Multiculturalism in Biblical Perspective
Geneva College's mission statement describes our mission as educating a diverse body of students. What do we mean by "diversity"? The Christian vision of diversity is based upon two fundamental doctrines of Holy Scripture: (1) the unity of the human race, and (2) the universality of the Christian Church. Christian communities face significant challenges in applying these truths, and expressing the need for a changed heart in order to overcome the prejudice that dominates so many believers and non-believers.
(1) The Unity of the Human Race
God teaches us in Holy Scripture that the human race is one. As Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers, "From one man God made every nation of the human race, that they should inhabit the whole earth" (Acts 17:26). It is within this greater context of unity that humanity's diversity rightly appears. Hence, it is clear that the Bible provides no blanket endorsement of multiculturalism as it is sometimes expressed in the world of ideologies. Such diversity often begins with justifiable suspicions about cultural imperialism and racial prejudice, but ends by shattering the human community into a thousand fragments -- each fragment a subculture zealously defending its interests against all the others.
Rather, human diversification receives its first mention in Genesis 1:27, where the text announces the creation of the one human race: "So God created the human race in his own image . . . male and female he made them." The text's singular term, "human race" (`Adam in Hebrew), is specified as diverse in gender, male and female. Diversification immediately receives further stimulus in the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it." This divine command calls explicitly for the scattering of the race -- a theme that shall recur in the Genesis narratives -- and thus calls implicitly for cultural diversification.
Later, after naming Noah's three sons, Genesis tells how "from them came the people who were scattered over the earth" (9:19). This reference to "scattering" hints at the dual nature of cultural diversity in Scripture. On the one hand, cultural diversity is a proper expression of the Cultural Mandate: by scattering and filling the earth, humanity subdues it piece by piece and place by place. On the other hand, it is an expression of the curse enacted at Babel in response to humanity's monocultural attempt to live in defiance of God: ". . . as one people speaking one language they have begun to do this. . . . Come, let us go down and confuse their language. . . . So the Lord scattered them over the earth" (11:6‑8).
It is precisely these scattered and alienated peoples that God calls to faith and repentance through the gospel's ministry of reconciliation. Out of the multi‑ listings of Genesis 10‑11, God chose one family, Terah's, and one person, Abraham, to be a blessing to the world. As God promised him, "all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3). Such blessedness does not obliterate the diversity of the peoples. That was the mistake of the Judaizers, who sought to make Gentiles into Jews before they could be received into the church as Christians. Rather, the blessedness of reconciliation affirms the potential validity of a multitude of cultural expressions.
(2) The Universality of the Christian Church
This affirmation of diverse cultures finds clear expression in Scripture in its doctrine of the universality of the church. The Hebrew prophet Joel proclaimed that in the latter days God would pour out his Spirit "on all people," so that "your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions." This world‑wide embrace of the Holy Spirit reaches over all barriers of race, class and gender, a point made emphatic by God's message through the prophet: "Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days" (Joel 2:28‑29). It is fitting that this text, so rich in its multicultural implications, became the key text for the Apostle Peter's sermon at Pentecost, when people of some fifteen language groups first heard the gospel preached in their own native tongues (Acts 2:8‑12, 16‑21). Significantly, the Pentecost event did not involve a miracle of hearing, whereby each person was made to understand one language, but a miracle of speaking, whereby the apostles preached in many languages to the gathered crowds.
As people from various races, classes and conditions come to faith in Jesus Christ, he reconciles them to God the Father and therefore to each other. The Universal Church, therefore, has an inherent and God‑given diversity. Elements of this diversity are also experienced at the local, congregational level. As Paul wrote to the divisive Christians at Corinth, "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts . . . so it is with Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12). Paul himself experienced a rich and blessed diversity in the church of Syrian Antioch, where for the first time Jewish and Gentile Christians worshiped God together on equal footing (Acts 11:19‑26). The Antioch church's multiculturalism is dramatically displayed in the names of its leaders as listed in Acts 13:1‑2. Included among the congregation's prophets and teachers were:
"Barnabas" -- a wealthy Cypriot‑born Jewish Levite;
"Simeon, called Niger" -- probably a black African proselyte to Judaism;
"Lucius of Cyrene" -- probably a Greco‑Roman from North Africa;
"Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch" -- a Hellenized Jewish aristocrat whose name is the Greek form of the Hebrew "Menahem"; and
"Saul" -- a Tarsus‑born Jew raised in Jerusalem, otherwise known by the Greco‑Roman name Paul.
The Book of Acts emphasizes the cultural diversity of the Antioch church, because it was here that the disciples were first called Christians (11:26). The newly coined term, meaning "Those of Christ," was invented to describe these believers in their unprecedented mix. Pagan Antiochians knew about Jews worshiping in their synagogues. They also had heard of Gentiles who had become proselytes to Judaism, and they likely were familiar with the "God‑fearers," Gentiles who revered Israel's God but who stopped short of full conversion. They could not account, however, for the strange multi‑equality of these Antioch followers of Christ. This is in keeping with the Great Commission itself, in which Jesus Christ commands his church to disciple all the ethnoi, literally from Greek, all the "people‑groups" of the world (Matthew 28:19). Hence, the new term, "Christian," stands as a powerful testimony to the reconciliation of individuals and cultures in Christ.
Christ tears down the walls of hostility that divide Jew from Gentile, making former enemies into friends and equals in the faith (Ephesians 2:14‑16). This fundamental redemptive equality is well expressed in Galatians 3:28, where the apostle writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Again, the blessedness of multicultural reconciliation does not mean obliterating cultural distinctions or forming a new and monolithic "Christian" culture. Even the surpassing unity of final redemption can be expressed in Scripture with language celebrating the multicultural and multilingual heritage of the redeemed. Accordingly, in the Book of Revelation, "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" stands before the throne of God and the Lamb, singing praise (7:9).
(3) Challenges for the Christian Community
For Christians, the practice of multicultural diversity is motivated by love for God and therefore by love for other human beings. Since God is the Father and Creator of all, his love rests upon all, even upon those who reject him. He therefore calls Christians and Christian communities to imitate his love in its world‑wide embrace. Some cultures have been more deeply impacted by the Christian gospel than others. Nevertheless, within every culture and every age, some patterns of living are rooted more in human sinfulness than in the Cultural Mandate. These sinful patterns do not provide an excuse for Christians to despise the people who practice them. Rather, even while hating sin, we must love sinners, just as God has loved us despite our sins. This calling presents an ever‑present challenge to the Christian community.
A further challenge arises from the nature of the Christian community itself. Recognizing sin within the cultures of the world, including one's own, requires that Christian communities shall be closed to some expressions of cultural diversity, as well as to some expressions of its own dominant culture. The teachings of the Bible are the final and authoritative standard by which all such patterns, beliefs and behaviors are to be assessed. Wisely assessing such matters requires the conscious cultivation -- both individually and communally -- of the Christian virtues of humility, discernment, courage, justice and love. In our effort to rise to these challenges, God offers us his ever‑gracious help.
Multicultural diversity, then, is not to be spurned by the Christian community. Rather, Christians and Christian communities have a special obligation to demonstrate the reality of Christ's culture‑transforming love. In obeying the twin mandates of the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission, we will discover more and more of the creational blessedness of multicultural diversity as human beings are reconciled to God and to each other because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Geneva College’s Center for Urban Biblical Ministry (CUBM) in Pittsburgh educates urban students for effective service in their local communities.