My last two posts reflected on the topic of ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts (you can read them here and here). Are they faithful and legitimate? Or are they divisive and less than ideal? I think I’m ready to share my answer and make my case.
I am convinced that ethnic churches are faithful and legitimate instruments of the Spirit, and ordained by the Father to bear witness to the Son amongst the nations in this present age.
First things first. My operating definition of an ‘ethnic church’ is any local congregation that indicates – whether by name, vision, or mission statement – an emphasis on ministering to a particular ethnic group.
Now, when considering the legitimacy of ethnic churches, we need to ask at least three questions. 1) What is the history and context behind each specific ethnic church? 2) What is true God-honoring unity as it pertains to the church? 3) What is the church called to do, who is a local church called to minister to, and how?
Examining the stories behind specific ethnic churches, the nature of Christian unity, and the contextual callings of local churches makes it hard to write off ethnic churches.
What is the history and context behind each specific ethnic church?
History and context often legitimize ethnic churches.
When reflecting on the theological merits of ethnic churches, there is a temptation to theologize abstractly. This usually leads to a negative assessment. But theology is always contextual and performed within history according to the needs of God’s people. We must not theologize about ethnic churches in the abstract. We must consider how they came into existence in history. After all, the very discussion of ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts is itself contextual. Apart from contextual factors such as technological development and mass migration throughout history, there would hypothetically be nothing but ethnic churches.
I want to highlight the stories of three specific ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts to demonstrate why we must not ignore history and context in our theological assessment of ethnic churches. First, there was the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, who supported and complied with the state’s apartheid agenda, barring non-white participation in their churches from 1948 to 1991.
Second, there is the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1787. The AME was established shortly after a few black Methodists were physically pulled from off their knees while praying. This was because they were not confining themselves to the designated area for “colored people” at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Furthermore, the black preachers in the Methodist Episcopal Church were only allowed to lead black congregations. Hence, the AME was founded for black Methodists seeking a place of worship unfettered by racism.
Third, there is James Tan and the core group of Chinese immigrants, who planted Boston Chinese Evangelical Church in 1961 to minister to Cantonese-speakers around Boston. In 1983, they added an English worship service, and in 1985 a Mandarin service.
Now, which of these ethnic churches is illegitimate? All of them? None of them? Some of them? I imagine most of us would disapprove of the South African Dutch Reformed Church, which participated in the apartheid. But why? Was it inherently wrong for them to pursue the development of ethnic churches in South Africa? Or were they wrong because they violated human rights and reinforced the apartheid agenda that absolutely demanded segregated churches?
What about the AME and Boston Chinese Evangelical Church? Was the AME divisive for founding a church unfettered by racism and extending the leadership of black Methodist pastors beyond racial boundaries? Was Boston Chinese Evangelical Church’s desire to be an ethnic church ministering to Cantonese speakers divisive? By raising these points, I hope to at least problematize the flat and simplistic notion that ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts are inherently divisive and “unbiblical.” After considering ethnic churches in their own historical contexts, we would be remiss to conclude that ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts are inherently inferior.
What is true God-honoring unity as it pertains to the church?
Christian unity is organic and not inherently jeopardized by ethnic churches.
While Christian unity is of paramount importance, fallen creation is always in danger of uniformity, a counterfeit unity. Now, think about all the non-ethnic-specific or self-proclaimed multi-ethnic churches that you’ve observed. If your experience is like mine, wouldn’t you say that uniformity is more common than an organic unity in diversity? In my experience, most multi-ethnic churches in America reveal a uniformity according to a white American evangelical subculture. Soong-Chan Rah commends our movement away from the assimilationist melting pot analogy, but has been quick to observe that in the newer salad bowl analogy the mixed salad is often overwhelmed by white Ranch dressing. I do not mention this to disparage the white American evangelical subculture, nor the noble aspirations of multi-ethnic churches, but to highlight that the supposed unity of multi-ethnic churches often falls short of ideal Christian unity in diversity. One might even say that a church like Boston Chinese Evangelical Church evidences greater unity in diversity with its worshipers from Hong Kong, Boston, Taiwan, and Mainland China. All this is to say that multi-ethnicity is often rather superficial, and multi-culturalism even more elusive.
Organic Christian unity is not at all disturbed by the formation of real-life ethnic churches, nor the God-ordained particularity of ethnicity itself. More accurately, it is more divisive to criticize ethnic churches as unbiblical than to form an ethnic church. After all, every local church belongs to the one universal church. A redemptive-historical understanding of ekklesia indicates that “the universal church is primary and the local church…can be denoted as ekklesia because the universal ekklesia is revealed and represented in them.”
Furthermore, when multi-ethnic churches are promoted as superior to ethnic churches because they supposedly reflect greater Christian unity, they betray a rather mechanical understanding of unity in diversity. Some evangelicals point to Revelation 7:9’s eschatological vision of one body comprised of many nations, tribes, and tongues. They then assert that an already-not-yet eschatology demands that we pursue this eschatological church’s diversity in our local churches. However, they fail to acknowledge that Scripture does not tell us how the nations, tribes, and tongues are assembled. To use an analogy, is the vision of Revelation 7 more like a randomly mixed bowl of skittles or a bowl of skittles with all the reds, greens, yellows, oranges, and purples assembled in the bowl as in a pie chart? Regardless of their arrangement, they are united within one bowl. Furthermore, it is unclear how Revelation 7 should apply to every local church in this present age.
According to Kuyper, Christian unity is organic. He writes:
The one body of Christ manifests itself differently in different countries, provinces, and regions, and even in neighboring villages and cities…The ordination of God’s providential plan and decree divided the church into local…churches, but the unity of the body of Christ keeps these individual parts together in an organic connection.
Kuyper appreciates the providentially diverse ways in which local churches are formed, such as the AME and Boston Chinese Evangelical Church. For this reason, I am persuaded that organic Christian unity can be and is reflected in both multi-ethnic and ethnic churches.
Other critics of ethnic churches point to passages such as Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3:28-29, which speak of a new humanity or a new identity in Christ and the gospel’s destruction of social divisions. John Howard Yoder paraphrased these texts: “If one is in Christ, there is a whole new world. Ethnic standards have ceased to count.” Such critics often believe that ethnicity is merely a result of sin at Babel. I, however, find Mark Kreitzer’s Kuyperian interpretation far more convincing. While the sinners at Shinar pridefully pursued an empire of uniformity, God scattered them into peoples according to His plan for human multiformity. The existence of distinct nations and peoples was divinely ordained, and this rich diversity of tribes, tongues, and nations was always an eschatological goal.
Furthermore, Kreitzer points out that just as Jesus rose from the grave as a physical, Galilean-Jewish male, so also will New Covenant believers retain their gender and ethno-linguistic particularities in the New Creation. He writes: “Biblical Christianity is therefore not platonic-gnostic with a de-particularized non-ethnic, androgynous person as the ideal…Redemptive history does not move away from so-called divisive social identities of the first creation, but rather establishes them in mature and restored form.”
Therefore, if ethnic distinctions were divinely-ordained and remain in the New Creation, arguments against ethnic churches based on a new non-ethnic identity in Christ lose their clout.
What is the church called to do, who is a local church called to minister to, and how?
Every local church is called to minister to the world contextually.
One common-sense evangelical argument for the superiority of multi-ethnic churches is that the local church should “strive to reach everyone.” But this argument is incredibly vague. Of course, every local church represents the universal church. Hence, every local church is called to serve the world. But who specifically? This is where many evangelicals would argue that one should seek to serve one’s local area. Tim Keller himself strongly urges church planters to plant churches that reflect the demographics of their neighborhoods. I admit that I’m sympathetic to this in my own context, but need this be an absolute rule for all churches? If so, almost all English-speaking ethnic churches in America are being unfaithful.
While pursuing a church demographic that proportionally matches the community’s might be a helpful and wise benchmark for certain churches, to impose any particular vision of unity and diversity upon a local church strikes me as mechanistic. This is especially true since the automobile has fundamentally altered our conception of communities’ bounds. How many of us worship at the closest Christian church to our home? Binding local churches to the norm of multi-ethnicity is mechanistic if our conception of church unity is absolutely bound by spatial-location. Is a church less faithful if it’s attended by more people who live ten minutes away by car than people who live ten minutes away by foot? Didn’t Jesus just say that his sheep would hear his voice?
It is not clear that targeting or focusing on ministry toward a particular ethnic group or having “African,” or “Korean” in a church’s name transgresses the aspects of church life and ministry that Christ instituted. Neither is it clear that doing such is an automatically exclusive action. Viewed more positively, focusing on ministry to a people group might indicate the pursuit of contextualized ministry. In every local church, ethnic and multi-ethnic alike, the leaders will make contextual decisions about how to minister to their congregation and their community. They will inevitably focus more on certain things and less on others. Most local churches play their strengths according to their context, stewarding whatever gifts God has given them. Surely stewardship may include the utilization of one’s ethnicity. I’m convinced that ethnicity can be stewarded well in both multi-ethnic and ethnic churches. What I’m saying is, focusing on an ethnic group is certainly not the only way to do contextual ministry, but can’t it be one way?
Might ethnic churches be one way of promoting a rich, God-ordained diversity and multiformity? After all, Kuyper insisted that the people of Indonesia not be made “Dutch” to become Christians, but that they be made into “Javanese Christians in whose domestic and social life a spiritual life will flow according to its own character and form.” Might not an ethnically Javanese church helpfully serve this end?
The body of Christ is filled with a diversity of gifts and contextual callings, all shaped by the reality of ethnicity. This diversity applies to local churches too. Hence, ethnic churches are one of many legitimate expressions of the local churches’ diverse and contextual ministry to the world.
To summarize, the absolute claim that ethnic churches are inherently inferior or more divisive than multi-ethnic churches in multi-ethnic contexts is very difficult to substantiate if one pays attention to the unique histories and contexts of specific ethnic churches. Furthermore, true Christian unity is organic and not jeopardized by ethnic churches or God-ordained ethnic particularity. Lastly, ethnic churches are not at odds with the local churches’ calling to minister to the world. Rather, ethnic churches are one contextual way of heeding this call.
Admittedly, ethnic churches often fail to maintain a clear testimony. And on its own, a Kuyperian theology of ethnicity could and has fostered ethnocentrism, ghettoization, and even racism as witnessed in South Africa’s apartheid era. But such ills are not inherent to ethnic churches. For this reason, I am convinced that ethnic churches are legitimate instruments of the Spirit, ordained by the Father to bear witness to the Son amongst the nations in this present age.
May God ever help all his local churches to better reflect the unity and diversity of his perfect purposes.
This blog post was shortened and adapted from a paper I recently presented at Princeton Theological Seminary’s 2017 Kuyper Conference, titled: “Ethnic Churches in Multi-Ethnic Contexts: A Neo-Calvinist Appraisal.”
 Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 86.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, transl. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: WB Eerdmans, 1975), 330.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Tract on the Reformation of the Churches” in On The Church, ed. John Halsey Wood Jr. & Andrew McGinnis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 115.
 John H. Yoder, “The Social Shape of the Gospel,” in Exploring Church Growth, ed. Wilbert Shenk (Grand Rapids, MI: WB Eerdmans, 1983), 283.
 Abraham Kuyper, “The Tower of Babel” in Common Grace vol. 1, ed. Jordan Ballor and Stephen Grabill (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 357-364.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Spiritual Unity” in Pro Rege vol. 1, ed. Nelson Kloosterman (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 225.
 Mark Kreitzer, The Concept of Ethnicity in the Bible, (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), 394-395.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 40-41.