7 Nov 2012

Embracing Differences for the Sake of Unity: Some Theological Reflections

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Kingdom, Ministry, Race Relations

The ancient philosopher, Aristotle, was quoted as saying “Birds of a feather flock together.”  This seems to be his way of saying that people of similar ethnic, racial or class backgrounds tend to congregate together.  Even in the church of God, whose members in theory are “neither Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all” (Col 3.11), tends to be the most segregated organism in the world. Rare is the community of faith that truly embodies the universal nature of God’s heavenly outpost as the New Testament envisions it.

Catalysts for Diversity 

Charles Foster argued that the proverbial tendency observed by Aristotle is understandable among fallen humanity because “embracing differences” is not easy given our proclivity to “exclude, dominate and oppress” [1]. Writing in 1997 he believed, however, that a growing trend among congregations is to exemplify the diversity of the kingdom of God. While it is true that our congregations have more racial diversity – and Lord we need more! – a few “tokens” of God’s multi-colored humanity in various congregations does not translate into having multicultural congregations. What can we do intentionally to have congregations that reflect now what the Prophet John says exists presently before the throne of God

I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count, form every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands …” (Rev 7.9)

How many local congregations look like the heavenly reality? How do we move from suppressing that glorious diversity to embracing differences.  Miroslav Volf has argued that at least two intentional moves must be taken by people in for this to come close to a this worldly reality [2].  First, to embrace difference means that I/we must “create space in myself for the other.” This is done intentionally.   Second, we must communicate that I/we do not want to be without the other in his or her uniqueness.  These two moves allow space for the other person in their difference from ourselves and to exist within community.

It seems to me that there are four basic “catalysts” driving an openness to cultural differences in our congregations.  First catalyst is simply the survival mentality. As a congregation spirals downward it lacks the finances to keep up a vision of the future. In this situation the a local monolithic congregation rents out space to an African-American or Chinese-American fellowship.  This possibly morphs into a joint Sunday school program or other programs that bring the two together.

A second catalyst is what some call a “gospel commitment.” This is a certain perspective or understanding of “evangelism.” These congregations have a desire to preach the gospel to every person regardless of race. These types of churches rarely become multicultural however, for the dominant culture seeks not only to baptize the convert but his or her culture as well [3].  These congregations fail to recognize the polyvalent nature of the Gospel message itself.

A third catalyst is the ancient Christian Spiritual habit of hospitality. These congregations not only have active witness to people with significant differences but believe in being hospitable – welcoming – to others. These Gatherings do not expect and indeed do not seek change in the other to the dominant culture. I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of hospitality as a Spiritual discipline for witness in our postmodern and fragmented world [4]. As the ancient Egyptian monk counseled “We always treat guests as angels – just in case.”

A fourth catalyst is a theological vision. That is the local congregation sees its gathering as the anticipation of and embodiment of the eschatological people of God seen by John the Prophet.  The Lion and the Lamb are not to lie down in the future only but in the present as well.  Black and White are not just going to sing praises as one in the future but in the present as well.  The diversity of God’s family is not simply to be a dream in heaven but a reality at the Table of God every Lord’s Day as a witness to the world that God has, in Christ, healed all racial and cultural division!  This is a vision that produces a powerful catalyst for “creating space in ourselves” for black culture, white culture, hispanic culture, etc while at the same time moving us to speak to these “others” that we simply cannot live without them.

Negotiating Differences 

Even if a Gathering has made the theological commitment to image in the present God’s eschatological people this does not guarantee a multicultural congregation will result. Even the most progressive fellowship will face resistance to diversity.  This resistance is rooted in the fear of loosing identity, loosing power, loosing privilege, and loosing status. Resistance replaces patterns of mutual engagement.  Denominational groups often have “machinery” that tends to promote that status quo. Even a movement that claims to be non-denominational like Churches of Christ there are unofficial hierarchies that exist to protect the status quo in the interest of imagined “doctrinal cohesion.” When dissenters sought to demonstrate the validity of Martin Luther King’s vision of shalom the censure of the Church of Christ power structure was often swift and harsh. They were denied traditional forums for the exchange of ideas: pulpits, lectureships and journals (See my Social Concerns in Churches of Christ: Trends since the King Years, 1950-2000). A further source of resistance is something as simple as majority vote. Invariably the dominate culture will dominate the voting process thus making the congregation – or society – look artificially uniform.

How can we negotiate the subtle dynamics of power at work in our “church culture” for the sake of a theological vision of God’s multicultural family? For example in the simple act of greeting a person whose culture will be followed in greeting? If a person of Russian descent is greeted will we follow they prevailing Anglo handshake or the Russian hug with a kiss on the cheek? What creates space in ourselves for the Russian? What communicates to him or her that we choose not to live without them?

Typically churches fall into four general patterns in negotiating differences.  The first is that sponsoring church pattern. In this model two separate gatherings use the same basic facilities. The culture of each congregation lives alongside each other rather than interact with each other.  The second pattern is that of the transitional church.   In these congregations a typical “European” majority has basically “given up” and is in the process of fleeing a perceived encroachment from another race/culture. Harvie Conn noted the historical reality that most so called integrated congregations are “actually in transition from being a white church to a black church” [5].

A third, more insidious, pattern is that of the assimilating church. In these congregations those in the minority move from the margin to the dominant paradigm. The person seems to be “accepted” but his or her uniqueness has been squashed. Foster suggests this assimilated person has been forced into a sense of “racelessness” [6].  The Borg of Star Trek: Next Generation perhaps best symbolizes this perspective.  The Borg travel the galaxy seeking to crush all cultural differences by assimilating them into the “Collective.”

A fourth pattern is the celebration of the differences and embracing them for the sake of the kingdom of God. In this Gathering the believers not only feel but articulate to one another that the Creator and Redeemer of us all loves us all in our differences.  Perhaps leaders in this congregation can vocalize this sentiment: “We celebrate that Palo Verde is a mosaic of God’s creation.”  As long as we live and function in the fallen world this embrace is never easy but it is recognized as a gift of grace from God himself. This congregation understands that the “relational imperative is not conditional” but grounded in the gospel of reconciliation [7].

Linking Practices

Gatherings of Christ that seek to pursue a theological program representing “the mosaic of God’s creation” will learn what are called “linking practices.” A linking practice sends intentional explicit and implicit messages to both members and visitors that in this place all are welcome in the name of Jesus. One simple linking practice would be simply using both white and black “greeters” for the Sunday assembly.  Another simple linking practice – a ritual of acceptance – would be congregational recitations of the Lord’s Prayer while holding hands or verbally affirming each other as well as holding hands when gathering around the Lord’s Table to celebrate our fellowship. The aim of the linking practice is to cultivate mutuality and solidarity – to say all are welcome. For that solidarity to occur individuals must take seriously the experience of others.

“Events” can serve vitally to link us all together.  Events focus on the Gospel story itself: the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Event practices” provide entry ways for all to participate in the activities that present and even interpret these events from the life of Christ, especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These critical events lead Christians to to reflect on the power of that story for reshaping individual and communal life. Congregations committed to this theological vision of God’s people make their corporate decisions based on that Story.  But each congregation will have “sub-stories” that can – and do – feed resistance to the Story of reconciliation and acceptance.

Leading God’s people into the beauty of it multicultural beauty is no easy task. I do not believe there is a secret recipe or a twelve step program for realizing in the “now” what God created the church to be. Diversity of any sort threatens some to the core of their being.  Yet I cannot help but believe that God is calling us to be obedient to the eschatological reality that the Gospel proclaims was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps a relational model of leadership grounded in that theological commitment and commitment to the group that transcends my own special interests, privilege and power will go far in cultivating the multi-ethnic glory of the local church. Being a prayer warrior, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, demonstrating the diversity and unity within Scripture and God’s design, love and long hard work just might bring that messianic banquet into reality in our monolithic churches.


1] Charles Foster, Embracing Diversity: Leadership in Multicultural Congregations (Alban Institute, 1997), 47.

2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

3] In a historic fellowship that has at least rhetorically placed emphasis upon the Great Commission it is sadly true that Churches of Christ have participated in this mentality. Though the data is somewhat dated now Michael Moore has demonstrated how the ‘monocultural’ outlook of mid-south Churches of Christ has hindered evangelistic work because of negative views toward “foreigners.” Moore constructed a useful instrument called “Basic Language Attitude Questionnaire” for measuring fundamental attitudes of church members toward those of a different cultural background.  See Michael S. Moore, “Basic Attitudes Toward “Foreigners” among Select Churches of Christ,” Restoration Quarterly 24 (1981): 225-238.

4] I have really been convicted of this especially in Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).  Hospitality is a actually a subversive practice.  Pohl writes that hospitality “recognizes the dignity and equal worth of every person and valuing their contributions, or at least their potential contributions to the larger community” (p. 61).

5] Harvie M. Conn, The American City and the Evangelical Church: A Historical Overview (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 148.

6] Foster, Embracing Diversity, p. 45

7] See the probing discussion in Carl Raschke, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 132 but see 116-130 in a chapter subtitled “The Church in the Postmodern Cosmopolis.”

2 Responses to “Embracing Differences for the Sake of Unity: Some Theological Reflections”

  1. Jesse Warren Says:

    Saw that someone had difficulty commenting. Thought I would give it a shot to make sure there’s nothing wrong with the website.

  2. Aussie Pete Says:

    Thanks for this article Bobby. I’m disappointed you didn’t receive more comments. This topic deserves discussion. It’s too easy to accept the status quo rather than embracing the fact that all races are made in God’s image. Why would anyone take our message of reconciliation seriously when the workplace and schools are more reconciled (racially) than the church?

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