Paul and the Cultivation of Multi-Ethnic Churches
There are challenges that come with the work of building multi-ethnic churches. Those challenges are nothing new. In fact, they go all the way back to the earliest history of the Christian Church. With others, I've argued that Paul wrote Romans (in part) to help reconcile ethnic conflict among believers in Rome. Beyond that, I've also argued that Paul's hope for future bodily resurrection functions to cultivate a shared identity among the recipients that is ethnically inclusive and doesn't require any of them to abandon or reject their distinctive ethnic identities. This all comes to a head in Romans 14:1-15:3 where Paul calls upon Jewish and gentile believers to come together at the table. Perhaps Paul's cultivation of shared identity that is inclusive of ethnic distinctiveness can provide some resources for the contemporary Church. Here's an excerpt on that from my book Paul and the Resurrected Body.
The evidence suggests that Jewish believers (the weak) and gentile believers (the strong) did not avoid each other completely. For one group to boast over the other (Rom 11:18) requires some contact. Nevertheless, if Rom 14:1 is a clue, their gatherings were marked by dispute. The letter itself was presumably read during a meeting at which representatives from both groups were present. Welcoming one another in peace instead of passing judgment on one another (14:10, 13) is a particular expression of the general expectation of presenting their bodies to God in worship (12:1). To go a step further, to fellowship around the table is something one does with the body. As a bodily practice, table fellowship among Christ-followers will be a matter either of submitting the parts of the body to sin for death or to God as alive from the dead (cf. Rom 6:13). If the strong and the weak are unwilling to welcome one another at the table as Christ has welcomed them, then they use their bodily organs as instruments of wickedness. This would be submitting the parts of the body to sin and could be construed as reverting to the ways of the old Adamic age. Alternatively, if they use their hands to put food in their mouths as they eat together at the same table, then they are using these parts of their bodies as instruments of righteousness. They show themselves to be participants in the new age of grace and life. They embody in the present their hope of future bodily resurrection. For Paul, using the body in a way that is congruent with bodily resurrection means bringing one’s body to the table with believers of other ethnicities. Further, if using the body as an instrument of righteousness also points forward to the liberation of all creation, then coming together at the table anticipates the hope of all creation to be set free from bondage to decay (167).
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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.