The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

May 12, 2012

Review of "The Post-Racial Church: A Biblical Framework for Multiethnic Reconciliation"

 In the spring of 2009, I had the privilege of attending my first regional ETS meeting at Tennessee Temple University. One of the sessions I attended was a co-presentation by Kenneth Mathews and Sydney Park on “Biblical Perspectives on Racial Reconciliation.” Imagine my surprise, then, when the other day my adviser, Dr. Black, handed me a book by two authors entitled, The Post Racial Church: A Biblical Framework for Multiethnic Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2011). Sure enough, it was the same two scholars (both professors at Beeson Divinity School, in Old Testament and New Testament, respectively).

At the heart of The Post-Racial Church lies a desire to see what Scripture says about race and racial reconciliation, and to exhort the church of the 21st century to embrace a Biblical perspective. The book, then, could just as well be titled “A Theology of Race Relations.” The authors desire, with this book, “. . . to better equip the church in answering why Christians claim that the gospel and the Christian church are the first and last best hope for peace in a racially diverse world” (22). In the process, the authors build a theology of race from Scripture and then proceed to apply it to the modern church.

At its core, this is an extremely valuable book that most definitely helps answer a deficiency within evangelical scholarship. The Post Racial Church does an excellent job of examining what, indeed, Scripture says about race and how that applies to us today, especially in its examination of how worship, by its very nature, was meant to be multiethnic. Furthermore, this book provides one of the best combinations I have ever seen of scholarship and accessibility, mixing solid exegesis with a very readable style interspersed with personal anecdotes.

I will have some negative critique (one major issue and a bunch of minor quibbles), but the reader should note that this is an important and challenging book that has earned its place on the Christian’s bookshelf, both that of the pastor and the layperson.

The book is split between the two authors. Mathews writes the introduction and first four chapters, while Park writes chapters 5-8 and then the conclusion. At the end of each chapter, the authors have a series of questions, dubbed “thought provokers,” for personal meditation or group discussion. The first part of my review will summarize the book while the second park critiques it.


In the introduction, Matthews articulates his desire to go beyond issues of cooperation and into integration. He notes that the first church service, at Pentecost, featured the integration of various races; he then asks, “Will authentic integration, not just toleration, be the next step for the church?” Mathews then provides a brief overview of the civil rights movement in the US, arguing that it was driven by Christian ministers. Nevertheless Evangelicalism still faces racial problems, and Mathews hopes that he and Parks will assist in helping the Christian understood the role of the Gospel in establishing racial reconciliation. Throughout the introduction, Mathews also defines terms such as “ethnicity,” “racism,” etc.

In chapter 1, “God’s Design for Creation,” Mathews draws from the book of Genesis in order to examine God’s design of the human race and his desire for worship. He notes that humans were designed for a relationship with God, in order to worship God, etc., and that humans were meant for “freedom,” defined as “liberty to love and live with God, to be what God intended for us” (49). Within this overview of creation and Genesis, Mathews also discusses how such narratives as the “mark of Cain” and “the curse of Ham” became misinterpreted as justification for slavery and racism. He also stresses that in Genesis, “There is no ‘Master Race’ concept in the Bible that excuses racial superiority, because the theology of creation undercuts the ideology that one race is inherently superior to others” (44). Matthew concludes by positing a few key observations regarding God’s plan in Genesis, e.g., that “creation in the image of God was for all humanity, both male and female” (64).

In the second chapter, Mathews discusses “God’s Blessing for All Nations.” At this point Mathews spends a lot of time discussing the so-called “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10. His main point is that “. . . the Table of Nations does not in any way indicate that God has unalterably determined the moral nature of the nations. It does not suggest that God has ordained certain groups to achieve greatness and others to follow behind or serve the interests of the superior peoples. The Table of Nations tells us, on the contrary, that God’s creation blessing is for all nations” (70; indeed, later on pages 76-77 Mathews suggests that it is significant that there are 70 nations in the table, possibly indicating that “the nations were created in the image of Israel”). Mathews grants the historical significance of the Table of Nations, but argues that the theological aspect is the focus: “The theological message of the table is God’s purpose to bless every nation through a newly created nation descended from Shem . . .” (77). Both Abraham and the Jewish nation, then, are not theologically isolated from all others, but responsible to minister to the rest of the world. Furthermore, strictly speaking, the Jewish race was never an “ethnically pure” race, so to speak (the Scriptural evidence indicating that the Jews and Arameans are basically two branches of the same family).

In chapter 3, “‘God’s people’ and the 'Also Peoples,’” Mathews discusses what constitutes nationhood for the Jews and what causes a group to be called God’s people. Mathews once again emphasizes that the Jews were not, technically, an ethnically “pure” race (as evidenced by Exodus 12:38, etc.) What held them together was not DNA, but rather their allegiance to the Lord. Indeed, “Ethnicity, therefore, was never the determinative feature, not the make or break factor, in forming a person’s identity as a person of faith” (103). Mathews then proceeds to discuss immigration (noting that “Protection for immigrants was built into the governing constitution of Israel—the covenant law of Moses,” 114) and interracial marriage (observing that the point of forbidding the Jews to marry certain people was always their theological, rather than racial, protection).

Finally, in chapter 4 (“God’s Welcome to All”), Mathews deals with the issue of biblical hospitality (including a helpful discussion of hospitality in the ANE) and God’s inclusive invitation for all to worship him. He argues, “Hospitality is to know and worship the triune God—accepting and participating in his transcendent welcome” (135). Ultimately, hospitality is an essential part of worship. From here, Mathews explores how the worship of God will include various nations alongside of Israel (e.g., Isaiah 19).

In chapter 5, “Jesus’ Story of Reconciliation,” Park picks up the mantle by looking into the New Testament. She examines the various interracial interactions in the Gospels (e.g., Jews and Samaritans), paying special attention to Jesus and the Gentile centurion and Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritan women. She then provides a long discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and how it ties into discipleship (as seen in the surrounding context of Luke 10, etc.). Park aptly notes, “In opening up our compassion for the ‘foreigner’ we show that God the Father has truly been revealed to us. For it is not possible ‘to know’ God’s compassionate love for the sinner as exemplified on the cross and not practice the same compassion for the unfortunate, the wounded, and the ‘foreigner’ as demonstrated by the Samaritan” (171).

In chapter 6, “Stories of Peace and Worship,” Park utilizes the theme of worship in Revelation as a springboard for a discussion of racism in general. She then focuses on Ephesians 2:11-22 as “one of the most explicit theological treatises on reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles,” noting both the individual and corporate dimensions in the text” (176). Park focuses on how, according to this passage, “. . . genuine racial reconciliation is found in the church” and that this is directly tied to the work of Christ (186). As a result, “The church as the living body of Christ is multiethnic . . . the result of the work on the cross is specifically the formation of all humanity, side by side, being fitted together as one holy temple before God.” Consequently, “. . . racial enmity, like all sin, is conquered only through the blood of Jesus Christ, and the ensuing peace is profound and sincere” (186). Park then comes full-circle back to Revelation, noting how the picture of worship in this book is somewhat contradictory to the fact that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” (197). She then closes with a touching personal testimony of her own sense of belonging in her local church, despite being the only Asian in a church of whites and some African Americans.

In chapter 7, “The Proclamation of the Church,” Park attempts to answer the critique that preaching racial reconciliation would essentially boil down to preaching social justice. Rather, Park argues, since racial reconciliation is brought about by the cross, it is a spiritual issue and must be proclaimed. Park then discusses the Christian’s role in opposing injustice in society. [more on this chapter later, since almost all of my negative critique will focus on this section, despite my acceptance of Park’s statement that racial reconciliation must be preached].

In chapter 8, “One Salvation, One Fellowship,” Park deals with the practical issue of how a multiethnic body of Christ can successfully worship together. She makes an important point when, in her discussion of Acts 15:20, she notes that “The question of whether or not they [Jews and Gentiles—i.e., disparate racial entities] should have table fellowship is not raised; it is assumed that there should be table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles based on the fact that all are now saved in the same manner—by grace” (243). From there she discusses the Apostle Paul’s statements on Christian liberty, then closes with a discussion of Christian humility in servant-hood, making the provocative (and challenging!) statement that we are all to serve each other as slaves/servants. Mutual submission, then, is one of the keys to multiethnic worship.

In the conclusion, “From Here to Eternity,” Park delineates four “windows of opportunity” (practical areas of concern) that Christians need to give heed to in light of this book’s theology: 1. Immigration and our relation to immigrants in light of our own status as ‘strangers and foreigners,” 2. interracial marriage and the need “to re-evaluate the factors that define ‘kinship’—is it culture, ethnicity, or Christ” (263), 
3. multicultural worship (Park appropriately argues on page 264, “We do not feel the need to press every church to be integrated, but we do strongly encourage each church to be ready to receive those of diverse ethnicity, and, where possible, to seek out peoples of different ethnic backgrounds”), and 4. evangelism, missions, and the need to seek out who needs the Gospel in all areas. Park then concludes the book with a powerful personal testimony on her own struggles with racism, having been on both the receiving end and the giving end, and her ultimate discovery that self-worth comes through Christ.

In the end, this book succeeds admirably in what it sets out to accomplish, namely establishing a theology of race that can inform our church in the 21st century. The theology is solid, and this is probably one of the most acute, Biblical treatments of the topic.

There are a couple areas where Park and Mathews truly excel in their study of the Biblical data. First of all, I greatly appreciated their emphasis on how the Jews were never truly a “pure” ethnic group, and that ethnic identity had less to do with DNA and skin color and more to do with the organization of a disparate group of people into a nation that would focus on the worship of the Lord. This does not, in my opinion, minimize the nationhood of Israel, but it does point out that nationhood was not, technically, dependent upon skin color.

In addition, the treatment of Ephesians 2 and Acts 15:20 is well done and clearly makes the points that (a. racial reconciliation is a natural outcome of the Gospel and a natural part of church life, and (b. the early church was multiethnic. It was assumed that Jews and Gentiles would worship together. This latter point, in my opinion, cannot be stressed enough, in light of the failure of much of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism to allow for integrated churches in the 20th century. The 1st century church, from the moment of Pentecost, was multiethnic and multicultural, and this was assumed to be the norm. In light of this fact, any ecclesiology that prohibits or even discourages such a church is unbiblical. This does not mean that a primarily white church (or black, or Asian) is necessarily wrong; after all, in a nation with an embarrassing wealth of churches, most people generally go where they feel welcome. What it does mean, however, is that a multiracial church is an ideal that should be embraced, when possible (and Park’s treatment of this issue in chapters 6 and 8 is excellent and balanced).

Overall, I was very impressed and satisfied with the authors’ treatment of the Biblical evidence. Apart from its other values, it’s status as a “theology of race in the Bible” alone makes this book worth the price.

The book also attempts to deal with practical issues in the 21st century church, and this also is to be commended. Some of the book’s insights were cogent, though I felt they sometimes waffled a little bit (e.g., I was never totally clear on what exactly they felt Christians should be doing re.: immigration, other than some general observations on showing compassion, etc.) Ideally, every scholarly work by a conservative evangelical should have practical application, and this book models that ideal.

As for style, this book is one of the best hybrids of “academic” and “readable.” On the one hand, the authors are solid NT scholars at an academically solid school, and they have clearly done their research. Obscure JBL articles are cited in close proximity to monographs and top-notch commentaries, and their exegetical work indicates clear thought and scholarship. On the other hand, the authors write in a very accessible, understandable, and enjoyable style. They define difficult words such as “anachronism” while mixing in personal anecdotes and references to current events. The book, then, is an enjoyable read and a model of good writing.

Overall, this is a solid book well deserving of praise. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles (since only the Word of God is inerrant, any book review I write will always include some negative critique). First, a few minor issues. Though their focus on the practical application of theology is commendable, sometimes the transition from theology to practice is a bit abrupt and confusing, in my opinion (e.g., Mathews, last full paragraph of 105), and this is also sometimes the case with their transition from ANE background to contemporary issues (e.g., Mathews, pp. 96-97). Also, sometimes they don’t go far enough or leave questions unanswered. On page 231, for example, Park states, “The key to genuine worship is not a particular style; rather it is a life of faith . . .that yields true worship.” Granted, but this glosses over the difficulty, in some cases, of incorporating the worship styles of multiethnic groups, or compromising when everybody has their own ideas or standards of worship (I’ll be blunt! I have no desire to listen to “Biblical rap”! J) A discussion of worship in missions church plants would have been helpful, too (how does a missionary establish a “worship style” overseas, especially when the new believers might have come from a culture steeped in Buddhism, etc. Is it truly advisable to always go with that culture’s music style? This is not a strictly academic question, since I distinctly remember my church in Japan’s hymnbook containing a tune that came from a Buddhist hymn). Also, I would have preferred a much deeper discussion, particularly from Park, on how one can go about building a multiethnic church if the majority of the congregation is already one particular race or ethnicity.

Yet those are all minor quibbles. Here, however, is my only major critique. In chapter 7, Park appropriately argues . . . “that all Christians should be committed to proclaiming racial reconciliation” (215), and I believe she makes a convincing point via her exegesis of Ephesians 2-3. Her treatment of Revelation 6 and 16-17, however, is puzzling. Somehow, Park concludes that the believers in Revelation 6:9 were martyred because “either passively or actively, [they] stood against the political, social, and economic oppression described in the preceding verses (6:2-8)” (219). This follows from, among other things, her conclusion that the third horseman in 6:6 refers to “economic oppression” (218). Contra Park, I see the horseman as punishment from God rather than descriptions of military and economic oppression, per se, and I would suggest that the believers of the fifth seal were killed, in general, for their allegiance to the Gospel rather than for their social commentary, per se (the former does not, of course, necessarily exclude the latter, but the focus of the former is Christ the Messiah and forgiveness of sins; one can preach the Gospel without ever mentioning economic oppression, as seen all throughout Acts).

In her discussion of the woman on the beast in Revelation 17, Park concludes that the woman’s sins were “spread beyond the theological into social and economic dimensions” (220), which I mostly grant (though she seems to take a more preterist view on Revelation at this point, which I do not agree with, but that’s neither here nor there). What I do not agree with, however, is that Revelation 17-18 indicates, according to Park, “That Christians are to stand in complete opposition to political, social, and economic oppression . . .” (220) Yes, Christians are called to separate themselves from such behavior as evidenced by the Great Harlot, but in my opinion Park in this section confuses personal purity and personal ethics with political activism. Park argues that Christians “are slaughtered because they stand against the various forms of tyranny represented by the Great Prostitute. The final stand of Christianity, as described in Revelation, resists economic, political, and social oppression at the risk of death” (224). I would counter by arguing that the Christians are slaughtered for refusing to deny Christ. Contra Park, nothing in Revelation 6:9-11 and 18:24 suggest that it was opposition to unfair economic practices that caused martyrdom (see her argument on p. 224).

I agree with Park that Christians should speak out against injustice. However, if we look at the Christian church in Acts and the Epistles, we do not see “opposition to economic oppression” per se. Rather, we see the proclamation of the Gospel, a Gospel which causes change and demands that Christians treat each other as brothers and sisters, no matter the ethnic or economic status, in stark contrast to how unbelievers treated each other. When Paul preached in the Roman Empire, it was not with the intent to cause sweeping economic or social change (he did not, for example, seek to end slavery as an institution at that point; what he demanded was that Christians treat each other as brother and sister regardless of their social status--conversion to Christ, then, would have naturally caused a shaking up of the social order). Rather, Paul proclaimed the Gospel, a Gospel that by its very nature would ultimately cause change and present a Church where equality and servanthood would rule the day. Granted, the Gospel will have repercussions in the area of how we treat each other, but the Gospel itself is less about economic reform and more about the forgiveness of sins through Christ, the Messiah.

Thus my main point of contention (if I understood Park's argument in this chapter correctly) is this: in my opinion, Christians are not called to change the world; rather, we are called to be a light in the world, an example of the power of the Gospel. The Church is not here to cause political, social, or economic change. The Church is here to offer the world a picture of a new community that stands in stark contrast to the status quo. When Christians are martyred in India, for example, it is not because they are speaking out against unfair demands by rich landlords. Rather, it is because they proclaim Christ above all else.

Once again, though, let me emphasize that overall both Mathews and Park do a fantastic job with the text. The amount of time I spend critiquing them is grossly disproportionate to my opinion on the value of the book. Overall, this is a fabulous book that has the potential to greatly inform and challenge us regarding race in Scripture.

Conservative Christianity has, in my opinion, come along way in the past few decades. When the most iconic fundamentalist school can publicly apologize for its past unbiblical views on interracial marriage, when a (very) fundamentalist evangelist can brag about how he walked out of a church and refused to preach there when he learned they kept non-whites from attending, when many evangelical churches present an eclectic mix of races in their morning service—these are all positive indications of the current state of Christianity.

Mathews and Park, however, offer to take us further with a thorough, biblical, and practical discussion of race and racial reconciliation. This book offers an invaluable treatment of race in the 21st century church, and those truly concerned about a biblical ecclesiology would do well to pay attention.