Ethnocentrism in the Early Church – Acts 15

PLEASE NOTE: these are the notes I use to preach from, if you would like to hear them in context, please watch our YouTube video.

Reminder: this is a very unique/different series! We’re taking some biblical and theological truths, seeing what they say, and then applying them to various cultural ideas today.

-Foundation of the image of God, which is the reality that every human is worthy of dignity, honor, and respect simply because they’re human. This has relational, functional, and structural implications. 

-Last week we saw the worldly image. The ways the world images the creation instead of the Creator, and the most direct application to that is seen in the broken sexuality of so many people today. Still humans, still created in God’s image, just a distorted image.

-Today we’ll look at ethnocentrism in the early church. We’ll get to some definitions in a little bit, but I want to start with the Bible!

-How does the Bible speak to ___ issue? DOES the Bible speak to ____?

READ/PRAY

  1. Salvation

-Christianity started as a Jewish sect. Had a whole way of life, specific holidays, foods, ways of existing that were distinct from everyone else.

-Torah even included the identity markers required for sojourners/strangers who wanted to become a part of God’s people. (circumcision and following the law) Might even say the Pharisees had a good point! They were the ones following the Bible! That was how one came into the family of God.

-The problem became apparent when suddenly Gentiles started trusting in Jesus. What was the early church going to do in response? Did Jesus’ arrival change anything in how believers acted and behaved, or was it just a continuation of the same rules and expectations? 

-This was a watershed moment in the life of the early church! The definition of the gospel literally depended on it! Is salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, or are we saved by faith + works (cultural distinctions)?

-If you didn’t realize it, most of the NT is the outworking of these questions, and the implications they bring up. How do people from 2 utterly different backgrounds, from completely different cultural understandings come together and be unified in 1 church? How can the family of God continue to exist as a family? What does obedience to God look like?

-Passage begins in Antioch, then transitions to Jerusalem (about 250 miles away) where starting point and authority for the beginning of the church is centered. First example in Scripture of a members meeting vs. 7: “after there had been much debate.” Nice to know some things never change!

-First, Peter stands up. The first Apostle to be called to the Gentiles (most likely referring to his visit to the Italian Cornelius after being encouraged to eat bacon for the first time!) Peter reminds the room that the law was given to demonstrate to the Jews that they couldn’t keep it! Salvation comes only through the grace of Jesus.

-Then, Paul and Barnabas tell what has happened on their missionary journey, and finally, James, the half-brother of Jesus (same mom, different dad) shares how this is the fulfilment of the prophets. Now the elders have spoken! 

-4 things, not salvific, but for fellowship and unity in the body: food offered to idols, sexual immorality, things that have been strangled, and blood. Doesn’t 1 of those sound much more important than the others? Most likely the Gentiles had a VERY different sexual ethic than the Jews (we looked at some of that last week) yet the church calls Christians to sexual purity.

-Not contrary to Rom. 14 or Acts 10, they don’t need to DO anything to be saved, but because of the desire to live in true fellowship with each other, this would allow the Jews & Gentiles to live life together, to have table fellowship with each other. Remember that, it’ll come up again. 

-Paul and Barnabas are then sent back to Antioch with the good news: your ethnicity no longer matters! Salvation comes through the grace of Jesus alone! 

-The Great Commission literally commands us to go into all the ethnes, ethnicities of the world and make disciples. Command to Abraham, and Israel too

-So what is the purpose of the wide variety of ethnicities across the world? 

  • Ethnicity

-Like many of you, I’ve been watching with shame what is taking place in Ukraine over the past week. So many people refused to admit Putin actually meant what he said, until the day when the Russian forces invaded the borders of Ukraine. It has been fascinating to read what Putin has been repeatedly saying regarding the history of the 2 countries. According to him, the West’s influence on Ukraine has led to Nazis being in control, and everyone in Ukraine was just waiting for the troops to FINALLY come in and bring them back under Russian rule.

-I started thinking about how often a false understanding of history has affected conversations and realities today. Is America a failed/doomed experiment, completely flawed from it’s foundation as the 1619 Project articulates? Is American Exceptionalism the name of the game and America is now God’s chosen nation? Maybe it’s some of both!

-“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Edmund Burke

-If we misdiagnose the problem, it will lead to more harm than good. If we don’t understand how we got to where we are today with the difficulty of conversations, or refuse to acknowledge some of the ways Christians have historically been complicit in sins we’ll never understand why people are frustrated. 

-Similarly with the Jew/Gentile divides in the NT: the 2 ethnicities worked to empathize/understand each other so they could live in true unity with each other.

-As we enter into this discussion, we need to be on the same page. The world uses all sorts of words with different definitions than I would use them. Even pronouns are losing their purpose in our culture. So some terminology that I’ll be using:

-Race. Vs. ethnicity. Race is a social construct meant to elevate certain ethnic groups above others. Historically in the US it has been used to elevate whites to positions of power and influence. Where people often get frustrated is there’s 1 race: the human race. The Bible uses the word ethne as the distinctive word, where we get ethnicities. The world continues using the word “race” and since most people understand that, I will almost always begin conversations using the word “race” since it’s understood. Then as the conversation continues we can get to redefining words. When talking to unbelievers always celebrate the places where they’re pointing to truth! Even when the world is using a different dictionary than us, we need to look for every opportunity to point them to truth!

-Reconciliation: hasn’t everything been reconciled? Until Christ returns NO! That’s what Bruce’s favorite passage is all about: 2 Cor. 5. Until He comes back there is ALWAYS reconciliation that needs to take place.

-Don’t use buzzwords like: CRT: advanced legal theory that very few people understand, BLM: the organization is deplorable but the sentiment is something we should totally agree with (black lives matter too), defund the police. We don’t need hashtags, organizations, or the world to tell us how to deal with the sin of racism/ethnocentrism, God does in His Word!

-NOT a standalone message! Everything else has been building up to this. I also only have ___ min left, so I obviously have to be selective in what I’m bringing in.

-History of ethnocentrism in the USA (define ethnocentrism). This isn’t the first place we see slavery, and unfortunately wasn’t the last place, still slavery today, however we need to understand/remember OUR history so in order to remind us:

-Aug. 1619, the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, VA, beginning a deplorable history that we can do nothing but condemn. At the beginning here, I want to mention something we have to wrestle with: Christians were both the most vocal supporters and opponents to the slave trade in the USA. We just have to admit both of those realities when engaging this conversation.

-Trans-Atlantic slave trade transported between 10-12 million men, women, and children from their homes to various other parts of the world to work as unpaid labor and be viewed as another’s property. Families ripped apart, people treated as subhuman. For every 100 who reached the Western hemisphere, 40 died either during the march to the coast or during the “Middle Passage.” There are countless human remains sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean until the resurrection. This carried on until 1808, which didn’t end slavery, but shifted to:

-Domestic slave trade. Instead of shipping humans over from Africa, they started being sold domestically. Imaging giving birth to a beautiful baby, seeing that baby growing up before your eyes, then suddenly you’re ripped away and sold to another plantation, never to see your family again.

-While slavery was finally outlawed at the conclusion of the Civil War (1865), there were still laws on the books (Jim Crow laws) that negatively affected people of color for another 99 years. This is where the idea of “separate but equal” took hold. There would be a white bathroom, and a colored bathroom, and again this carried on for almost 100 years. 

-Sermon from a well-known, conservative pastor: “If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty because He made racial separation in order to preserve the race through whom He could send the Messiah and through whom He could send the Bible. God is the author of segregation. God is the author of Jewish separation and Gentile separation and Japanese separation. God made of one blood all nations, but He also drew the boundary lines between races.”

-During this time, if there was a perceived slight or offense toward a white person, without a jury there could be a public execution known as a lynching. These would often become public spectacles where a body was beaten beyond recognition, and body parts taken as souvenirs.

-While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation illegal, how long do you think it took for people of color to make up the lost ground from the past 300 years?

-Redlining 1935-1977. FHA provided government backed loans to people, but would draw red lines around “poor” (black) areas. Many of those places remain the poorest neighborhoods to this day!

-My history, as I’ve been digging into this issue further:

-My great grandparents immigrated here in the 1890s from Norway. Great grandpa came through Canada to ND, great grandma came through Ellis Island eventually making her way to ND. Personally, I viewed the racial issue as a “southern” thing. That was until last Nov. 

-Had the wonderful privilege of joining a number of other pastors from our district to travel to Montgomery, AL and visit The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Legacy Museum traces the history of African Americans since they were brought over on ships, and then the implications of those relationships that continue down through today. It was unbelievably hard. One of the first areas of the museum was this picture. An African artist is capturing the faces/bodies of many different Africans to use in this exhibit. Yet there was a shocking contrast. I love the beach, the rhythmic pounding of the waves, the sand between my toes. Yet for over 10 million people, this was their last sight of their home country. The faces grimacing in pain, chains holding them together doesn’t correlate to the image of the beach I have in my mind today.

-A little further down the hall was some hologram images of actors sharing stories that had been written down by former slaves. The one that got me was 2 children who kept shouting “Mommy! Mommy! Have you seen my mommy?”

-Finally, they got to lynching. Did you know that Duluth, MN was the site of a lynching in 1920. Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton lynched in front of 10,000 people. Afterwards, postcards were sold commemorating the event.

-After some time in The Legacy Museum the group went to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There are over 800 boxes shaped like coffins that track (to the best of their ability) the lynching’s that took place. Each box stands for a county and there are name or names on each of them. And MN is up there. 3 people, created in the image of God, were “othered” and killed.

-It wasn’t just MN! My whole family is from ND: Law 1943: “If any judge, justice of the peace, priest, or any person authorized to solemnize the rites of matrimony knowingly shall perform the ceremony of marriage for any white person with a negro person, he shall be punished by imprisonment…or by a fine…or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

-For my grandparents, America was the land of opportunity, for others it was the land of enslavement. Story from ‘Weep With Me’ about college admission. How do we “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice” regarding this history? Many people ask what’s the point of reliving history? Because we need to understand it in order to better address the problems we see today. Just like a person, countries have good and bad history that we need to acknowledge. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else! The foundation has cracks. No country is heaven, until we get to heaven we are commanded to continue bringing reconciliation wherever we live!

-That’s all very interesting and moving history, but what does that do for us today?

  • Engagement

-Many people have done some fascinating studies on how we engage this important topic, and I believe we NEED to engage it, because so many people in our current cultural climate are concerned about it.

-I at times wonder if, in our pursuit of being quick to listen, we forget that we are supposed to speak too! Just be slower to speak! And go back to the Bible to help interpret what how we’re supposed to engage these issues instead of our favorite political pundit. None of these things should scare us! We have the ultimate source of truth, so why should we be afraid if/when controversial topics come up? I am fully convinced that the Bible actually gives us a framework for us to faithfully engage all these issues that we’ve been studying together from gender discussions to same sex attraction to racial divides to even owning up to a bad history.

-Even gets to the question: how do we view history? Cyclical, slowly getting better, ups and downs. History is moving us somewhere, each day is closer to THAT day. Until Christ returns we’ll have problems, sickness, broken relationships, but God has us here as his ambassadors pointing to Him.

-George Yancey, a professor at Baylor recently talked about the 2 primary ways to engage this issue in our culture today: colorblindness or antiracism. One views the problem largely through an individualistic lens, the other primarily through a cultural or societal lens. 

-Colorblindness (Racism is something that is overt and only done from one individual to another individual) studies have shown that there has been no decrease of racial discrimination in hiring over the past 25 years. Educational outcomes are different for people of color.

-Antiracism (Racism is structural as well as individualistic and social institutions can perpetuate racism even when individuals do not intend to be racist) studies have shown that diversity training improves relationships for about 6 months, then goes back. Also shows that this training leads to less sympathy towards whites, but no increase in sympathy toward blacks. 

-His problem with both: they ignore human depravity. We’ve looked at that! Sinners by nature and choice!

-He argues for: “A mutual accountability approach: A Christian based approach whereby we recognize that people of all races have a sin nature that has to be accounted for. Thus, everyone has to work towards healthy interracial communications to solve racial problems.” This isn’t a 1 sided problem!

-Next week we’ll look more fully at how we engage this, but we can start with 4 things:

  1. Listen

-Commanded to be QUICK to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Remember, this doesn’t mean we never speak, but we need to ensure we’re listening before we do.

-This also assumes we have people that we can listen to. Remember: we’re commanded to go into all the ethnicities and make disciples. What’s amazing about living here is all the ethnicities are coming here! Most of us can just walk down our street to reach other ethnicities with the gospel.

-This also assumes that we realize every person we meet has different life experience than we do. I have yet to meet anyone that has lived my exact life, and even my siblings who got as close as anyone experienced it differently than me, so when we get into disagreements we need to listen to each other. READ some new books!

  • Lament

-I think this is a big piece that has been missing from our American Evangelical discussions for a while! Not just in this conversation, but it certainly applies to this conversation! There’s a lot that we should have been lamenting over the past 2 years, there’s lots of lamenting we should be doing with Ukraine right now.

-Mark Vroegop Weep With Me pgs. 18-19. Lament gives a voice to those who are struggling. Instead of just putting on a mask every time you come to church (I’m great, how are you?) this is supposed to be the place where you can let down your guard and honestly share how you’re doing.

-I know of one church that has been having an internal discussion about whether or not it’s sinful to extend empathy. Just blows my mind!

  • Learn

-Be in relationship with “others” Are they a human? Then we need to share the gospel with them in word and deed. Invite “others” over to your house to learn from each other.

-MLK: the most segregated hour is 11 AM on Sunday morning. To address that, we need to fix truly the most segregated time which is 6 PM every day. Invite people over that don’t look like you. Jesus in Luke 14 says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind because they cannot repay you.

-The gospel isn’t constrained by any 1 culture or ethnicity. God’s goal from all the way back in the garden was to have the entire world worshipping Him. That goal didn’t change with Abraham, he was to be a blessing to the whole world. If we try to define Christianity by 1 culture/ethnicity we’ll misunderstand many aspects of what God has called us to do and be. In the West we have a largely individualistic approach to everything, but the Bible was written in a communal context, so in order to understand and apply the Bible we need to understand another culture!

  • Love

-Francis Schaeffer in his little book ‘The Mark of the Christian’ described love as the final apologetic. 

“without true Christians loving one another, Christ says the world cannot be expected to listen, even when we give proper answers. Let us be careful, indeed, to spend a lifetime studying to give honest answers. For years the orthodox, evangelical church has done this very poorly. So it is well to spend time learning to answer the questions of men who are about us. But after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable able love of true Christians for true Christians.”

-Love that covers a multitude of sins, love that will endure, love that is sacrificial and other oriented, love that looks like Jesus.

-Listen, lament, learn and love, but the greatest of these is love.

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