MULTI-ETHNICITY IN THE LOCAL CHURCH: A BIBLICAL MANDATE
Pastor Nathan Michael Deisem: Ecclesiology
There has been a great deal written on the subject of multi-ethnicity in the local church in recent years. Most of the focus of those works has been about its practicality, such as its benefits in church growth, or the abstract and specific value of diversity. However, is there any indication that multi-ethnicity in the local church is prescribed by Scripture? There is no dissention over the fact that the Universal Church is to be multi-ethnic, for that is directly commanded by Jesus in no uncertain language in the Great Commission. However, what about the local churches, visible instantiations of the Universal Church; should they be multi-ethnic? Even works that give a chapter or so to this question are predominantly focused on pragmatic, nonessential, non-prescribed, church strategy material. There is a great deal of value in those kinds of discussions, but how much more meaningful would they be if it were discovered whether or not multi-ethnicity in the local church is in fact prescribed by scripture or only permitted by scripture, akin to discussion of what kinds of instruments should be used in worship and the like?
The thesis of this paper is that multi-ethnicity in the local church is indeed prescribed by scripture and therefore mandatory for modern churches. Though this paper will not be able to deal with the subject exhaustively, for such an undertaking would be more suited for a book, it will outline five arguments from scripture that taken together form a case for the requirement that local churches should strive to be multi-ethnic. The first argument is taken from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and His call for unity within His Church. The second is that certain characteristics of the church in Antioch, as described in the book of Acts, are intended to be observed as patterns to follow, such as their intentional multi-ethnicity. The third argument comes from Ephesians 2:11-22 and Paul’s discussion of the inclusive unity and mystery of the Body of Christ. The fourth argument is the way Paul’s defense to the people while in the custody of the Roman Tribune in Acts 22:22 is abruptly ended by their response to his words. The fifth and final argument tentatively considers the possible application of the statement in Jesus’ model prayer, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” compared to what is revealed to be true of heaven elsewhere in Scripture.
Before the arguments of this paper begins it should be clarified what is meant by “multi-ethnicity.” A significant aspect of multi-ethnicity certainly includes what is commonly referred to today as “race.” However that fails to include all aspects of the issue this paper will cover. For the purposes of this paper and the arguments herein “multi-ethnicity” broadly includes diversity that reaches across nearly all lines of social division such as socio-economic class, skin color, age, profession, nationality, etc.
For the purpose of this paper, “multi-ethnicity” is not a term referring to some ecumenical unity between world religions, for what fellowship does the world have with Christ’s Church? The Church is on mission to evangelize the world and “make disciples of all nations [ἔθνος].” Ethnos, from where we derive the English word “ethnic,” includes a diversity of categories that pose no qualitative or essential difference in the Universal Church and, (should the arguments of this paper prove valid) the local church should strive to include multi-ethnicity across these accidental divisions wherever possible.
The final sections of the paper will include pleas to pastoral leaders of local churches and some concluding remarks. The next section will begin to outline the five arguments for the prescriptive nature of multi-ethnicity in the local church.
Jesus’ Prayer in John 17: A Call for Unity
For a long time the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 has been referred to as the “high priestly prayer.” It is the longest of Jesus’ prayers recorded in scripture and concludes the “upper room discourse (John 14-16).” It can be divided into three sections, the first of which Jesus prays for Himself (verses 1-5), second for His disciples (verses 6-19), and finally for all future believers (verses 20-26). It may escape some readers that in this passage Jesus prayed for future believers which would include modern believers as well.
The Theme of Unity
In the first section Jesus recounts His mission and purpose to bring eternal life to all who would believe. In the second section Jesus prays for his disciples and commissions them to carry on His mission. In the final section Jesus prays for His future Church, including all future believers. What is it He prayed for? Three times in three verses He prays for their unity.
“that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
The italics emphasis are mine. Students of hermeneutics know that repetition is indicative of emphasis in scripture. Jesus’ central desire in this prayer for future believers is their absolute unity, analogous to the unity between the Father and the Son. However, to what end or purpose does Jesus pray for such unity? The “so that” phrases in the passage make it very easy to identify the purpose of this unity. In verse twenty-one Jesus reveals that this unity will bear evidence that He was sent by God. The Church is supposed to exemplify such unity that it is clear that Jesus and His Gospel are from God. Additionally, in verse twenty-three Jesus reveals that this unity will make it clear to the world that God the Father sent Jesus, His Son, and loves those in the world just as He loves Jesus.
The Observable Evidence of Unity
In what ways is this unity expressed in the Church? There are theological divisions and subdivisions throughout Christendom. What unity or lack of unity can be observed by the world that would indicate whether Jesus was sent by God and if God loves those in the world? I submit the unity is to be observed in local church gatherings. When the world observes our local gatherings the disunity they may observe is not about location, for indeed “local” churches will gather at different localities. What is significant is that X local church is nearly exclusively made up of congregants of this color, or Y local church is nearly exclusively comprised of this socio-economic class, and Z local church is almost exclusively attended by persons of this age. The unity Christ is praying for is certainly a unity of orthodox doctrine, (otherwise this discussion is not really about the true Church). Rather, insofar as this unity is observable to affect belief in the world concerning the divine nature of Christ’s message and the love God has for the world, that unity is one that reaches across non-essential, accidental divisions. That unity is one of multi-ethnicity.
Taken alone this passage may not serve as much of a proof text. However, this argument is multifaceted and this application of this text is read in light of other texts in Scripture. The next argument concerns the church at Antioch as exhibiting characteristics that should be interpreted as pattern for future local churches.
The Church at Antioch: An Indirectly Prescribed Pattern
The book of Acts recounts the birth of the Church by the teaching of the Apostles after Christ’s ascension. Luke begins with a restating of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8. The Church is born on Pentecost in Acts 2 in something of a reverse Tower of Babel event, for God had once scattered the nations, but now through the inauguration of the Church He has united the nations through the Spirit. Now on Pentecost the gospel was heard exclusively by Jews and Proselytes, which does not yet satisfy the command to “be [Jesus’] witnesses in…Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” However, Jesus had instructed the Disciples to stay in Jerusalem up until this point.
We observe later that after the stoning of Stephen the persecution of the fledgling, exclusively Jewish Church was of such severity that they were forced to scatter throughout the Roman world. Philip the evangelist is the first mentioned in scripture to preach the Gospel to non-Jews, first to Samaritans and then to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. The inclusion of Samaritans in the Church by the baptism of the Holy Spirit is observed and ratified by the apostles Peter and John. Thereafter in Acts we see the conversion of two more figures, Saul, soon to become Paul the Apostle, and Cornelius the centurion. Including the Ethiopian Eunuch, Luke chose to record the conversions of a son of Ham (the Ethiopian Eunuch), a son of Shem (Saul), and a son of Japheth (Cornelius) in succession. With the reference here to the sons of Noah who repopulated the world in three separate regions after the deluge, the intentional theme of multi-ethnicity is becoming ever more obvious, but does it have any bearing on a local church?
In Acts 11:19-26 it is observed that Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene (perhaps those who heard the Gospel on the day of Pentecost) began preaching to Greeks in Antioch. In this section the phrase “large numbers” is used three times in six verses. Two times with respect to gentiles being saved and once with respect to those being taught and discipled. The repetition of this phrase indicates its emphasis; the emphasis is on the success or God’s blessing on these multi-ethnic evangelistic and discipleship efforts. Luke concludes this section by revealing that a new descriptive name was given for this new kind of Jesus person. In Antioch Jews and Gentiles were being saved and discipled together. They were united in one universal body but more interestingly they were united even within distinct local bodies. To describe this phenomenon they were called “Christians” (albeit pejoratively).
Through God’s sovereignty Paul’s missionary ministry to the Gentile world is commissioned in Antioch rather than in Jerusalem. His unique blend of Jewish heritage and instruction, as well as Greek education, and Roman citizenship reveal that God had blessed him with an ideal collection of assets to spread the Gospel cross-culturally.
Finally, the most intriguing observation made concerning the church at Antioch is the diversity of its pastoral ministry team. Acts 13:1 reveals the team, “Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” For what reason does Luke record the ethnic background of each leader at Antioch. Simeon called Niger was from sub-Saharan West Africa. Lucius of Cyrene was from modern day Libya in North Africa (perhaps one of the original church planters in Antioch mentioned in Acts 11:20). Manean brought up with Herod the tetrarch would have been from Judea, Galilee, or possibly Samaria (for the Herodian dynasty ruled that entire region). He would have certainly been a man of privileged upbringing. This shows the multi-ethnicity of the leadership in the church.
Descriptive Versus Prescriptive
Some may dismiss this entire section of this paper as an illegitimate argument based on their interpretation that these passages are simply descriptive rather that prescriptive. However, such a dismissal would be tantamount to describing the efforts and specificity with which Luke wrote this scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit as trivialities. In what way can narrative rightly be said to reveal prescriptive force? Prescriptive force can be derived from narrative scripture when a purposeful pattern is reasonably observed. The theme of multi-ethnicity saturates the narrative of Acts and thereby the narrative of the birth of the Church. It is further illustrated here, that the most successful local church was the multi-ethnic church at Antioch, which became the center of the Pauline missionary efforts and thereby the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The case for the biblical mandate of multi-ethnicity in local churches is further built in the next section as a portion of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is discussed.
Ephesians 2:11-22: The Inclusive Unity and Mystery of the Body of Christ.
Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is a great work in Scripture denoting the proper function of the Church and activity within churches. It is also written to a specific church at a specific location (Ephesus), and was certainly circulated among other churches for the purpose of their edification as well. In Eph. 2:11-22 Paul explains the unity and peace that is found in Christ to the Gentile believers in Ephesus.
In verses 11-15 Paul focuses on the unity of Christ’s people. The gentiles were once separated from the Jews and thereby certainly separated from their God. However, now through Christ the gentiles are brought into communion with God and the Jewish believers as well.
In verses 16-18 Paul declares that there is a common peace between gentiles and God, between Jews and God, and therefore between Jews and gentiles. Everyone can now be reconciled to God into one Body the Universal Church through faith and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
In verses 19-22 Paul explains the ultimate implication is that Jews and gentiles share the benefits of full citizenship in the Body of Christ. Paul reveals in these three subsections his vision for this local church at Ephesus and by way of application his vision for local churches anywhere. They are to be an authentic, visible community, united in faith, coming from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, which worship together as one body and share a mutual love for one another.
Descriptive Versus Prescriptive
To dismiss this section as generally descriptive of the Universal Church to the exclusion of its application to the local Ephesian church seems to overlook the occasional nature of epistolary literature. Furthermore, how are the commands in chapters 4 and following supposed to be interpreted, such as the instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22-33? If those commands are intended to be instantiated at Ephesus and indeed every local body of believers there does not appear to be any reason to relegate the instruction to live in multi-ethnic unity as pertaining exclusively to the Universal Church either. Rather the application applies in both cases. Certainly the Universal Church is multi-ethnic and it should also be so within local churches. Norman Geisler in his third systematic volume explains that one purpose of the local church in relation to the Universal Church is “to be a visible manifestation, an outward expression of the inward character of Christ’s body, manifesting its recognition of His headship and our unity.” If the Universal Church is multi-ethnic, indicative of no qualitative distinction between ethnicities, then the local church should strive to visibly manifest that characteristic through authentic multi-ethnicity faith communities.
Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians was written from prison. Having left Ephesus earlier to go to Jerusalem, he was well aware that it would lead to his incarceration and affliction. The next line of argument clarifies the occasional nature of this previous argument for it involves the circumstances of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.
Paul’s Defense to the People in the Custody of the Tribune: Acts 22:22
In Acts 21 Paul is in Jerusalem reporting his evangelistic efforts among the gentiles to James and the elders. While there, the Jews stir up a mob of revolt against him with false accusations. The accusations are so diverse and strange that the Roman Tribune who arrests Paul is surprised to find he has not actually arrested an Egyptian wanted for rabble rousing in the wilderness, as he had thought.
Paul is permitted to make a defense for his actions in front of the accusing mob of Jews. Acts 21:40-22:1 explains that they listened very calmly. He recounts his conversions on the road to Damascus, and the events that followed.
In Acts 22:22 the crowd’s patience and calm is broken all at once. They stop listening and start rioting again with a call for Paul’s execution. The passage reveals that up to a very specific point in Paul’s speech the crowd lost their composure. In Acts 22:21 Paul explained to them that while in a trance in the Temple Jesus (Paul’s proposed Messiah) instructed him to go far away to the gentiles.
The Jewish outrage against Paul’s message was not against the Gospel per se, but against the implication that the Jewish Messiah is in any way for the gentiles. Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem which lead to his near continual incarceration, custody, legal hearings, and defenses thereafter were precipitated by the mob’s outrage against his multi-ethnic cross-cultural ministry. Paul was falsely arrested for the racism of the mob in Jerusalem. They could not abide Paul’s obedient spread of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah and the mystery of the union of Jews and Gentiles into His body, the Church. With this context as a backdrop, Paul’s salient explanation of the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ and the mystery of the Church in Ephesians is made all the more relevant.
The Model Prayer: “On Earth as it is in Heaven”
This is perhaps the least persuasive argument of the five presented in this paper, for it involves the possible application of passages that are interpretively controversial on other levels. Depending on one’s hermeneutic or doctrinal persuasions the cross referencing of these two passages may or may not seem appropriate. It has been included here as one more possible brick in the philosophically inductive argument being built in this paper.
Matt 6:9-13 is a familiar passage of scripture commonly referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Though, perhaps it would be better described as the model prayer or the disciples’ prayer, for it is how Jesus answered His disciples request to be taught how to pray. In this passage Jesus explains the things that His disciples should pray for. Among those things is a desire for God’s will to be done. This is certainly a good thing to pray for, for indeed God’s will is perfect. Jesus instructed His disciples to pray such that God’s will be done or accomplished here on earth as it is in heaven. Indeed God’s will is accomplished perfectly without deviation in heaven. One question concerning application, meaning how readers can or should respond to this passage today, is what is taking place in heaven so that one can submit to God’s will likewise here on earth?
Throughout scripture there are occasional glimpses of observable activity in heaven. This activity is in accordance with God’s will. In Rev. 7:9-10 reveals an image of heaven where every nation is represented around the throne praising God in one loud united voice. Recognize that an elder reveals to John thereafter that this multitude is from the “Great Tribulation.” There is division among theologians as to what is meant by “the Great Tribulation.” However, as this writer is writing from a pre-tribulational dispensational perspective, flowing from a normative literal hermeneutic, the interpretation of this passage is quite specific and certainly does not pertain directly to any activity in the local church now. However, this portion of the argument for multi-ethnicity is not appealing to the interpretation of this passage but to a possible application of this passage cross referenced with the model prayer in Matt. 6.
If this scene is observed around the throne in heaven and our desire though prayer is for God’s will to likewise be done on earth perhaps the relationship of these two passages implies that multi-ethnic worship is in God’s will, for it is observed in heaven. This is in no way a philosophically deductive argument. Rather it is an appeal to the possible application of these passages and serves as another piece of the philosophically inductive argument being built for the mandate of multi-ethnic worship in the local Church.
Three Pleas to Pastoral Leaders in Local Churches
I will now make three direct pleas to those in pastoral leadership roles in churches who read this paper. Regardless of how persuasive one may find the arguments in this paper concerning the biblical mandate of multi-ethnicity in the local church, I make these requests in hopes of ending overtly ethnocentric practices in local churches.
Plea for Multi-Ethnic Awareness
I have not observed the average local congregation being lead by overt bigots. However, one seldom stops to consider the subtle implications of how the way one organizes ministries, instantiates programs, or does worship may affect the efficacy of their ministry.
Every choice a governing body in a local church makes might be systematically (albeit unintentionally) prohibitive to people from other ethnicities. The styles of music a church permits may alienate certain age groups or ethnicities. This example works both ways in both categories. Churches with congregants of a certain age may only permit traditional worship and alienate others while parachurch ministries, under the auspice of reaching the young, draw the younger generations away from local church bodies and thereby away from the wisdom of those more mature in the faith needed for their discipleship. That is an issue of multi-ethnicity.
The times different group meetings take place may prohibit people from certain economic situations from being able to attend, such as working single mothers. Certain benevolent ministries may unwittingly dehumanize the recipients of their care by treating them as inferior victims rather than men and women made in the image of God who need His love and grace the same as anyone to whom the church is supposed to be a foretaste.
Plea to be Aware of Affinity Groups
Church programs and ministries have recently turned to embrace the model of “affinity groups,” such as a bible study for young singles, prayer group for young married. There are so many “youth groups” equipped with their own pastor, budget, sanctuary, and services; they are essentially little pretend churches where the only instruction is, “don’t have sex or do illegal drugs” until the teens have matured enough to no longer annoy the adults.
There is nothing overtly sinful about “affinity ministries” per se, for there are certainly different needs among certain congregants such as young children that may require different activities or methods. However, the misapplication of these models seem to fracture the church over and over until a congregant is simply categorized and placed in a group with people who are exactly like them. In which case, no one can grow or learn anything from anyone because the people with the wisdom and life experience needed for discipleship are all in different affinity groups, and the people who need that wisdom and discipleship from them are in other groups.
Plea to Resist Pragmatic Rebuttal
My final plea is for pastoral leaders to resist responding to these arguments with pragmatic rebuttal. If these arguments are hermeneutically unsound and multi-ethnicity at the local church level is not prescribed by Scripture, then correct my errors from more valid hermeneutics. However, if these arguments are sound do not let the fact that developing a multi-ethnic church is challenging and that racial, socio-economic, age, and nationality tensions still exist in society today be an excuse. Pray that the Holy Spirit will enable you and bless your obedient efforts. Then rest in the fact that Christ will build His Church.
It has been argued in this paper that multi-ethnicity in the local church as it pertains to skin color, age, socio-economic status, nationality, etc… is prescribed by Scripture. The argument was made from Jesus’ prayer for unity among future believers in John 17. It also was argued that the intentional multi-ethnicity of the church at Antioch is intended to be functionally prescriptive in the narrative of Acts. Paul’s explanation of the unity of Jews and Gentiles into one Body and the mystery of the Church was also used as evidence insofar as that passage applies to Ephesus as a local body and by way of applications local churches in general. In light of that argument it was revealed that Paul’s incarceration in Jerusalem was a result of his obedience and insistence that God intended the salvation found in the Messiah for the Gentiles as coequal heirs with the Jews. Finally a possible inference of multi-ethnicity on earth in local churches as it was revealed in heaven to John in Revelation. This paper in no way settles the question but should these arguments prove persuasive I pray that church leaders would start to peruse Multi-ethnic diversity in their local contexts and be aware of potentially ethnically exclusive practices in the church.
Matt. 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” All Scripture referenced is taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.
 Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson Pubblishers, 2007), 168.
 Acts 13:1
Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Four The Church and Last Things (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 94.
 Acts 20:23