I applaud the recently minted Center for the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta. Director Karen Ellis notes the Center’s agenda “emphasizes the connection between the local and global, with a focus on how God has moved, is moving, and has promised to move through his people in history and in the contemporary world.” That means the application of Christianity will be seen through the distinctions of historical and cultural settings, including various ethnicities.
The word, “multi-ethnicity” can provoke divergent responses, especially when referencing the church and its need to recognize diverse peoples. Unfortunately, Christians seem to be divided on the amount of attention that multi-ethnicity should receive. Should the church push an agenda to reinforce multi-ethnicity or does this only serve as a distraction to the gospel?
A big part of the problem is the way multi-ethnicity is often associated with the issues of the day, particularly related to social justice. To be honest, I think it gets swallowed up in it. Social justice focuses so much on disparities between the black and white races that the nature of multi-ethnicity is minimized, particularly in the church. Even more unsettling is the fact that “race” is a false construct that was created for the sole purpose of creating a racial hierarchy. This is not to dispute any legitimate issues; that’s not the point of this post. Rather, when we hear multi-ethnicity, it likely gets entangled up with this agenda and loses its significance regarding the way we should consider ethnicity from a biblical point of view.
We need to recapture the beauty of multiethnicity from Scripture’s point of view. Even though similarities exist with how secular society commonly defines ethnicity–a common ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences–we do well to keep the definition consistent with what we see in Scripture and not throw it into the social justice pot.
The Bible knows nothing of race since it was a man-made construct. But we can clearly see the presence of many ethnicities in the pages of Scripture. For example, a beautiful picture unfolds in the opening chapters of Acts on the day of Pentecost;
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together and they were bewildered because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rom, both Jesus and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. (Acts 2:5-11)
Here we see a picture of the diversity united celebration of the mighty acts of God. The passage highlights that all these ethnicities had their own distinct language. God displayed a reversal of Babbel by unifying these disparate languages in order to glorify himself. This passage demonstrates that God’s wondrous plan involves people from all nations. This scene in Acts is but a glimpse of picture in Rev. 7:9, where people from every tribe, tongue and nation are gathered together in worship of the Lord.
God, through the human authors of Acts and Revelation, makes a point to note that his people come from a variety of distinct places, as is also noted in Acts 17:26. During Paul’s defense of the faith in the Areopagus, he notes “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth.” We would be remiss if we simply noted that they had different languages and that the places they came from were irrelevant. Why did Luke note the different regions? Why did John not just describe a large gathering of people from around the world and leave it at that? Surely, we are to learn that God’s agenda will capture the hearts of people who have different languages, cultural habits, expectations, and so on.
We cannot ignore the fact that each ethnic region comes with its own culture and customs. People didn’t just gather with different languages but they also held different perspectives and different ways of doing life. We also can’t dismiss the ways in which the African-American heritage in the US forged its own culture and should be mindful of distinctions. Yet, God’s agenda gives a disparate group of people a single identity in Christ that takes precedence over all other identities. But our Christian identity does not erase our ethnic identity, nor should it. Our ethnic heritages are a testament to the sovereign work of our Lord. It’s a good thing! We can celebrate our heritages because they are gifts from God.
As global migration continues to increase, it is important to realize that multiethnicity will increase in our local contexts and in our churches. This means we have to consider how people from different ethnic heritages interrelate to one another. However, as we do this important work, the church ought not confuse it with the broader culture’s entanglement with social justice issues. Instead, we need to consider multi-ethnicity from a Christian worldview that considers how people from every tribe, tongue and nation will praise God together. Jesus promised that he would build a single church, one comprised of a diverse group of people with different languages and heritages. We do well to honor that vision.