The Biblical Mandate for the Multi-ethnic Church

I. Envisioned by Christ

In John 17:1-5ff., Christ clearly defined His mission. He was sent to the world to bring hope and the promise of eternal life to all mankind, to those who would believe. Reaching the lost is what it was all about; it remains today the passion of His heart.

So after first interceding for the apostles (John 17:6-19), He prayed for you and me (“…those also who believe in Me through their word,” John 17:20). Specifically and repeatedly (three times in the next three verses, John 17:21-23), He prayed that we would be one, or “perfected in unity,” so that the world would know God’s love and believe. Our unity, He declared, would be a visible witness to the world of God’s love for all people: Our unity would demonstrate to all mankind that He is, indeed, the Messiah who alone brings peace to the world, salvation to men.

On the night before He died, then, Christ not only defined His mission, but also delivered to us the most effective means of reaching the world with the Gospel. He did not ask us to write books, publish tracts or develop programs (helpful as such things may be); rather, He called us (specifically) to be one – “on earth as it is in heaven” – so that the world would know God’s love and believe.

II. Described by Luke

Have you ever wondered why you have to read eight chapters into the Book of Acts to find anyone willing to leave Jerusalem for the sake of the Gospel? Consider, too, that the apostle. Peter, is later challenged to explain the fact that he has converted a Roman soldier to Christianity (Acts 11). Again, the question is why?

It was, indeed, difficult for the early believers to understand that Christ intended for His kingdom to extend beyond Jewish borders, to encompass people from every nation, tongue and tribe. Even into Acts 11, they still don’t get it! For in various towns, those being scattered from Jerusalem/Judea by way of persecution speak of Christ only to Jews (Acts 11:19).

But in Acts 11:20, a significant step is taken when men of Cyprus (an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea) and Cyrene (a city in North Africa) intentionally take the Gospel to Antioch (the third largest city in the Roman empire) and speak of Christ to both Jews and Greeks alike. As a result, considerable numbers there (mentioned three times in the next six verses, Acts 11: 21-27) come to Christ. Barnabus is sent from Jerusalem to investigate and later, brings Paul himself to minister in this diverse environment. In time, three missionary journeys are launched from this local church and the Gospel is spread throughout all of Asia Minor and into Europe as well, making Antioch, perhaps, the most influential church of the entire New Testament!

Why did the church at Antioch care about the world? Because the church at Antioch reflected the world; they were a multi-ethnic people with a multi-ethnic leadership** (Acts 13:1) who considered it essential to send their money, their men and message of hope abroad – to friends, family and countrymen – in obedience to Christ (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8).

With this in mind, it is not coincidental that believers were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26). For as Jesus Himself made clear, He would be most clearly recognized via the unity of His children.

III. Prescribed by Paul

Beginning in Ephesians 2:11, Paul turns his attention to the Gentile community within the church. The very plain and passionate language of the text makes it clear that the Gentiles are no longer to think of themselves (or, for that matter, to be thought of by the Jews) as “excluded from . . . [or] strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Paul’s point is that the Gentiles have now been reconciled to God through faith and therefore to the “commonwealth of Israel” through the blood of Christ. To Paul, this reconciliation is not merely theoretical or an otherwise unobservable truth. It is to be manifest in the local church through which the “[Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints [Jewish converts in this context] and are of God’s household . . . Christ Jesus being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord . . . a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19–22). This, then, is Paul’s vision for the local church. It is to be an authentic, visible community of faith where people of diverse backgrounds worship God together as one, and love one another in Christ.

Following his comments concerning the nature of the church, Paul intends next to share his prayer for the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:1, 14–19). However, he momentarily interrupts himself to remind the congregation of his apostolic mission. In Ephesians 3:2–13, a parenthetical statement is inserted in which he defines his calling (a “stewardship of grace”) and declares that, “By way of revelation, there was made known to me the mystery . . . of Christ” (Ephesians 3:2–4). Here too, he mentions a previous letter he had written to the church in which he had also addressed his “insight into the mystery of Christ.” According to Paul, understanding of this mystery had not been granted to past generations but had only “now been revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5). A common error is to assume that the mystery Paul is speaking of is, simply, the mystery of the Gospel—the good news message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, his atonement for sin. Yet this is most certainly not the case! For in verse 6, Paul makes clear that the mystery of Christ is something altogether different: “To be specific, the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).

IV. Conclusion

In their book, Divided By Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that evangelical churches may actually (though unintentionally) be perpetuating institutional racism throughout America. For not only did their research confirm (to no one’s surprise) that most American evangelicals attend ethnically and/or economically segregated churches, but more significantly, that they spend more than 70% of their time relationally with others who attend their own local church (i.e., time outside of work, school, sports, etc.). Thus they concluded that evangelical Christians are not only racially segregated, but relationally segregated from one another, as well.

So how does this perpetuate the problem?

Apart from ethnically and economically diverse relationships, we will not fully encounter the condition of those different than our own. Apart from such informed understanding, we are less likely to get involved in genuine community transformation. Without involvement, nothing changes and, thus, systemic inequities are perpetuated unintentionally by sleeping giants; namely, the evangelical churches of America (whether they be predominately black or white, churches according to their research).

Through the Biblical transformation of our minds and wills, we will be able to emotionally engage the concept of a multi-ethnic/economically diverse local church. Indeed, we will not only come to understand the passion of Christ for local church unity as described above, we will desire to pursue it for the sake of the Gospel! Yes, it is Christ’s will that we be one with believers different than ourselves so that the world would know God’s love and believe. As a by-product, society will be affected and the church restored to a place of prominence in the minds and hearts of those outside its walls. This is the power of unity; this is the Gospel of Christ.

Footnotes

* According to the latest research, 86.3% of all churches throughout America (Catholic and Protestant combined) are segregated in such a way.

** In Acts 13:1, it is interesting that the leadership of the church at Antioch is not only listed, but also listed with reference to cultural distinction. Two men, Simeon and Lucius, are described as being from Africa. Manaen is apparently from Judea and economically privileged (having “been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.”) Of course biographical information concerning Barnabus (of Cyprus) and Saul (of Tarsus) had already been provided by Luke (Acts 4:36, 37; Acts 11:25); thus, there was no need to repeat it here.

c. 2001, 2005, Mark DeYmaz. See also Mark DeYmaz: Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church (JosseyBass/Leadership Network, 2007).