“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” – Augustine of Hippo
Conflict within in the church is not new. In fact, the first century church had a lot of conflict, particularly as they tried to figure out how to do life together. Can you imagine following someone who you thought was the Messiah except he dies? Three days later, you see him again, but after awhile, he ascends into heaven. While he sends his spirit, the Messiah is no longer physically present. You just spent three years learning from him (which, in reality, isn’t that long) and now you are trying to start a religion. Talk about conflict!
The first century church consisted of not only one people group, the Jews, but also of Gentiles. You have those who used to be the only chosen people group of God with their rules and restrictions and, now, The Other. The Holy Spirit did not say, “That’s okay! Just start a Jewish church and a Gentile church. It will be really challenging trying to figure out a new way of life together, so its probably best to remain separate.” No, these two people groups came together, albeit, with conflict.
In Acts 15, we see the debate on whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised once becoming believers. Previously, God had instructed Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised as a reminder of their covenant. This argument had major implications on how the new group defined themselves as a unit and how they symbolized their relationship with God.
“After much debate”, the council decides its by the grace of Christ that we are saved and ordering the Gentiles to circumcise themselves would add an unnecessary burden for the new believers. The Jews did ask the Gentiles for one thing. They wanted the Gentiles to abstain from idols, sexual immorality and certain foods. As Tim Otto writes in Orientated to Faith, “(The) commentators tell us something important was going on. Central to the life of the early believers was table fellowship and communion. By asking Gentiles to refrain from foods prohibited by the Torah, church leaders were seeking to preserve fellowship between the two groups.”
Being Middle Eastern, they knew how important food was to relationships (one of the many reasons I love Middle Easterners!). Without being able to eat together, their relationships would have suffered and, consequently, so would the church.
On Tuesday, November 8th, America elected Donald Trump to be our President, with a large support from the Evangelical church. There were many issues at stake this year, but to my refugee and immigrant neighbors (and myself), it feels the Evangelical church highlighted other issues at the expense of them.
I do not want to get into a debate about politics and parties, but I feel I need to speak up because Trump’s proposed policies on immigration, his rhetoric concerning refugees and re-implementing “Stop-and-frisk” would have drastic, if not, dangerous implications for my neighbors, their families and my neighborhood. I also want to acknowledge that my more conservative friends have felt the previous government did not serve them and some of Obama’s policies caused economic strain on their lives. Their voices are also important and need to be valued.
In the first century church, as Jews and Gentiles ate and fellowshiped together, instead of a deep reconciliation that celebrated both cultures, one culture became dominant – the Gentiles. Otto says “Theologian John Howard Yoder identifies this as Christianity’s first and deepest wound. For through it, the church lost its witness of the reconciliation through Christ of Jew and Gentile, one of the most basic polarities in the ancient world.”
We need to learn both from Scripture and from the mistakes of the first church – Christ calls us to unity and to a deep reconciliation that values all people. How can we get back to the example of the early church, eating with one another despite our differences, but without dominating one another? Discussing complex issues, like circumcision (for them) and immigration (for us), but always coming back to the belief that we are saved by God’s grace and this grace alone? How do we figure out how to live as brothers and sisters, even when we disagree?
I think this includes listening and lamenting. No matter who wins in an election, we never have a perfect choice. There is always something to grieve. As Josh Butler, a pastor at Imago Dei in Portland pointed out, often times, our candidates reflect our society back to us (i.e. racism, sexism, dishonesty, corruption). There is much to lament here. After a time of prayer, how do we move forward to correct these ills in our society? We must remind ourselves that our hope does not rest in the government or in a candidate but, rather, in Christ.
So, this is what I’m asking from you – please listen to the voices of others, especially those who are Muslim, Black, Latino and economically disadvantaged before moving forward. This election has made it clear that many populations in our country feel overlooked. We each can remedy this. Additionally, if you feel refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, are an asset to our society, let them know through volunteering at one of the organizations below. This past year, America has seen a surge of Islamophoic hate crimes. Muslims need our physical presence of love and acceptance. If you want to learn more about Muslims and Islam, please contact me or explore a book off our reading list. Or volunteer at one of these organizations and ask a Muslim 🙂
This is what I am committing to – I will also listen to the other side. I will try to understand. I will ask questions before making assumptions. I will read books from other perspectives than my own, particularly authors of color. I will advocate for the marginalized in our society. But, I will also eat! Our fellowship and unity as the body of Christ is both honoring to God and a testament to the world of his grace.
In Acts 15, when the church in Antioch heard what the council had decided, they rejoiced. The Jews had to give up something and so did the Gentiles, but in the end, they were one body. Following their example and learning from their mistakes, I am hopeful and confident we will grow towards Christ and towards each other as we seek first his kindgom.
Authors of Color to check out:
– Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World by Leroy Barber
– The New Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah
– The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
– Podcasts and blog by the Reformed African American Network (They are much more articulate than me!)
Who are you reading/listening to that should be on this list? Comment below!
Organizations to volunteer with:
– Catholic Charities
– Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO)
– Lutheran Community Services
– Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR)
Image by Author