In the 1980s the Black Student Association at Fresno State displayed this slogan, “We have a SIN problem, not a SKIN problem.” It’s a true statement that sounds overly simplistic. Skin problems are still here because sin is still here. Some briefly thought we might be living in a post-racial world. We now realize that sin hasn’t gone away—and with it tensions about race have resurfaced with a vengeance. We live in what could best be described as “a post post-racial world” where distrust & division are rearing their heads in places we thought we’d made great progress.

In Romans, Paul argues that sin is responsible for a divided world. (See my earlier posts.) Sin weaves its way among us: idolatry, greed, arrogance, sanctimoniousness, sexual immorality, bigotry and racism. These divide nations and people. They even wreak havoc in the minds of Christians and in churches. Sin is powerful.

God’s power is stronger still, and the church should be a force for unity. Paul’s words in Rom 15:4-13 summarize the great Romans epistle and its passionate treatise to bring all creation together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If all creation is to live under Jesus, shouldn’t the church be working toward that goal even now? Yet how are we to bring people together in a world afflicted by a sin problem? Where do we begin?

We see in Rom 15 that Paul has the answer. If sin is today’s problem, then God’s righteousness is tomorrow’s answer. This was Paul’s conclusion back in Rom 11:26, And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This is a challenging text to say the least. I can give you a nutshell version of what Paul is saying: God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true—in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people. How is this possible? How can God accept those who appear to reject his plans?

That’s why Rom 15:4-13 is so helpful. It lays out the explanation which is essentially a summary of Romans: For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised, on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:8-9a). CliffsNotes’ version: All people now receive God’s mercy.

This is the central thesis upon which Paul builds his most important instruction. This is the foundation for what he tells us to do—and for how he explains his ministry to those who scoff at his love for Gentiles. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7). This has been Paul’s concluding exhortation since chapter 12: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let love be genuine. Bless those who persecute you. And in chapter 14, Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In other words, live your lives to God’s glory by welcoming others.

What’s the point? Paul is telling us to stop worrying about how or if God will sort things out. Why? Because God has already taken care of it. Instead of deciding who’s in and who’s out, your job is simple: Welcome people!

But some will retort, “What about 1 Cor 5 when Paul told them to kick out an immoral brother? Paul doesn’t want us to welcome sinners!” This is the go-to passage for this issue, and I understand why. But singling this out without paying attention to the bigger canonical message creates room for unhealthy interpretations. What’s a good way to read this?

When you pay attention to Paul’s bigger message, you see a trend. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is concerned—as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—about the witness of Christ’s body and about the salvation of all creation. This man’s actions are divisive, and not only within the church. His behavior is disgraceful in the world, too, and it’s destroying the church’s witness.

So he tells them to kick the brother out so they can restore the unity of the church and the integrity of their mission. But notice an often overlooked part of this passage: Send him on his way so that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5b). The man’s salvation is not the question here. This is all about the church’s mission. Paul tells them to disassociate from him as to add no extra obstacle to the already difficult task of preaching Christ crucified.

I know this doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t simplify hard issues like same-sex attraction or Christian-Muslim relations. But here’s what it boils down to:

God’s righteousness will triumph! In the meantime, we should welcome people! Welcome each other. Welcome your weaker brother. Welcome your neighbor. Welcome those who are different. For God through Jesus welcomed you.

Christ sacrificed everything so that we as sinful people could enter God’s house. Now, we should follow Christ’s example and welcome others. Why? Because God is just, and God’s plans are right. God will do whatever is necessary to fulfill the promises. The image of God is in each of us. If you strip away the sin that divides us—the lies, the falsehoods, the immorality, the prejudices—then we are all humble servants born into the family of God ready to receive the promises of God and to do our jobs for the sake of God’s good purposes.

Yes, we have a skin problem. We can’t help but judge based on what we see. But it’s ultimately a SIN problem. And God has given us the key to overcoming the divides of sin. You must welcome others! Since God has overcome sin through Jesus, we too ought to show welcome.

In 2017, I pray that the church will be more unified than ever as we welcome others under the Lordship of Jesus.

4 Responses

  1. Hello Jason,
    Newbie here…I stumbled on Wine skins and have been reading your four part post with great interest, and maybe even some confusion. First off let me say that I’m not a member of a church of Christ, and not very familiar with the liberal church of Christ, and so I’ve been reading a number of the bloggers here. What I’m reading here brought up a lot of issues that I would not have associated with your church, such as woman ministers and elders. I always associated the church of Christ with no instruments and baptismal regeneration. I think I should find a local liberal church of Christ minister and take him/her to lunch just to ask all my questions.
    But I do have a specific question for you. In your third part you refer to “Paul’s universalist-sounding message.” And then in part four, you summarize Rom 11:26 “God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true-in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people.” And then you summarize Rom 15:4-13, “Cliffs Notes version: All people now receive God’s mercy.” So would you characterize yourself as holding to a universalist view? Something similar to Rob Bell? A variation of that? If so, is that a common view in the liberal church of Christ? Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi there, grandpafloyd,
      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you reading & taking the time to leave some thoughts. I’ll make a few careful comments. The tone of your comment is purely inquisitive, and I will take that at face value — though you no doubt understand there are internet trolls who cause folks like me to be initially tentative. But I accept your questions as genuine.
      As to Rob Bell, I don’t exactly know the nuances of his position. I only know that he got lots of flak for it. I can only say that I wasn’t one of the ones criticizing him. But I also doubt that I would have said what he said in the way he said it. That’s about all I know.
      Am I a universalist? I don’t really know what that means. I know how some people use that word, and I think I understand your question. I know two things that I believe for certain: (1) Jesus is Lord (in the sense of Caesar being Lord to the Roman Empire); and (2) One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Does that mean all people will joyfully live forever in the Kingdom of our Lord? Personally, I doubt it. I think some will perish and not enjoy the beauty of the life that is to come. I don’t believe that was a question Paul was wrestling with in the least. I think the question that is more relevant for Paul (& for me as well) is this: “What will happen to those folks who are sincerely pursuing God but as yet have not accepted Jesus as Lord.” This was the issue with Paul’s people, the Jews, who were by & large not flocking to the Christian faith. This is the reason I think Paul is saying, “I’ve stopped worrying about whether they’ll accept faith the way I understand it, because I believe God will somehow it work it all out.” So apply that to our understanding of interfaith relationships and even of how we understand God-fearing Christians whose definition of morality doesn’t match my definition of morality. I’ve stopped worrying about whether people will agree with me 100%. Do I think it would be better for them right here and now if they all knew Jesus as I know him? I believe so! But do I think their “blindness” to my beliefs prevents them from receiving the promises? I have to side with Paul that God will somehow work it out. But I’m not so sure what that might mean.

  2. Hi Jason, thanks for the reply and don’t worry, no trolls here. But I can see how that could be a concern as I re-read my question, especially the “universalist” tag. I’m not a big fan of labels as I get tagged with a few myself. It’s just human nature: when someone disagrees with us, just label them and dismiss them. In my case I’m a member of a church with strong Calvinist leanings, although we are not officially “reformed.” And since I argue for some degree of free moral agency, I’m tagged with the label of semi-pelagian, which in their view is something akin to calling me semi-heretic or semi-antichrist. I suppose the reason for using labels is that it just saves us a lot of time typing or talking.
    So I believe apologies are in order for “tagging” you with a label. I really just was trying to understand the church of Christ position. I goggled, I read Wikipedia, I read some of your fellow bloggers, and then I spoke with my pastor. And I still have a bunch of questions, but one of these days I’ll just drop in on a local church of Christ.
    Regarding my thoughts on your post (and thanks for asking by the way), it may be a bit convoluted, but I’ll try to keep it succinct: Read the entire book of Romans as if Paul is addressing the same interlocutor throughout the book. In other words, the righteous Jew that Paul addresses in 2:17 is the same person he is addressing in chapters 8, 9, 10. If you read him that way, I believe there are significant soteriological implications, which are too involved for me to go into here. This is your blog after all. Thanks for letting me share.

  3. I just re-read my comment and it’s pretty clear I’m not very good at this blogging stuff. I think I need to clarify myself. What I was attempting to say is that the book of Romans is clearly written primarily to gentile believers in Rome, not to the righteous Jew of chapter 2. However Paul uses a rhetorical device throughout the book where he addresses possible objections to his teachings by having a hypothetical conversation with a person, real or imagined. Think Plato’s Dialogues. So, if Paul is in fact utilizing a very well known literary device of the Greco-Roman world, it is reasonable to assume that the interlocutor, or the hypothetical person, is the same person throughout the epistle.
    Sorry for hijacking your post. I’m done now. Really, I promise.

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