Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Diversity

I know this is a well-worn issue, but I thought I'd post this since there hasn't been any action in a while. This is an excerpt from an email I sent to a professor. My reason for posting it is to bounce around the idea that racial diversity in local churches occasionally has in it an impulse towards legalism.

The issue of race is extremely complicated in my opinion. Racial tension, really, is a much more profound reality throughout history than any kind of tension that has existed between men and women. Racial disunity and harmony are issues that carry a profound pride of place throughout the Bible. Just to mention a few passages from the NT Romans 9-11; Eph. 2:11-22; Acts 15; Gal. 2, are passages that are deeply influential in my thinking on this topic. It is clear from these passages that race is not something that ought to ever determine the boundaries of a church's fellowship. Eph. 2:11-22 makes it clear that it was part of the design of the cross to reconcile human beings across racial divides. It is important to say that it was a part of the design of the cross, and not merely a convenient result. That being the case, I would think it to be central to my leadership to labor to see people in fellowship with one another regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.

That said, I am reticent to say that churches must represent the exact demographic of the neighborhoods they are in in a kind of "thus sayeth the Lord" sort of fashion. I don't see the biblical texts moving in quite that direction. The way I would want to approach a lack of racial diversity in a particular local church is by raising questions about mission. If the church finds that they are in a neighborhood made up of a demographic that is unrepresented in their church one wonders if they are taking their call to fulfill the Great Commission seriously. However, maybe they are. Maybe they are reaching out to people with the gospel, and people are simply picking other churches to attend. This can be a bad thing. It can mean that a particular church's worship is offensive, and therefore unpalatable for the people that actually take up residence in the church's neighborhood. In that case the church may simply need to disband. But, it can also be something that is quite tolerable. Forcing unwanted diversity can often create a distasteful homogoneity. That doesn't have to happen. Paul, of course, encouraged people to maintain their diversity, and to restrain themselves from passing judgment on each other (Rom. 14:1-10). But, it would be sad if the church lost its colorful differences in self-expression for the sake of not causing offense. Having bland non-offensive styles of worship and practice, and calling that diversity, in my opinion, lowers the bar. I attend a very white very traditional Presbyterian church. There are aspects of it that I find distasteful, but I also believe it would be a shame to erase the styles of worship that the congregation has developed over the years. Surely we would all want to say the same for churches that bear different stylistic characteristics.

The Church always must be moving forward evangelizing every people group. That alone will bring racial tensions into the Church's purview. Inasmuch as that is the case, the church must be willing to "welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom. 15:7).

I hope this doesn't sound like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth. I have seen too much hand-slapping and back-patting from people who think their church's have arrived at a heavenly level of ethnic diversity. As if their services are straight out of Revelation chapter 7. I commend these leaders, but I am also aware of the pride that comes from faithfully fulfilling self-announced moral imperatives. Possibly the antidote for this is not forcing diversity, but letting it happen organically through obedience to the Great Commission. This would, perhaps, distract us from the temptation to be proud.


Jon Furst said...

Interesting, John.

Maybe we could call the sort of thinking you're arguing against the Acts 2 fallacy–– just because you make everyone in your church sell all their property and share everything in common doesn't mean that your going to get an Acts 2 church. Perhaps "letting it happen organically through obedience to the Great Commission" is the answer.

My question is, will it happen this way? Do we need to beware of our tribalistic tendencies at more than just a cognative level? If so, in what way?

John Paulling said...

Hello Jon.

I think the Acts 2 fallacy would be related.

Great questions. I think its obvious from the email that I have no clue how to answer my own question. Mission is a pretty vague crack at a solution. So no, I'm sure the cognitive is just the tip of the iceberg.

The path I want to walk is a pretty narrow one. I am convinced that ecclesiology and soteriology are not as distinct from each other as has been thought. Which is why I want to make a big deal about church unity being a design of the cross, and not a mere convenient outcropping. However, I'm not interested in making any of the cruciform moves the Acts church made ends in themselves. That's my issue.

I'm also curious if every individual church has to represent every piece of diversity that it is surrounded by. Do we literally need to worship with someone every Sunday to say that we have unity with them? It seems to me that one of the reasons we have formed the denominations we have formed is so that we can keep from killing each other. I don't bite my thumb at any man who knows when to walk away, Gal. 2:11-14 notwithstanding.

Phillip said...

I thought this was well written John. Regarding your last paragraph, I feel the same could be said about churches with narrowly defined social justice or green initiatives.

P.D. said...

seems completely uncontroversial