Excerpts here are taken from the book, Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, by Mark DeYmaz. (Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network, 2007)
While government and educational programs, together with the efforts of countless individuals, groups and agencies, have long-sought to eliminate prejudice and the disparaging consequences of institutional racism still deeply embedded within our society, is it not time to recognize that true unity – a unity that respects and celebrates diversity – cannot be achieved apart from the establishment of churches which intentionally and joyfully reflect the passion of Christ for all people of the world?
For it is not the institutions of government, nor of education throughout America that have been ordained by God to this task, but rather the local church, the bride of Christ; we, His people (John 17:1-3, 20-23; Acts 11:19-26, 13:1, 16ff.; Galatians 3:26-28; Ephesians 4:1-6; Revelation 5:9-10).
I. The Prayer of Christ
In John 17:2, Christ clearly defined His mission. He was sent to the world to give eternal life to all who would believe. Reaching the lost is what it’s all about; it remains today the passion of His heart.
So after first interceding for the apostles (vss. 6-19), He prayed for you and me. Specifically – three times in four verses (20-23) – He prayed that we would be one, or “perfected in unity.” Our unity, He declared, will be a visible witness to the world of God’s love for all people. Our oneness will demonstrate that He is Messiah, who alone can bring peace to men.
In John 17, then, Christ not only defined His mission, but delivered to us the most effective means for reaching the world with His message of hope. He did not tell us to write a book, publish a tract or develop a program; He called us to be one – on earth as it is in heaven – so that the world would know God’s love and believe.
II. The Pattern of the New Testament Church
Have you ever wondered why you have to read eight chapters into the Book of Acts to find anyone willing to leave Jerusalem for the sake of the Gospel? Consider, too, that in Acts 10, the apostle, Peter, is challenged to explain the fact that he has converted a Roman soldier to Christianity. Again, the question is why?
It was, indeed, difficult for the early believers to understand that Christ intended His kingdom to extend beyond Jewish borders, to encompass people from every nation, tongue and tribe. Even into Acts 11, they still don’t get it! For in various towns, they speak of Christ only with the Jews (vs. 19).
But in Acts 11:20, a significant step is taken when men of Cyprus and Cyrene intentionally take the gospel to a diverse city called Antioch and speak of Christ with both Jews and Greeks alike. As a result, considerable numbers there come to Christ. Barnabus is sent from Jerusalem and later, Paul, himself, makes this church home. In time three missionary journeys are launched from the church and the gospel is spread to all of Asia Minor – and into Europe, as well – making the church at Antioch the most influential church of the entire New Testament!
So why did the church at Antioch care about the world? Because the church at Antioch reflected the world! They were a multi-ethnic people with a multi-ethnic leadership (Acts 13:1) who considered it essential to send their money, their men and their message of hope abroad – to friends, family and countrymen in obedience to Christ.
With this in mind, it is not coincidental that believers were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26). As Jesus, Himself, made clear, He is most clearly recognized in the unity of His children (John 17:20-23).
III. The Pauline Mystery
From the beginning, the church at Ephesus included both Jewish and Gentile converts (Acts 19:17). And when Paul writes later in his letter to the church at Ephesus, “For this reason, I too, having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you“ (Ephesians 1:15-16), it is appropriate to ask to whom is Paul referring and why such inclusive language? It is my belief that Paul has in mind the multi-ethnic nature of this church-a community of faith in which both Jewish and Gentile converts walk, work and worship God together as one.
Beginning in Ephesians 2:11, Paul turns his attention to the Gentile community within the church. According to Paul, understanding of this mystery had not been granted to past generations but had only “now been revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit“ (Ephesians 3:5). A common error is to assume that the mystery Paul is speaking of is, simply, the mystery of the Gospel-the good news message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, his atonement for sin. Yet this is most certainly not the case! For in verse 6, Paul makes clears that the mystery of Christ is something altogether different: “To be specific, the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel“ (Ephesians 3:6).
Now at this point, it’s appropriate to recall why Paul’s imprisonment began in Jerusalem. Acts 21:27-36 informs us that a mob had been incited by the false accusation that Paul brought Gentiles into the temple. In addressing the crowd, Paul offers a defense by telling the story of his conversion. And near the end of his remarks, he says something most interesting: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles,’“ (Acts 22:21, NIV). Notice the crowd’s response: “The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!“” (Acts 22:22, emphasis mine). Indeed, the crowd listened to Paul up until the time he spoke of his calling to the Gentiles. It was only then, as he declared “the mystery of Christ,“ that Paul became its ambassador in chains (Ephesians 6:20)!
In Ephesians 3:7-10, Paul tells us that he was called not only to proclaim the mystery of Christ among the Gentiles but also “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church“. In other words, Paul had not only been granted insight into the mystery of Christ but also insight into how, in a practical way, the mystery is to be lived out through the local church.
In their book, Divided By Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that evangelical churches may actually (though unintentionally) be perpetuating systemic (institutional) racism throughout America. Not only did their research confirm (to no one’s surprise) that most American evangelicals attend an ethnically and/or economically segregated churches, but more significantly, that we spend 70-80% of our time relationally (i.e., time outside of work, school, sports, etc.) with those who attend our same, local church. Thus, they conclude, evangelical Christians are not only racially segregated from one another, but relationally segregated from one another, as well. How does this perpetuate the system?
Apart from ethnically and economically diverse relationships, we cannot understand others different from ourselves, develop trust for others who are different than us, and/or love others different than ourselves, etc. Apart from understanding, trust and love, we are less likely to get involved in the plight of others different than ourselves. Without involvement, nothing changes; and, the disparaging consequences of systemic racism remain entrenched in our culture.
Surely, it breaks the heart of God to see so many churches – in this city and throughout this country – segregated ethnically and/or economically from one another, and that little has changed in the more than one hundred years since it was first observed that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the land.
Brothers and sisters, it should not be so.
Concerning the movement of American Christianity towards racial reconciliation in the 1990′s, author Chris Rice – in his book, More Than Equals - wrote the following profound words …
“Yes, deep reconciliation will produce justice, and new relationships between the races. Yes this will lead Christians to become a bright light in the public square. But I have become convinced that God is not very interested in the church healing the race problem. I believe it is more true that God is using race to heal the church.”