Shaking Off The Shackles:
God’s Multiracial Vision From The Book Of Romans
By Isaac Canales
Pastors need to embrace God’s purpose for civilization and history. His purpose is expressed with perceptive brilliance in Paul’s letter to the Romans — to call a people for His name and gather all nations for worship in His house. God’s multiracial vision is mutually inclusive for the New Israel. Since God’s vision for the nations was multicultural worship, Israel’s Old Testament mandate was clearly missional and global.
The Jewish people rejected God’s call to evangelization, but the prophets corrected the Jewish rejection of the nations. Jesus made it clear that the Kingdom was global, not just local. In Romans, Paul makes it clear again, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ … now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, namely (my translation) so all the Nations might believe and obey him” (Romans 16:25,26).
The gospel is intended to gather out of the world a people for God that resemble an exotic, mixed bouquet. The future of the church — the greatest organism on earth — is heterogeneous by cosmic will, prophetic vision, and supernatural intent. We have a biblical and pastoral mandate to move with God toward a more heterogeneous vision of the church in our time using Romans as our guide.
Multicultural theology in Romans unfolds from Paul’s deep understanding of God’s purpose for the nations in the Old Testament. Paul saw God’s plan for the nations as the good news promised in the prophets (Romans 1:2). His gift as apostle to the nations is rooted in God’s biblical mandate to Israel that salvation was for “everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16, NKJV).
From the beginning of Scripture, God’s intention was to reveal His purposes for the world through His chosen people Israel (Romans 1:20; 3:2). He first chose Abraham as the father of the Jews. God called Abraham out of ancient Babylon. Abraham obeyed God by faith and was circumcised (Romans 4:11).
God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just of the Jews (Genesis 12:3; 17:5; Romans 4:18). God’s relationship with Abraham and Israel revealed His purposes and also revealed Israel’s prideful rejection of His purposes (Romans 10:3).
God chose Abraham and brought him out from among other multicultural groups who worshiped pagan gods. He called Israel to worship Him alone and taught them to teach others to do the same (Romans 2:17–21). Through His covenant with Israel, Yahweh’s original intention was to reveal His nature to all nations. Through the people of Yahweh, the Almighty wanted to reveal His character to all nations. God wanted to use Israel as the example to all nations — neighbors should love one another and take care of each other. This showed that from creation God is a multicultural God. He gave His people a multicultural mission: Bring others into our covenant.
The Prophet’s Vision Is Blended
In Romans, Paul continually refers to the prophets, especially Isaiah. Isaiah understood God’s heart for diversity. In the prophets, the Lord spoke a multicultural word: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord … these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6,7).
The vision of reaching the nations, expressed by Isaiah and the other prophets is understood by Paul to be from God’s heart. This was Israel’s mission and is now the church’s mission. It is prophetic. It is biblical. It is imperative. God was not merely suggesting this multinational vision to Israel. They were to be the light of the world. Israel was given a missionary task.
Paul reminds us of Israel’s task in Romans 9–11. This vision is also revealed clearly in Romans 15:7. It begins with a theology of welcome that is consistent with the Old Testament and is the basis for multiracial worship and fellowship. What is revealed in the purposes of God for Old Testament Israel is continued in the New Testament. For example, Yahweh insisted that the Israelites accept aliens: “For the Lord your God is God of gods … who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends … the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19). Jesus understood the nations as His other sheep (John 10:16); Paul also understood this principle of diversity (Romans 15), as did John (Revelation 7:9,10).
Aliens Are Part Of Covenant
The Israelites were to bring these aliens into their covenant and win them over to the love of God through hospitality and through God’s revelation of His goodness and trustworthiness. If they repented of their pagan ways and embraced Hebrew culture and faith, proselytes were welcomed and accepted into the people of God. Jesus and Paul reminded the Jews of their neglect and rejection of their mission. Every prophet before Jesus and Paul reminded the Israelites of their prideful rejection of this multicultural mandate from God.
God’s Multiracial Vision
Though God made it clear that their privileged position was granted, not earned, the Jews felt smug and comfortable in their election. They forgot that they were not elected because they were special; they were special because they were elected. They disregarded the overarching commandments for love and justice, and they dwelt safely and securely in their comfort zone (Micah 6:8; Leviticus 19:18). They forgot Moses was married to an African woman, Abraham was from modern-day Iraq, and Ruth was a pagan Moabitess. The genealogy of Messiah was multiracial. There was no pure Jewish bloodline in history. They forgot their own heritage was diverse, and ironically, ruled others out of the blessings of the God of Israel. They became arrogant in their ability to keep God’s law. They completely forgot the reason Yahweh had set them apart; they lost their multicultural mandate to be a light to the nations. As a result, their mission self-imploded, ending in a crucible of ethnocentric pride. The Israelites replaced God’s multicultural vision by justifying the self-elevation of their history, traditions, and strict religious practices. They were all unity, but no mission. The pool stagnated where the waters of mission were no longer running.
Multiracialism Is Prophetic Vision
In contrast to His fellow Israelites’ arrogance, Jesus — God fully revealed as man — powerfully and radically lived out the Old Testament’s theology of welcome. He was controversial. He shocked the establishment, but He was ruthlessly true to it. Jesus embraced lepers, Greeks, and dogs (a Jewish term for Gentiles). He welcomed every repentant sinner into His kingdom of healing and intimacy with God through His embrace of a multiracial, sinful world. He claimed to do only what He saw His Father doing (John 8:28). His welcoming of Gentiles and sinners fulfilled the Law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17–20), and challenged the Pharisees to major in the lofty themes of Scripture and not major on minors. In Romans, Paul reminds us of Jesus’ multicultural attitude: “be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5, NKJV).
Jesus fully revealed this Kingdom culture to Paul. Paul saw Jesus as the measure of what is true and good — the non-negotiables of Christian faith. His kingdom is the standard of all cultural values, beliefs, and characteristics. Paul said, “For the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy” (Romans 14:17, NKJV). By its very nature, the kingdom of God affirms, encompasses, and transforms every culture it embraces. Therefore, acknowledging that no one culture embodies the whole truth, and knowing the gospel to be offensive to all cultures on some points, we can enjoy our Creator’s handiwork in cultures other than our own.
Paul tried to teach the weak (Romans 14:1) and strong Christians of Rome this truth: We can learn from other people’s unique encounters with the Lord of all cultures. But bringing together different cultures into one body is no easy thing, as we see in the Roman church (Romans 14:1 through 15:13). Paul faced a huge culture clash.
Multiracialism In Romans
The Jewish weak and the Gentile strong of Romans are examples of multiracial challenges in the church (Romans 14:1; 15:1). Paul was a witness to this reality. The Book of Romans is Paul’s answer to the questions that emerge from God’s theology of welcome in Christ, as practiced at Rome among Jews and Gentiles. What happens when Jews and Gentiles are saved, join together in common worship and fellowship? Is it possible for whites, blacks, browns, or Asians to gather in worship? Should they? What color does normative worship look like? Is it one culture only? What about a church in the city as opposed to one in rural America or rural India? Can it be multicultural?
These are heavy questions along multiracial lines. Paul’s answers to the multiracial issues of his day are appropriate for pastors today. In addressing cultural conflicts between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church, Paul established multicultural guidelines for the church throughout the ages. These guidelines are satisfying answers anointed with the biblical, prophetic, and theological foundation laid down by God in the Old Testament and by our Lord Jesus in the New Testament. In Romans, Paul revealed his theology of welcome in Christ from 1:5–15:13. In Romans 1:5 the apostle reminds us of the multiracial mandate: The grace of God has been received to bring about the “obedience to the faith among all nations for his name” (NJKV). He ended the letter with the same mandate (Romans 16:26).
The word for nations is ethneis, where we get the word ethnic (non-Jewish). Romans 1:16 reminds us that the good news of God’s covenant love is “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Before that, as a Jewish Christian, Paul defined himself humbly and consciously as a missionary to the barbarians and Greeks (Romans 1:14). Clearly, he was the multicultural apostle. If we have multicultural concerns today, we can go to Romans for answers.
God’s Multiracial Revelation In The Church
As Paul pressed his missionary concern on the nations of the world, he revealed the great prophetic truth that Jews and Greeks all come short of God’s glory and all are justified freely by faith in Christ (Romans 3:22,23). He openly presented Abraham, the father of all nations, as the example of obedient faith. He called Israel to remember its forsaken mission to the nations, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:15, NKJV).
In a more provocative prophetic passage, Paul reminded rebellious Israel of God’s multiracial purpose in spite of her parochial rejection: “ ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’ But to Israel God said: ‘All day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people’ ” (Romans 10:20,21, NKJV). God reminded Israel (as He does every pastor) that they had lost their sense of mission to the world because of their desire to remain in their cultural comfort zone. This should be a lesson for us today. Our mandate is to mix the colors — from the pews, to the platform, to the board — as much as demographically possible and let the Holy Spirit put the brush to the canvas.
Focus On Being Biblical
As we look around our country, we remember God’s intention is that all cultures, tongues, and types worship in His house as His family. We tell our friends that the kingdom of God is a big party with a piÃ±ata where all are welcome. But what kind of fiesta is it, really? For the documented only? A party with Asians in one room; African-Americans in another; Pentecostals all crammed into the afterglow room; whites in the living room; and Mexicans in the back? Some historical demonstrations have shown that our non-Christian friends have seen through the hypocrisy of our party long ago because not everyone is welcome. Our evangelical slip is showing. We are worried about being cute when we should be focused on being biblical.
One Color, One Culture — Too Easy
The root of American Evangelical hypocrisy is an ongoing smugness, a historical inability to understand God’s unfailing mercies for everyone, and His unfailing love for the unlovely among us. To the degree our sense of worth and value is maintained through religion and culture — from our color, to our work ethic, to the neighborhood we live in — is the degree we remain independent of God and self-sufficiently smug. Christ cannot help us. To the degree that the strong of Romans 15:1 in our churches refuse to bear the burden of the weak of other cultures is the degree in our churches that we pastors please ourselves and not Christ. “For even Christ did not please himself,” Paul tells us (Romans 15:3, NKJV). So a question to every pastor of any color is: Shall I build a church that isolates us from others, or should I embrace Paul’s theology of welcome? (Romans 15:7). It is easy to raise a church with one color and one language. Anyone can raise a megachurch that is one color and one culture. However, try blending by intention. Try to build a multiracial church if place, time, and demographics permit. This is a challenge. But this is what Christ died and rose for. It is worth sacrificing comfort for the glorious blending of a thousand tongues.
God’s Way May Not Be The Easy Way
Paul says in Romans 15:7, thinking of the Jewish/Gentile conflict in Rome and in many of his churches, “Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God” (NKJV). This word of hope and glory was given in the light of cultural conflict in the church. The easy way would have been to form a church for Jews and a church for Gentiles. But God’s way may not be the easy way. Biblical exegesis explains that the best reading is always the hard one. The tough way brings greater glory to God. God’s glory is a mixed worship team in an all white church. God’s glory is a white pastor in an African-American church. God’s glory is a rural, white church with an African-American pastor.
The weak of Romans 14:1 were the Jewish Christians. The strong of Romans 15:1 were the proud Gentiles who despised Jewish dietary regulations. The glory of God is that they were in the same church working it out. The Jewish brethren did not eat ham, bacon, or pork. The Gentile Christians, who supposedly lived by faith, could enjoy these foods with a clear conscience. Paul reminded both cultures that Christ died for our differences. His work was to unify, not to divide (Romans 14:19). Is the food really worth it?
The important thing today is to resist the steady suction of single-color religion. Drop the fear of what’s-not-like-me and adopt the attitude of Christ who was a servant (Romans 15:8) sustained by love for the weak.
Acceptance Is Not Toleration
Paul teaches us in Romans to struggle through the issues of multiculturalism and not give in to the solutions of our world. To deal with the issues of diversity in the Fellowship by embracing and accepting one another in Christ is to say no to the world’s answers. The world’s answers are: prejudice, racism, segregation, violence, toleration, and comfort-zone fellowship. Paul did not say tolerate one another. Toleration is a polite racism, a quiet sin. Paul says “receive” one another, not tolerate one another (Romans 15:7, NKJV). The word proslambano means accept and welcome, not tolerate or put up with.
The word for “receive” (Romans 15:7, NKJV) is like a big hug. Proslambano means embrace. In Romans, Paul’s answer to segregation is a multiracial embrace. God does not prefer one color when all colors could be in your board, staff, family, and team. The Kingdom costs of ignoring the biblical mandate to multiracial worship are too high. The church, as Paul reminded us, must look to the Scriptures for God’s future, shaking off the shackles of our racial comfort zones, individualism, and polite toleration. The way is marked out for us in Romans 14:1 through 15:1–13. Therefore, “receive one another, just as Christ also welcomed us, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, NKJV).
1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.