Citizenship 101: Immigration

Whoa–calm down.  

I’m not talking about national immigration issues.  I’m talking about Kingdom immigration issues.  Nation and kingdom are completely separate entities.

I do think that the national discussion of immigration is helpful for the Kingdom discussion, though, if only to help us relate to the original anxieties the Jews must have felt over the unveiling of God’s new, “open door” immigration policy in Ephesians 2:11-22.  Like many policies, it’s a little lengthy, but worth the read:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household,20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Okay, so this is pretty straightforward.  Before Christ, the Jewish nation was secured and well-defined.  The definition was found in the Law, whose rules formed a protective wall around the Jewish religious and social identity.  The Law provided an intricate framework of rules and regulations that effectively kept foreigners out.  In some ways, it was much better than a physical wall because, as the Jews found out via the Assyrians and Babylonians, physical walls could be destroyed.  When the Jews were dispersed and led off into exile, they found out just how helpful their intangible wall could be.  It allowed them to maintain their distinctness, even in the midst of a foreign culture.

Of course, foreigners could enter the Jewish nation; they just had to do so via the Law.

Honestly, it was a good system.

And then Christ came and tore it down.

It all sounds great to us, all this talk about peace and inclusiveness and citizenship.  But can you imagine the Jewish reaction, even among Jewish Christians?  Take a second to ponder the pitfalls of this open-door policy:  with no Law in place, how do you regulate basic morality?  The Law had a fixed set of physical punishments that were to be applied to different violations.  When Christ took those away, it opened the door to all sorts of perversions of morality, with no physical means of curbing them.  Also, the Law served as the central regulating document around which the various people in the Jewish nation could unify.  Without its cohesive presence, wouldn’t internal conflict abound?  And furthermore, if you were just to let anyone in through this new, “easy” path of Christ, then that would include a frighteningly wide array of former pagans.  What would happen to the distinctive Jewish identity?  Their distinctiveness is what carried them through years and persecution and exile.  Wouldn’t the abolition of the Law take that away?

Think about those implications for a minute.  Those are a big deal.  And as the early church found out, they were valid concerns.

Some scholars even think that the book of Ephesians itself was written to alleviate tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church–either that, or to give the Gentiles some much-needed instruction in basic morality.  But we need not speculate about the potential issues of bringing Gentiles into the church.  To see them first hand, we have only to turn to the Corinthians.  Corinth, you may know, was a Roman colony well-known for its immorality and populated with a wide variety of people from different places in the Roman Empire.  From within this morally lax melting pot of humanity emerged a church that seemed to validate the worst fears of any traditional Jewish Christians mourning the loss of their Law-ful identity.  Indeed, it is not hard to deduce from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a host of problems that racked this new church.  I can imagine the former Pharisee (and self-described flawless legalist) cringing as he wrote to them:

“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another,’I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ. 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”  I Cor. 1: 11-13

“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”  I Cor. 3:1-3

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?”  1 Cor. 5:1-2

 “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?…5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?…The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”  1 Cor. 6:1,5,7-9
 “17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good…20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!”  1 Cor. 11: 17, 20-22

 “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?”  1 Cor. 14:36

From Paul’s words, we see a church that vividly illustrates the dangers of God’s new immigration policy.  There is no internal unity; the people can not even agree on the idea that they should follow Christ before all others!  There is discord, strife, pettiness…and gross immorality.  In 1 Corinthians 5, the Christian limitations of punishing the offender are laid bare.  Can they stone him?  Beat him?  Nope…all Paul can do is threaten dissociation.  And with the early church bereft of any social and political pull, that threat surely didn’t carry a lot of weight.  (By the way, I’m not saying that it is a bad thing not to be able to stone people–quite the contrary!  But to first century traditionalists with a very different worldview, Paul certainly could seem a little impotent here.)
In short, God’s new immigration policy must have seemed a little reckless to the followers of the Law.  It made church messy.  And hard.  It surely stretched the boundaries of people’s comfort zones, both the Law followers and the pagans.  To the Law followers, the new policy stripped them of any pride they could take in their own righteousness.  It stripped them of any special standing they felt as an upright Jew.  It must have been hard for the pagans, too.  Although surely inclusion in God’s plan was an honor to them, it also demanded a complete reorientation of their lives.  I can imagine how overwhelmed the Corinthians must have felt when they got Paul’s letter.  Even post-conversion, so many of them were still on the wrong path, and the tongue-lashing they received from Paul must have stung.  As nice as God’s new policy sounds in Ephesians, it was a hard arrangement for everyone involved.
In some ways, we are still working through its implications today.  While most Christians no longer struggle over Jewish identity (since we are not Jews), we can still divide into “Law followers” and “Corinthians,” those raised in the church and the unchurched.  When you mix those two groups together, things can get messy.  If, as a “Law follower,” you have ever tried to take the Lord’s Supper with a group of rowdy, unchurched teens, for example, you know what I’m talking about.  It is a completely cringe-worthy experience, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that everyone is about to get struck by lightning.  Or, from the other perspective, if you walk into a traditional church covered in tattoos and reeking of cigarette smoke, you also know what I’m talking about.  Even though you aren’t forcibly ejected from the building, you may nevertheless feel like a complete pariah while inside.
Being in that situation, both sides have to wrestle with some important questions.  We have to try to figure out what issues matter, which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 5 stand and which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 8 approach.  We have to figure out how to maintain unity in Christ, despite our different backgrounds.  And most of all, we have to figure out what the example of Christ looks like in today’s world.  So many times, we are tempted to conform Christ to our comfort zones, instead of the other way around.  There are several problems with that, one being that with God’s new open door immigration policy, we have a wide variety of citizens with an equally wide variety of backgrounds.  If we all conform Christ to our comfort zones, we will end up with a bunch of different Christs!  We may even wonder sometimes if we are all serving the same God!
I throw all this out there as something to think about.  Clearly, I don’t have all–or any–of the answers.  I do, however, believe that God’s immigration policy is worth seriously pondering.  God’s policy can make church both messy and hard, but if we don’t understand and follow it in our churches today, we will be unable to grow and to further God’s kingdom.
What do you think of God’s immigration policy?  Do you relate more to the “Law follower” side, or the “Corinthian” side?  How does “your” side make it difficult to embrace God’s policy?
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3 responses to this post.

  1. Sorry about the spacing issues toward the end. I have no idea what is going on!

    Reply

  2. I think being around some people that didnt used to fit into my “ideal” christian mold has recently changed that for me. I have been in a bible class recently with a guy who could beat up anybody he wanted (literally, he used to be a professional ultimate fighter), tatooed from head to toe and one of the most “on fire” people I have ever met. He says some of the most challenging things, both to us and the inmates he evangelizes to every week …and all from the perspective of a person who doesnt look like he belongs here. Its been very challenging for me to consider my own network and my own group of people that I minister to, and be willing to see past the skin of those who are beneficial to the Kingdom than I am in many ways.

    I think “church” people, namely those who have been raising in the church, tend to be the ones who are more selective with their grace than others. People who have been allured by the message itself (Rather than a church, a program or a building) are better at seeing the potential in it for every man, women and punk kid.

    Reply

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