Racism in the Early Church – Part 1

I was recently on a young adult Bible study where we were discussing racism in the church, and several texts from the New Testament came to mind. I wanted to put them together in a spot for my future reference.

Many of our modern churches tend to be pretty homogeneous, often merely because we tend to be more comfortable with those who are most like us. However, this was not the case in the early church.

Consider Jesus' selection of the twelve disciples: while He picked several fishermen, they weren't all fishermen. We don't have descriptions on all of Jesus' disciples, but there are two in particular that do and I want to highlight: Matthew, the tax collector, and Simon the Zealot. Jesus' selection of each of the apostle's was very intentional, as He stayed up all night the day before in prayer (Luke 6:12-13). I believe that the reason why Jesus picked Matthew and Simon was to demonstrate the power of the gospel–that these two people who were so different could live in harmony united in the mission of Christ.

You see, Simon the zealot was an extremely liberal person. In the first century, Jerusalem was occupied by the Roman empire, and the zealot's solution to the problem was to protest (usually violently), killing soldiers and siezing government strongholds, etc.... Matthew, on the other hand, was a tax collectors. The tax collector's solution to the Roman occupation was just to keep a low profile, and submit to their captors and to do their best to thrive in the new economic environment by working for the government. The rest of the Jews saw tax collectors as sell-outs who were unwilling to stand up to the Roman society in the name of change. The rest of the Jews saw zealots as a dangerous minority which made life politically more difficult for the entire people. In modern the modern day equivalent, Simon the zealout would be a violent rioter in Portland, Oregon, and Matthew would be a man saying, "We don't have that big of a problem, this will all work itself out on its own if we just wait long enough."

Simon and Matthew likely hated each other, and in normal circumstances would never be seen together in society, much less in a church. However, Jesus came to demonstrate the healing and reconciling power of the gospel, and so he called them both and lived with them for 3.5 years. After Jesus ascended, we see Simon and Matthew abiding in the same house, continuing in "one accord." (Acts 1:13-14).

At Stanford, the students in my office would frequently go to the balcony for lunch. Sometimes our discussions would cover topics of what an ideal society would look like. I remember one of my friends named Chris discussing that in the increasingly polarized society, what we need are organizations that can break down the barriers of separation between us. Although he considers himself to be a secular person, he said that he has often considered attending a church–not for religious reasons–but simply because churches are probably the organization in the 21st century that best understand how to unite people from disparate parts of life. Most organizations, the people are all very similar: they're either all politically similar, or racially similar, or similar in age, or in education, etc.... There are few places where you have old, young, disabled, immigrants, etc... altogether in one spot. Universities get somewhat close when it comes to including immigrants, the disabled, racial minorities, people with nonconventional gender identities, but universities are still cross sections of the 20-30-year-old demographic, and usually lean towards the liberal end of the political spectrum.

Jesus told his disciples in John 13:35 that the whole world will recognize His true church because its members love one another. God's true church is not a church that says, "until you conform to my identity of what a good person is, you cannot be a member of my church." God assembled a group of 12 disciples who were constantly at each other's throats because they couldn't stand each other, in order to teach them that true community–the type of community that can only be achieved with the Holy Spirit's influence–arises only among God's true followers.

As the world continues to struggle with modern forms of racism and injustice, many young people ask, "what is the church's role in all of this." The church's role is to be the city on the hill, that is the fortress for those who are marginalized, who are oppressed, who are told that they're not good enough because of their political views or their country of origin. As we work towards this unity by seeking Jesus together at our local churches we attend every Sabbath, not only will we change ourselves personally, but will also begin to address some of the systemic structures of racial inequality in the world church. As we overcome these obstacles, God will give us more and more opportunities for our local congregations to be a witness in the community, and all the world will see the healing and reconciling power of the gospel. The church need not wait for society to overcome the color question, society is struggling in the mean time while we are waiting to show them the only Answer that question has: Jesus.