Everyone agrees that the the church triumphant in glory is a multiethnic people united perfectly together in Christ Jesus. However there are disagreements about the strategy that gets the church to that place. Should churches avoid difficult conversations about race and be homogeneous? Or should churches intentionally pursue the eschatological reality of the multiethnic church today in local congregations? I have argued in this series that the gospel message and the marching orders of the church laid upon the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant demand the pursuit of the multiethnic church. Now, I will seek to briefly show the NT pattern which confirms that this is in fact how the Apostles understood those marching orders.
Jesus gives the apostles clear instructions to take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Although they start slow and struggle to fully embrace this mission at first, the Apostles eventually embrace not only this mission but the people to whom this mission sends them, bringing the Gentiles fully into the church.
One of the best indications of normal patterns in the church, a gathering of sinners redeemed by grace and elected as saints, is to look at the conflicts that arise. When consistent conflicts arise it reflects consistent patterns. The first conflict dealt with in the book of Acts is along ethnic divisions. In Acts 6, the Greek-speaking Jews complain of their widows being overlooked in the daily distribution of food while the Hebrew widows were being preferred. Instead of creating two distinct churches that would cater to the needs of each culture, the Apostles instructed the congregation to select deacons to serve the whole body.
The church in Antioch, one of the most powerful NT churches, is a perfect example of the multiethnic church. The church begins in Acts 11 when some of those fleeing persecution spoke the word of the Lord to both Jews and Greeks in Antioch. The Lord adds greatly to their number and in Acts 13:1, Luke gives a list of the leadership of this local church. As David Peterson notes in his commentary on the book of Acts, "what is most obvious is the ethnic diversity of the leadership of this church."
The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 is obviously of crucial importance to the question of the multiethnic church. Because of the influx of Gentile believers and the opposition to their full inclusion without circumcision by the Judiazers, the church had to come to a formal decision. The church upheld the free grace of the gospel and the covenant promises of God to redeem the nations and did not require the Gentiles to be circumcised (Acts 15:19, 28). But often overlooked in the analysis of the Jerusalem council is the requirements given to the Gentiles.
René Padilla points this out, "If the Jerusalem "Council," having set out to deal with the question of circumcision, ended with regulations related to table fellowship, the obvious explanation is that, once the matter of principle was settled, the effort was made to provide a modus vivendi for churches in which Jews and Gentiles would continue to have table fellowship together." The council did not only address the gospel issue defending justification by faith alone, but also the gospel issue of table fellowship across ethnic lines in the local church. It does not do justice to the gospel if sinners are merely reconciled to God individually but remain at enmity with each other.
From here, the book of Acts turns to focus on Paul's Gentile mission. Acts 17 shows that Paul's "custom" (2) was to go to the synagogue and proclaim first to the Jews, and then go to preach to the Gentiles (4). And it is also clear that these were not two separate congregations but one congregation gathered together in Christ. This pattern is repeated throughout the book of Acts in every place to which Paul traveled (See also Acts 13:43-48; 14:1-6; 17:12; 18:4; 19:8-10; 20:21; 22:21; 28:23-30). Taking this pattern along with the teaching sections of Paul's letters that address Jew-Gentile relationships (Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Galatians 2:11-21, 3:28-29; Ephesians 4:1-7), it is clear that as James W. Thompson says, "Paul faces the unprecedented challenge of establishing a harmonious community not only among ethnic groups but also among people from different social levels."
The Apostles did not take the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant promise to bless all the families of the earth simply as an eschatological reality to be fulfilled in the future. They understood that in the coming of Christ, the eschatological fulfillment had broken into this present age and was being fulfilled in their midst as Jew and Gentile came together into local multiethnic churches, as they awaited the final consummation.
The power of the gospel from Ephesians 2
Multicultural church planting in Muncie
Please join me in this journey.
Also, much of this work is indebted to so many people so I will try to highlight some resources each blog that have helped me along the way. And if you are interested in learning more, I have written two seminary papers that are attached that have full bibliographies.
For those of you who want to dig more behind the scenes on this topic, I have attached two of my seminary papers that deal with the issue more in depth and include significant bibliographies. And if you want to chat about any of this, contact me please and lets get coffee and discuss (if you're blessed to live in the greatest city in the world, Muncie, IN).