I was reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians recently and I was struck by the “big issue” Paul needed to address within the church. Literally, it is an issue that might seem irrelevant to us or a “thing of the past.” Yet, if we look at the same issue thematically, it is still an topic that we still wrestle with today.
The big issue? Gentiles. Yeah, horrible isn’t it? Paul brings up Gentiles in his letter to the church of Ephesus. Now this big issue wasn’t limited to that church. It was an issue for the entire Church (capitalized C was intentional).
Originally the church was made up of Jewish people because Jesus was (and still is) Jewish. Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism. The early church believed that to be a Christian, you had to be Jewish. This was problematic for several reasons.
First, it is was understood that one was born Jewish back then. You don’t convert to Judaism or become Jewish. It was very simple, you either were born Jewish or you were not. If you were not, you were a Gentile. You didn’t get to change teams. On top of that, Gentiles were beyond the love and salvation of God, period. This was not a matter of evangelism. You can’t become something you are not. Only God’s chosen people were loved by God.
Even with that understanding, some Gentiles started believing in Jesus as their Savior after hearing Peter preach about Jesus and His death and resurrection. (Silly Gentiles breaking the rules.) This did not fit the early church’s understanding of God or Gentiles. The prevailing thought within the early church was this, “They couldn’t possibly believe in Jesus Christ, they weren’t Jewish and they were beyond the love of God. This was simply impossible.”
What did the early Church do? They made these Gentiles convert to Judaism before they could be recognized as believers of Jesus. Seems a little odd to convert to Judaism since they already believed that you had to be born into Judaism and could not convert, but ok. Let us not forget that these Gentile believers ALREADY believed in Jesus. Yet, the church amended the rules to let the Gentiles in as long as they converted to Judaism, followed the Law of Moses (and the males were circumcised).
Some Jewish Christians went along with this “accommodation” and some objected and thought it seemed ludicrous to do all this “hoop jumping” to become a Christian especially if the Gentiles in question already believed in Jesus! This caused conflict… a big conflict.
Soon the very first Church “Council” was convened. Not like our monthly church council meetings at church; this was more like a synod assembly or our national churchwide assembly. This was a big deal. After hearing arguments on both sides, the decision was made to “allow” (ha!) Gentiles to be Christian without converting to Judaism. There were some small caveats (See Acts 15:1-21) but essentially the “non-converting to Judaism first group” won and the “must convert to Judaism first group” lost.
As in many conflicts, there were winners and losers but that’s just how it goes, right? Nope. You would think that once a decision was made it was a done deal. But it wasn’t. The “losers” continued to tell Gentile Christians that in order to be a “real Christian” they still needed to follow the Old Testament Law (Law of Moses) including being circumcised (if you were a male). The big issue was still a big issue even when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 14 years after the decision was made to let the Gentiles join the church.
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul continues to affirm that Gentiles are not second class citizens and that following the Law of Moses (Old Testament Law) has nothing to do with being a Christian because we are under grace. Imagine that 14 years later, Paul is still trying to convince people that anyone who believes in Jesus is welcome in the church and not somehow a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God or worse, not a citizen at all.
It is not hard for me to see that Christ’s Church is still struggling with who is welcome and who is not 2000 years later. It is no longer Gentile or Jew, it is other distinctions that some wish to say is beyond the love of God or other related proclamations.
Thankfully, the portions of the Church have changed…
We have condemned slavery, bigotry and racism… and yet racism still exists
We have ordained women… and yet some churches won’t
We have condemned hatred… and yet churches still hate others
We have said God’s love is for all… and some churches don’t believe that
We are far from arriving, but we have come a long way.
There are those who are like the Gentile believers of Christ even today. They believe in Jesus but are not welcome in portions of His Church.
I believe it is a good thing to clarify who we are as the children of God. It is good to own who we are and to whom we belong. And it is good to remember that as a Gentile, we too were once on the outside of the Church because of something beyond our control and choice.
As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 when dealing with this very issue…
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are one because we believe in Jesus. There is no “us and them” within Christianity. There are no “outsiders and insiders” among believers. There is no distinction, dichotomy or point of difference that we point to within a fellow believer in Jesus and say that disqualifies you from the love of God.
We do not need to re-litigate the first church council decision, but we do need to wrestle with the same issue of who is welcome in every generation.
God bless you,