Monday, October 15, 2012

Building A Unified, Multi-Ethnic Church

Doctrine must become practice. Truth must transfer from the pages of Scripture into our hearts, minds and lives. The teachings of Christ and the Apostles are designed to transform individuals and local churches until we reflect the image of Christ, for the glory of God.

In Ephesians 2:11-18 we saw that Christ brought unity to the church at the cross, making one new man in place of the two – a new humanity – tearing down the walls of division and killing the hostility and bringing peace between the ethnic groups (Jew and Gentile) [See my post on that passage here]. Christ reconciled us to each other in one body, and reconciled both to God through his cross. He has reconciled us vertically to God and horizontally to each other. Even though Gentiles were at a disadvantage (‘far off’ and alienated) Christ has brought us near by his blood.

But what does this mean for local churches? How does this truth unfold into daily life?

Transformation In The Church.
So...we know that at the cross Christ has torn down the divisions, killed the hostility, brought peace, and made one new man – a united, multi-ethnic church – for his glory. This is a huge doctrine with radical, life-changing implications. This aspect of Christ’s work on the cross (bringing the ethnicities together in one new humanity) demands more than mental agreement. We must do more than nod our heads when this is preached. In these Scriptures Christ, the Head of the church, has shown us how his church is to look. Therefore:
  • Our hearts must be changed (emotions toward other ethnicities). This is a very emotional issue. Racism goes deep. We need God to work in our hearts!
  • Our minds must be renewed (the way we think about other nationalities). Our thinking about this issue (the church, embracing each other, displaying unity in diversity, loving people from other ethnicities) must line up with what God says in his word.
  • Our will must be obedient. We must choose, by God’s grace, to act in obedience to this truth. We must deliberately live differently than the world. Our racism must be taken to the cross in repentance, and Christ’s power to live in his multi-ethnic love received in faith.
We need God’s power through the Spirit to bring this truth to our experience in the life of the church, for the glory of Christ! Individual Christians and local churches must actively work towards this goal.

Illustrations From The Early Church.
Jonah is an Old Testament example of a heart that will not embrace those God has embraced; he simply doesn’t want God to save the Ninevites! But we see the same struggle in the early church. Sometimes we tend to idolize the early church. They were seeing thousands saved, were selling their possessions, rejoicing in persecution, etc. But like us, they struggled with hearts full of racism and bitterness, and needed God’s power to bring into church practice and experience the multi-ethnic unity Christ accomplished at the cross.
Even the leader of the apostles, Peter himself, needed to have this worked out in his life:
Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10-11). In this story, notice that it is God who is at work to bring the Jewish and Gentile believers together into a unified, multi-ethnic church. Note how God deals with the hearts of individuals to bring this doctrine into actual church practice. God will not allow the church to stay divided!
  1. Cornelius, a Gentile, sends for Peter (Acts 10:1-8). God started this whole thing by sending a messenger to Cornelius with a command to go get Peter. God is commanding the unification of his people!
  2. God prepares Peter’s heart with a vision and a word from the Spirit (10:9-23). Again, God sends a vision - this time to Peter to prepare his heart for multi-ethnic unity. The vision is about unclean food being made clean, but the point is people, not just food. Secondly, the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter and tells him to go with the (Gentile) men. This is God’s plan.
  3. Peter goes into the house of a Gentile (10:24-43)! Peter admits to Cornelius and his guests that this is extremely taboo for a Gentile, but that God is teaching him not to call people unclean (v28). Peter preaches to them the gospel.
  4. God interrupts Peter’s preaching and accepts the Gentile believers. Peter must follow suit (10:44-48). God pours the Holy Spirit upon the Gentile hearers of the gospel, who have believed through Peter’s preaching. Peter and his Jewish companions are amazed! God has shown no distinction, so neither should they. Peter commands them to baptized with water. And in verse 48 Peter seems to stay with the Gentiles for a few days!!! Did he eat Gentile food during these days? This is implied!
  5. The church in Jerusalem (Jewish believers) criticizes him for his fellowship with Gentiles (11:1-3). We are seeing that this is a big heart issue that had to be dealt with by God.
  6. Peter explains to them what happened. They quit criticizing and start praising God (11:4-18). Peter tells them the whole story and concludes that he had to obey God, for resisting the inclusion of the Gentiles would be standing in God’s way (v17). The Jewish believers in Jerusalem cannot avoid the same conclusion. They ‘fell silent’ and then ‘glorified God,’ realizing that God has granted the repentance of the Gentiles (v18). Like them, we too should fall ‘silent’ of racial criticism and begin to praise and glorify God for creating a united, multi-ethnic church! This is his doing, for Christ’s glory!
The Multi-Ethnic Church in Acts.
The story in Acts continues to unfold and describe to us how the church became in practice what God intended and what Christ accomplished.
  • The Church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) – multi-ethnic fellowship! Some brothers began to share the gospel with Gentiles, and the first multi-ethnic local church was born! Interestingly, believers were first called Christians here!
  • The Missions movement birthed (Acts 13:1-3). Paul and Barnabus are sent out from a multi-ethnic church to go and start multi-ethnic churches. A multi-ethnic church leadership laid hands on them! (Niger and Lucius are believed to have come from North Africa, and Niger’s name means black – Bock, Witherington).
  • The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). A meeting was called to settle this once and for all! The apostles and elders, led by the Holy Spirit, determined that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised and become Jews to be acceptable to God. Christ alone is sufficient!
We see the church wrestling with these things in Scripture, and God building a unified church for his glory. There are setbacks (Peter momentarily forgets what God has taught him when the Jews are watching him, and must be rebuked publicly by Paul – Galatians 2:11-14), but God is at work and the church is still growing and becoming what God intended and what Christ accomplished.
At the cross Christ has accomplished the work of unity for all who are in him. He is building his church as a unified, multi-ethnic body, for his glory!
So then, let us believe this doctrine (as Paul teaches it in Ephesians 2). Then, let us take our distance from God’s people to the cross (stiff-arming those God wants us to embrace). While we are repenting, let's take our racism to the cross! It is a sin. In faith, let us receiveour brothers and sisters in the church for the glory of Christ. He is worthy of this!

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