One People In Christ: Biblical Perspective on Multiethnic Church
J.P. Robins holds M.Div. from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and MBA from De Montfort University. Robins was on staff at Tremont Temple church in Boston and has held various management positions at technology companies. He lives in Boston, MA with his wife, Elizabeth, and their 3 children.View all articles by J.P. Robins
The church’s mandate is to reach people of all ethnic groups
The Great Commission to the church is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The word nation comes from the Greek word ethne, which is closer to our term, ethnic group. In Genesis we see how “families became tribes, which then became nations, which became separated by language differences and spread out over all the earth.”iii When God looks at nations, he sees ethnic groups made up of families and tribes. I believe that our Lord, in the Great Commission, is charging us to reach all ethnic groups.
We see this mandate being carried out in the account of the early church in the book of Acts. While the gospel was first presented predominantly to the Jews in Jerusalem, as the disciples were required to, it rapidly expanded not only geographically, but crossing the boundaries of ethnic and cultural divides, starting with the people of Samaria, who were half-Gentile, and later to the ends of earth. Samaria, an adjoining region north of Judea geographically corresponds to the kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament. There was bitter hostility between the Jews and Samaritans, which started with the division of the northern and southern kingdoms. Samaritans, a mixed-blood race resulting from the intermarriage of Israelites and the Assyrians (cf. 2 Kings 17:24), were considered unclean by the Jews (cf. John 4:9). Samaritans opposed the building of the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Nehemiah 2:10-6:14) and instead considered Mt. Gerizim to be sacred. Regardless of their ethnic background, lifestyle and belief system, and despite Jesus being refused entry in Samaria (Luke 9:54), he charged his disciples to witness to the people of Samaria (cf. Acts 1:8). Do we look at people like Jesus did?
A church that mirrors the neighboring community will be most effective in reaching that community and the world
Most of the letters of the New Testament written to a local church were addressed to the believers residing in a geographic location and never to a single ethnic group. Paul addresses the book of Ephesians to “the saints in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1), Romans to “all in Rome who are loved by God” (Romans 1:7), Colossians to the “brothers in Christ at Colosse” (Colossians 1:2), Corinthians to “the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia (2 Corinth 1:1); similarly Peter writes to “God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1) and John writes to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1:4). This alludes to the fact that the local church is supposed to be a body of “all” believers residing in a single area, and not so much a body of believers from a single ethnic group from different areas congregating in one place. I must add that if a certain group of people do not understand the language of the wider culture, it is reasonable to form a church in their native language. This should be an exception and never the norm.
A homogenous church confuses, albeit unintentionally, the message of God’s love for all people. “Such a church, therefore, becomes increasingly cumbersome to the advance and proclamation of the Gospel.”iv On the other hand, a multi-ethnic church that looks like its neighboring community, which is increasingly multi-ethnic, will be potentially more effective in reaching the people of the community. “There is no greater tool for evangelism than the witness of diverse believers walking, working and worshipping God as one in and through the local church.”v
As an illustration from the Scriptures, we see that the first Gentile church that was formed at Antioch resulted from cross-cultural witness. Whereas some believers shared the good news about Jesus only to Jews, some men of Cyprus and Cyrene shared it to the Greeks also (Acts 11:19, 20). Even the composition of the leadership at the church in Antioch reflected the demographic mix of the church. Of the five elders listed in Acts 13:1, Simeon called Niger was a Black, Lucius of Cyrene was also a Black (Cyrene is a city in North Africa), Manaen apparently was from Judea and might have been economically privileged (he had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, Acts 13:1), Barnabas was a Mediterranean (from Cyprus, Acts 4:32) and Saul was a Roman (from Rome, Acts 9:11). They embodied the true unity in Christ by loving and respecting each other despite their differences of color and economic status. Is it any wonder then that the Holy Spirit chose the disciples at Antioch to be first called Christians (Acts 11:26)? They were practicing Christians indeed. This multi-ethnic church also launched the missionary trips of Paul and Barnabas that took the gospel to the ends of the earth. I believe that only a multi-ethnic church that first reaches out to the different ethnic groups in their own community can be most effectively used of God for global missions work as well.
The gospel message is a message of reconciliation
The cross offers reconciliation “both vertically with God when we look up to Him in faith and he looks downs on us in love, as well as horizontally to our relationships with people on this earth.”vi Sadly, most churches focus on the vertical dimension as we passionately proclaim our salvation in Christ, but fail to see the horizontal dimension in God’s redemptive work.
Many of Paul’s letters, such as Ephesians, Romans and Galatians, were written in part to help Jewish and Gentile believers to get along and “be” the church in the local setting. By using the term “all”, as an example in referring to the saints in Ephesus (Ephesians 1:13), Paul is employing an inclusive language because he has “in mind the multi-ethnic nature of that church.”vii He reminds the Gentile believers in Ephesus that at one time they were “separate from Christ and excluded from citizenship in Israel” (Ephesians 2:12), but now they were “fellow citizen’s with God’s people and members of God’ household” (Ephesians 2:19). He instructs them that this was made possible “through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13) and “through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). The mediating work of Christ “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … to reconcile both of them to God” (Ephesians 2:14-16). “Paul’s point is that Gentiles have now been reconciled to God through faith and therefore to the commonwealth of Israel.”viii This reconciliation is to be manifest in the local church by being “joined together” (Ephesians 2:21) to become “an authentic, visible community of faith where people of diverse backgrounds worship God together as one.”ix In a world that is “increasingly connected and yet stubbornly sectarian”x, “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ ... [has given] us the ministry of reconciliation … and has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
The Holy Spirit enables us to experience reconciled lives
Having explained, in the initial chapters of Ephesians, how God brought believing Jews and Gentiles together into a new relationship in Christ, beginning with chapter 4, Paul offers practical instructions to live out a life in harmony with one another. He advises them to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3). He continues to speak of unity as he shows how believers “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) can live together in practical way in various human relationships – between husband and wife, parents and children, employers and employees. By asking them to “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21), Paul shows how in each relationship, each partner should have a conciliatory attitude. The Greek grammar indicates that this mutual submission is associated with the filling of the Holy Spirit in v.18.xi A life of harmony can be lived out only in the power of the Holy Spirit.
To further explore the work of the Holy Spirit, specifically in the context of multi-ethnic worship, let us look at the experiences on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. In Acts 2:8, the people that were gathered asked: “How is it that each of us hears them in our own native language?” Whereas at the Tower of Babel the languages were confused, resulting in people not understanding each other and hence being divided, in a sense, God brought about a unity on the day of Pentecost that seemed to transcend the barriers of language. Secondly, it was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2:28 that God “will pour out [his] Spirit on all people … sons and daughters will prophesy” (italics mine). Much like the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the move of the Holy Spirit in Azusa Street also brought about a unity that transcended differences of race and gender. People from many races, nationalities, and classes gathered at Azusa Street Mission. We should make every effort to continue the inter-racial and inter-gender style of worship that was started by the Holy Spirit in Azusa Street.
The unity of all people extends through eternity
Insofar as possible, may our worship services be a shadow of what we will experience in eternity when people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) will praise the Lord continually around His throne. Christ has purchased them with his blood “to be a kingdom” (Revelation 5:10). May we strive to not divide the people God has brought together through his death and who will be remain together in eternity. As we pray, “your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), may we take a moment to ponder how the kingdom will be expressed in heaven?
Shall we join our hearts as we conclude with the words of the song:
Blessing and Honour, Glory and Power
Be unto the Ancient of Day
From every Nation, all of Creation
Bow before the Ancient of Days
Every tongue in heaven and earth
Shall declare your glory
Every knee shall bow at your throne in worship
You will be exalted, O God
And your kingdom shall not pass away
O Ancient of Days
Notes and References
ii Mark Deymaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments and Practices of a Diverse Church (San Jose, CA: Wiley, 2007), p.34
iii Loren Cunningham, The Book that Transforms Nations (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2007) p.46
iv Mark Deymaz, p.4
vi Doug Hall, The Laodecian Code: Hope for Regaining Christian Vitality in the Western World, Unpublished
vii Mark Deymaz, p.29
x Ibid, p.4
xi Kenneth Barker, The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p.1800