Rasool Berry on How the Early Church Dealt With Racial and Cultural Division

“Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19, NET)

It has never been more complicated to be a pastor than it is right now. At least that’s how it often seems. As racial tensions and culture clashes have dominated the headlines in our nation, too often those unwanted guests have decided to attend our churches as well. How do we navigate our ministries to the safe harbors of peace and unity while still fulfilling our prophetic call to proclaim the truth of the gospel that challenges our tendency to elevate our norms over others? And how can Scripture equip us to address today’s racial and ethnic tensions?

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke highlights one of the greatest threats the early church faced: ethnocentrism and cultural pride within the fellowship of believers. As the gospel spread beyond the initial band of Jesus’ Jewish followers across geographic and cultural boundaries, these impulses threatened to pull the adolescent church apart. Eventually the controversy led to the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15.

“The key question, then, in Acts 15 is not ‘Do these people have to do circumcision as a good work in order to get justified?’ ” N. T. Wright observes. “It’s …‘Do you have to become ethnically Jewish in order to belong to the family of Abraham, the people of promise?’ ” The way early church leaders dealt with this question in the Jerusalem Council provides a powerful model for how we can respond to racial division in our churches and communities today.

The situation

At his ascension, Jesus told his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ call to his followers foreshadows the structure of the Book of Acts. Luke details the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem (chapters 1–7), then expands the narrative to Judea and Samaria (8–12), and finally describes the church’s reach to the ends of the earth (13–28). But this Spirit-driven growth into new regions also provoked an existential crisis right at the very beginning of the church.

By this point in history, many Jews felt their ethnicity and culture gave them not only a source of righteousness as God’s chosen people but also an inherent superiority over the Gentiles. Many even recited a daily prayer: “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has not made me a gentile.” Even those who followed Christ could not fathom that God would save Gentiles without somehow making them “Jewish” religiously and culturally.

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Source: Christianity Today