and only triune God. And through Christ, God is calling one Adamic race from all tribes, tongues, and nations to redemption.
Let us not make light of the power of the gospel for the glory of God by allowing it to be misused for a temporal, earthly, and superficial unity. Let us keep our eyes on Christ, from now and forever, hand in hand with brothers and sisters from all tribes, tongues, and nations—not for the sake of the nations but for Christ. Therefore, the best way to make the greatest and eternal impact on reconciliation among people groups is to take them the unadulterated gospel.
Back at the Seminary in January
At the end of the week of teaching at the Latin American seminary I mentioned above, the same pastor approached me again, but this time with a completely opposite countenance. Through tears, he asked forgiveness for how the week had started between us and told me how the Lord had revealed himself throughout that week and had broken him. He told me that I will never know how much he was convicted by God through his Word. I can’t even imagine what all was meant by that, but I am very happy that the Lord was at work in him. I can only ask the Lord daily to show me where I also have misused his Word for my own personal bents. But, in practical terms, how can we all accomplish this amid the confusion and vitriol that commonly accompanies these controversial topics?
Let us come together and find those answers this October 8–10 at the 2019 Answers for Pastors and Christian Leaders conference, where many highly respected speakers will discuss a biblical, godly, and Christ-centered way to handle this very complex and sensitive issue. Lord willing, I plan to share also in this conference from a global standpoint in missions with the following talk: “The Gospel to All Nations: “Re-Hitching” Missions to Genesis.” The problem of “race” relations is universal, and we are commanded to take a biblical and unadulterated gospel to all tribes, tongues, and nations in a way that they will not muddle with their own, localized social agendas either. For this to happen, we need to make sure we walk away from our own nationalistic or social agendas that taint the pure message of Christ’s gospel.
In the meantime, and forevermore, Soli Deo Gloria!