“All the churches of Jesus Christ, scattered in diverse cultures, have been redeemed for God by the blood of the Lamb to form one multicultural community of faith. The ‘blood’ that binds them as brothers and sisters is more precious than the ‘blood,’ the language, the customs, political allegiances, or economic interests that may separate them. We reject the false doctrine, as though a church should place allegiance to the culture it inhabits and the nation to which it belongs above the commitment to brothers and sisters from other cultures and nations, servants of the one Jesus Christ, their common Lord, and members of God’s new community.” (Miroslav Volf, inspired by The Barmen Declaration)
Recently I’ve been plodding through 1 Corinthians in my Greek New Testament. Two passages in particular have stuck out to me by virtue of the stark variance that exists between what Paul actually writes, and how almost every English translation changes it. In 5:1, Paul rebukes the apathetic tolerance of sexual misbehavior in the community by pointing out that this particular display is so revolting, it is actually of a sort that not even “pagans” would be willing to put up with. At least, so go the standard translations. But the word rendered “pagans” is actually “Gentiles.” Wait, but aren’t the Corinthians all Gentiles? Yes. But it gets even more interesting.
In 12:2, Paul contrasts the past idolatry and present (genuine) spiritual experience of these Christians by reminding them of their futility back “when you were pagans.” Yep, you guessed it. Again, the word is “Gentiles”–and always translated as such in other similar contexts in the NT documents–not “pagans.” Perhaps driven by the legitimate recognition that the church in Corinth consisted entirely of ethnic Gentiles, the English translations mute the embarassment by spiritualizing Paul’s vocabulary. Yet by doing so, I think we lose something significant.
A few years earlier, I had noticed this strange pattern elsewhere in the Pauline letters–namely, that when addressing Gentile Christians, Paul seems inconsistent in his use of the term. On the one hand, there are countless occurrences of “Gentiles” (ethnoi) in his writings that refer to the cultural/racial heritage of these early Christians (Galatians 1:16, 3:8, 14, Romans 1:16, 3:9, 3:29, Ephesians 2:11, 3:1, etc.). On the other hand, there are other passages where this usage appears to be contradicted, or at least retracted. Consider the following:
I Corinthians 5:1–“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among the Gentiles, for a man has his father’s wife.”
I Corinthians 10:1–“For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” [of course, the actual term Gentiles does not appear here, but we cannot miss the shocking implications of Paul referring to the Jewish people of the Exodus generation not as “my” fathers in a letter addressed to a bunch of unclean Gentiles, but rather “our” fathers. In all branches of Judaism, this idiom was reserved for ethnic Jews alone]
I Corinthians 12:2–“You know that when you were Gentiles you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.”
Ephesians 4:17–“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” (cf. 2:11, 3:1, 3:6, 3:8)
I Thessalonians 4:3-5–“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
I Peter 4:3–“The time that is past is sufficient for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” [While there are some scholars who believe I Peter was written exclusively to Jewish Christians, I agree with the majority position that the audience was primarily Gentile Christians]
The evidence, so far, is a mixed bag. Confusing, even. Imagine a local pastor here in the U.S. exhorting his congregation passionately: “Do not live like the Americans!” It would strike us as a peculiar way of talking, to say the least. So it would appear that in at least some sense, Gentile Christians remain very much Gentiles when they enter the people of God. In another sense, however, they are no longer Gentiles. Then what are they, really? Are they Jews? That idea surfaced early on in the church’s history, of course, and attracted more than one fierce “anathema” from Paul’s pen for its blatant stupidity. No, everything in the NT militates against that interpretation, even though I do think it is quite appropriate to say that Gentile Christians are “grafted” into Israel, the true people of God. But that is hardly an ethnic or cultural claim. What, then? Here I find a third category of texts helpful in finally piecing together the puzzle:
Galatians 3:28–“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 9:24–“Even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”
I Corinthians 1:22-24–“Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
I Corinthians 10:31-32–“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”
This last passage is especially instructive, as it makes more explicit what is clearly assumed in the others: namely, that Christians–whether Jew or Gentile, black or white, male or female, slave or free–are given a new identity in Christ that transcends their old cultural allegiances, while at the same time preserving their cultural locations. There is a new distance that the gospel creates, and yet a real belonging still remains. I am still an American, and still white, yet as a Christian I find myself having far more in common with an African brother or an Argentinian sister than I do with those of my own family or culture or racial makeup or country who do not embrace the gospel and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of all.
By the grace of God, I now ascribe ultimate significance to Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, and all else that once dominated my thoughts and my affections, my values and my priorities, takes second place. In this sense, I am very un-American and very un-white, just as that brother is very un-African and that sister very un-Argentinian compared to the social dynamics in play all around them. For the one thing that every culture and every race outside of Christ shares in common is idolatry (Romans 1:18-32). But Christians are no longer idolaters, even though most of us are still Gentiles. Thus, we are no longer Gentiles (or Americans, or whatever) in the most important sense, while at the same time we continue to socially inhabit our God-given racial and cultural identities. Indeed, we unabashedly embrace them in every way possible that avoids the stain of idolatry.
It was his insightful recognition of this dynamic that led the early Christian writer Aristides (2nd century) to claim, in his Apology, that Christians were not actually Jewish or Gentile, but rather constituted a new third race: the people of God. Many have quite understandably criticized Aristides for his unqualified use of this category, but as long as the disclaimers I have offered here are acknowledged, I think Aristides is on the side of the angels.
More than any other theologian, however, I have been particularly spurred on by the writings of Miroslav Volf to grasp the momentous implications of these realities born of the gospel:
“The courage to break his cultural and familial ties and abandon the gods of his ancestors (Joshua 24:2) out of allegiance to a God of all families and all cultures was the original Abrahamic revolution. Departure from his native soil, no less than the trust that God will give him an heir, made Abraham the ancestor of us all (see Hebrews 11:8)…the ultimate allegiance of those whose father is Abraham can be only to the God of ‘all families of the earth,’ not to any particular country, culture, or family with their local deities. The oneness of God implies God’s universality, and universality entails transcendence with respect to any given culture… Christians can never be first of all Asians or Americans, Croatians, Russians, or Tutsis, and then Christians. At the very core of Christian identity lies an all encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures. A response to a call from that God entails rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances…Departure is part and parcel of Christian identity.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, pp. 39-40)
“Each culture can retain its own cultural specificity; Christians need not ‘lose their cultural identity as Jew or Gentile and become one new humanity which is neither.’ At the same time, no culture can retain its own tribal deities; religion must be de-ethnicized so that ethnicity can be de-sacralized. Paul deprived each culture of ultimacy in order to give them all legitimacy in the wider family of cultures. Through faith one must ‘depart’ from one’s culture because the ultimate allegiance is given to God and God’s Messiah who transcend every culture. And yet precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to the God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his ‘body’ as a home for all people, Christian children of Abraham can ‘depart’ from their culture without having to leave it (in contrast to Abraham himself who had to leave his ‘country’ and ‘kindred’). Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits…The proper distance from a culture does not take Christians out of that culture. Christians are not the insiders who have taken flight to a new ‘Christian culture’ and become outsiders to their own culture; rather when they have responded to the call of the Gospel they have stepped, as it were, with one foot outside their own culture while with the other remaining firmly planted in it. They are distant, and yet they belong. Their difference is internal to the culture.” (p. 49)
“Both distance and belonging are essential. Belonging without distance destroys: I affirm my exclusive identity as Croatian and want either to shape everyone in my own image or eliminate them from my world. But distance without belonging isolates: I deny my identity as a Croatian and draw back from my own culture…There is a reality that is more important than the culture to which we belong. It is God and the new world that God is creating, a world in which people from every nation and every tribe, with their cultural goods, will gather around the triune God, a world in which every tear will be wiped away and ‘pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21:3). Christians take distance from their own culture because they give the ultimate allegiance to God and God’s promised future.” (pp. 50-51)
Indeed, the followers of Jesus, whatever their ethnic and cultural identities might be, nonetheless possess the status of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” [I Peter 2:9-10; cf. Exodus 19:4-6]
How, then, should we live? Peter does not leave the matter in doubt: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable.” (2:11-12)