I can think of a few reasons I don’t want to be part of a church with people who are different than me. It’s uncomfortable to encounter people who see the world differently than me, especially when their political opinions and actions bump up against mine.
But church isn’t about separating according to political divisions or any other cultural barrier. Church is where our commonality in the gospel overcomes the forces that would otherwise divide us.
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all,” Paul writes in Colossians 3:11.
Paul writes about some of the greatest divisions one could imagine. For Greeks and Jews to eat and worship together was no small thing. How does one overcome years of racial and religious prejudice? It would have been far easier to separate into Jewish churches and Greek churches, both affirming their commitment to each other in the abstract. Paul wouldn’t have any of it. Jews and Greeks joined the same churches and learned to overcome their differences in the weekly rhythms of worship and fellowship. It couldn’t have been easy, but it’s what the gospel calls us to do.
But Paul doesn’t stop with the divide between Greeks and Jews. He mentions slaves and free worshiping together, the social differences flattened by their equal status as God’s children. Legally speaking, slaves in that culture were not persons but somebody’s property. The gospel changed all that. Slaves were brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. The gospel enables those from different social classes to find common ground in the life of the local church.
The most shocking part of Colossians 3:11 is Paul’s mention of barbarians and Scythians, two terms that somewhat overlap. Barbarians were non-Greeks. Scythians were the lowest class of barbarians. The historian Josephus wrote, “Now, as to the Scythians, they take a pleasure in killing men, and differ little from brute beasts.”
Within the church, none of that mattered. “Christ is all, and in all,” Paul wrote. The centrality of Christ overcomes any difference that would otherwise divide us. To divide over racial, political, or social issues is a betrayal of the gospel.
Of course, none of this comes easily to us. Even if we love the idea, we still need to pay the price of living out this theological truth as we encounter our differences within the church. It’s why Paul immediately follows his assertion with these commands, found in Colossians 3:12-14: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
We don’t live out our unity in the abstract. We live it out as we encounter differences that drive us crazy. It takes lots of love, lots of patience, and lots of forgiveness, but it’s worth it.
Christ doesn’t obliterate our differences. We’ll still come from different racial and social backgrounds, and we’ll see the world differently from others. Instead, he overcomes our differences with our commonality in the gospel. Our job is to live that out.
We don’t divide over politics or tribal backgrounds in the church. To do so is a betrayal of the gospel. We have too much in common. It’s our job to live that reality out, even when it costs.