PASTOR, AUTHOR, THEOLOGIAN
This is from a discussion in the comments of my blog… and it intrigues me so I thought I’d move it to the ‘main stage.’ This discussion is one I’m really interested in, and feel like I have little understanding on…
Perhaps I have interpreted D. A. Carson’s talk, and even the Bible, wrongly here. I am trying to learn.
Below is a response to my blog from two days ago from someone who described her/himself as “an ethnic Christian,” and below that is my response to them.
What can you add? I really do want to understand this better, because it is so crucially important in our culture…
have some serious problems with this interpretation of Carson’s talk
and, ultimately, this depiction of ethnicity. I would like to ask some
1. How does an individual who is a new creature in Christ live out his/her “supra-race” identity?
2. Is race/ethnicity only the color of one’s skin? If it is not then
how can we talk about race/ethnicity being tied to our flesh?
3. Is our flesh tied to everything that is created? If so, and our
flesh is to be resisted, how do we make sense out of heaven being a
place where every “tribe, nation, and tongue” is represented?
4. What role does ethnicity play in a Christian’s life outside of
its purpose for missions (i.e. becoming all things to all men)?
5. Are we to have a Christian identity which “supercedes ALL
characteristics of [our] human flesh” or one that would make me “not
[racial/ethnic] any longer” making me “only Christian?” These are
clearly two different conceptions.
Finally, after listening to Carson’s talk myself I realize that he
intends something very different by the “third position” or tertium
quid than has been asserted here. Far from promoting some sort of
colorblindness or ethnically neutral ontology for Christians, Carson
actually points out that Paul understood himself to be ethnically
Jewish. Carson references Romans 9:10 and that Paul sometimes makes
distinctions between Jewish Christians and other Christians. Carson
even says, “Paul knows full well that ethnically and racially at the
end of the day he is still a Jew…there are many contexts in which he is
grateful for his heritage and identifies with it.” However, in this
context he speaks of his ethnic identity differently. So when Paul says
that he becomes a Jew it does seem that he assumes he is not one. But
as Carson points out, Paul is actually trying to show that in a certain
sense he is not one, namely, that he is not under the law (which he
highlights in the subsequent verse). The point of the tertium quid is
that we are not slaves to our “rights,” as Carson puts it, ethnicity
being one of them. This is in order that we might not think more highly
of ourselves than we ought, or so cling to our “rights” (or ethnicity)
to the point that we hinder the spreading of the gospel, and
specifically for Paul this means not offending an immature brother in
Christ who has a weak conscience. In other words, we as Christians
should, as a result of our “third position,” be able to put off in a
sense our rights in order to reach people with the gospel. If we were
slaves to our ethnicity we would not desire to be flexible, as Carson
puts it, in order to win someone outside of or inside of our ethnic
group. Therefore, Carson is not trying to promote some sort of
colorblindness, ethnically neutral identity, or dualistic framework.
An Ethnic Christian |
June 27, 2009 at 03:16 PM
Dear Ethnic Christian,
Yes, I don’t think Carson was saying that Paul was somehow unaware
or embarrassed that he was ethnically Jewish. Yet, as Carson asserts,
here and in Galatians 3:28 he clearly says that Jewness and Gentileness is
not part of his new identity in Christ. It’s hard to make a stronger
statement than, “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek.” Surely Paul
would say that means in Christ there is no black or white. And, to “become a Jew” means that, in at least one sense, he didn’t consider himself one. (As you point out, in a natural sense, however, he still saw himself that way.)
Christ, am I really a white man? I’d say no, I’m part of the newly
redeemed race, which is only one race. In Christ, is there truly “no” Asian, black, white or Hispanic?
Further, Paul says, “From now on we know no one according to the flesh.” When
you identify yourself as “an ethnic Christian,” aren’t you insisting we
know you, even in your Christianity, still according to the flesh? I am not trying here to be
antagonistic… so I hope it doesn’t come across that way. But why is
it part of our identity? When you call yourself ‘an ethnic
Christian,’ aren’t you implying you are something I am not? Am I
not ethnic too, i.e. ethnically white? In Christ, there is, in at least one very important way, no more
ethnicity. Our identity, in essence, is in Christ alone.
This does not mean we can’t notice each other’s cultures, or even embrace the cultural distinctives about ourselves. After all, Gal 3:28 does not mean either that we are all genderless and that dudes can marry other dudes. I am still a male, and, in the same way, still an American white guy.
Yet, Paul pretty boldly states that positionally, in Christ, I have a most fundamental identity beyond either of those things. I am part of a new redeemed race in Christ in which ethnicity and social status no longer matter.
The balance to this, that I am trying to work out, is how the Bible
intends to celebrate the cultures to the point that we take them ALL
(Rev 7:9, ch 22, etc) into heaven with thus. There is a forever
preserved American Christianity, a Nigerian one, an Indonesian one, an
Arab one, etc… but more fundamentally we are the new supra race in
My fear is that for most of us ethnicity has become some kind of defining idol we have added to the new humanity in Christ.
Reforming Bean, your comment is appreciated as well. Yes, I don’t
mean to imply gnosticism as if Christ only died for our “colorless soul,” and I see how my statement could imply that… you are right, Christ, in every way, raises our physical body… yet, at
the same time, Paul does say that in Christ there is no more Jew or Greek, and that now we know no
one according to the flesh. He has made us all one by being raised as
the Lord of all humanity. What is a better way of expressing that?
JD, the term is actually “Scots-Irish”, unless, of course, you’ve had a little too much to drink
Seriously though, for me, this conversation about race and ethnicity is way over my head. I don’t think about my Christianity in terms of my race, heritage, or gender. Whatever situation I have been born into should be used as a means of winning others to Christ. These qualities should be viewed as assets to the ministry of Christ.
A particular complication to a discussion of NT concepts of ethnicity is that the operation of ethnicity in the ancient world is far from a simple matter of skin color or blood. D.A. Carson was wrong in fact–a person could be both Greek and Jew, because in many respects “Hellene” (or Greek) had become a sort of meta-ethnicity by the late Hellenistic period. In fact, due to particularities of administration and its intersections with culture, a Jew in Ptolemaic Egypt in the last centuries BC could be a Greek, a Macedonian, and a Jew. Late Hellenistic and early Imperial writers described ethnicity as a flexible conglomeration of descent, homeland, language, and culture, which in many respects is considerably more perceptive than we often are.
Within that flexible understanding of ethnicity–which really shouldn’t be tied to race so closely that two are united via a slash mark–Paul’s statement of his own “becoming x to win x” makes much more sense. The key I’d say is in verse 20, when Paul writes “I became as a Jew.” Now, we know that by descent Paul is a Jew, so what does it mean to become “as” one? He had rejected the collection of practices and ways of thinking that identify a Jew, and says here that he can pick those back up in certain ways in order to increase his access to a group.
And I’m inclined to understand “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek..” not as the removal of any ethnic or racial category, but the utter abolition of any real or imagined bearing those categories have on either our access to the grace of God in Christ, or our treatment of one another within the body. Because citizenship, tax brackets, social rights, and many other things were tied directly to ethnicity in the ancient world, the guarantee of access without regard to those barriers (Colossians 3:11) is truly revolutionary. And if ethnicity was important in the old system because it was the fundamental guarantor of status (along with the gender and slave/free categories from Colossians 3), then in the new system it should be replaced by the guarantor of status: “you have put on Christ.” But Paul has to keep bringing this up, and we need to keep bringing it up, because we are so inclined toward reckoning the world and our place in it through worldly eyes.
I am currently in a reading group to discuss racial reconciliation. This very topic came up last week in the group.
For me, I see the Gal 3:28 passage more like a Venn Diagram. Paul does say that in Christ there is now no greek or jew…but he also says the same thing about male and female. Yet we know that there is a difference b/t men and women–even in regards to their role in the church/family/etc. So you can still celebrate maleness and femaleness. However, there is something that Christ does to supercede this. The “in Christ” is now greater, bigger, more important than the “male or female.” (this would be the overlapping portion of the diagram) And there is something beautiful that Christ did that got rid of any sexism.
For me, that is how I view racial/ethnic differences. It seems clear (to me) that God created the nations w/ their differences, customs, etc. It seems that when one comes to Christ, their heritage doesn’t go out the window…but they are now part of a much bigger, more important, and more beautiful family–the body of Christ. But I’m not sure that means that their race/culture/nationality is no longer important (this would be the outside of the diagram).
I may be totally wrong, but that is how I make sense of it. It seems like when we talk about race/ethnicity, that who God made me is significant (not in any kind of superior way–just that God chose to make people from different races)…but being part of the Body of Christ is that much more so.
I reckon @the-other-paul has nailed it – “not as the removal of any ethnic or racial category, but the utter abolition of any real or imagined bearing those categories have on either our access to the grace of God in Christ, or our treatment of one another within the body.”
That’s exactly the sense I get from Paul.
It seems we are moving toward an acknowledgment that racial identity is significant in the temporal expression of the Kingdom just as is sexual identity, though perhaps we’re a bit fuzzy on how these relate to our identity in the eschaton.
How this discussion relates to the practicalities of doing church (ie., diversity mandates) is what interests me.
I’m somewhat disturbed by the attitude of some who seem to value diversity more for the statement it makes to the world than for the value it brings to the Kingdom, as if having a smattering of ethics in your church (or even on your staff) is nothing more than a hip evangelistic strategy (like some kind of missional “Mod Squad”). If the supra-race anthropology tends to reinforce this attitude, than I can understand why critics would have a problem with it.
Our motives are crucial and God has a way of testing them. I used to live near a large suburban church that touted the diversity of their staff. When hard financial times came, guess who was laid off? The church apologetically maintained that the white men on staff “just happened” to be more mission critical than the ethnics. The Asian I spoke to, however, felt differently. He commented that each staff member’s value seemed to be assessed on a “white” scale. Just sour grapes? I don’t think so. Because we of varying ethnicities come from very different backgrounds and experiences, we bring different values (as well as pathologies) to the table. A white guy just doesn’t naturally see the value of an African American, Latino, or Asian unless he is intentional about it. For this reason, seeking intentional diversity, rather than pretending to be “color blind”, is something we should seriously consider. In practice, this is hard to stomach for a white guy who thinks he’s been victimized by affirmative action. It takes a lot of humility to admit that you don’t see the full value of people (when comparing them to yourself). And it takes risk (for the church) to discover that value.
Recently listening to a Tim Keller sermon I had thoughts about this more pertaining to culture.
A principle he holds is when the Gospel encounters a new culture or worldview that everything about that worldview must change but at the same time that culture can remain and even teach us about the Gospel in a way that is hard for us to understand in our culture context.
For example, a more community based culture will have different worldview questions to ask that can be answered by the Gospel. Questions and answers that might not be brought up or considered in an individualist culture like many experience here in America. Those questions regarding how family and community exist under biblical guidance are questions that might not be asked in my American individualistic culture context. But they are still accurate and Biblical answers. So when I encounter someone who has a different culture context from me the redeeming “image of God” parts of their worldview can help shape my life into a more complete reflection of the Gospel. It will move me out of my biased view of the Gospel I have from my culture context into a more redeemed life in areas I didn’t see before.
To think your view of the Gospel is the view that is not created in a context is inaccurate.
Diversity leads to a more complete view of the Gospel.
Contextualization: Listen to this sermon to get the more comprehensive, more easy to understand version. If the link doesn’t work go to “Tim Keller Resources” at the top of this blog and scroll down until you find “Contextualization”.
Great thought, Clayton.
First, I want to point out that I believe Carson used stronger language – identifies and grateful for – concerning Paul’s own understanding of his Jewish identity. I think his reference to Romans 9 is prescient here. As far as the Galatians passage I believe “the other Paul” summed it up when he said, “And I’m inclined to understand ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek..’ not as the removal of any ethnic or racial category, but the utter abolition of any real or imagined bearing those categories have on…our access to the grace of God in Christ…” Also, I thought I was clear when I said that, yes, Paul did in one sense assume himself to not be a Jew by saying that he “became a Jew.” However, I am letting Paul tell us himself what he means by this… “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.” So the way in which he was not a Jew was that he was not under the law, but became as one under the law to win those under the law, namely, the Jews – Carson highlights this too. I think “the other Paul” provides additional insight into this passage. If Paul had a sort of meta-ethnicity, or was a sort of mixed/mulatto breed, then his “becoming” each of the groups is really him drawing out characteristics from his own ethnic/cultural affiliations. This is very different from your view that Paul’s identity in Christ transcends ethnicity, so he can pick up ethnic tools as he sees fit in order to evangelize (then put them down presumably). I do think, though, that Paul would say that even in situations where a missionary doesn’t seem to have any blatant connections to a certain people, they should still strive to identify with them i.e. “become all things to all men.” I like to think of it like this…Christ’s ways are certainly higher than ours and his thoughts higher than our thoughts; yet, he wanted to identify with us so much that he became like us that we might be reconciled to God.
In the 2 Corinthians passage – “From now on we know no one according to the flesh” – Paul is contrasting the way in which brothers and sisters in Christ should not regard one another as it relates to how he had once regarded Christ wrongly from a worldly viewpoint. Paul is talking within a larger context of the ministry of reconciliation. So putting all this together it seems that Paul is saying that he once regarded Christ as a sinner (an erroneous, evil, cursed, false prophet), but later came to understand him as the Son of God. So we should also regard one another as sons and daughters of God, having been reconciled to God. “Flesh” here seems to be clearly a synonym for “sin.”
So I essentially disagree with your interpretation (at least in part) of each of the passages you have quoted to justify a supra-race identity we have in Christ at the expense of any sort of ethnic identity. Yet in another sense I agree with you that that these passages are trying to drive home to the Jews, who had so long understood their ethnic identity to give them access to God or even show themselves more righteous than other peoples, that they have another identity as Christians that gives them access to God through Christ. Put negatively, the Jews were not righteous enough to gain them access to God or claim superiority over other peoples. Thus in Christ, I really am a Black, Asian, Hispanic, White…man. However I am a NEW ethnic man, with a NEW more diverse family that I belong to. In this understanding there is no obvious disconnect with the celebration of cultures in heaven.
Finally, I want to deal some very important implications of this discussion. White evangelicals have largely failed in the CELEBRATION of the distinctives of other ethnic groups, have been resistant and/or passive to the scriptural import of reconciliation, and separated themselves from and been insensitive to other ethnicities in their private and public lives (i.e. white flight, education and neighborhood disparities along racial lines). These realities have been justified and tolerated as the benefits of the American fruits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The white evangelical tradition has also largely hid behind its “culturally neutral” gospel and overly spiritualized readings of scriptural texts, like the ones we’ve been dealing with, to support (highly offensive) language of supra-race, ideals of ethnic neutrality, or even versions of quasi-diversity. Many minorities have long recognized the great contradiction these realities are to the gospel and have called a spade a spade….sin, supremacy, covert racism, etc. Ultimately, I agree with Clayton that this topic should be placed within a wider discussion of contextualization. The contextual lens of many white Christians has tainted their very interpretation of the gospel. In many ways minorities have been left with no other choice, it seems, but liberal Christianity. The great truths, some of which have been discussed here, which God has illumined to minority communities through his word have been so long associated with liberal movements and ideas, when they really “belong” in the context of those communities which cherish and want to preserve the gospel. If Paul rebuked Peter for his ethnic partiality even though Peter was much further along than we are the work of reconciliation, then how much more would Paul, if he were here, rebuke many American churches for their passivity and deep down resistance to this great work of the gospel. This is not meant to suggest the idea that the problem with the church is only white evangelicals. As I have stated earlier no ethnic or social group should think of themselves as without fault. The blind spots of white evangelicals and the cultural baggage that hangs on to their gospel, ethics, and interpretation of scripture happens to be what is relevant to this conversation. Nevertheless, obviously thinking the topic is important, I appreciate your courage to begin a conversation, and hope the conversation will continue and subsequent action will follow.
I believe this issue to very relevant to the church and to society. Like others have mentioned, it is ultimately a question that I do no think I am ready to answer definitely. But there a few questions I am trying to answer for myself that I will offer for discussion.
It is important to consider which ideal of the ‘good society’ or the ‘church’ we want to develop (or are we called to develop in Scripture): the cosmopolitan one that envisions negligible attachment to inherited racial solidarities or the pluralistic one that encourages personal and communal identification along racial lines.
A second question is who gets to decide what it means to be classified as ‘ethic.’ Is it solely determined by the color of one’s skin or is it holding to certain beliefs or is it attributed to set of practices? If it is skin color or blood then how much does it take to make one white rather than black or hispanic rather than asian, etc.? Furthermore, if it is beliefs or practices who defines what they are?
As far as theologically discussing the issue, I am currently studying Paul’s adoption language -Romans 8&9, Galatians 4, and Ephesians 1- to see how it portrays our relationship as children of God. In the end, I think these passages may be extremely relevant to the discussion.
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