Scripture Teaches that establishing multi-ethnic churches is what God desires.
The Scripture was written down in an environment in which several cultures interacted with one another. Naturally, we are justified to look into Scripture in order to see what it teaches about planting multi-ethnic churches. In this post I will address few issues about establishing and sustaining multi-ethnic churches such as what the Bible teaches on them and what insight that gives us. Throughout the post I assume that already you have a small multi-ethnic gathering in place, and as a church planter you are interested keeping it diverse. Let’s look at the Scripture and see what it teaches.
1.Jesus healed gentiles which implies the Savior’s desire for salvation of all humanity without regard to ethnicity.
Jesus’ approach to foreigners, or those who were perceived by society to be outsiders, can be discerned from the New Testament. We see in the New Testament his interaction with Samaritan and Canaanite people, who were considered to be ethnically different from the Jews. Samaritans were descendants of Jews who married people from other ethnic groups, and were considered to be unclean by Jews. Canaanites were another Semitic people.
Jesus’ interaction with Samaritans and his approach to them can be seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and from his talk with a Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). If Jesus were to feel disgust for Samaritans, he would not present a Samaritan person in his parable as a model to fellow Jews. Jews did not talk to Samaritans because they were considered to be unclean, but Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well. Also, Christ heals a Samaritan man (Luke 17:11-19) and Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-28). These verses show that Jesus Christ wanted to reach out to non-Jews too, and incorporate them into the church.
2.The early Church wrestled with issues of culture and multi-ethnicity of churches.
However, the church is a different story. Although we know from Scripture that some of the apostles eagerly reached out to gentiles, not everyone agreed with these non-Jews retaining their culture while being a member of the church. The issue was two-fold: are we going to reach out to gentiles so that they follow Christ, and should they become assimilated into Jewish culture and let their culture go? The scripture answers the first question with yes and the second question with no — mostly.
The Bible gives us several clues about these issues. One clue is a conflict between Peter and Paul in Galatia (Gal 2:11-13). In Galatia, Peter who does not live according to Jewish laws, changes his attitude when Judaizers (Jewish Christians who believed that gentile Christians should follow Jewish purity laws) from Jerusalem come. Paul rebukes him, insisting that Jewish ritual laws should not be applied to gentiles, and Christians in general set free from those laws. This is a delicate issue, because Jewish Christians considered some of their ritual (food-related) laws to be part of the divine law, and not just part of their culture. So the first insight we can gain from this conflict is that we need to explore and understand cultures represented in multi-ethnic church gathering.
Another clue from the early church comes to us from the issue of circumcision of gentile Christians (Acts 15:22-32). Judaizers insisted that all Christians, Greeks included, need to be circumcised according to Moses’ teachings. Paul and others disagreed. The Jerusalem council addressed this issue, taking Paul’s side and setting gentiles free from following Jewish laws because they were re-interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is a clue that we cannot impose our culture upon others as part of the gospel, no matter how much gospel and culture are entwined. Gospel and culture are intertwined because God’s word became a Jew, lived as a Jew, and gospel is presented in the context of Jewish culture. However, to a certain degree we can separate them.
So, in a multi-ethnic congregation, we need to let people freely express their culture because it is a vehicle for God to work through. But we need to understand and learn cultures to separate their positive and negative elements.
The third clue comes from Acts 10 in which God guides Peter to Roman soldier Cornelius’ home. There God accomplishes two things. First, God eliminates dividing food into clean and unclean, which implied human beings too, because those who ate unclean food were unclean foreigners in Jewish eyes. Eliminating this division also eliminates a cultural practice which could be imposed upon non-Jews. Second, by sending the Spirit upon Greeks, God approved their inclusion in church. By doing that, God clearly expressed His yearning for multi-ethnic churches.
I can give you more examples from the New Testament, but I think that’s enough. In the Old Testament, matters are more complicated. In general, the Old Testament view of foreigners and ethnic diversity among the chosen people is filled with tension. On the one hand we have teachings of Ezra-Nehemiah, which insists on separating foreigners from Jewish people. On the other hand, we have Jonah who was sent by God to warn gentiles. Ruth, implicitly commended by the Old Testament, was a foreigner. God’s justice in the OT includes gentiles too.
3.The scripture gives us insights and principles for establishing multi-ethnic churches.
Before I begin with biblical insights that can be generalized into principles, a few words of caution are in order. We hear a lot about biblical principles of this or that. However, we often forget that these mere abstractions we extract from the Bible are exactly that, abstractions. We often treat the scripture as a fruit whose juice we can squeeze out and the rest we can treat as pulp. This can be a dangerous practice, because it devalues letter, detail, and context of scripture, and makes the word of God just a phase to our rationalized principles. So, yes, I will give you principles that Scripture lays down, but remember that the Bible is contextualized and these principles should be applied with caution. Principles should not be reason for discarding detailed and en-fleshed parts of Scripture. Here we go.
The first principle is centrality of Christ (and by implication centrality of God).
Verse: Gal 3:28 (no Jew, no Greek but oneness in Christ)
Verse: 2 Cor. 5:17 (transcending divisiveness as new creation in Christ)
Verse: 1 Cor. 1:10-17 (Don’t divide. Unite.)
God in Jesus Christ should be central to multi-ethnic church planting. I would say it should be more so than in mono-ethnic churches, because multi-ethnic churches have the burden to avoid culturally-based conflicts. If there are two or more cultures represented in a church plant it is the job of planters to pay attention to how these cultures interact with one another and always unite them through Christ. Christ was a Jew but he reached out to Samaritans. In Christ, we renew our minds to overcome prejudices within us and divisions among us.