Monday, July 30, 2012

Biblical and Theological Foundations for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity:  A Wesleyan Perspective of the Kingdom of God and The Church
Norman G. Wilson, Ph.D.
July 31, 2012


Over a decade ago, findings from a ground-breaking study resulted in an embarrassing indictment against majority culture evangelicals in our country who consider themselves to be “Good Christians.”   Evangelical culture appeared to be preserving racism in America.  The evidence was overwhelming and undisputable.  (Emerson and Smith 2000)  One would have hoped that these findings would have resulted in embarrassment, repentance, reconciliation, and courageous new steps of obedience.  Sadly the response was negligible at best.  As a result, in many evangelical churches today, the sins of racism and segregation still continue unabated.

Executive Summary: Cultural Diversity is an Essential Attribute of the Kingdom of God.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures clearly reveal that ethnic and cultural diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God.  The Biblical bookends of “The Cultural Mandate”   (Genesis 1 and 2) and the vision of “The Throne of Heaven”  (Revelation 7:9) are not just incidental features of the story of our salvation.  Nor are numerous other passages in the scriptures about the diversity of God’s kingdom merely peripheral details.  Some may think that this Kingdom attribute of cultural and ethnic diversity is just an ideal picture of what will happen in the future.  But our Lord prayed to His heavenly Father, saying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10 NIV)  The Good News is that through Jesus Christ and the Incarnation, the Kingdom of God here on earth is on a trajectory toward diversity.  The reformer John Wesley and his brother Charles believed that God’s Will would spread to the whole world, as evidenced in their many sermons, hymns and other writings.  Sadly, the hyper-individualistic approach of Evangelicalism today regarding the message of salvation has produced impotent communities of “saved folk,” leaving the majority of our churches racially and ethnically segregated even as society is becoming more diverse.  Some may be inclined to excuse churches from not manifesting cultural and ethnic diversity here on earth, due to original sin.  But especially for Wesleyans, the transforming power of God’s grace also ought to extend beyond our personal lives to our communal practices and social lives as believers.  Instead of allowing the sinful social structures of our world to “squeeze us into its mold,” (Romans 12:2 JB Phillips translation) we are urged to be visible witnesses of the power of God in our communities as we are “transformed by the renewing of (our) mind.” (Romans 12:2 NIV)  As a result, local bodies of believers ought to be at least as culturally and ethnically diverse as their surrounding communities as prophetic witnesses of God’s present and coming kingdom.  On the other hand, allowing the status quo to continue in this regard is to be unfaithful as citizens of our Lord’s Kingdom.

Broader Discussion: Cultural Diversity is an Essential Attribute of the Kingdom of God.

The scriptures clearly show that cultural diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God.  Sadly, White evangelical Christianity in North America falls far short of the biblical principles on this matter in both doctrine and practice.  Thomas and Sweeney provide a historical survey of race relations in American Evangelical Christianity, tracing the roots of the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity over the years.   (Thomas and Sweeney 2007, 111) More recent studies show that this sinful situation continues to the present time.   (DeYoung et al 2003; Green and Greenberg 2004)

The presumption frequently is found among Evangelical leaders and lay people that cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in the Church is not essential to our spiritual life and ministry.  “We should just worship separately in our own way,” one colleague recently told me.  “What does embracing ethnic and cultural diversity in our local churches have to do with our salvation?  It can just complicate things.  Besides, how can you expect us to integrate with minorities and immigrants up here in this small town and rural area of the country?” 

Recalling our Lord’s Prayer that His Father’s “…kingdom come, [and that His] will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,”  (Matthew 6:10 NIV) the following question to my colleague is in order:  “If the kingdom of heaven is not segregated, why on earth is the Church?” (DeYmaz 2007, 4)

Not too long ago a study commission at a prominent Evangelical university called attention to the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among faculty and students on the main campus and pointed out the difficulties of addressing this deficiency given the lack of “…a robust theology of cultural diversity”  in the hosting evangelical denomination.  Sadly, many evangelical denominations are deficient in both their teachings and practices in this area.  Internet searches turn up frequent references to cultural diversity on many denominational websites, even though definitive statements with clear guidelines are generally lacking.  In contrast, the scriptures are very clear about this matter, showing that cultural diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God. 

Two biblical scenarios serve as alpha and omega bookends regarding the Kingdom of God, the Church, and cultural diversity.  The first scenario, called The Cultural Mandate, is reported in Genesis chapters one and two.  The second is from the Throne in Heaven as narrated in Revelation chapter seven.  The following summary statements about these two passages and other representative texts establish and underscore why cultural diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God and therefore ought to be a guiding principle for the Church’s teachings and practices.  A growing number of substantive studies are available for those who may be interested in further study regarding cultural diversity as an essential attribute of God’s present and coming kingdom.   (e.g., DeYmaz 2007, 1-39; Chan 2005)

The Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1 and 2).
In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam and Eve to “…be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”  (Genesis 1:28 NIV)  Implicit are instructions to create cultures, referred to as “The Cultural Mandate,” thereby mirroring and re-creating God’s image throughout all the earth.  (Rah 2009, 128)  Given the creative imagination that God invested in human persons that He created in His image, it is reasonable to expect a wide variety of cultural expressions as people groups scattered across the earth to subdue and cultivate it in obedience to the Creator’s command.  This first picture shows us that God is the original author of diversity in all His creation.  He created Adam and Eve to be co-creators with Him, and then sent them and their descendants around the world to subdue the earth and create cultures.  Here the essential goodness of God’s creation is affirmed, which also implies the essential goodness of the diversity of cultures that were to be created by the descendants of these first co-creators. (Genesis 1:31)

The Fall (Genesis 3 and 4).
Even though the diversity of human cultures is essentially good, they all are also fallen and stained by corruption.  Just as egotism is sinful for individuals, so also is ethnocentrism sinful for people groups.  These personal and corporate sins need to be recognized and confessed so that we can be reconciled to God, others, and creation.  But we do not have the capacity to do this by ourselves, thus God provides us a plan of salvation.

The Sons of Adam and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10 and 11).
The genesis narrative is clear about the essential unity of humanity as one race, showing that all our descendants can be traced back through Noah to Adam.  In addition, it reveals that cultural diversity is not the result of the fall.  While some may think that the multiple languages originating at Babel are basically a curse, others consider them simply to be part of God’s “…benevolent act of correction, to keep humankind from remaining in the one location.” (Chan 2005, 7)   This latter view is supported by the fact that no indication is given anywhere in scripture that God will eliminate linguistic, ethnic or cultural differences in the new heaven and new earth.  (cf. "The Throne in Heaven" below) Instead, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity comes from God, which He considers to be essentially good and an integral part of the beauty of His creation.

The Call of Abram (Genesis 12: 1, 2).
Abram’s call represents the birth of the Jewish people and at the same time reveals God’s plan to bless all the peoples of the earth through Israel.  It is noteworthy that this call to Abram involves leaving his country, his people, and his father’s household and becoming a pilgrim on a journey to another land.  In this pivotal passage the themes of diverse people groups and immigration are underscored as key features of God’s plan of salvation.

God’s Judgment on Israel (Amos 1, 2, and 9).
The prophet Amos proclaimed a message similar to that of other prophets in the Old Testament, chastising God’s people Israel for their disobedience and calling them to repentance.  Woven throughout his prophecy are rebukes against Israel’s ethnocentrism and unbridled nationalistic pride and reminders that God is sovereign over and cares for all peoples. 

A Widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4: 26, 27).
Jesus’ mention of the Old Testament passages where God also reached out to non-Israelites—a widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian—infuriated those in the synagogue.  This passage underscores that just as God’s messenger of redemption was sent to Gentiles when rejected by Israel in 1 Kings 17:1-15 and 2 Kings 5:1-14, so also would God’s messenger be sent to the Gentiles if Israel chose to reject Jesus.  These represent two of many non-Israelites in the Old Testament that God blessed and used to proclaim His message.

Jesus and the Samaritans (John 4 and Luke 9, 10 and 17).
Jesus models a different attitude toward the Samaritans, in contrast with the prevailing customs of his own people and time.  His inclusive approach was evident in various instances:
  • In His willingness to interact with the Samaritan women and extend God’s salvation to her town,  (John 4:1-42)
  • In the mercy He showed to the Samaritan village that did not welcome Him as He traveled to Jerusalem,  (Luke 9:52-54)
  • In His parable of the Good Samaritan,  (Luke 10:25-37) and
  • In His healing of the Samaritan leper. (Luke 17:15-16)

The High Priestly Prayer of Christ (John 17).
The primary plea in our Lord’s High Priestly prayer to His heavenly Father was for unity among His present and future disciples and followers.  In foreknowledge Jesus was aware that they would include peoples from the diverse cultures and languages on earth, as revealed in the latter part of His prayer for His Church,  where he prays for unity “…so that the world may believe that…” the Father had sent Him to the earth.   (John 17:20-26) That He had in mind a culturally diverse group of followers in His prayer for unity is corroborated by His subsequent command to His disciples to make disciples of all people groups.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28).
Here our Lord’s command to “…go and make disciples of all nations,”  (Matthew 28:19 NIV) implies incarnational ministry among the multiple peoples and language groups of the world.  Such an approach requires that the followers of Jesus develop significant relationships with peoples of diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds as a style of life both at home and abroad.

Pentecost and the Church at Antioch (Acts 2).
While various explanations can be offered regarding exactly what happened at Pentecost, three realities were witnessed by everyone present:
  • First, peoples were present from a wide variety of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. 
  • Second, they all heard the Good News proclaimed in their own language. 
  • Third, the Holy Spirit brought unity in the midst of cultural, ethnic, and linguist diversity. 
This event at Antioch represented the birth of a new community of believers called Christians.  The pastoral leadership team that emerged for this church was truly diverse, with persons from various ethnicities and places of birth including Africa, Palestine, and Antioch itself.  (DeYmaz 2007, 23-24) Cultural, ethnic, and linguist diversity was a distinctive attribute of this new church at Antioch that also became a distinguishing feature of the movement of Jesus’ followers as it spread throughout the empire.

The Church in Jerusalem (Acts 6 and 15).
Implications of the cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity that characterized this new community of Christians at Antioch soon became evident among other followers of Jesus.  In Jerusalem, the leaders responded with sensitivity to cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences among the believers by establishing a pastoral care committee of seven Jewish men. (Acts 6:1-7)  Of greater significance is the response of the Jerusalem Council to word that gentiles had also accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. (Acts 15:1-35)  The decision regarding what should be required and not required of these new gentile believers reflects the wisdom of the young church not to allow this new movement of Jesus followers to be held captive by its majority religious culture—Jewish Christianity.  The choice instead was to embrace and reaffirm the principle that cultural, ethnic and linguist diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God and of the new church as Christ’s body on earth.

Become all Things to All People (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Paul wrote that his freedom in Christ allowed him to “…become all things to all people so that by all possible means (he) might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)  Christ’s spirit in our lives transforms us into citizens of God’s kingdom, allowing us to transcend our ethnic and cultural particularities.  Diversity is an essential attribute of the Kingdom of God on earth as an integral part of His plan reach everyone with the Good News of new life in Christ. 

The Ministry and Message of Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).
Paul is emphatic in this passage that the Good News of God’s salvation extends to all peoples, saying “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”  To underscore that all peoples are to be included, Paul also states: “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:16, 17 NIV)  Furthermore, all who are in Christ are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors of the message and ministry of reconciliation.

The Church in Ephesus and the Mystery of Christ (Ephesians and Revelation 2).
Reports in Acts about the Apostle Paul’s missionary travels, (Acts 19:10 and 20:21) combined with his writings, (Ephesians 2:11 and following) suggest that the new church in Ephesus also was probably culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse.  Of particular interest is Paul’s reference to the “Mystery of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:2-4) A common understanding is that the “mystery” is simply a general reference to the Good News of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and atonement for sin.  In contrast, Mark DeYmaz believes the phrase “Mystery of Christ” may refer specifically to the fact that “…the Gentiles [i.e., peoples of other ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups] are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (DeYmaz 2007, 30)  He also suggests that this specific meaning of the phrase “Mystery of Christ” is corroborated when the Ephesian church is chastised in Revelation approximately forty years later for having left her first love, (DeYmaz 2007, 36) that is, the love they had at first for all the saints—of diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups—but later had presumably abandoned. (Revelation 2:2-4)

The Throne in Heaven (Revelation 7).
In Revelation, we read about the fulfillment of the Cultural Mandate with a “…great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9 NIV)  This last scenario reminds us that our ultimate purpose as peoples from all cultures and multiple languages is to worship the Lamb of God together and bow before Him as our supreme Lord and King.  Here the diversities of ethnicities, cultures, and languages are not eliminated.  Rather the Good News is that they all are to be redeemed and incorporated into the new heaven and the new earth.  The invitation is to be part of a new reality characterized by a unity that is enriched by diversity. 


Taken together, these passages along with the biblical narrative as a whole affirm that cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity is an essential attribute of our Lord’s present and coming Kingdom.  Thus the Church by God’s grace also ought to be on a trajectory toward greater diversity as a witness of God’s presence on earth.  Teaching and putting into practice this biblical principle is more urgently needed today than ever before given the segregated state of evangelical Christianity in America and the increasing diversity of our nation.  Sadly many churches and believers still are not embracing this principle and endeavoring to live by it.  This is an embarrassment for all of us a part of the Body of Christ and brings shame upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we claim to follow and serve.  In response, we as God’s people ought to repent, turn from our sinful ways, and determine to obey our Lord, so that our Lord’s Kingdom may indeed come “…on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10 NIV)

Practical Suggestions.

Admittedly not every local church is located in a culturally and ethnically diverse community.  Still, a number of options are available to respond to the challenges set forth in this essay.  Following are some possible initiatives:
  1. Repent of these sins against God’s desire and plan for diversity, both individually and corporately.
  2. Covenant with God never again to be comfortable or complicit with the sinful patterns of this world.
  3. Ask God to reveal His will and guide one’s responses, which ought to include concrete acts of obedience such as relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. (John Perkins' challenge to action, found in many of his writings)
  4. Identify and reach out to different social, economic, ethnic, and/or cultural populations in one’s immediate community or a nearby one.  These connections can begin at the individual level, as believers meet people of other backgrounds in their line of work, neighborhood, or social networks.  Local churches can train and equip their people regarding effective ways to reach out beyond one’s own comfort zone.
  5. Enter into a strategic partnership with a local church that is reaching a significantly different social, economic, ethnic, and/or cultural group. 
  6. Develop a multi-ethnic network of pastors and other church leaders for multi-cultural ministries.
  7. Partner with a church in a major urban area of North America to plant a new church involving team members from both congregations.
  8. Mobilize a church planting team from one’s own church to an urban community.
  9. Partner with a sister church abroad to plant a church in North America.
Acting upon this starter list can help to connect all followers of Jesus Christ with a growing network of similar minded believers for ongoing brainstorming and action, so that our Lord’s Kingdom may indeed come in earth as it is in heaven.

NOTE: This article was first presented as a white paper for a conference in the spring of 2011, and later served as a resource for a position paper for The Wesleyan  Church and for discussions in a faculty workshop at Indiana Wesleyan University. 

Your reactions to the ideas presented in this article are welcomed.

Reference List.

        Carroll R, M. Daniel. 2008. Christians at the border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. Grand   Rapids: Baker Academic.
        Chan, Frank. 2005. “Biblical Materials for a Theology of Cultural Diversity: A Proposal,” in Mundeke, Annie, ed. 2005. Understanding diversity: Theological views on diversity. Dubuque: Kendall / Hunt Publications.
        Conn, Harvie M., and Manuel Ortiz. 2001. Urban ministry: The kingdom, the city and the people of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
        DeYmaz, Mark. 2007. Building a healthy multi-ethnic church: Mandate, commitments, and practices of a diverse congregation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
        DeYoung, Curtiss Paul, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim. 2003. United by faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race. New York: Oxford University Press.
        Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by faith: Evangelical religion and the problem of race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
        Gilbreath, Edward. 2006. Reconciliation blues: A black evangelical’s inside view of white Christianity. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
        Green, John, and Anna Greenberg. 2004. “America’s Evangelicals.” Downloads/EVANGEL_DL2.asp
        Kyle, Richard. 2006. Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.
        Mulder, Mark T., and James K.A. Smith. 2009. “Subdivided by faith? An historical account of evangelicals and the city,” Christian Scholar’s Review XXXVIII: 4 (2009): 425.
        Priest, Robert J., and Álvaro L. Nieves, eds. 2007. This side of heaven: Race, ethnicity, and Christian faith. New York: Oxford University Press.
        Rah, Soong-Chan. 2009. The next evangelicalism: Releasing the Church from Western cultural captivity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
        Recinos, Harold J. 2006. Good news from the barrio: Prophetic witness for the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
        Salter McNeil, Brenda. 2008. A credible witness: Reflections on power, evangelism and race. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
        Smith, David I. 2009. Learning from the stranger: Christian faith and cultural diversity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
        Soerens, Matthew, and Jenny Hwang. 2009. Welcoming the stranger: Justice, compassion and truth in the immigration debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
        Stetzer, Ed. 2008. The Evolution of Church Growth, Church Health, and the Missional Church, at
        Thomas, Joseph L., and Douglas A. Sweeney. 2007. ”Crossing the Color Line: A Brief Historical Survey of Race Relations in American Evangelical Christianity,” 111, in Priest, Robert J. and Alvaro Nieves. 2007. This side of heaven: Race, ethnicity, and Christian faith. New York: Oxford University Press.
        Walls, Andrew F. 2005. The missionary movement in Christian history: Studies in the transmission of faith. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
        Yancey, George. 2003. One body, one spirit: Principles of successful multiracial churches. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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