Author: Jim Elliff
I have just returned from Milan, Italy, where a portion of my time was spent with leaders of The International Church of Milan (ICM). We talked together about the diversity of their congregation, which consists of 14 nations so far. Among the leaders were two families who are not only working with this congregation, but are praying and feeling their way toward an Italian-speaking congregation that will work in tandem with the ICM. I felt compelled to express my concern that the Italian wing of the church, though eventually necessary due to the language barrier, should nonetheless be as diverse as possible in itself for the glory of God. They should seek to include Asians who speak Italian, Africans who speak Italian, Moldovans who speak Italian, etc., because God is most honored in this intent to bring diverse backgrounds together into one loving body.
Why would I press for this? And why will I encourage you to pursue the same?
Without question, the early church’s most nagging problem was the blending of the Jewish and the Greek cultures. Consider how often Paul is concerned about this issue in his letters to the churches. When he wrote to Rome and Ephesus, his concern over this was thematic. One could easily place the burden of his Roman letter into these simple words: The absolute impartiality of God. Jews and Gentiles face the same wrath of God because they are all alike under sin, but they are also offered the same access to God because God is absolutely impartial toward ethnicity. Therefore Paul emphasized that the nascent church in Rome must embrace the diversity that God makes harmonious through Christ. The Jewish man now turned believer in Christ has to look the Gentile in the face and say, “I love you,” and vice versa, because God has now made them one. And, they must do everything possible to live out that unity.
Paul’s burden for Ephesus
In Ephesians, Paul states that by revelation he (and all Christ’s apostles and prophets) had come to understand that the exclusive privileges thought to be the birthright of the ethnic Jews are not in effect as expected, and that Gentiles are “brought near” through the cross. Contemplate his words as he explains something of the “mystery” now revealed:
By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . . (Eph. 3:1-6)
This was no peripheral issue for Paul. It was his mission as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” and it is the universal church’s mission as well, to promote that harmony of cultures in Christ that the cross brings them (or, we might say, forces upon them for their good). Imagine what it took for this former Jewish leader to accept that the Jews' lofty position as God’s chosen people is not ultimately about ethnic Jews, but only Jewish Christians who share the position with “Gentile dogs” who have also become Christians. The promises made to the Jews are for all who are in Christ; the inheritance is both for Jews and Gentiles. We are all members of one body. The immensity of this new knowledge is not only enough to cause every God-fearing Jew to scream curses at Paul, but is the very reason Gentiles like me have any hope whatsoever. Paul carried this message everywhere.
This homogeneity of Christian Jews and Gentiles was fully intended by God from the beginning and was not a back-up plan. Paul declares that all of this was “in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord . . .” (Eph. 3:11). The phrase “carried out” signifies completed action; it has to do with the finished work of the cross through which Christ destroyed the barrier between Gentiles and Jews who are in Christ, that barrier was the Law, as is seen below:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two [Christian Jew and Gentile] into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (Eph.3:13-16)
There is so much talk of oneness in the New Testament that I can speak of it only in an introductory way. I am only calling attention to this plan of God by patting on this massive stone that is laid in the bedrock of our Christianity. It is so big and so encompassing and so vital that it is amazing that we in our current churches are avoiding its implications as if it never existed. God took the most diverse cultures in existence and brought them together into an entirely new culture. From now on there is no “distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
All cultures and backgrounds
This last passage quoted above reminds us that the oneness that God seeks is not merely a Jewish/Gentile oneness, but includes all cultures and backgrounds. It is as if God dealt first with the most divergent of cultures, Jews and Gentiles, so that we are compelled now to bring together any and every kind of person in Christ with any other true believer. This is the new view that exploded on the scene following the passion week. It was launched into a missionary program on the day of Pentecost. In fact, the Spirit was poured out in part to accomplish this very leveling out and blending together of all cultures in Christ, as the Joel prophecy states in Acts 2.
I say “exploded” for that is exactly how it must have looked to everyone. The book of Acts is a chain reaction explosion taking place all across the known world until, as Paul affirms, the entire world had heard the good news (Col. 1:6). This intention of God to unite people of all cultures into a living unity in Christ was the ideological energy source of the new evangelism that prior to Pentecost was only pointed to by the prophets. The Jews were to be an object lesson to the world prior to this, but did not evangelize the world. The multi-cultural New Man, in contradistinction, is to be made up of anyone and everyone. “And it shall be that everyone [meaning anyone, not just Jews] who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). It is a stunning picture laid out for us, and the biggest socio-religious shift of all time. The reverberations are all about us still.
The Church of the future
An additional impetus to our unity among diversity is that of the projected makeup of the future kingdom. It is glorious in its admixture of those from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:11). We cannot, must not, live contrary to our final convergence in Christ. In the ugly old slavery of early America, the schizophrenia about this was incredible. There were blacks and whites who would not dream of worshipping as equals (though they were sometimes in the same building), yet at the same time would hold the doctrinal verity that all colors would be in heaven together some day. This was entirely incongruous. We are called to experience in this life as much of the spirit that will characterize us in the new earth as is possible. The ideal of heaven is always to be the pursuit of earthbound believers. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). We cannot pray for the Kingdom to come and not relish what that coming Kingdom means. Our community of believers is to be a living demonstration of the power of the cross and also of the purified Bride who awaits the wedding. We are denying our future calling to fail in this area. We are smearing our reputation and throwing dirt on our bridal gown.
I am only cursorily reminding us of the race-shattering significance of the cross and the future world in order to whet our appetite. With this in mind, we might well read Scripture with a better perspective. It is not just a point of historical interest to converse about the early church Jew/Gentile divergence, but a matter of current necessity. It speaks to us now. And as we look ahead to heaven and the new earth we are not just to long for something, but to do something about our state right now.
God is glorified when we bring our diverse backgrounds together in these outposts of heaven called local churches. As one friend says, “It is God showing off.” God even affirms that it is His compelling interest for the authorities in the heavenly places to see our oneness.
“ . . . and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9-10, emphasis mine).
What not to be
In our own local church we are making some steady progress in demonstrating harmony of divergent cultures, thanks to God’s grace. It is only a start, but it is driven by a real, workable and biblical concept that we believe can be carried out over time. What we have already seen is glorious. Perhaps it is easier for us in our church to mix ethnicity and socio-economic levels since we meet in several homes as our meeting pattern. The flexibility of the house church network model allows us to locate in any part of town, and to avoid that stigma that a single location may bring. A church building often has limitations because it is perceived as identical to its neighborhood. Whether intended or not, it represents to many that a certain class or kind of people are welcome. Therefore, extra efforts for those who use buildings will need to be made to overcome this dilemma. Building or no building, however, we are to pursue this beautiful diversity to the greatest possible extent.
So, I will say as strongly as I can, you should not start (or have) “a black church” or “a white church” or a “homeschooling church” or a church for professional people and another church for poor people. Nor should you start a church aimed at younger people or older people. In this the modern church has erred. I do not mean that we should not be evangelistic toward all categories and types of people (actually, that is my point), but in building the local church our aim is too low, and frankly, sometimes selfish. We are forfeiting something of the glory of the church by not seeking to blend all kinds of people together, even if we cannot fully accomplish it. A cowboy church or a country music church may reach cowboys or country music lovers, but is this anything like what God intends to promote as the primary social implication of the cross? Does it depict real earth-side yearning for a future glorious church? We have diminished the meaning of the church by doing this. Paul simply refused to have a Jewish church on this end of town and a Gentile church on the other.
Again, if language barriers mean that some churches must be started for specific language groups, you must be as diverse as possible within those language groups to fulfill the intention of God. We have also not fully worked out the possibilities of multi-language churches through simultaneous translating yet, but it surely would also magnify the glory of the cross and of the church if we could find some way to do so successfully.
We all know that more homeschooling people or Hispanic people, or White people, or Black people or urban poor people may be in attendance in a given church, but that is no excuse to be a “homeschooling church” or an “Hispanic church” or an “urban poor church.” The actual demographics are God’s business; ours is to seek all people in Christ, “the desire of all nations.” We know that there may be more Asians in this particular part of town and that most in attendance will be from that background, but do not make the mistake of making your church an “Asian church.” It may be Korean-speaking, if necessary, but it should not exclusively be a KoreanChurch. If it is Christ’s church, then be aware that He does not intend it to be exclusive. Do not work against the glorious cultural ramifications of the cross with your good intentions.
Even though moving from a single-culture church to a multi-cultural church (or better to a Christ-cultural church) is sometimes a daunting task and causes many to say, “Where do we begin?” it still must be the intent of the local church, and the message of the local church, when addressing its constituency. I read an advertisement about a church in our city that said, “We sing the Old Hymns.” That was all they said. What does this say to our objective? Granted, I have likes and dislikes in music and so do you, but, in the final analysis, we really should not separate over whether old or new is sung. I’m not offering full solutions about a difficult issue here at all. I am saying that the gospel demands better solutions than dividing ourselves. We don’t work hard enough at understanding what our separations are projecting to the world and to the heavenly authorities. As difficult as it might be, the early church had far more to work through than what music would be sung. Their struggles and successes are instructive to us who may have less to work through than they did. It will be sad to face Christ in the future and say, “We could not be the glorious church you called us to be because we could not get together on the music.”
One of the by-products of thinking in the way I’m suggesting is that some of the silliness in church life goes away. Emphasizing oneness in Christ among diverse people has a way of purifying the church. No church that is multi-cultural can make it without prayer, sound doctrine, close pastoral oversight, Christ-centered worship, and biblical evangelism, all of which are unifying aspects of church life. Such churches work harder at what the people have in common, the ground that is shared in Christ. They have to let the rest go. Paul worked to de-emphasize cultural likes and dislikes that are inconsequential (if not downright divisive) in favor of New Covenant principles and behavior. It takes biblical thinking to get there. This was exactly what Paul was laboring at in so many of his letters. Sadly, we, on the other hand, just specialize in one type of people and what they enjoy (sometimes even if it has no organic relationship to the gospel at all), and avoid the need for the labor. But we must do the hard work, the kind that brings joy and glory to God.
A bolder proclamation
Paul asked the Ephesians to pray “that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19-20). What was he saying? He was speaking of the mystery of the shared promise, the shared inheritance for the most diverse of cultures. He did not intend to be quiet about what the cross has done. He was on a lifelong mission to bring in Gentiles, but he almost always began by teaching in Synagogues, preaching the message that both Jews and Gentiles are one and must live out their oneness before the world and before the authorities in the heavenly places. We must not minimalize what God has made so much of.
I am short-changing you in the brevity of this article, and its theoretical nature. In fact, I’m not offering much that is practical at all. I will leave that to you. I suspect that for most it will mean that more serious teaching and prayer will need to take place to arrive together at a consensus of direction. We must “see” this truth for it to grab us. But if we fail to try, what can we say about ourselves? Though the process may be difficult for a missionary, for instance, to join followers of Christ from one tribe with another tribe’s believers, who once were adverse to each other, no one can say that it would not redound to the glory of God if it were done. And, considering the Jewish/Gentile oneness Paul presses us toward, surely we cannot deny our obligation to do all within our power to display such glory. And surely, concerning our western churches, no one would deny the outrageous glory and beauty of the urban rock music orientated believer on his face in prayer next to the traditional, white-haired, hymn-loving grandmother who has walked with God for sixty years. Heaven is glorious, and this is heaven on earth.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Elliff Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc.Permission granted for not-for-sale reproduction in unedited formincluding author's name, title, complete content, copyright and weblink.Other uses require written permission.