The following are the first pages of a booklet by Pastor Barry Henning of New City Fellowship in St. Louis. Please Click Here for a PDF of the entire booklet.
My desire in this work is to help the church re-awaken to our call to live as a reconciled people of God – a reconciliation that crosses the current ethnic and socio-economic divisions that exist in too much of the church. My hope is that this paper will help all leaders in the church, especially pastors, elders and teachers, begin to see a commitment to reconciliation as a foundational, Covenantal, biblical responsibility for God’s people. I hope we will be theologically convinced to look at the practical work of reconciliation on the local church level the same way we look at other fundamental responsibilities like preaching the Word, evangelism, administering the sacraments, fellowship and worship; namely, as a non-negotiable, biblical obligation. And wonderfully, not simply reconciliation as an obligation, but as a promise of the work Christ wants to fulfill in us by grace. I believe the evangelical and reformed church worldwide, of which I am very much a part, is fundamentally a group of believers who love God and desire to bring him glory. But I do not believe we have a well-developed biblical, theological conviction that the work of the church includes and requires a determined, purposeful commitment to reconciliation. If we did, the actions of the church would match that theology. May God grant us the grace of ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to repent where needed. And may he work in us a unity and reconciliation that is immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine.
Reconciliation: The Message of the Gospel
The history of humanity is a story of tremendous diversity. It is equally a history of tremendous tensions that pull nations, people groups within those nations and even small tribal clans in opposing directions of trying to protect their uniqueness on the one hand, and on the other seeking some level of unity for accomplishing greater purposes either by joining together with other groups or imposing their uniqueness on others. Empire building is one of the historical realities that have long contributed to bringing different people groups together. From ancient Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome and on into the 21st century, ethnic diversity has often been a forced reality of life. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Americans not only brought African slaves to help build their country, but business owners imported cheap Chinese labor at such alarming rates that the Federal Government passed “The Chinese Exclusion Act” on May 6, 1882, restricting Chinese immigration from fear of a slumping economy and loss of “American” identity. After the official end of British slavery in 1834, the English turned to a system of indentured servitude for the masses of cheap Indian labor available in their colony and imported thousands of workers to various European interests throughout Africa and other colonized regions until 1920, when the practice was banned. In the 20th century, the Communist Joseph Tito forced hostile groups like the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnians to live together as one country, Yugoslavia, under harsh dictatorial rule. In the 21st century, Arab states continue a system of functional indentured servitude by importing workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and North Africa. In Dubai, the multi-national work force is estimated to be close to 80% of the city’s population.
In addition to Empire building, the mixing of ethnic groups through migration as a result of civil war, poverty, famine and the hope for a better life has always been a significant part of human history. Jacob and his family of sixty-six (Gen 46:26) migrated to Egypt because of famine, along with a large number of other ethnic groups in that part of the world (Gen 41:57).
As we enter the 21st century we have been in the midst of one of the largest migrations of human beings the world has ever seen. In 2008, estimates put the number of worldwide legal and illegal immigrants somewhere around 200 million+ people. That means roughly one in every thirty-five human beings is an immigrant living in a foreign country. The diversity in many of the western nations is staggering. There are 192 official countries recognized by the United Nations and 179 of them have an Embassy in the U.S. In St. Louis, Missouri, in the center of the United States, their local “International Institute” recognizes 100 different ethnic groups living in the greater St Louis area, most of them arriving after the 1960’s and the greatest diversity coming in the 1990’s and following. Larger U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City have long had a great diversity of ethnic groups, where virtually every country in the world is represented, often in large scale numbers. During the 1990’s more immigrants moved to the United States than at any other time in its history, with estimates reaching 14 million new immigrants. By 1996, all fifteen nations comprising Western Europe had non-Anglo, immigrant populations of at least 3 – 10%. Refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi live in places like Pakistan, Iran, the United States, Syria and Germany.
The result of all this movement of people groups is that we live in a stunningly diverse world. Yet, in many places, and especially the United States, we live with equally stunning mono-cultural, ethnocentric churches. Even churches that claim to be “new movements” tend to be mono-cultural or ethnically exclusive. New “urban churches” focus on the “arts community,” or the new urban middle class. Worship services are offered to meet the desires of specific target groups- traditional, contemporary or classical. In the last half century, the freedom the evangelical church in the West has taken to intentionally segregate itself into almost every imaginable, self-contained group, whether based on one particular theological issue or worship style or “personal needs” assessment or ethnicity is unprecedented. Yet, the High Priestly prayer of Jesus remains unchanged-
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23
The eternal purpose of God’s redemption in Christ remains at the heart of His work in history-
“And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure,
which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached
their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head,
even Christ.” Ephesians 1:9,10
And finally, the practical need of the body of Christ in all its social, economic and ethnic diversity to work closely together is still true today-
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body– whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free– and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body…. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be…. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable….” 1 Cor 12:13ff.
These words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul are clear, unmistakable and explicit in their implications. Jesus prays for us to become one in the same way he and the Father are one, and he tells us he has amply equipped us for the task. Paul tells us the great overarching purpose of God in redemption is not only our personal reconciliation to God, but also our reconciliation to one another and the ultimate reconciliation of all things in Christ. He also explains that we simply cannot fully function as the body of Christ without embracing one another as mutually interdependent parts of one body. Furthermore, a close examination of the history and narrative of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures reveal substantial evidence that an intentional commitment to reconciliation was a vital part of community life both intended for Israel and brought to full expression in the early church. This depth of reconciliation called for by God even in the Old Testament, required the full, participatory inclusion in the community life of Israel of all ethnic and socio-economic groups who covenantally bound themselves to God through circumcision. When we come to the New Testament and look at the ministry of Jesus as he prepares his people for the great global expansion of God’s kingdom, there is a foundation laid for a theological calling and practical implementation of reconciliation in the life of the early church and a fulfilling of the blessings to Abraham that became staggering in its scope as the history of the early church unfolded. Timeless hostilities between sworn enemies and the barriers of social and economic oppression were overcome in an amazingly brief period of time to bring people together as equal members of the family of God.
Why then, are we so divided in so much of the church today? How is it possible these straightforward commands and direct teachings, in so many ways, do not practically inform the life of the church? How did we get to the place where we became deaf to the loving commands of God that we must pursue a genuine reconciliation in the church and have lost sense that reconciliation with one another is as crucial to the Gospel as our personal reconciliation with God? That somehow we manage to justify our segregation and deny Paul’s fundamental admonitions that one part of the body (made up of “Jews, Greeks, slave, free” 1 Cor 12:13) cannot say to another part either “I don’t need you” or “I don’t belong”? Obvious issues in the Western church such as the rise of nationalism after the Reformation, the practice of slavery tolerated in and by the church, colonialism in missions, the natural tendency of the human heart in every culture to practice favoritism and prejudice, and the extreme individualism and racism tolerated and even declared culturally acceptable by the church in the United States, all play a significant role. The more important, immediate question is this: if we open our ears to the Spirit speaking to the church, through the Word, will we hear a deep, profound call for reconciliation? Is this really a central part of the message of the Gospel we need to pay special attention to? Is a deep, practical commitment to reconciliation, on both an ethnic and socio-economic level, only the laudable but curious expression of a few isolated congregations throughout the evangelical church, or is this is a mandate that all churches need to practice, every bit as much as all churches should practice preaching, worship, pastoral care, fellowship, mercy and evangelism?
In the following pages I would like to lay out a simple, biblical case for pastors, theologians and the general leadership of God’s people to consider regarding the practical expression of our unity as the people of God with this question in mind: are we called by God to intentionally, explicitly and thoroughly pursue reconciliation across ethnic and social divisions as a necessary and fundamental manifestation of the Gospel? Is there a Biblical and Covenantal obligation in this that is vital to the life and witness of the church?
As a starting point for making the case that reconciliation is in fact essential to the life of the church and meant to be a normal expression of our community life, we can return to the three major New Testament texts cited above and find a rich teaching about reconciliation that provides the kind of clear, moral, foundational instruction and promise we need in order to embrace such a wonderful and daunting task.