There are many Bible verses about diversity that we can learn and teach from. In my previous article, we began the discussion on the biblical view of diversity, looking at the Old Testament. We discussed the concept of Imago Dei — that all humankind is made in the image of God and, as such, deserves honor and dignity.
We were reminded that in the Abrahamic covenant, God chose to bless Abram to be a blessing to the nations. God’s instructions of special care for the sojourner and foreigner was written into Old Testament law, setting precedence for their consideration in all societies.
God’s linking of righteousness and justice and the numerous calls for his people to end oppression, as well as to use power for the good of others, set a strong Old Testament foundation for the revelation of the church in the New Testament. The following major themes are seen through the ministry of Jesus and the time of the early church.
The model of the incarnation
The incarnation narrative of Philippians 2 is one of the most beautiful pictures in the Bible. Jesus, fully God, chooses to take on humanness to reach and rescue us. The idea that God would take the form of man (Ph. 2:7) to reach across the divide is truly humbling. Jesus does not let his “otherli-ness” dissuade him from bridging across the divide, but instead chooses to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14) and gives his life to bring us together with him.
The incarnation, including Jesus' death for sin on our behalf, is an ultimate picture of embracing oneness despite differences.
Jesus’ ministry on earth modeled his heart for diversity. At the start of his ministry, he reads the scroll containing the call in Isaiah to minister to the poor and free the captive and the oppressed. He claims that “this scripture is fulfilled” in him (Lk. 4:14-21).
Although his original 12 disciples were all of the same ethnicity, his ministry was multicultural. He traveled far beyond the scope of Israel into Samaria, Decapolis, Tyre and Sidon. He made heroes of a Roman centurion (Mt. 8:10), a Syrophonecian woman (Mk. 7:24), a Sidonian (Lk. 4:26), a Syrian (Lk. 4:27), an Ethiopian (Mt. 12:42) and several Samaritans (Jn. 4, Lk. 10:25, 17:16).
He ministered to all people, regardless of background. His ministry of presence demonstrated engagement, compassion, love, acceptance and forgiveness for people of all backgrounds and walks of life.
The Great Commission and its fulfillment
Jesus was on this earth to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10), to save not condemn (John 3:17) and to draw all people to himself (Jn. 12:32). After his resurrection, Scripture records five “commissions,” all of which clearly express his heart for the nations, whether it is discipling the ethne (Mt. 28:18-20), preaching the gospel (Mk. 16:15), proclaiming forgiveness (Lk. 24:46-48), sending the disciples (Jn. 20:21) or calling the people of God to be witnesses (Acts 1:8).
The culmination of the work of the Holy Spirit and the church is found in Revelation 7:9:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
This phrase “nation, tribe, people and language” is mentioned two other times in Revelation (5:9 and 14:6) as an emphasis to the multicultural multitudes in heaven that result from the multicultural emphasis of the church in fulfilling the Great Commission. The reaching of and preaching to the nations is not only a foundational teaching of Scripture (Mt. 24:14, Mk. 13:10, Lk. 24:47, 1 Tm. 3:16), but a foundation of the ministry of the church.
The link between justification and justice
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph. 2:8-9
Paul begins Ephesians 2 by making a clear case for the inability of humankind to deserve or earn salvation (Eph. 2:1-4). In the verses mentioned above, he declares that our salvation is by grace through faith in Christ. No action of man, no merit for our performance, is accounted for in our salvation.
Rather, it is solely by the grace of God through the atoning work of Christ on the cross that righteousness is imputed to the believer. God’s righteous act of justification, removing the guilt and penalty of sin and declaring the believer righteous is a gift (Rom. 3:24-28, 5:6-10, Gal. 2:16-17, Titus 3:7).
From this foundation of salvation by grace through faith alone, Paul then makes the connection to works.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph. 2:10
We are saved by grace through faith to do works.
John Calvin, commenting on the Council of Trent’s statement about salvation by grace, makes this observation: “I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but a holding faith to be the only cause of salvation. It is, therefore, faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”
Martin Luther, in his 1535 commentary on Galatians 5:6, says: “Faith, of course, must be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works out of love…Idle faith is not a justifying faith.” Luther is also credited with the statement: “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” (Although scholars have not been able to find its reference, it is clear to all that Luther’s teaching upholds this thought.)
James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, responds to those who claim faith but have no evidence of corresponding works in their daily lives, challenging the validity of that way of thinking and living. He urges people to be doers and not just hearers, and that those who don’t are “deceived” (Jm. 1:22). He declares “faith without works is useless” (2:20) and “dead” (2:26) gives the examples of faith and actions working together in the persons of Abraham and Rahab (2:21-25).
Whether it is Paul, James, John Calvin or Martin Luther, they all agree that as a saving faith matures, it is accompanied by the fruit of good works. This challenges the modern tendency to separate our justification through Christ from just actions toward others as followers of Christ.
We don’t work for salvation, but we do work from it. Others-centered living that includes compassion, generosity, mercy, kindness and love are all acts that demonstrate the fruit of salvation.
James is very specific in some of these works, including helping widows and orphans (1:27), avoiding favoritism toward the rich (2:1-4), showing honor and mercy to the poor (2:5-13), acts of mercy and the responsibility of employers to take care of their employees (5:1-5). Efforts of the church toward biblical diversity go beyond color and culture to class as well.
Returning to Ephesians 2, we see the Apostle Paul address the impact of justification on the church. He makes the connection in verse 11 with “therefore,” insisting that what follows next has a direct connection to what happened previously.
With great beauty and joy, he explains how Gentiles, who were separated and excluded from Christ, citizenship and the covenants of promise, have been brought near through the blood of Christ (2:11-13). This emphasis is repeated in many places in the New Testament (Rom. 3:29, 9:24, 10:12-13, 15:27, 1 Cor. 12:13) and is described as a great revelation and the answer to the mystery of God (Eph. 3:6, Col. 1:26-27).
But Paul is not done. He moves from the vertical relationship of people with God to the horizontal relationship they have with each other in Ephesians 2:14-18. Christ’s work on the cross has destroyed the barrier, torn down the wall and put to death the hostility between the two groups. His desire is to bring peace and to create one new humanity, joining them together and building them into one.
The distinction of race should not lead to a division in fellowship (Gal. 3:28). Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, Paul is addressing the issue of racism (the conscious or unconscious preference or judgment given to one group over and against another based on ethnicity) in the Ephesians church. He is telling them that there should be no evidence of prejudice and marginalization based on race among the people of God.
Emphasis on oneness in the church
In his analogy of being a shepherd in John 10, Jesus refers to “other sheep”:
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. John 10:16
Jesus is referring to the Gentiles being brought into the fold, and he describes the sheep as “one flock.”
As Jesus’ ministry moves forward in the Bible, we see him move from focusing exclusively on Jews to other cultures. His prayer in John 17 calls for the unity of believers regardless of background.
The Apostle Paul picks up on Jesus’ desire in many of his writings on the emphasis of being one. In the verses in Ephesians, he describes it as one “new humanity” (Eph 2:15). Later he describes the unified church as “one body” (Eph. 4:4, Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 10:17) and calls them to work together, value and minister to each other (1 Cor. 12:12-20), to put off falsehood and speak truth to one another (Eph. 4:25) and to live together in peace (Col. 3:15).
The gospel unifies the people of God, relationally and missionally (Phil. 2:1-2). There is not a Democratic gospel and a Republican gospel, a gospel for the rich and another for the poor, a gospel for Americans and another for the rest of the world, nor is there a gospel for one culture, ethnicity, race or class above another. There is one gospel for all people (Eph. 4:4-6) because all are called to be one.
There is not a Democratic gospel and a Republican gospel, a gospel for the rich and another for the poor, a gospel for Americans and another for the rest of the world, nor is there a gospel for one culture, ethnicity, race or class above another.
There is one gospel for all people because all are called to be one.
The model of the church in Acts
As the Book of Acts begins, Jesus ascends with a call to the apostles to be witness to the nations. The disciples gather to pray for 10 days. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and Peter preaches to the crowds that have gathered from many nations (Acts 2:7-11). The result is 3000 people repent and acknowledge Jesus as Savior and are baptized that day (Acts 2:41). What began as a few Jewish background believers has turned into a multicultural church of many nations.
Going back to the Old Testament, the separation at Babel (Gen. 11:7-9) is reversed at Pentecost. This trend continues to expand throughout the Book of Acts. When Stephen is stoned to death, a great persecution breaks out against the church (Acts 8:1).
As a result, the church scatters in fear but speaks in faith, beginning to preach the gospel everywhere they went to everyone they saw. Philip sees believers among the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-8) and an Ethiopian eunich (Acts 8:26ff). What looked like a societal disruption was actually a missional dispersion from God.
Peter has a dream of unclean things being declared clean (Acts 10:15) and is approached to speak to a Gentile named Cornelius. As Peter speaks, the Holy Spirit comes on them in the same manner as the Spirit had on the Jews, causing Peter to recognize God’s plan for the Gentiles to be included (Acts 10:47).
This revelation causes great concern for those believers who wished all cultures to follow Jewish customs until a council gathers at Jerusalem (Acts 15). The leadership of the church recognizes the hand of God, and James declares that this moment is a fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12 and that they should do everything they can to help non-Jewish people meet, know and follow Jesus.
Before the Jerusalem Council, the Apostle Paul had begun his ministry. Once an enemy and agitator of the church, Paul’s transformation on the Damascus Road is truly miraculous (Acts 9:3-9,20). He is sent by Barnabas to the church at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26), a truly multicultural church, as witnessed by the names of its leaders (Acts 13:1).
The Book of Acts is evidence of the desire of God’s for the church to saturate every community with the gospel. We are called not only to lead our congregations but to intentionally plan to reach every person, regardless of belief or background, with the message of Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
The ministry of reconciliation
At the center of the gospel message is the thought that a Holy God has initiated reconciliation with sinful humans. God took the initiative (Rom. 5:8) to reach across what seemed to be an impossible divide (Eph. 2:4). At incredible cost (Jn. 3:16, 2 Cor. 5:21), he bridged the gap, bringing reconciliation to what was broken and bridging the gap between God and humankind (Col. 1:20-22).
God made peace with us through Christ and challenges us to become peacemakers (Mt. 5:9, Jm. 3:18), ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) and bridge builders (Col. 4:2-6) on his behalf. As ambassadors, we are to understand his will, model his character, represent his interests and accomplish his purposes.
The church needs to model the effort of God’s reconciliation toward humankind the way that Christians interact with nonbelievers, as well as how ethnicities act toward one another. We are to live selflessly (2 Cor. 5:15), see differently (2 Cor. 5:16-17), live sacrificially (2 Cor. 5:18) and speak boldly (2 Cor. 5:19-20). We are called to seek reconciliation (Mt. 5:23-24, 18:15-17). We are to learn to listen, validate and ask for and give forgiveness (Lk. 17:3, Col. 3:13, Eph. 4:32).
The emphasis on neighboring
The gospel speaks beyond the salvation we have in Christ and into how we treat each other. When Jesus is asked, “Which commandment is greatest?” he emphasizes loving neighbors and loving God (Mt. 22:36-37). In the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25ff) he defines both neighbors (everyone) and models neighboring (care, concern and sacrifice, regardless of background).
To Jesus loving our neighbors is of greater value than religious ceremony (Mk. 12:33). Paul points to biblical neighboring as a summary of the commandments (Rom. 13:9, Gal. 5:14), and James agrees (Jm. 2:8). John says to claim to love God without loving your neighbor is a misunderstanding of our faith (1 Jn. 2:9-11, 3:10, 15-16, 4:20-21). In Scripture we are told to love and do no harm (Rom. 13:10), speak truthfully (Eph. 4:25) and not judge our neighbor (Jm. 4:12).
Christianity is relational belief system. Though it is not a set of rules, Jesus was able to summarize the evidence of real faith in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mt. 7:12). Jesus condemned the religious leaders for their focus on rules rather than relationship. He told them they needed to go and learn the higher value of mercy over sacrifice (Mt. 9:13, 12:7).
The church at Rome was a truly multiethnic congregation. As such, Paul gives special instruction in Romans 12 of how to respond to neighbors that we may have differences with, including:
being devoted to one another
blessing and not cursing
living at peace and to overcoming evil with good (Rm. 12:9-21)
In Romans 15, he gives instruction to the church in pleasing and building up neighbors (Rm. 15:2) and ways of showing acceptance those who are different emphasizing:
It is obvious from these verses and others that it has been God’s design from the beginning for the church to find ways to bring people from all cultures, colors and classes together.
The continued emphasis on the use of power
As in the Old Testament, we are reminded once again in the New Testament that power and authority are a stewardship from God (Jn. 3:27, Jn. 19:10-11). Jesus centered numerous teachings on the concept of “stewardship of power” (Mt. 21:33-46, Lk. 12:42-48, Lk. 16:1-13) and the requirement of faithfulness in that stewardship (Mt. 25:29, Lk. 12:48). Jesus also took special care to emphasize to the disciples that power is to be used to serve (Jn. 13:13-17) and that true greatness comes from serving others (Mk. 10:42-45).
Paul calls the church to look at the example of Jesus and, in a truly countercultural way, to consider others needs before their own (Phil. 2:3-4). He tells Titus to ask the church in Crete to pay special attention to “doing good” for the community (Titus 2:11-14, 3:8). James challenges employers to treat their employees with integrity and fairness (Jm. 5:1-5). He reminds us that there is an accountability for our power (1 Cor. 4:2). Our power is to be used to advance God’s purposes, including reaching people from all backgrounds with the gospel (1 Cor. 9:22).
Once again in the New Testament as in the Old Testament, we see a preponderance of references to the church overcoming differences in culture, race and ethnicity to be the witness that God has called us to be in our communities and to make an impact around the world.
The church was called to protect the truth of Scripture and the mission of God. It was never called to protect the uniqueness of culture or preserve the comfortable sameness of the local church.
We are called to create a fellowship of believers that has broken down so many barriers and includes so many cultures that it causes the world to marvel at the power of God and the gospel.
I hope you will take time to reflect on the second installation in this conversation. The final conversation will be a call to meaningful action around the truths that we have discovered. Thank you for your willingness to go on this journey with me. I pray the prayer of the Apostle Paul for you as you move forward in your journey to discover God’s heart for his diverse church to reach the world:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God. Phil. 1:9-11
Scott Ridout has served as the President of Converge since November 2014. Prior to that he was the Director of Generosity for Converge from 2007-2014, concurrently with his time pastoring at Sun Valley in Gilbert, AZ for 22 years. He also serves on the Board of Church Multiplication Partners, GACX and The Timothy Initiative, all of which focus on starting churches and multiplying disciples. He loves God, the local church and simply wants to help people meet, know and follow Jesus.