Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,  who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,  for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.
Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.
In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!
And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.
For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.
As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.
There he was, working hard at his second job, cheerfully selling wares on the street in spite of the chill winter night. I waited until the cluster of customers moved on and then approached *Thomas, who was one of my former English students and was now becoming a good friend.
“Mr. Thomas, how are you, brother? What’s new? How’s your situation? How’s your health? Everything good?”
“Mr. AW! How are you, teacher? Are you good? How’s your household? Everyone doing well? What’s the news?”
This is how a typical conversation begins among our Central Asian people group, with a barrage of respectful questions spoken enthusiastically while the other person is doing the same thing back to you. No one actually hears each and every question or responds to all of them directly, but it’s the cumulative show of honor and friendship that counts. Once this “outdo one another in showing honor” greeting is completed, you can actually begin speaking one at a time.
“How’s business tonight?” I asked.
“Not bad,” Thomas smiled, “With my work in the bazaar pretty slow right now, I need to be out here as much as I can. Diapers are expensive!”
Thomas and his wife had recently had a baby boy, after years of infertility came to an end when they were prayed over by one of his good friends, another missionary in our city.
“May your body be whole, my brother.” I responded, signalling to him that I appreciated the difficulty of his labors.
“Let’s get some chai!” Thomas said and jumped up from his stool.
“Don’t trouble yourself!” I responded, indirectly letting him know that I would indeed appreciate a hot and sugary cup of tea on this cold winter evening. As my coworkers can attest, it’s a rare day that I turn down an offer of our local chai – strong, black, and sweet, with just a hint of bergamot, cinnamon, and cardamom. Not as simple as European teas, not as aggressive as South Asian chais – just an expertly-balanced mix of subtle spices and caffeine.
“Pah! It’s no trouble at all. Sir! Two chais over here!” The chai boy nodded that he had received our order and got to work quickly pouring the scalding water, tea, and generous helpings of sugar into two small transparent glass cups. They were in our hands and burning our fingers in less than a minute.
“May your hands be blessed,” We said to the chai boy as he delivered our order. The chai steamed in the winter air and we began stirring the sugar in, waiting for the tea to cool down just enough to be sipped without scalding.
I knew my friend’s window for visiting was limited, so after a few minutes of general question, I got to the point of my visit.
“Mr. Thomas, you’ve recently shared with me and another fellow teacher in depth that you believe in Jesus.”
“Yes! I have believed for a while. I’ve told you about how I met that older British missionary many years ago in my travels to the countries east of here. I was a conman and a drunkard, but I really did learn a lot from his example and from the church he had there. Those things have stuck with me through the years. And in the past couple of years with my other dear foreign friend, God has answered our prayers for healing and now we have a son. No question about it. I’m not with Islam at all anymore. I’m a follower of Jesus.”
“Mr. Thomas, have you ever attended a church here where there are other believers like you?”
“A church? No, but I did years ago when I was out of the country. It was amazing! Are there churches here? I haven’t seen any.”
“Well,” I responded, “Not church buildings like you would have seen in that other country. But yes, there are a few small groups of believers who meet regularly to worship Jesus together. The real meaning of church is a group of believers, not a religious building.”
Thomas chewed on what I said.
“Do you have any family members or friends who are open to Jesus?”
“No, I have tried to share with them, but it’s just me and has been for a while. My wife might be somewhat more open now… You should bring your wife over sometime so we can have her share more with my wife!”
“We’d like that a lot. And we’ll be praying for your wife to be more open to Jesus. Keep sharing with her patiently and showing her that you are a new man because of Jesus. God willing, she will notice the change in you and want to know the source of it.”
We took some swigs of our chai and I thought about how to phrase my next words. Thomas’ friend had departed for the US and we wanted to be faithful now that we were the primary spiritual influence in his life.
“Mr. Thomas, it’s very important that no follower of Jesus follows him by themselves. God wants us each to be part of a spiritual family, a true church. I’ve been talking with my friends about your situation and we believe Jesus is giving you two very good options.”
Thomas sat up and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“We believe that Jesus would like you to either join a church… or to let us help you start one among your family and friends. You don’t have to answer now. You should probably take some time and pray about it. But whatever you decide, we want to help you obey Jesus by being part of a church.”
“I will pray,” Thomas replied. “I am so happy to hear this.”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. The usual response to the “church talk” was one of caution and suspicion. Many local believers balk at the idea of gathering with other locals out of concern for their own safety. Thomas seemed to be cut from a different cloth. It appeared his travels out east had had quite an impact.
After a few weeks, Thomas contacted us and asked if he could start attending the gathering of believers we had recently begun, in spite of the fact that he had never met those other believers before. He was tired of feeling alone in his faith and didn’t sense that any in his personal network were very open to the gospel, with the exception of maybe his wife. Thomas came the very next week, brought his son, and beamed with joy throughout the whole meeting.
Missionaries in our region have had to think long and hard about the problem of the church gathering. Decades of dictators and secret police have a powerful effect upon the populations they have terrorized. The warped culture that emerges is one of fear, distrust, suspicion, and deceit. Everyone is afraid everyone else is a spy. This makes gathering local believers into a group that can become a church a mightily complicated task. Implosion is the norm.
This has had the unfortunate effect of causing many missionaries to abandon the idea of gatherings made up of unrelated believers altogether. Instead, most have turned a decent principle, the household or oikos, into a hard and fast rule. The oikos principle states that we often see the gospel taking root in natural households in the book of Acts and that missiology since has confirmed that this dynamic continues among unreached people groups – that the gospel usually travels fastest along previously established relational lines and churches tend to be planted in households.
But description has become prescription. One way churches are planted has become the way to plant a church, even to the point where local believers will stay isolated for years because missionaries are opposed in principle to bringing them to group of non-related believers. Following Jesus while isolated and without a spiritual family (even while enduring persecution) becomes preferred to violating the oikos principle. This is done in the name of rapid reproducibility and in response to the very real persecution and distrust that is in the culture.
On the other hand, there are also local believers who become members of a composite group (made up of believers not naturally related to one another) who fail to ever tell their family and friends that they are believers. They stay mostly secret in their compartmentalized faith. This is not healthy. And it’s true, these composite groups almost always implode. The trust between believers that we expect to naturally develop is awfully slow to grow… and sometimes there really are spies.
And yet we cannot abandon the biblical vision of local churches that are not made up only of people who are already naturally like one another. The church is meant to display how the gospel overcomes natural barriers of family, culture, and ethnicity (Col 3:11). If we plant one church for the Hatfields and one church for the McCoys and stop there, how does that not simply reinforce their blood feud? Better (though harder) to have a church where Hatfields and McCoys worship together and visibly attest to the power of the gospel to break down dividing walls of hostility (Eph 2:13-22). Yes, oikos church planting is one natural way the church has taken root among people groups for 2,000 years. But the church must outgrow the oikos and bring reconciliation between opposing households if these churches are to become healthy and faithful. And we must not leave local believers as spiritual orphans in the name of methodology. Obeying the scriptures and gathering with other believers is worth it, even knowing the risks.
All of this context is why I shared with Thomas about the two very good options he had regarding church: join one or help us start one. In truth, these would be two options worth celebrating with new believers almost anywhere in the world. Join a church made up of those totally different from you and together become the household of God, to the amazement of the watching world. Or, work with godly mentors to start a church within the relationships God has already given you. Do any of our cities actually have an overabundance of churches? Isn’t there always room for one more church plant, especially with the evangelistic energy they bring? Start with your household, but by all means, pray for and work for the gospel to break out of your network as soon as possible, and to bring in those who do not naturally fit as part of your oikos. Yes, reach your household. But also reach your enemies.
Not every new believer will be able to start a church in their oikos. The Spirit gives different gifts. Missiology tends to miss this point. But also, not every new believer will be willing to join a church where they trust no one when they have a past involving trauma and betrayal. How can we plant churches that patiently walk with all of them so that they can obey the scriptures and gather with others? I have encouraged my current teammates to share these two options with their newly believing friends, knowing that as a team we share the vision of developing multi-household and multi-ethnic churches. So whether we start with a household and deal with the trust issues on a slower track or whether take the bull by the horns and plant a composite group right away, our aim is to end up in the same place – a biblically faithful church that visibly displays the gospel.
Back to Thomas – he joined our composite church plant, which then went on to implode six months later. One of our leaders-in-training proved to be some kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and caused a world of confusion and mayhem. Thomas sadly sided with the wolf for a season. The rebound has been difficult for many of the new believers in that group, but there are signs that Thomas is still mostly on a good track. He has pursued some reconciliation and his wife has even come to faith in the season since the implosion. The church plant, which he sometimes visits, still continues.
Church planting in Central Asia is very messy and we’re learning to take the long view. There are times when I regret introducing Thomas to this group. What would have happened if he had picked the other option? But at the end of the day we walk in the light we have in a given situation. Even if we walk in biblical principles with a good conscience, in the mysterious sovereignty of God things can implode and even fail. And in spite of the eventual difficulties, Thomas’ presence in this diverse group was one of the factors that led to others hearing the gospel for the first time.
The day will come, sooner or later, when Central Asia will once again be full of followers of Jesus. Planting churches is the only way to get there. I am grateful for two very good options Jesus gives us for how to start.
Most Western cultures tend to be time-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their time, by prioritizing the clock. Most Eastern cultures tend to be event-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their participation, by prioritizing their access the key parts of an event.
Both cultures value respecting others. It’s the how in respecting others that often results in a culture clash.
Think of a typical church small group in a university city. This group meets once a week for fellowship, bible study, and prayer. Let’s say our hypothetical group’s participants are made up of both Westerners and those from the global East, perhaps Indian grad students and business professionals.
All of the members of this small group have agreed to a start and end time for their meetings, 7:00-9:00 p.m., and they have consensus as to the parts of the gathering: fellowship, study, and prayer.
The evening for the group’s meeting arrives and some of the participants are on time. However, after 5-10 minutes, the Westerners feel the urge to begin the meeting. This doesn’t sit well with the Easterners, because several members of the group have not arrived yet. They feel like it would be very unloving to start the meeting without all the participants present. The Westerners for their part want to start because they feel it would be very unloving to not end on time. There are other things scheduled after the meeting, including the bed times of small children!
The meeting gets started eventually and the discussion goes longer than expected. Because it’s almost 9:00, the Westerners suggest that they skip the prayer portion of the event. After all, they want to honor everyone’s time by finishing on time and keeping their word. But the Easterners once again protest. It’s more honoring to make sure the group gets to pray together and fulfill all the key elements of this event, no matter how late it goes!
This is a classic collision of time-orientation vs. event-orientation, West vs. East.
You can see how different understandings of respect could lead to some uncomfortable disagreements in a group like this. But things could get even worse if any members of the group begin to elevate these cultural preferences to become matters of godliness. A Western brother might say that it’s more godly to manage time responsibility – redeem the time and keep your word, that’s what Christians should do, regardless of culture. An Eastern brother might differ that it’s more godly to prioritize people over schedules – love for others is how the world will know we are Jesus’ people, not by our rigidly managed schedules. And why do you let the clock cause you to neglect the great duty of prayer?
How do you get past this kind of impasse? On a practical level, it’s helpful if there are participants who can point out the cultural dynamics that are going on. Being aware of these differing cultural values of time-orientation and event-orientation help keep the conflict at an appropriate level – one of preference and not one of faithfulness. Pulling back the veil on the cultural elements at play helps to defuse the conversation, as many from each respective culture simply may have never heard before that there are others who approach respecting others in these different ways. It’s helpful to frame it as more like a personality difference and less like an issue of disobedience. This can inject some grace and readiness to listen into the conversation.
It’s also key to focus on the common and biblical virtue, respecting and loving others, that both groups are pursuing. They are working for the same biblical principle, but are applying it differently. This means the conflict falls in the realm of Romans 14-type issues. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:6 ESV). In Romans 14, the same biblical principle of honoring the Lord and giving him thanks can be applied either by eating or by abstaining from eating. There’s a spectrum of faithful applications of this principle. This is also true of the other issue Paul raises in this chapter, honoring certain days over others.
Some biblical principles are given along with a narrower prescribed range of biblical applications, such as the Lord’s Supper. But many, many biblical principles are given to us with a broader range of possible applications. When we assume our own personal or cultural applications are the same as the biblical principle (sometimes we even do this in the name of fighting relativity), we tend to trample on Christian liberty and fight about the wrong things. We can divide the body of Christ over silly things like food, just like Paul warns about. Instead, we can join Paul in asking, “Will you, for the sake of honoring the clock, destroy the one for whom Christ died?”
If the conflict has made it this far, recognizing the cultural clash going on and identifying how the biblical principle and possible applications relate, they still have some work to do. How should the group actually proceed given these seemingly-exclusive preferences? Context plays an important part in making a game plan at this point.
Is one group the overwhelming majority of the attendees? Then it’s likely that the small minority should, for the sake of love, shift their cultural preferences to that of the majority. Is one group more able to shift culturally, more able to see both sides of the issue? Perhaps the younger members of the group would be more able to forgo their cultural preferences whereas the older members would risk violating their consciences. If so, the younger may be called on to make that shift for the sake of the others. Perhaps there is a way that both groups can prefer one another and meet in the middle with an intentional compromise. Or, perhaps different gatherings can prioritize the culture of the respective groups. This could even become fun: “First and third week of the month, we’re meeting Western style, second and third, it’s Eastern all the way! Prepare accordingly.”
Whatever practical solution our hypothetical small group decides upon, it’s likely that they will have grown simply by getting greater clarity on these differences and by working for an intentional solution. Too often cultural conflicts occur without the participants understanding what’s actually going on. Often, the majority just continues to do things its way and the minority feels like they weren’t heard or understood. Or, these conflicts get mislabeled as black and white issues of faithfulness when they were really just grey issues of preference.
These kinds of conflicts actually represent an important opportunity for growth and love – one which can witness powerfully to an unbelieving world with its merely skin-deep diversity. If you are a Westerner, you can learn to honor your Eastern friends by prioritizing everyone’s participation and by letting go of hard start and end times as possible. Show your Eastern friends that they are more important to you than the clock is. If you’re an Easterner, you can learn to honor your Western friends by showing them you value their time and their plans. Show them that you love them by helping them keep their commitments. How can you learn how to actually do this with real people? By asking questions about these preferences and by being a good listener. Simple spiritual friendship goes an awfully long way toward overcoming cultural differences.
These are, of course, broad strokes and exceptions always exist to these patterns. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, the church would be helped to be more aware of this very common culture clash. Let us work for diverse biblical cultures within our churches where we are time-oriented and/or event-oriented with gospel intentionality.
*If you want to learn more about time-orientation vs. event-orientation, Sarah Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar, is a great place to start.
With the deaths of the apostles (apostoloi, or envoys), who had been the chief conveyors of Jesus’s message, the role of the bishop grew; and by the beginning of the second century we find him being treated in a more exalted manner – as a successor to the dead apostles and symbol of unity for the local congregation – but still the appointee of his congregation. As its symbol of he was duty-bound to consult his congregation in all important matters. “From the beginning of my episcopacy,” the aristocratic Cyprian of Carthage, monumental bishop of third-century Africa, confided to his clergy, “I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people.”
By the end of Augustine’s life, such consultation was becoming the exception. Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; and bishops could no longer rely on the opinion of their flocks – increasingly, uninformed and harried illiterates – nor, in all likelihood, were they averse to seeing their own power grow at the expense of the people. In many districts, they were already the sole authority left, the last vestige of Roman law and order. They began to appoint one another; and thus was born – five centuries after the death of Jesus – the self-perpetuating hierarchy that rules the Catholic church to this day.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 61-62
Darius* and I were meeting in a cafe to conduct an informal baptism interview. Leaning on things I had learned as a young pastor in the US, I was asking questions to gauge his understanding of the gospel and of baptism, looking for clear evidence of repentance and life change, and also casting a vision for local church commitment – the absence of which is the kryptonite of church planting among our people group.
“Darius, you know that many who come to faith among your people refuse to gather with other believers. They refuse to commit to a church body and instead try to follow Jesus on their own. Because of this choice they can never become mature believers and the church cannot be built up and multiply here. It’s a tragic thing.”
“Yes,” Darius nodded.
I continued, “When you get baptized you are not only proclaiming your commitment to Jesus, but you are also proclaiming your commitment to his people, the Church, Christ’s bride.”
Darius continued nodding in affirmation.
“Darius, I know there are many reasons why other local believers are afraid to gather with others to worship Jesus and to be the church… but in order to obey Jesus, we must be committed to do this, no matter what. If you say you are ready to get baptized, are you also ready to commit to gathering with a body of believers for the rest of your life, even if things get bad?”
Darius looked at me, a little puzzled.
Then he asked, “Why would I stop gathering with other believers? It’s because of the church that I became convinced that the message of the gospel must be true. When I saw your lives, how different all of you are, when I saw your relationships with one another (and here he cycled through the names of our small church plant of locals and foreigners), that’s when I knew the gospel was true.”
Darius was speaking as if what he was saying was the most obvious thing in the world, seemingly unaware of just how rare this stand was among local believers.
“I am a believer because of the church. So of course, I will gather with a church for the rest of my life, no matter what happens.”
There it was, Darius had taken his stand. I wanted to ask him to say it again, or at least to stand up and give him a big bear hug. After three years of pleading with local believing friends to gather with others, and mostly failing to convince them to actually do so, here for the first time was a brother who simply knew it deep down in his spiritual bones – to be a believer means to not forsake the assembly. Here was evidence that if exposed to a gathering of the saints early on, a local could actually have the importance of church as part of his new-believer DNA. Here was a fulfillment of the Bible’s promises about the power of The Church Observed. It was like stumbling onto water while traveling through the desert. It was wonderful.
We were departing soon for the US, and we were asked to plan to move to a new city after our return. But our last time worshiping with Darius and the other believers included a kiddie pool in a kitchen. Darius confessed his faith in Jesus and in the presence of witnesses went under the water and came back out again, his spiritual death and life in Christ now made visible through the waters of baptism.
To this day Darius has kept his commitment to Jesus and also to his bride, the church. May the Lord raise up an army like him.
“Don’t go downtown tonight. Lots of protests planned.”
This is not an abnormal sentence for life in our corner of Central Asia. This time however, it was spoken about our home city in the US, where we are currently on medical leave. Like dozens of other cities, ours has been rocked by protests this week, sparked by the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Much ink has been spilled rightly lamenting the patterns of sinful injustice along with the sinful responses to these developments. Situations like this, with their impossible complexity, highlight the depths to which all sides are grievously affected by the curse. It all seems like a horrible Gordian knot. We desperately need the servant of the Lord from Isaiah 42 to untangle it, to bring justice in the gentle and supernatural way that only he can.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.
May he come quickly.
However, should he tarry, I want to advocate for the goodness of multiethnic churches as one key part of moving forward in race relations in the US, and even all over the world. Or did you think racism is a uniquely American problem? Sadly, it’s not. Racism is a global cancer; America is just comparatively public and loud about its racism issues (which is something to be commended). Many other nations, for face-saving reasons, do not air their dirty racism laundry, but oh, it is there, sometimes with twisted roots which are thousands of years old.
The problem with fallen humanity is that we self-sort by default. Despite our best intentions, most naturally ooze in the direction of those most similar to ourselves. This dynamic has been well-documented recently for political orientations, leading to our current situation of Democratic cities surrounded by Republican suburbs and countryside. But it also happens along ethnic and linguistic lines. In missions circles we call it the homogenous unit principle. The gospel flows most quickly along previously established blood and relational lines – the so-called “Bridges of God”. People tell their family and friends about Jesus and then ended up worshipping Jesus with mainly their family and friends. And in one sense this is only natural. It’s so natural that many question the need for multiethnic churches at all. After all, what’s the big deal with white folk wanting to worship in their culture and black folk wanting to worship in their culture? Don’t we believe in the goodness of a church for every people group in the world? Doesn’t God get glory from each unique cultural and linguistic expression of church? Doesn’t he preserve these differences such that they are still visible in eternity in prophetic passages like Revelation 7:9? Yes, there is a strong biblical case to be made that the gospel is for every language and for every culture. It uniquely redeems and honors each of them and should be uniquely expressed through each of them, like an opal displaying a thousand flaming colors within. God really does turn Babel on its head, turning the curse of many languages and peoples into a display of eternal glory. This is a truth worth dying for among the remote unengaged people groups of the world.
Yet alongside the gospel’s power to redeem every language and culture stands the biblical truth that the gospel is powerful to unite diverse cultures. To miss this is to miss one of the main themes of the New Testament, that the gospel is reconciling the previously irreconcilable – the Jew and the Gentile. Because the gospel was preached to both Jew and Gentile, many New Testament churches were multiethnic, a hodgepodge of Romans, Greeks, Palestinian Jews, and Hellenistic Jews. Hence the many issues that provoked passages like Romans 14. Paul labored until the end of his life to maintain the unity of these early multiethnic churches against the barrage of cultural and theological issues that threatened to divide them, issues such as food differences and the observance of sacred days. Though not mentioned explicitly, one can easily imagine the many history-related interpersonal issues that could arise between the Jewish believers, the oppressed, and their Greco-Roman brothers and sisters, the historical oppressors. After all, put in modern terms, the Greeks and the Romans were both repeatedly guilty of genocide against the Jews, alongside many other forms of oppression.
While monoethnic and monocultural churches proclaim that the gospel uniquely redeems a given ethnicity and culture, and such churches may at times be necessary or all that is possible, multiethnic churches return to the apostolic milieu, displaying the radical power of the gospel to reconcile those from different races and cultures even as it redeems each one individually. This display alone is worthy of the hard work it takes to establish and maintain these kinds of churches. And it is hard work, harder than ever in the age of Trump. However, along with this, multiethnic churches accomplish something very simple and practical. They supernaturally push back against human self-sorting and help diverse believers to actually know and hear one another.
Multiethnic churches provide a context where people from different races and cultures can deeply know one another, through the mutual bonds of covenant community. Communication differs tremendously from person to person, as every married person in the world will readily attest. How much more then does it differ from ethnicity to ethnicity and from culture to culture? If two people from the same culture are struggling to understand one another, the best thing they can do is to spend more time together and keep on communicating. Sooner or later they will learn how to get on the same frequency, they will come to understand what the other person actually means when they speak certain verbal constructions. The exhortation to “Pay attention to what he means, not what he says” is only possible after a certain degree of personal knowledge. But if believers self-sort, and don’t find themselves in contexts where they can know and be known by those different from them, then how will this communication threshold ever be reached? How will white and black believers ever be able to understand what the other actually means if they don’t spend abundant time together working for the kind of friendship where there is deep mutual understanding? Respectful distance will not be enough. Respectful distance will only lead to more misunderstanding and division. What is needed is a spiritual family, one committed to speak and listen to one another in biblical ways.
American Christianity remains remarkably segregated. There are reasons for this. On a practical level, it is very deflating to be repeatedly misunderstood, and those most likely to understand us are those most like us. So we drift toward worshipping with “our people” whether by default or by discouragement. Yes, we are all speaking English, but my contention is that white and black believers in this country aren’t really hearing and understanding one another. How can they when they remain so separate? Even if they worship together, most majority-culture believers are not awake to the real cultural and communication differences that underlie different American subcultures. But these differences are present and active nonetheless, a more present reality to those from minority cultures who must navigate between their culture and majority-white culture on a daily basis.
What do these points have to do with the protests spreading across America right now? In short, we cannot address the root issues of injustice in our society if we cannot truly understand one another. After all, a cultural and perhaps linguistic divide led to injustice even in the early church, which led to the establishment of the office of deacon (Acts 6). As one who lives in the daily challenges of cross-cultural (mis)communication, I believe that such failure of understanding and communication is a major element of racial issues in America, though because of the assumption of a common language it often escapes notice. As a Christian and member of a multiethnic church, I know that only in the church do we possess the spiritual resources necessary to truly unite those from different ethnicities and cultures. Yet American churches are highly segregated, because self-sorting is what naturally happens. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the midst of a divided nation, multiethnic churches can be seedbeds for inter-racial and cross-cultural understanding. And not just understanding, but even friendship and love. That’s why we need more multiethnic churches.