A Divided Christendom. Can the Idea of a “Third Race” Help Us?
by Charles Ringma tssf
We seem to be living in a very different time to the 20th century when churches were concerned about the lack of unity of the church and its implications for the witness of the church in society. This concern seems to have disappeared.
Today, the splinterization of Christianity continues with many solo churches coming into being and Christian para-church groups continuing to proliferate. Also, many Christians now prefer to be part of informal “groups” or as alienated from the church while continuing to maintain their Christian faith.
All of this is overlaid with the reality that churches are not only divided along doctrinal, but also along ethnic and economic lines. We have Chinese and Vietnamese churches and churches predominately of the well-to-do.
What all of this indicates is that the concept of church, as the Body of Christ, has become a pragmatic and functional reality with little biblical/theological depth. That being the case, we have freed ourselves to “play church” at will, and our little sense of cooperation has not only led to duplication, but also competition. And with the lack of growth of the church in the West, “branding” has become a dominant operational motif. We have to show how we are different, and move you to join our more desirable form of church.
All of this should be of great concern. While this brief reflection does not provide the space to develop a theology of the faith community, some basic comments can be made.
Being linked to Christ involves the double movement of being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and being baptized into the faith community: “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12: 13). This means that God’s reconciliation in Christ is both vertical and horizontal – we are joined to Christ and linked to one another. Solo Christianity is a postmodern fiction. The heartbeat of our faith is relationality – joined to God, the faith community, and our world.
This Christological community in the Spirit is a community where traditional social categories are overcome through a spiritual unity expressed in a concrete life together: “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).
This does not mean that these ethnic and social distinctives disappear in the faith community, but that they are no longer determinative. Christ is the new centre. And as such Christians are a corporate identity and are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2: 9).
It is therefore appropriate to ask the question whether in Christ a new “race” has come into being. Are Christians, as distinct from Jews and Gentiles, to be regarded as a Third Race?
The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus seems to think so. The writer speaks of Christians as “this new race or way of life” that has come into the world. The author continues: while they “follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time, they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.” They live in countries as “non-residents,” and “every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland is foreign.”
What we may draw from the above biblical passages and from this epistle is the following –
1. Christians are a distinct spiritual and social entity in society.
2. Their identity in Christ is not limited to their particular church.
3. Their identity is also national and global.
Let me draw some possible implications from these most basic points. First of all, Christians need to think about commonalities and sharing across denominations in their particular localities. Secondly, churches should exercise common concerns for the nation as a whole in which they find themselves. And thirdly, and most fundamentally and controversially, Christians need to find commonality with other Christians across the world.
Majoring on this last point, I believe that we need to rethink our order of priorities. If Christians are indeed a Third Race as a spiritual/social entity in Christ, then my priorities cannot be Australia first, the USA first, or China first, and then my commitment to Christ. Instead, the priority is Christ first, and then my commitment to local, national, and global Christian communities.
This means that I need to question what my country is doing in its policies towards other countries which will also affect my Christian brothers and sisters in that country. Put in the starkest terms I may need to become an “enemy” of my country if my country’s actions hurt another country and its faith community.
While this may all sound far too grandiose or abstract, let me make a simple point. If a church community in Australia forms a link with a church, in say Timor Leste, then the Australian church would have to take an interest in Australian Government policy towards that country and the church may well need to raise its voice in prophetic protest and work hard in expressing caring and practical solidarity.
And moving in the other direction, our solidarity with a faith community in Myanmar or Nigeria or Bolivia could open our eyes to things we are not properly seeing because of our cultural blinkers and arrogance.
All of this does not in any way suggest that we neglect responding to our neighbours and institutions in the general community. Love of God involves love of neighbour. But love of neighbour does not cancel out love of brothers and sisters in the faith in other parts of the world for with them we have a Christo-centric common identity. Paul’s words ring loud and clear: “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family faith” (Galatians 6: 10).
What could it look like if the local cooperation of faith communities could propel us out of our myopic perspectives and liberate us to embrace a global concern of Christians as a Third Race?
Charles Ringma, tssf,
Emeritus Professor Regent College, Vancouver; Honorary Research Fellow Trinity College Queensland; and Professor in the PhD program in contextual theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Metro Manila.