What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 5. “Color-Blind Theology”


[I found it necessary later to offer one clarification to what follows. Though mentioned below, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not think that the Jew/Gentile relation is one-to-one comparable to modern Western racial relations, but am only here responding in-kind to those who would press color-blindness via the passages discussed. Please see “What Does “Jew & Gentile” Have to do With “Black & White”? : A Clarification.]

Among the greatest barriers to acknowledging—or even recognizing—the extent of racialization in American society, and the extent of white privilege in particular, is the post-Civil Rights ethic of “color-blindness.”

Not only does the color-blind ethic obscure the history and currency of the centuries-forged “color line” in America, it also allows for only historically unhinged explanations of current disparities, lending to the continued maintenance of the status quo, cemented through 450 years of both overt racism and racialized institution building. In fact, it renders racial and ethnic disparities nearly un-stateable, collapsing all problems into individual events among individual bad actors with “perfectly reasonable” individual explanations—usually some deficiency among minorities themselves.

While I intend to explore the interpretive patterns and social ramifications of color-blind racism in the next post, I would like here to first address the so called “color-blind theology” which is thought to furnish a Biblical justification for a color-blind ethic within the Church itself. Just as the majority of Americans today believe color-blindness to be the highest expression of anti-racism, so also many theologians seem to believe it is the God ordained basis for unity within the Church as well as the Gospel cure to any prejudice or disparity within the Body.

There is Neither Jew nor Gentile

The most common passages used to demonstrate the alleged color-blindness prescribed in the Scripture are the following:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:11)

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Upon citing these passages, believers presume themselves justified in declaring that they “don’t even see color,” that categories of race and ethnicity—including the histories of peoples and their encultured relations—have no place within the Church.

While there are many things wrong with employing these passages to get to color-blindness—including the lack of one-to-one correspondence between Jew/Gentile and modern racialization, the unbiblical implication that racism was allowed before Christ, and the exegetical hoops that must be leapt through to then avoid “gender-blindness”—the most deflating aspect is that there is simply nothing “color-blind” at all about these passages. I think we all agree that union with Christ is the basis for Christian unity and identity among believers of every race and ethnicity, but there is simply no warrant for assuming all embodied distinctions are therefore to be eschewed among the members of the Body. No, what these passages capture is quite different.

The Meaning of “No Difference” via the Book of Romans

The book of Romans, written as it was to a recently diversified church (at least in terms of Jew/Gentile), gives us the broader strokes of this relation between Jew and Gentile in Christ. In the opening chapter we read,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)

The gospel is for all, not just for Jews nor just for Gentiles. In the next chapter we read the same even with regard to the last judgement:

He will render to each one according to his works: …There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom. 2:7-11)

(It is interesting that in both, there is already distinction: Jew first, then Gentile.) Next, Paul proves that all are alike under sin and in need of like redemption, both Jew and Gentile:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin (Rom. 3:9)

The means of this like redemption is faith in Christ, the very promise believed by Abraham who is the father of all believing races and ethnicities:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:16-17)

And when Paul discusses the apparent fate of elect Israel, he speaks of the true Israel as,

…even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles[.] (Rom. 9:24)

And finally, Paul declares that there is no distinction when it comes to salvation in our one Lord Jesus Christ:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:12-13)

Herein is the unity spoken of in Colossians and Galatians: the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile, both are alike guilty before God and will be judged impartially, both are to be justified by the same means, faith in Christ. Further, believers are effectually called by God from both Jews and Gentiles, having alike the same Lord, Jesus Christ. As the Apostle says elsewhere,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12-13)

This truly is the basis for all Christian unity, including all racial and ethnic unity within the Church. (I have argued elsewhere that the incarnation of Christ is a basis for racial and ethnic unity even among non-Christians!) There is no distinction to be made with reference to guilt, redemption, or unity in Christ by the Spirit.

There Are Jews and Gentiles, According to the Flesh

But the supposed “color-blind” reading of these passages is simply not available, for Paul nevertheless continues to make important distinctions between Jew and Gentile Christians, without thereby diminishing their unity in Christ. In the very next chapter in Romans, Paul addresses Gentile Christians directly, in distinction to Jewish Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13). Why? Because given the history and relationship between these people groups, Paul recognized the need to warn the Gentiles not to fall into the same boasting that had condemned the Jews before them. And again, we see distinction in chapter 15 where Paul encourages them to contribute to his collection for the Jerusalem saints, arguing that the Gentile churches “owe it to them” (v. 27). Why? As Paul argues here and elsewhere, since the Jews were the source of the Gentiles’ spiritual blessings, they ought to in turn liberally share their material blessings. Within the very context of arguing for no distinction as to gospel, judgement, guilt, redemption, and unity in Christ, Paul nonetheless recognizes the distinction of peoples, with different incarnated histories and cultures (religious and otherwise), as well as the differing relationships and contexts they find themselves in. And he addresses them from these distinctions, even marking out differing potential errors and differing contextual imperatives.

Though united in Christ, we see these distinctions playing out throughout the New Testament narratives of these two people groups. When Paul visits Jerusalem after years of mission work among the Gentiles, Luke records the following words of James:

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” (Acts 21:20-21)

In response, Paul purifies himself according the custom of Jews and worshiped together with them in the Temple. As he himself says elsewhere, he was willing to become a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles, that he might give offense to none (1 Cor. 9:20-23; 10:31-33).

Further, when Judaizers sought to require the Gentiles to (in essence) become Jews through circumcision and keeping of the laws of Moses, the Jerusalem Council sent a letter with moral and ceremonial instructions addressed to Gentile Christians alone:

“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” (Acts 15:22-23)

Why? Though they were all one in Christ, there were nevertheless important historical, cultural, and religious differences forged over thousands of years that needed to be recognized. These were not to be ignored, but consciously negotiated for the sake of peace and unity in the lived experience of the Church. I suppose the Jerusalem Council could have just concluded by declaring, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ. So, everyone just go home; problem solved”; but the Apostles and elders’ understanding of lived Christian unity was not so narrow as that of so called “color-blind theology.”

To be sure, the spiritual unity of the Church is a fact. But it is a spiritual realized eschatological fact—an already-not-yet fact—that had to be worked out in real time and space, and this could only be done by taking seriously that which had divided these enfleshed souls for centuries. That is, though undifferentiated in the Spirit, they nevertheless differed according to the flesh, just as Paul declared himself to be “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5) according to the flesh, a brother to the Jews, his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3). And Paul likewise was willing to address Christians according to their genos, ethnos, and heritage, as “Gentiles in the flesh” (Eph. 2:11) in order to press for lived unity.

Distinguishing For the Sake of Unity

In at least two places in the New Testament we see examples of this necessity to recognize distinctions for the sake of lived unity. First, in Galatians 2 we are told of the confrontation between Paul and Peter:

[W]hen Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14)

What possible sense can be made of this confrontation within the framework of so called “color-blind theology”? On the color-blind scheme, Peter could simply have said, “What’s the difference? I’m just eating with those whom I feel most comfortable right now. There is neither Jew nor Gentile anyhow.” And how could Paul respond with, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” From whence are these categories for rebuke?

Acts 6 is another example (we have, of course, discussed this before on another front):

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (v. 1)

Again, what is a Hellenist or a Hebrew in the Church of God, according to the “color-blind” interpretation of Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28? And why did the Apostles not just tell those with the grievance, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, so get back to work”? What we read instead is that the Apostles create a new office in the Church, the diaconate, and the church went on to fill this new office with Hellenist men. In both of these examples, the Apostles acknowledged the distinction of peoples according to the flesh, recognized their histories of division and privilege (see HERE), and acted accordingly.

Peter’s dissociation from Gentile believers was not treated as “natural” or of no major consequence because in Christ “there is no distinction.” The neglect of the Hellenists was not down-played because there actually were no Hellenists in Christ or because the Apostles were not to import racial and ethnic histories into the Church. No, in both cases, and throughout the New Testament, the Apostles sought to bring the realized-eschatological spiritual unity of the church into time and space reality by recognizing and acting upon historical, cultural, and ethnic distinctions among these people groups, taking into consideration the centuries of divide.

Racial and Ethnic Unity and Diversity in Redemptive History

To conclude, there simply is no “color-blindness” in the New Testament. We have shown in the first post that the Biblical authors employed the concepts of genos, ethnos, and phule in a way not dissimilar to our own use of “race” and “ethnicity.” And we have here shown that while unity in Christ is indeed the absolute unifying principle of the people of God such that there is no distinction in gospel, legal culpability, or salvation in Christ, there are nevertheless distinctions made throughout the pages of New Testament—distinctions necessary for bringing about real-time, progressively sanctifying, unity amongst the people of God.

And this unity in diversity, running through the whole of the Scriptures, is part of the great history and eschatology of redemption itself. It is not a story where everyone becomes Jews, nor everyone becomes Gentiles, nor does everyone become ahistorical disembodied neithers; rather, it is the story of God’s manifold created diversity glorifying Him in perfect unity. This redemptive-historical thread runs from beginning to end.

And he made from one man every nation (ethnos) of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations [ethnos in Rom. 4:17]. (Gen. 17:5)

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it…. (Is. 2:2)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (ethnē), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20)

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe (phylon) and language and people (laou) and nation (ethnous), and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation (ethnous), from all tribes (phylōn) and peoples (laōn) and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

“Color-blind theology” flattens this diversity and covers God’s colorful creation in a coat of many greyscales. It also makes real-time progress toward lived unity nearly impossible. Fortunately, no such thing can be found in the Scriptures.

Next up: What Is & Isn’t Being Said: “Color-Blind Racism”


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