"In our relationships to one another within the local church and body of Christ, no ethnicity or culture is to be highlighted or belittled." These were the words spoken by Dr Nicolas Ellen at an ACBC Africa Christian Conference in Pretoria. The theme of the conference was: RACISM: WHEN COLOUR DIVIDES. A hot topic.
Dr Ellen went on to clarify that to think that one ethnic group is better than another is contrary to Scripture and is walking in sin and ignorance.
The conference provided an opportunity to hear various speakers addressing ‘racism’ at a local church level. The topics dealt with mindsets, blindspots, heart attitudes, behaviours and vocabulary.
The foundational Biblical framework means that ethnic and cultural identity take second place to our Christian identity. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17)
My Christian identity trumps my cultural identity. It has to.
Our Christian identity is our new culture and so trumps our cultural identity, but it does not override or negate culture or ethnicity.
In fact, our cultural diversities are to be celebrated. God created all colours, nations and cultures for the purposes of seeking Him, worshipping Him and bringing Him glory.
We know this because in Revelation 7:9-10 Johns says: 'After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"’
That is the heavenly dictionary’s definition of corporate worship.
They didn’t all look the same but they all worshipped the same.
I fear we have this upside down. We focus on cultural preferences and differences instead; highlighting them.
We are culture vultures. We are consumed with our cultural identities and in so doing we have distorted views and practices when it comes to worship in the local church. We hold on to them tightly. Culture dictates and often prevails. We tend to operate from within our comfort zones. Familiarity is our friend.
Satan has tempted us to be so interested in our cultural differences that we prey on one another. Conversations and debates about cultural preference supersede conversations about God.
When we look at each other, we first see skin colour and ethnic differences. We see colour and we judge. We see ethnicity and we presume. Sinful hearts and living in a fallen world are at the core of racism and prejudice.
Culture is rooted in sin and so we can expect racism in our parochial cultural contexts and in society as a whole, , but not in the church. Jesus died for every tribe, tongue and nation and some of those tribes and nations are in our community and in our churches.
When colour and cultural diversities start bringing about division in the church, what we naively tend to do is we throw colour to the wind and we use the politically correct term: ‘colour-blind.’ We believe that will solve the ‘colour problem’ in the church. We will pretend to not see colour.
The problem is that by embracing the concept of ‘colour-blindness’ we end up blind and our blindspots are reinforced.
God is not colour-blind. God sees colour. He just sees it differently.
Our cultural differences are unique and we are each image bearers. We may not show partiality. However, this happens in our churches. We subtly start to make certain cultural practices ’Christian’ and ‘spiritual,’ especially when it comes to worship. We do not have the liberty to do that.
When any part of worship is conducted in such a way that is so uniquely cultural that it isolates or excludes another group in the church, then that is a problem.
A multi-ethnic church cannot be tied up with a mono-ethnic bow.
Jesus addresses this dilemma with the Samaritan woman at the well. She asked about worship and where the Samaritans should worship and where the Jews should worship. Note Jesus’ response, ushering in a new way of worship not dependent on ethnicity: ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:23-24)
God and God alone determines how we are to worship Him, not our cultural preferences.
This was the pattern for God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. God determined and prescribed how worship of Him should be conducted. (The first example is that of Cain and Abel.) Any pagan worshipper who came to believe in Yahweh had to worship the same way Israel was commanded to worship. (Examples of Rahab, the Canaanite, and Ruth, the Moabite, immediately come to mind.)
God’s standard was His standard; it wasn’t determined by culture. God’s prescribed practices for worship were His practices; He didn’t borrow them from the culture of the day. As the Church, God’s chosen people, His Word still prevails as to the divine pattern for acceptable worship and that is not prescribed by our cultural preferences or personal comfort zones. ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.’
Our cultural worship practices may never supersede Biblical practices.
We cannot decide, in a multicultural church, that the right way to worship involves a certain dress code that conforms to a specific culture’s acceptable norm.
We cannot decide, in a multicultural church, that singing hymns with Old English ‘thee(s) and ‘thou(s)’ is more holy or spiritual when it is a cultural comfort zone preference and familiar to the history of a particular group.
We cannot decide, in a multicultural church, that certain cultural ways of expressing ourselves, be that language, song or movement, are acceptable.
Each of these cultural preferences can end up highlighting one culture and belittling another.
Let us not make our cultural comfort zones, preferences and familiarities Biblical. We don’t have the right.
Worship and Christian living should not be about uniformity but about conformity – being conformed to the image of Christ.
Unity over uniformity should be our desire and testimony.
‘In our relationships to one another within the local church and body of Christ, no ethnicity or culture is to be highlighted or belittled.’
We are commanded to look to the interests of others before we look to our own interests. For the sake of His name.
Now I realise that at an ideological level this is applaudable and simple. To flesh that out practically is not quite so simple. Hence a Racism Conference.
I also realise this is nuanced, complex and emotive and that behind my words are more questions than answers.
However, Scripture is clear that when it comes to the view of the local church, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)
When it comes to corporate worship in a multicultural church, I am not suggesting we leave our cultural identities at the door, I am suggesting we leave our cultural preferences and practices at the door.
I am suggesting we embrace our oneness and ‘Christ identity’ as we enter corporate worship.
Jarvis Williams, Associate Professor at Southern Seminary, explains this so beautifully:
‘When I think multi-ethnic church, I mean vetted, godly, qualified diversity from the pulpit to the pew. So you have red and yellow, black and white pastors serving this red and yellow, black and white church. When you see ethnic groups submitting to the leadership of different ethnic groups for no other reason than Jesus has done something in their heart, that is a glorious manifestation of the Gospel that is uniquely seen in a multi-ethnic context…Where it is apparent that people who are different are unified in the Gospel and unified in a big God theology – there’s something about that experience that makes you see God’s glory in a way that you don’t often see it displayed in places where everybody is the same ethnically.’
What does this mean?
Let me suggest a scenario:
As we sit in the pews, your brown skin next to my white skin and his suit and tie next to her Indian Sari, the differences are obvious and colourful and beautiful.
The fact that such diversity can worship together because we are brothers and sisters in Christ will ironically actually highlight our oneness. We are family, a people belonging to God.
Cultural diversity worshipping together actually highlights our oneness
in Christ and is so contrary to the prevailing culture.
It means that the criteria for the songs we sing is that they be saturated with Biblical truth and will be understood by all.
It means that whether the instruments are African drums or a grand piano, it will be ordered and contribute to building up our singing and music worship.
It means that the pastor will know his sheep and apply the preaching of the Word to the various cultural diversities present. It means he will be sensitive to the unique cultural dynamics of his audience.
It means after church and during the week we will invite our culturally different brothers and sisters into our homes for sweet fellowship. We will be invited into their homes. We will share wonderfully different meals and learn about each other and build rich culturally diverse relationships. Our oneness in Christ will enable us to not show partiality and to rather celebrate our differences
I am suggesting something radical.
It is uncomfortable to be pushed out of our comfort zones.
Our diverse and colourful cultural heritages, identities, stories and practices should enrich our fellowship but not rob our worship.
Worship is never about me. It is always about God.
Fellowship is not about me. Is about one another.
Tony Evans in his book, 'Oneness Embraced,' says that ‘To be a member of the body of Christ means that preferences based on class, culture or race are totally unacceptable to God, and people who make such preferences are candidates for His judgement.’
We need to lay aside our cultural preferences for a couple of hours on a Sunday to focus on worshipping God. Why can we not do that? We will be doing that for eternity in Heaven.
Perhaps we need to start practising that now.
That is what Paul calls us to do in Philippians 2 when he calls us to be of the same mind and having the same love and to do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility to consider others more significant that ourselves.
He calls us to have the same mind of Christ who humbled himself and willingly laid aside his own glory for the joy set before Him of obeying His Father and bringing Him glory through His death on the cross.
"Openness and brokenness are required to become representatives of Christ in both word and deed." (Charles Ware)
This begins with confession, repentance and renewing our minds which results in transforming our hearts and attitudes and mindsets and vocabulary.
Perhaps we need to start doing that.
For further reading and perspectives on this topic of multi ethnic-churches I recommend the following two articles: