Embracing God’s Passion for Diversity:
A Theology of Racial and Ethnic Plurality
By Craig S. Keener
We regularly pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does that will look like? For one thing, it looks like multiracial and multiethnic unity in diversity. For all the ages of eternity, God’s people from every nation will worship together around the throne (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). God can use His church, as heirs of the Kingdom, to foreshadow what that future world will be like. Multiracial and multiethnic worship is part of our foretaste of heaven.
In 2006, Pentecostals and charismatics commemorated the centennial of the Azusa Street Revival. Led by African-American Pastor William J. Seymour, one characteristic of this revival from the beginning was its interracial character. The multiracial birth of the modern Pentecostal movement should not surprise us, given the same message on the first Pentecost.
Babel Reversed at Pentecost
On the church’s first Pentecost, God began fulfilling His end-time promise of inspiring His people to speak for Him (Acts 2:17,18), but initially they did so in other people’s languages (Acts 2:4–6). On this occasion, Jewish people from many nations recognized many of the local languages being spoken (Acts 2:9–11).
Many scholars note that the locations from which these Jewish people came look much like the list of nations in Genesis 10 (except described in first-century language). In Genesis 11, God scattered these peoples at the tower of Babel by confusing their tongues. On Pentecost, by contrast, God again supplies a diversity of languages, but not to divide humanity. This time, through the new gift of tongues, God brings together a church united among many cultures, foreshadowing the rest of His plan in Acts.
How central is the issue of multiracial and multiethnic unity to understanding Pentecost? Remember Jesus’ promise: The Spirit will empower us to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, that is, becoming cross-cultural witnesses (Acts 1:8). So central is cross-cultural witness to this empowerment of the Spirit that God chose to confirm it with the specific sign of His servants worshiping in the languages of other peoples. It is thus not surprising that from Azusa Street until now, missions has been a hallmark of Pentecostalism. As a result, much of the Christian world today looks to Pentecostals as a model for effective missions.
A Few Visionaries and Many Slow Learners
Simply because the Spirit has empowered us to bridge all cultures, races, and ethnic groups with the gospel, however, does not mean that we will automatically understand and make use of the power He has given us. Much of the Jerusalem church was slow to catch on to God’s plan.
Those who caught the vision first were the Hellenist Jewish Christians, a cultural minority within the Jerusalem church. Because they were already familiar with more than one culture, they had some sensitivity to the dynamics of cross-cultural ministry. One of the Hellenist preachers, Philip, pioneered the church’s mission in Samaria (Acts 8:5–13). Once Jerusalem apostles arrived and saw that the work was from the Lord, they joined in it themselves (Acts 8:25). But Philip had broken the new ground.
After the revival in Samaria, God sent Philip to meet an important court official from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26–39). This official, who as a eunuch could not become fully Jewish, became the first Gentile Christian. His conversion stirred no controversy. Because he returned to his homeland, the Jerusalem church apparently did not know about him; in any case, he did not live in their country and would not set any uncomfortable precedents.
Embracing uncircumcised Gentiles, however, was bound to cause controversy. God soon sent Peter to Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army that occupied Judea. Despite Jesus’ instructions about being witnesses to the ends of the earth, Peter needed a dramatic vision to transform his perspective about Gentiles (Acts 10:28,29). After learning of Cornelius’ parallel vision and witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit on his household, Peter and his companions recognized that God had accepted these Gentiles (Acts 10:44–48). Only after Peter recounted the multiple confirmations of God’s plan did the Jerusalem church acknowledge that God was also welcoming Gentiles (Acts 11:18).
The Tragic Backlash
God’s acceptance of a handful of Gentile converts caused the Jerusalem church little consternation as long as they remained a handful — that is, as long as they could be viewed as exceptions. Reports of large numbers of uncircumcised converts, however, raised the stakes.
Jewish teaching insisted that Gentile converts to Judaism be circumcised. It made Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem look bad to their cultural peers if they failed to insist on the same requirement. Facing continuing oppression from Gentiles, a mad emperor who tried to defile the temple, and the brief reign of a Jewish king who stirred nationalistic fervor, Jerusalem grew more conservative in the 40s, 50s, and 60s of the first century. The church in most cultures mirrors its society both positively and negatively, and the Jerusalem church was no exception. Some began insisting on circumcising Gentile converts (Acts 15:1,5; compare Galatians 5:11; 6:12). Even in recent history, churches sending missionaries often confuse their own culture with the gospel and insist that foreign converts conform to the sending church’s culture.
Thus, the church debated again whether to fully welcome Gentiles as Gentiles without requiring them to give up their own culture. Paul and Barnabas recounted God’s confirmation of their ministry with signs; Peter reminded the church of his earlier episode with Cornelius, and James closed with an argument from Scripture (Acts 15:7–21), saving again the church’s unity.
Yet, nationalism continued to increase in Jerusalem and escalated the tension between the Jerusalem church and the younger churches outside the Holy Land. Paul intended his last visit to Jerusalem to be an errand of peace, and brought representatives of the mixed Jewish-Gentile churches of the diaspora, along with an offering for the impoverished Christians of Jerusalem. He soon learned that some believers had accepted false rumors about him. Some inferred that if Paul respected the Gentiles’ culture he must reject Jewish culture (Acts 21:21). Paul agreed to demonstrate his identification with his own Jewish culture as a way to dispel these false rumors (Acts 21:23–26).
In the midst of Paul’s errand of reconciliation, however, some who opposed his mission to the Gentiles attacked him (Acts 21:27–29). In this hostile setting, Paul offered one final attempt to explain his mission. The crowd in the temple listened as he proclaimed Jesus. One might have hoped for a large salvation response such as Peter had in the temple a generation earlier. Given Paul’s calling, however, he could not stop talking about Jesus. Those who truly embrace the gospel become part of God’s church, and true members of God’s church must welcome other members of God’s church. So Paul talked about his call to reach the Gentiles (Acts 22:21) and instantly infuriated his audience and reignited the riot (Acts 22:22).
What Paul’s audience did not know was that his speech was possibly their last chance for national deliverance. A united church of Jews and Gentiles was difficult to achieve, but the alternative course of angry nationalism would lead to Jerusalem’s destruction only a few years later. Commendably, the Jerusalem megachurch was effectively reaching its own culture (Acts 21:20); but their suspicion of the Gentile mission was shortsighted. In God’s plan, the struggling new churches of the diaspora were the seed of the future.
A Different Model
Jerusalem was almost exclusively Jewish, so we cannot expect its churches to have become multiethnic — though more appreciation for other churches that were multiethnic would have been helpful. But the situation was different in cosmopolitan Antioch. There Jews, Greeks, Syrians, and other groups constituted minorities, and there the scattered Hellenist Christians caught the Spirit’s vision for evangelizing Gentiles (Acts 11:19–21).
As the Antioch church became multiethnic, it established a diverse leadership team that could be sensitive to the needs of all the groups represented in the church. Saul was born in Tarsus but grew up in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). His education and connections reveal that he came from a family of status, though his inherited Roman citizenship probably came from ancestors who were freed slaves. Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus; Manaen had been brought up with Herod Antipas; Lucius was from Cyrene, a cosmopolitan North African city roughly divided among Greeks, Jews, and North Africans. Simon was nicknamed “Niger,” a common Roman name but a name which, when used as a nickname, meant “black.” Many scholars suggest that he, like Lucius, was from North Africa, perhaps descended from African converts to Judaism (Acts 13:1).
The church in Antioch had a vision for building a multiethnic and multiracial church not only in Antioch, but also throughout the world. The task was so enormous that only Spirit-inspired faith would have dared imagine it — reaching a known world of at least 100 million people with only a handful of non-Jews among them who even believed in the one God. But the church in Antioch was a truly Spirit-filled church. As the Spirit announced a diverse church on Pentecost; told Philip to talk with the African official and Peter to talk with Cornelius (Acts 8:29; 10:19); and confirmed God’s welcome to Samaritans and Gentiles by giving them the Spirit (Acts 8:14–17; 10:44–46), so here the Spirit sent forth Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2,4). They evangelized Cyprus and southern Asia Minor. On his next journey, when Paul left Troas for Philippi, Greeks and Romans viewed him as bringing an Asian message into Europe. But more important, from a biblical perspective, God was continuing to bring His universal message to all nations.
Led by the Spirit, Paul was ready to adapt his culture to reach all people with the one transcultural message of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Like his rejected message in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 22:21,22), his letters offer a clear sense of how important multiethnic unity is to the heart of his gospel. The dominant ethnic division in the church of his day remained the division between Jews and Gentiles — a division God himself had once established in history. Observing how Paul’s gospel surmounts a division once established by God himself invites us to apply that same gospel to other divisions established by human pride and selfishness.
Ethnic Unity And The Heart Of Paul’s Gospel
If we are tempted to wonder whether the gospel has implications for ethnic and racial unity in Christ’s church, we do not have far to look. Paul’s letter to the saints in Rome addressed an ethnically divided church. Some years earlier, the emperor Claudius had expelled Jewish people from Rome. Jewish Christians such as Aquila and Priscilla had settled elsewhere (Acts 18:2). Because of this expulsion, the church in Rome probably consisted largely of Gentiles for a number of years before Claudius died and the Jewish Christians returned. Jewish and Gentile congregations with different practices and values now had to coexist, but their differences created cultural conflict.
Paul reminded them that their unity in the gospel should transcend their differences (Romans 1:16; 10:12,13). He established that Gentiles are lost (Romans 1:18–27), but so are Jewish people (Romans 2:12–29). All peoples are sinners under God’s judgment (Romans 2:9; 3:9). But if all of us are equally lost, then all of us must be saved only on the same terms — through faith in Christ.
Jewish people often believed they were saved because they were Abraham’s children. They were part of the saved people because they had the covenant of circumcision. Yet, Paul reminded believers in Rome that spiritual circumcision and spiritual descent from Abraham are not what count with regard to salvation (Romans 2:25–29; 4:9–12); they must believe like Abraham did (Romans 4:11,12,16). Further, in case anyone still wished to appeal to descent from Abraham for salvation, Paul reminded them that all are descended from Adam (Romans 5:12–21). Jewish people looked to their possession of the Law as a mark of superiority over Gentiles, but Paul pointed out that even though the Law could teach right from wrong, it had no power to make anyone righteous (Romans 7:7–12).
The Jewish people had special privileges (Romans 9:4,5), but these did not guarantee salvation. Neither Ishmael nor Esau received the promise; mere genetic descent from Abraham did not guarantee saving participation in God’s covenant (Romans 9:6–13). Jewish people emphasized their chosenness in Abraham; yet, regarding salvation, God could choose without regard to ethnicity (Romans 9:19–29), based instead on faith in Christ (Romans 9:30–10:15). Each of us must be saved the same way. Therefore, the gospel that reconciles us to God also reconciles us to one another.
The problem in Rome, however, was not just Jewish believers looking down on Gentiles. Paul admonishes Gentile Christians not to despise Jewish people or their heritage (Romans 11:17–24). Gentiles in Rome looked down on Jewish people partly because of their strange food customs and holy days, which differed from Roman practices. Paul emphasized that we should not look down on one another for such differences; we can remain culturally distinct, yet be united in Christ (Romans 14:1–23). Unity does not mean uniformity, which often involves assimilating into the dominant culture. Instead, we should appreciate the gifts brought by each culture, tied together in unity not by some megaculture but by our common faith and the Spirit.
Toward the end of the letter, Paul mentioned Jesus (Romans 15:8,9) and himself (Romans 15:16,25) as examples of serving all peoples. His final exhortation in Romans includes the warning to beware of those who cause division (Romans 16:17). In practice, this means no segregated lunch counters (compare Galatians 2:11–14); we must labor, live, and love together. In Romans, Paul summons believers to surmount a barrier that God himself established in history, the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. If this is the case, how much more does he summon us to surmount barriers established merely by human sin and intolerance?
A New Temple
Paul’s conflict in the Jerusalem temple started when some Jewish people from Ephesus mistakenly accused Paul of having brought an Ephesian Gentile into their sacred temple (Acts 21:28,29). Because both Paul’s accusers and his Gentile companion were from Ephesus, the church in Ephesus must have learned how Paul ended up in Roman custody.
When Paul wrote Ephesians, the church knew that he was accused of having taken a Gentile past the partition into an inner court of the temple where only Jews were allowed. This partition did not exist in the Old Testament, but was built in Herod’s temple to accommodate the priests’ understanding of purity requirements. For Paul, and for his audience in Ephesus, there could be no greater symbol of the dividing barrier between Jew and Gentile than this wall. That is why Paul’s message to them is so striking. In the context of speaking of a new temple, Paul declared that the dividing wall of partition has been shattered by the cross of Christ (Ephesians 2:14,19–22)
Paul was not the first to challenge this division in the temple. A generation earlier, Jesus overturned tables in the temple and cried out that the temple was intended as “a house of prayer for all the nations,” but its current overseers had “made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). In this statement Jesus blended two passages. The first declared God’s plan to welcome Gentiles (Isaiah 56:3–7); the second declared judgment on those who thought the temple provided them a refuge from judgment without repentance (Jeremiah 7:4–14). In part, Jesus was announcing judgment on a segregated religious institution. Forty years later, the earthly temple stood in ruins.
When a Samaritan woman recognized that Jesus was a prophet, she realized that the Jews must be right about religion. After all, Samaritans did not believe in prophets between Moses and the Messiah. Unfortunately, that recognition left her out in the cold because Samaritans were not welcome in Jerusalem’s temple. So Jesus told her of a new temple that was neither in Jerusalem (where Jews worshiped) nor on Mount Gerizim (where Samaritans had worshiped), but “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:20–24). This dwelling of the Spirit was the new temple that Paul said welcomed Jews and Gentiles alike (Ephesians 2:14–22).
Before The Churches Of Jerusalem And Antioch
Although God’s plan for a multicultural people seemed new to the Early Church, it was part of God’s plan from the start. From the beginning God chose Abram so that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).
God had separated ancient Israel from the nations for Israel’s own good, but he had always made exceptions. Early Christians quickly began to recognize many of those exceptions. Charged with denying the centrality of the temple, Stephen reminded his accusers that God spoke to Abram in Mesopotamia, exalted Joseph in Egypt, and revealed himself to Moses in the Midianite desert. Had Stephen wished, he could have appealed to Jonah; to God’s servants in exile, such as Daniel and Esther or even to the many foreigners welcomed in David’s reign (for example, 2 Samuel 6:10,11; 15:18–22; 1 Kings 1:44).
Matthew, too, recognized Old Testament exceptions. Although most ancient genealogies omitted women, the genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel mentions four. These were not, as we might expect, the most famous matriarchs like Sarah and Rebekah. Instead, they were Tamar, from Canaan (Matthew 1:3); Rahab, from Jericho (1:5); Ruth, from Moab (1:5); and the widow of Uriah the Hittite (1:6). Three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon were Gentiles or, in the case of Uriah’s wife, had Gentile connections.
Matthew’s examples are prudent. In Joshua (against those who think the book opposes all Gentiles), Rahab contrasts with the Israelite Achan. By hiding the spies on her roof, Rahab betrayed her people and saved her family; by hiding the loot under his floor, Achan betrayed his people and destroyed his family. Likewise, the Book of Ruth focuses on a Moabite becoming part of God’s long-range purpose in history.
This genealogy is an extraordinary way for Matthew to begin his Gospel and send a strong message to his fellow Jewish Christians. Ancient Jewish genealogies normally emphasized the purity of one’s Israelite lineage; Matthew deliberately highlighted the interracial nature of Jesus’ legal ancestry through David’s line. (The Bible also mentioned other divinely purposed interethnic unions, such as those between Joseph and Asenath (Genesis 41:45); Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:21); or Esther and Xerxes (Esther 2:17).)
This emphasis on welcoming Gentiles continued during the earthly life of Jesus. Although magi were Daniel’s enemies, Matthew reports Persian magi who came to worship the King of the Jews. By contrast, the Judean king Herod acted like Gentile Pharaoh of old by killing male children (Matthew 2:1–18). Herod’s brutality forced Jesus’ family to become refugees in Africa, in Egypt, just as Moses once fled to Midian to escape Pharaoh (Matthew 2:13–15).
Matthew’s Gospel provides other clues about God’s commitment to all peoples. Jesus settled in an area once associated with Gentiles (Matthew 4:15). He healed a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13), and also announced that God would include in His people many from the east — like the Magi — and the west — like a believing Roman (Matthew 8:11). Jesus delivered demoniacs in Gentile territory (Matthew 8:28–34; note the pigs in 8:30), and in a notoriously pagan area elicited Peter’s confession of faith (Matthew 16:13–20). Later, the Gentile execution squad is the first to recognize Jesus’ identity at the cross (Matthew 27:54). Matthew’s Gospel climaxes with Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19,20), sharing in fulfilling the promise that all nations would hear (Matthew 24:14).
By clarifying God’s heart already present in the Old Testament, Jesus prepared the way for the Gentile mission in Acts, which in turn points toward the goal of Christ’s diverse church from all peoples.
Living Out The Commitment
Believing in diversity on paper may be a step forward, but living it out requires more effort. As Christians, we must put our resources where our mouth is, and recognize that where our resources are, that is where our heart is also. After Pentecost, the Early Church learned not only to share resources with their immediate neighbors (Acts 2:44,45), but also with the needy in other parts of the world (Acts 11:28–30). Part of the purpose for Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem was to bring offerings for the poor from the Gentile churches (1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15), as a symbol of the unity of the Jewish and Gentile churches (Romans 15:26,27). While churches must be self-supporting, famines and theological education are different issues. Today there are regions where our resources can serve God’s kingdom most effectively. Such partnership can also underline the unity of Christ’s church, as each part of the church shares the gifts God has given it for the benefit of others.
Cross-cultural concern, however, is not about money alone, but about where our hearts are. Christians in the United States were rightly horrified when jihadists killed 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. But jihadists started slaughtering Christians in northern Nigeria a few days earlier, with a death toll ultimately much higher. Likewise, by some estimates, 10 times that number of people, mostly children, die every day from malnutrition or preventable diseases.
Many of those who die or weep over their dying children are our brothers and sisters. While we are right to care about our homeland, are we moved more by what happens to our cultural fellow citizens or by what happens to our fellow citizens of the Kingdom, regardless of nationality, race, or ethnicity? With which kingdom do we first identify? Are we more like the Jerusalem church or the church in Antioch?
Nor does the principle apply only to those far away. If some minority Christians here face job discrimination, struggle to adjust to a new culture, or cannot send their children to safe schools, are we willing to listen and partner with them to work for solutions? Ethnic and racial unity must transcend lofty ideals; it demands following Jesus’ sacrificial example of loving as He has loved us (John 13:14,15,34,35). Yet, with the sacrifice comes blessing, for in other parts of Christ’s body He has placed gifts and resources that they may share with us (for example: how to suffer joyfully; how to restore the broken; or how to give sacrificially).
Nothing will soften our hearts toward brothers and sisters of other cultures as getting to know them and rediscovering our common unity in Christ. Negotiating differences, especially at close-range in the same congregation, is more challenging. Yet, if we believe the gospel, we believe that we can find grace to surmount those difficulties.
Although I learned about cross-cultural ministry at seminary, I began to better understand many of the issues surveyed in this article when, as a white Pentecostal, I joined a largely African-American church. There I listened to the stories of my brothers and sisters, many involving overt racism I had never noticed because it had not happened to me. I learned more when I lived for several years in an African-American community integrated only by my presence, while also teaching in a mostly African-American seminary. Ministry in Africa, an interracial marriage, and international friendships have taught me more.
Reading an article may stir our interest, but putting cross-cultural ministry into practice, with all the attendant sacrifices, misunderstandings, and blessings along the way, takes us deeper. When we begin to listen and learn from believers from other cultures, ethnicities, and races, we will begin to live in cross-cultural unity.
We opened this survey of biblical foundations for racial and ethnic diversity by referring to John’s vision of multicultural unity in heaven. When teaching at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Morris Williams, former African field director for Assemblies of God World Missions, would point to this vision of heaven to emphasize that God created different cultures for an enduring purpose. In God’s purpose, it was important that these cultures remain a testimony to His glorious design throughout the ages of eternity — yet be brought together in unity to serve the one living God.
Babel has been reversed. In the gift of tongues, God has given us, among other blessings, the languages of many nations as a sign of His purpose: a united church from every kindred, tribe, people, and nation. This is our calling; this is our destiny. May His will be done now on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.