God's Deepest Purposes for the Human Family
What does the Bible really teach about the unity and diversity of the human family?
The coming of the nations to North America is one of the most dramatic developments of our time. From major cities to many rural communities, ethnic differences are a way of life today. With ethnic differences often come fear, misunderstanding, and prejudice. Unfortunately, Christians are often a part of the problem instead of the solution. And often, conversation among Christians reveals some important misunderstandings of the Bible's teaching in this area.
This article identifies and responds to three common misunderstandings of the Bible's teaching on the unity and diversity of the human family and offers a biblical perspective to help the church in this important area of discipleship.
Misunderstanding #1: Human diversity, particularly racial and ethnic diversity, is the result of humanity's fall into sin.
In some ways this misunderstanding is, well, understandable! So often hatred, violence, and injustice--all clear evidences of the fall--go hand in hand with racial and ethnic differences. And many Christians grow up thinking the Bible—most notably the confusion of language at Babel and its reversal at Pentecost—actually teaches that racial, ethnic, and language differences within the human family are the result of humanity's fall into sin.
But in fact the Bible teaches that rich diversity is one of the basic features of God's good creation. The creation account (Gen. 1) describes an explosion of diversity with thousands of different flowers and leaves, stars and planets, mountains and meadows, fish and fowl. Variety and ences enrich God's created world.
The crown of this varied creation is the human person, God's image bearer. In their maleness and femaleness, human beings model the way diversity functions in the good creation. Before the human fall into sin, the differences between male and female are a cause for unbounded celebration, deep attraction, and joy (Gen. 2:23). Extended to the rich variety of human cultures, human differences make differ- for mutual appreciation; greater self-understanding through seeing how other people live, think, and relate; deep communion; and, above all, the glorification of God. Even God, in the oneness and threeness of the Trinity, models the deep unity and diversity of a good creation. God is one being, but also three persons. In his oneness God holds together all created things, and in his threeness God affirms diversity and communion in his creation.
What about the tower of Babel and Pentecost? The purpose of the Babel story is not to explain the origin of various languages and cultures, but to describe the alienation that takes place whenever human beings attempt to build community without God (Gen. 11:4). In the same way, the new community the Holy Spirit created at Pentecost was not formed by blending all human languages into one. At Pentecost, God created a new community where, in the Spirit, people understood one another even as they each spoke in their own language (Acts 2:6).
Far from the result of sin, the diversity of the human family, with its myriad of color, language, culture, and song, goes to the heart of God's own nature and creation design.
My daughter recently left a nursing job at a hub of many nation and language groups in the heart of Chicago. When I asked how her new job was going, her first words were, "Dad, it's so white out here!" Lynn has nothing against white people. She is white. But there was something deeply enlivening and enriching about the myriad of sounds and smells and colors and faces that she left behind in the city. God made her to enjoy that diversity, and to have an ache in her heart when she no longer experienced it.
Misunderstanding #2: While important, reconciliation and healing across ethnic divisions is not as important as reconciliation with God through Christ.
Reconciliation of people with one another, especially people divided along racial and ethnic lines, is not merely some secondary goal that gets tacked onto the saving work of Christ. Rather, it is at the heart of Christ's work on the cross and of God's plan to create a new heaven and a new earth. Space limitations allow for listing only fragments of biblical texts, but each of the texts below comes from central, foundational texts for understanding the sweep of God's work in Christ and plan for the world: "(God) has made known to us ... the mystery of his will ... a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:9-10 RSV) "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." (Eph. 3:2) "All of this is from God, who rec- onciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation ... ." (2 Cor. 5:18) "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross . ." (Col. 1:19-20)
"For he is our peace, who has made the two (Gentile and Jew) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . His purpose was to create one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility." (Eph. 2:14-16)
Reconciliation across natural lines of human division is not some option on the menu of sanctification that Christians can politely pass over. Such reconciliation is the inevitable fruit of new life in Christ. In fact, the absence of such reconciliation must haunt Christians as a disturbing contradiction to life in Christ (1 John 2:9-11; 4:19-21). In fact, the absence of such reconciliation must haunt Christians as a disturbing contradiction to life in Christ (1 John 2:9-11; 4:19-21). Obviously the opportunity for church communities to minister across ethnic lines will vary from community to community. But all Christians must be on the side of reconciliation and healing across ethnic lines, whether in their local church and community, their denominational and other mission efforts through which God is building such transforming communities around the world, or their prayer and passion for peace among the nations.
The gospel's call to reconciliation and healing across ethnic lines must be clearly distinguished from the secular culture's push for multiculturalism and diversity. Thoughtful Christians rightfully have differing opinions about a host of political strategies and ideologies in the public square designed to bring about racial justice. But Christians cannot have differing opinions about the purpose of Christ's work on the cross—a work designed to not only bring about reconciliation with God but create one new humanity in Christ!
Misunderstanding #3: Reconciliation and healing across ethnic lines and the creation of multiethnic communities of faith are human activities achieved by proper planning and programming.
The issue here is whether reconciliation and healing across ethnic lines and the creation of multiethnic communities of faith are our work or God's work—our accomplishment or God's gift.
This is the same issue the church faces with evangelism and conversion. It's clear that the church cannot successfully evangelize without the work of God's Spirit in human hearts and communities. The same is true with reconciliation and healing across ethnic lines and the creation of multi-ethnic communities of faith. only God, through his Spirit and Christ's work on the cross, can effect Christian reconciliation.
here must be death and resurrection, and not just Christ's, but ours. A most striking feature of Ephesians 1—perhaps the most breathtaking description in the whole Bible of God's work of salvation—is how often God is the subject of the sentence, the one who acts, who brings about, who does it all from start to finish.
As with evangelism, acknowledging that reconciliation is first of all the work of God does not absolve Christians of responsibility for the hard work of reconciliation, including excellent planning and programming, but frames the way the church must go about the work of reconciliation and building multi-ethnic communities of faith.
First, the church's reconciliation ministry must be carried out in such a way that it is always clear that the cross is at the center of all reconciliation. In this regard it's exciting to highlight in this issue of Forum the new racial reconciliation curriculum designed under the direction of Rev. Esteban Lugo, Director of Race Relations of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) (see p. 6). This curriculum hangs all of its teaching on the great biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption, and makes clear that racial reconciliation is ultimately God's work in Christ.
Closely related to this first point is God's plan that the church be the strategic vehicle for uniting all things in Christ (Eph.1:22; 3:10; John 17:20-23). By God's design, the church, God's gathered body in the world, is the means by which God intends to reveal himself, to proclaim the good news of reconciliation, and to unite all things in Christ. Members and leaders of multiethnic congregations would be the first to assert that indeed Christ by his Spirit is the one who builds his church (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 21), and that "unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Ps. 127:1).
Framing this reconciliation effort as God's work hopefully helps the church avoid the deadly trap of moralism. Commanding people into righteousness doesn't make people righteous. Commanding people to not be racist doesn't make people less racist. That is the great flaw of moralism. As William Willimon says in his penetrating critique of moralistic preaching, "If we could be better people, we would! But we can't! We need a Savior!"
Removing racial reconciliation and the creation of multiethnic communities from the realm of command and something Christians do, and framing it instead as first of all God's gift to us in Christ, a gift we then live into by our own death and resurrection and by our life in the body of Christ with others who are dying and rising again—that shift from duty to gift, from human command to God's work, is a crucial shift for unleashing the power of the gospel in this realm (and every other realm) of the Christian life.
Where is God leading the CRC?
Among the many gifts God has showered upon the CRC are gifts of ethnic diversity. It's amazing to see the richness of God's unified and diverse family represented within the CRC itself and among CRC ministry partners around the world. At the same time many CRC congregations face great ministry challenges as they seek to be Christ's body in communities of growing ethnic diversity.
Interestingly, the people who believe that the CRC's most exciting days are still ahead are often people who are already reveling in the gift of God's unified and diverse family, already experiencing in the community of the church the reconciliation and love across lines of ethnic division that no human effort can achieve, but is a gift of God's Spirit. That's a vision to die for ... in Christ.