Christian

How Christ Unites His Ethnically Divided Church

Today’s post is an excerpt from a new book, A House Without Walls: How Christ Unites His Ethnically Divided ChurchIt is available for pre-order here.

In our day, there’s been no shortage of proposed strategies to accomplish ethnic harmony. Outside of the Church, people of all ethnicities have been summoned to participate in nationwide protests against the police; to show solidarity with advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter; and to demonstrate ongoing allyship by renouncing all affiliations with people, organizations, and products that have been touched by racism.

My goal right now is not to biblically critique all of these proposals, only to acknowledge the dominant methods that are being proposed today. Many of these proposals are unbiblical. Some harm more than they hurt. None of them can do what Christ alone can do. That being said, ethnic division in the Church is a complex issue. Simplistic, broad-brush responses in any direction will only reveal that we lack the love necessary to work hard at empathizing, understanding, and searching God’s Word for light to illumine the path ahead.

At least one thing is clear: unity does not grow through more division. In the turbulent waters of conversations about ethnicity, we can be tempted to look for simplistic responses that lump our fellow believers into camps rather than treating them as individual image-bearers. We may alienate those who should be closest to us because they disagree in part, and that only further fractures the body of Christ. So, if you find yourself already responding by trying to neatly fit your brothers and sisters into “sides” (the ones you agree with and the ones who are wrong), look to the humility of Christ. Does your attitude reflect the gracious, lowly heart of your Savior? In Christ, truth and unity go hand in hand, and so do believers who disagree.

Tribalism opposes the unity of the Gospel, so we should be opposed to tribalism. We dare not approach the stubborn walls of ethnic division in the Church primarily as Republicans or Democrats; as social justice advocates or discernment guardians; as black, white, brown, or anything else that is secondary to our identity. The Church must approach ethnic discord with one all-consuming identity in mind: we are a family of blood-bought believers in the Lord Jesus Christ under the authority of His Word for the sake of His glory.

We are Christians before we are anything else. Our Gospel-grounded self-recognition needs to come first in absolutely everything we think and do on the hard road toward ethnic harmony in the Church. The cross of Christ is not just a rhetorical flourish in the conversation about ethnic division; it is the only hope. That doesn’t mean we ignore political engagement or difficult conversations. But if we are to work for true ethnic unity in the Church, all of our efforts must start and end with Jesus. And Paul helps us understand why.

When the Wall Came Down

The apostle Paul shows us how ethnic dividing walls are destroyed in the body of Christ. The pattern he describes has universal application and will be our pattern going forward. To see Paul’s plan for a unified Church, we need to return to a passage we already mentioned and see it in context. In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul writes:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

If we would have eyes to see and ears to hear it, this passage could become a sledgehammer to break through the walls of our ethnic divisions. In writing to the Ephesians, Paul sketches for us the work of Christ to make one out of two, to bring the far near, to unite the divided and bring peace out of hostility. In fact, he lays out the logic that becomes the basis for how we approach all division in the Church, ethnic or otherwise.

Paul brackets this Gospel reminder with two radically different situations. He begins with the alienation and separation of the Gentiles (to include the Ephesians) from the Jews and from God (v. 11-12). Then he concludes with one holy temple made up of united Jews and Gentiles (v. 19-22). Ethnic division to ethnic unity in eleven verses.

So, what happened in those eleven verses to bring this unity out of division? How did these distinct ethnic groups, separated by religion, culture, politics, and just about every imaginable social dimension, become “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God?” To put it in our setting, how could the Church in the suburbs have one mind, one spirit, and one purpose with the Church in the inner city? How can African Americans and European Americans call each other “brother” and “sister” today when some of their grandparents killed and were killed by each other because of their ethnicity? What bond could possibly hold together those who are still so distanced by race, injustice, and centuries of festering hostility?

If we’re going to see ethnic division erased in the Church, we would be wise to hear how it happened in Ephesus. It takes something stronger than resolve, more all-encompassing than an apology, and deeper than social reform. It takes the blood of Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13).

A Mountain Between

Some have argued that the division Paul speaks about in Ephesians 2 is almost entirely unrelated to the kinds of division we see in the Church today. Others have written off this passage as irrelevant to the current conversation about ethnic strife in our country and in our churches. But a closer look at the context reveals that the truth Paul sets before us is an ancient mirror of the struggle we’re engaged in right now.

Paul begins by reminding the mostly-Gentile, Ephesian believers that they used to be persona non grata in the Jewish world. They were called “the uncircumcision,” which was a derogatory slur used by the Jews to emphasize the unholy otherness of their Gentile neighbors. Those Persians and Greeks and Bythinians didn’t have the sign of the covenant like the Jews, whom Paul calls “the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands” (v. 11). Paul not-so-subtly points out that this mark of ethnic superiority that the Jews so valued was, in fact, something they did to themselves. It was fleshly, external, and man-made. And in their pride, it had become yet another reason to distance themselves from the dirty, unclean, unworthy Gentile rabble.

But the division between Jew and Gentile went even deeper than circumcision. Paul reminds the Gentile believers in Ephesus that at one time, they were also cut off from the Messiah—“separated from Christ” (v. 12). They had a completely different religion with different gods and different styles of worship and different festivals and even different languages. It was similar to the distinction that comes through “Christianese” words and phrases that we use today: “I’m so blessed.” “We had a great time of fellowship.” “Man, I feel like I was so fed today.” The Jews had their own kind of religious insider talk. The Ephesians were “strangers” from all of that, including the promises of salvation to Abraham’s descendants. They were, as Paul puts it, “without God in the world” (v. 12).

Paul doesn’t stop there but continues to heap up existing divisions between Jew and Gentile. They were “far off,” meaning they were so spiritually estranged from God and His people that it was like being in a totally different zip code, across the ocean, in the opposite hemisphere. The Jews were intentionally separate from the Gentiles by the establishment of “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (v. 15), that is, the Mosaic Law which had as its primary aim the holiness, the set-apartness, of the people of God. In the minds of the Jewish people, they were the clean-cut church folks; and the Gentiles were the debauched, riotous worldlings. They could never cohabit a hall of worship; they were too different.

Paul also pictures the entrenched barriers between Jew and Gentile as “the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14). This is the metaphor I’m picking up on to describe ethnic division, in part because the picture Paul uses is so palpable. But what did Paul mean by it?

In first-century Jerusalem, Herod’s temple was the largest religious structure of its day. The massive complex had several entrances, gates, chambers, and courtyards, including a space specifically set apart for women and an inner sanctum for the priests.[1] One of the largest dividers on the dusty temple grounds was a thick, foreboding wall separating the Court of Israel from the infamous “Court of the Gentiles.”[2] The Court of the Gentiles housed Solomon’s Portico and hosted the temple’s moneylenders and sheep-sellers. Non-Jewish sojourners were allowed, by Jewish law, to come into the Court of the Gentiles but no further. No Old Testament command required this ethnic separation at the temple; the Jews invented this barrier. The next court in the temple, fourteen steps up and surrounded by a stone wall, was only accessible to those with top-secret clearance—namely, being born to Jewish parents. The Gentile converts, on the other side of the wall, would have to worship from afar.[3]

Can you picture it? One place of worship for one ethnicity, and another for a different ethnicity. No mixing, no mingling. Stark divisions, marked by an imposing, unambiguous, towering wall of separation. And for any Gentiles who didn’t immediately get the picture, the ancient historian Josephus tells us that there was a placard on this dividing wall[4] with the following inscription: “No alien may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”[5]

This ethnic division ran so deep in Judaism that the death penalty was enforced to maintain it. Jew and Gentile remained separate, physically divided by an unassailable stone wall. But that wall only reinforced the spiritual, cultural, and relational division that constructed it. Jewish and Gentile lives were defined by walls.

Think back to the Civil Rights era. Separate drinking fountains. Divided schools. Segregated churches. African American men and women killed for trying to cross ethnic lines. These barriers may have been physical in some sense; but the spiritual, cultural, and relational divisions represented by those walls defined the American experience in far more powerful, painful ways. And in our country, some of those walls never really came down. They just got a fresh coat of paint.

The Ephesians also faced a world profoundly divided by race. How could a foreign people group so far, so unwelcome, so different in so many ways become even closer than biological brothers? I mean, even if you removed the wall separating the temple courts, the long-held bitterness and racial pride that built the wall would still remain. In the minds of the Jewish people, Mount Sinai itself stood between them and the unwashed Gentile masses below.

And you can’t just move a mountain.

How Christ Works

Well, we can’t, but God can. And in the death of Christ, God moved more than mountains. He brought together Jew and Gentile at last. Paul says the “far-off have been brought near” (v. 13); the hostile now are at peace, and the two are now “one new man” (v. 15). All have been “reconcile[d] . . . to God” (v. 16), accomplished “by the blood of Christ” (v. 13) “in his flesh” (v. 14) and “through the cross” (v. 16).

Jesus moved Mount Sinai with His bare, bloody hands.

When Jesus, the sinless Son of God died in the place of sinners on Golgotha, He bore on His shoulders for three interminable hours the eternal Hell that His people deserved. God poured out His wrath on His Son in order to give his multi-ethnic Bride the clothing of Christ’s righteousness. And in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, He crushed the head of Satan, removed the sting of death, and gave the gift of his Spirit to make one spiritual family out of individual people from every different ethnicity. In the Gospel, Jesus tore down the wall of sin that separated God and man, and He “abolished the law of commandments” (v. 15) that separated Jew and Gentile. The stone wall with its death threats and racist motives crumbled at the cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

I want you to see, though, that Jesus didn’t stop at removing the obstacles to fellowship between believers from different ethnic groups. In fact, removing the dividing wall was a means to an end. Paul says in verses fourteen and fifteen that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [that’s obstacle removal] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances [that’s how he removed the obstacle], that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” [that’s the purpose]. The word “that” in Paul’s sentence indicates a goal, the desired end state. God had an intent in the cross beyond demolition. As the miner removes dirt for the purpose of unearthing a diamond, so Jesus destroys the dividing wall of hostility for the purpose of creating something far more precious: the multi-ethnic unity of His reconciled people.

Notice also the sphere of reconciliation—He creates one new man “in himself.” The kind of unity the Church receives in Christ is different from the superficial exhibitions of the world. What Christ accomplishes in His death and resurrection far surpasses the semblance of ethnic civility that man can muster. He takes people with all their differences and distinctions, spiritually unites them to each other in Himself, and thereby makes them into one new entity that does not divide itself from its members. Paul says, “he himself is our peace” (v. 14). Think of this unity like a wagon wheel with Jesus as the spoke at the center and all His people of Jewish, Gentile, African, European, Latino, Chinese, Pacific Islander, Dutch, Iranian, and Russian descents connected to each other through that spoke. They maintain their ethnic distinctiveness, their cultures, and their different physical appearances; but they are spiritually one in Christ. That spiritual union changes everything.

Jesus takes people broken, cursed, and fractured by sin and division, draws them to Himself, and makes beauty out of the rubble. Paul tells us that having crafted one new man out of ethnically diverse believers, Jesus sets about the work of growing those redeemed sinners “into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). We are “joined together” like bricks in a building. The bricks in the wall that used to divide are now the bricks in the Church that worships as one. Our solid basis for unity comes through “the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (v. 20); that is, for us today, the Old and New Testaments. And the pivotal connecting point for every brick in the building is “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (v. 20). He tears down the wall to unite disparate people in Himself to be like a stained-glass window of multi-hued worship, reflecting the light of the Son to all who see the Church.

This is how Jesus always works. Our ethnic dividing walls may not stem from a misappropriation of Mosaic cleanliness laws, but they can create a separation just as bitter and far-reaching. African Americans can feel miles apart from their European American next-door neighbors while seated in the same pew and vice versa. But the cross of Christ breaks down exactly those kinds of ethnic walls and unites those who, in their racism and indifference, were once far-off. And in that act of union, Jesus builds for Himself a Church where Christians of every skin tone and culture gratefully receive and gladly share His cross-ethnic love. The kaleidoscopic worship of Christ in His multiethnic Church helps us to see that what was once a reason to divide has now become a cause for celebration. Oh, may we look at the multi-ethnic Church that Christ has built and glory in His unmatched power to unite the hopelessly divided!

That’s how Jesus will continue to work in His Church today. This work of Jesus to unite divided ethnicities in His Church is the focus of our study. We won’t settle for imposters who would try to hot-glue us together around causes and ideologies. Too much is at stake to settle for superficial solutions and an impermanent union. We want Jesus to bring us together as one forever.

Today’s post is an excerpt from a new book, A House Without Walls: How Christ Unites His Ethnically Divided ChurchIt is available for pre-order here.


[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “The Court of the Gentiles,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 856.

[2] Jan H. Nylund, “Court of the Gentiles,” ed. John D. Barry et al., in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[3] “The Dividing Wall,” Acts 242 Study, January 9, 2013, https://acts242study.com/the-dividing-wall.

[4] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 425.

[5] Nylund, ibid.

Originally Published on thecripplegate.com at http://feeds.thecripplegate.com/~r/TheCripplegate/~3/Hqyyw6qn3X4/

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