A preacher once asked a congregation: “Share the essence of the Old Testament in one short phrase.” A number of answers came: Fear God and give glory to Him, said one person, God is love, answered another. Jesus and Him crucified!, another confidently exclaimed. The preacher acknowledged that every answer contained elements of truth, but proposed to share what he claimed to be Jesus’ answer. He pointed out, to everyone’s surprise, that Jesus, in His sermon on the mount, summarized the entire Old Testament in a profound, pithy statement.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.—Matthew 7:12, NRSV
No rituals, no ceremonies, not even the Ten Commandments. Everything that Moses and the prophets wrote about could be distilled in this one principle that regulates human relationships. Wow!
Our church is very diverse. In addition to our differences in age, socio-economic status, gender, education and political orientation, we have a number of nationalities represented among us. Some have argued that mono-cultural churches would facilitate unity and mission. In other words, we should have Chinese churches, Hispanics churches, African-American churches, West-Indian churches, Kenyan churches, Brazilian churches, etc. This would not only relieve internal tensions produced by cultural variations, but would focus the church’s mission on reaching people in their own ethnic groups.
Some argue that evangelism would be more successful if we allow people to become Christians without having to cross racial, linguistic, generational or class barriers. I’ll admit, it would be easier to do church if everyone in the congregation thought and behaved similarly. Having to interact with people who are different increases the potential for disunity for sure. And because of language barriers and cultural variations, a Hispanic church in Portland or a Korean church in Eugene does facilitate the preaching of the gospel. But how far should we go with this arrangement? Should we have a youth church in order to reach young people? What about an English-speaking African American church in the same neighborhood as an English-speaking West Indian church?
As I read through the New Testament, I find that the early church also struggled with cultural variations. Paul’s letters often addressed differences among Jew and Gentile Christians, slave and slave-holding Christians, etc. And though there were a number of house churches in places like Rome, Paul’s solution to the threat of disunity was never to have a Jewish Christian church and Gentile Christian church. Or a table for wealthy Christians, and table for poor Christians. On the contrary, throughout his ministry, Paul planted churches in Caesar’s territory that modeled integration, reconciliation and unity that challenged the social and cultural divisions of the Roman world. In his letter to the Galatians, he wrote:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.—Galatians 3:27, 28, NKJV
Paul dedicated his life to the work of organizing small Spirit-led communities who worshiped the one true God. These companies were made up of people who were transformed by the message of Jesus. In the life of the church, the on-looking world caught a glimpse of self-giving love, which alone can hold together people of such diverse backgrounds. Paul believed that multiethnic congregations were necessary for an accurate witness to the world that Jesus was the Messiah. Love was central to Paul’s vision of a united Christian church. It was the word he used to summarize what he understood to be the essence of the “law” (Old Testament Scriptures).
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.—Galatians 5:14, NKJV
What does this look like in the life of a church made up of such a wide spectrum of people? In her book, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, Ellen White unpacked Jesus’s powerful summary of the Old Testament (found in Matthew 7:12):
In your association with others, put yourself in their place. Enter into their feelings, their difficulties, their disappointments, their joys, and their sorrows. Identify yourself with them, and then do to them as, were you to exchange places with them, you would wish them to deal with you. This is the true rule of honesty. It is another expression of the law. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Matthew 22:39. And it is the substance of the teaching of the prophets. It is a principle of heaven, and will be developed in all who are fitted for its holy companionship.—Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 134
In a world where people are polarized and isolated, where hatred and inflammatory speech threaten to split families, churches and societies, the church has an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. I’m thrilled that our congregation has decided not to circumvent cultural barriers in our outreach efforts, but rather we have sought to overcome them by the power of Jesus. Praise God that we are committed to living out the gospel in a unity that does not exclude ethnic diversity. May our congregation demonstrate the New Testament model of church growth based on the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile people across socially constructed divides.