Ethnic diversity is at the heart of God’s eternal design. As John Piper argues, God gets greater glory and we get greater joy from seeing a multiplicity of peoples won to worship.
In The Compelling Community, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop have a chapter tucked in there about diversity that is well worth reading.
Working through Ephesians 3:8-11, they ask:
What is it about unity in God’s family that makes even the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” take notice?
It is the degree of separation between them before Christ—a separation that Paul in 2:14 calls a “dividing wall of hostility.”
It’s not simply
- that these two groups were of different ethnicity (though they were), or
- that they were culturally distinct (though they were), or
- that for theological reasons they were kept apart (though they were).
It is that all of this separation was openly hostile.
And yet in one moment, as Christ utters his last breath and the curtain separating man from God tears from top to bottom, he destroys the barrier dividing Jew from Gentile.
Because of the extremity of their prior separation, God gets glory in their unity.
They make that point that for most readers, it is likely that diversity is both more important than they’ve considered and simultaneously less important than they have considered.
It’s more important because . . .
It is the grand witness to the truth of the gospel (Eph. 3:10).
Far from “nice to have,” diversity should be one of the most obviously supernatural characteristics of a local church. The visible bond of our unity shows off the power of an invisible gospel.
It’s less important because . . .
It is not an end in itself.
Diversity is the effect, not the substance. The thermometer, so to speak, not the thermostat. It informs us of the spiritual temperature of our congregation, but has little ability to inflect maturity. Diversity in a local church matters very little in and of itself. It matters enormously to the extent that it advertises a deeper reality of gospel unity.
They go on to define “diversity” as “any multiplicity of backgrounds where unity is possible only through the gospel.”
I found their reminders helpful—not as a way of downplaying or distracting from an emphasis on ethnic diversity, but as a way to build upon it. In other words, we should pray for more diversity, not less.
Here are some non-exhaustive categories they highlight.
1. Boundaries of Age
“Multi-generational” has become a buzz word among evangelicals for good reason: it’s not something we often see in the world. This was perhaps the first kind of diversity that attracted me to my own church, as the generation who joined in the 1940s was infiltrated in the 1990s by a generation recently come of age. Amazingly, they functioned as a single community! Young men spent their Friday nights in nursing homes. Octogenarians vacationed in Cancun with twenty-somethings.
2. Boundaries of Economics
Our world is familiar with rich people doing kind things for poor people. But then those rich people retreat to the comfort of other rich people—or at least those with a similar educational pedigree.
Not so in the church. That’s why James castigates the church’s preferential treatment of the rich in James 2:8-9.
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
3. Boundaries of Politics
The local church must speak strongly on moral issues. But rarely does that moral authority translate cleanly into the details of public policy. As a result, Christians with divergent views on government policy should find unity in the more ultimate reality of God’s kingdom.
Of course, there are groups—such as the Nazi party in 1930s Germany—whose claim of moral authority so stretches credulity that the church must chose political sides. But by God’s grace, we often find ourselves in less extreme situations.
4. Boundaries of Social Ability
Do socially awkward people describe your church as a refuge? Or do they find it as cold and impersonal as the world outside? Social ability is no barrier to true fellowship in the Spirit.
5. Boundaries of Cultural Background
Especially for those who grew up in the church, cultural background carries with it expectations for how a church should feel. As a result, some degree of sacrifice is necessary to have a church composed of Christians from suburban, rural, and urban backgrounds; liturgical, Pentecostal, and African-American religious traditions; and many different countries of origin. That’s just fine. But explain to your congregation that everyone must sacrifice, both in the majority and the minority culture. Unity will often require sacrificing our interests for those of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
If we seek boundary-crossing love that perplexes the world around us, then some types of diversity will often speak louder than others. A church in the lily-white suburbs of Boston comes to mind. Everyone might have similar skin color, but the congregation sits at the intersection of four towns with dramatically different class identities. So when a former addict from Weymouth spends nights and weekends speaking truth into the marriage of a Hingham banking executive, something is happening that perplexes the surrounding world. In my church, on the other hand, located in what has been one of the most ethnically segregated cities in the country, ethnic diversity speaks volumes. To be sure, ethnic diversity can be found in my city—so long as we’re only talking about, for example, young political liberals from Ivy League schools. But the first comments I often hear from visitors is about how the church includes such dramatically different backgrounds—and yet still functions as a single community.
What about for your church? What boundaries has the gospel overrun that society fiercely respects?
Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 73-75.