Re-Thinking Homogeneity: The Biblical Case for Multi-Ethnic Churches
I am a Christian, an Indian, and a former rock musician. I grew up in South India, and lived within a particular sub-culture of my particular urban Indian melting pot.
When the Lord saved me in my final year of college, I soon found myself surrounded by people completely different from me—people from different ethnicities and cultures, who spoke different languages, ate different kinds of food, and even had completely different musical preferences (they didn’t even know who Deep Purple was!). Was I uncomfortable? Yes. But what amazed me back then, and what continues to amaze me now, is not the radical differences and “otherness” that separated us. No, what amazed me was the unity and brotherhood that these people shared with one another, despite all their differences—a unity and brotherhood that I was folded into through my conversion to Jesus Christ, who breaks all barriers and brings all peoples together as members of his household.
Both in North America and in missions work worldwide, the “homogeneous unit principle” of church growth has been unquestioningly assumed as the most effective way to multiply disciples and plant “strategic” churches.¹ Churches grow fastest, church growth gurus say, when the gospel is propagated along existing social lines and networks and when people do not have to cross ethnic, cultural, or class barriers to become Christians.2 People are thus grouped together into churches demarcated by ethno-linguistic distinctions, tribal or caste distinctions, social and economic status, education level, profession, and even common affinity groups—such as churches for cowboys or NASCAR-lovers (this is not hyperbole, Google them!). The “homogeneous unit principle” of church growth maintains that such homogeneous churches grow faster because they are more accommodating to outsiders who might feel uncomfortable crossing cultural, ethnic, or other boundaries. This “strategic” homogeneity pervades multiple church-planting organizations and fills the pages of missions and church-planting strategy manuals. But does the Bible support homogeneity? Or does Scripture set forth a different vision for the local church?
My aim here is to debunk the “homogeneous unit principle” of church growth by showing that this pragmatic framework is antithetically opposed to the apostolic vision of the church in the New Testament. In doing so, I will argue that, wherever possible, establishing multi-ethnic churches is not only more faithful to Scripture, but that multi-ethnic churches more fully display the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.3 In other words, churches should strive to be as diverse as the communities they inhabit.
A (BRIEF) BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF GOD’S MULTI-ETHNIC REDEMPTION PLAN
To set the context for the multi-ethnic vision of New Testament Christianity, I will briefly explore how this theme plays out across the canon. Linguistic diversity in Scripture begins at Babel, when God responds to the arrogant rebellion of mankind by confounding their language (Gen 11:1–9). On the very next page, we see God’s multi-ethnic plan of redemption with his covenant-promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed in Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:1–3; 22:15–18). This promise is sharpened through the biblical corpus, as David is promised a universal kingship through which God’s law and glory will be established in all the earth (2 Sam 7:19; Psalm 72:17–18). The prophets further clarify this vision as they foretell of a glorious eschatological restoration in which a reconstituted and restored Israel will consist not only of ethnic Jews, but of peoples from all nations who worship and know Yahweh, the true and living God (Isa 2:2–4; 56:6–8; Zech 8:20–23).
The New Testament shows us that God’s promise of global redemption has come to fulfillment in Christ, and the boundary of the people of God is no longer marked by Jewish identity but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Israel is re-gathered, reconstituted, and resurrected in and through the resurrected Messiah who has established the new covenant by his blood. Faith in Christ provides full access into membership in the new covenant people of God. This redemptive-historical movement is played out in the book of Acts, as Luke shows us the gospel expanding in widening concentric circles to include those who were once excluded. The people of God are gathered into local assemblies that proclaim and reflect the glorious gospel of Christ. The New Testament culminates with John’s stunning vision of an innumerable multitude of redeemed peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation, worshipping Christ in unison (Rev 7:9–10).
THE HETEROGENEITY OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES
The biblical-theological vision of global redemption helps us understand the apostolic model of churches. In the New Testament, the kaleidoscopic glory of Christ’s redemptive work is reflected in the establishment of local churches that cut across ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, and even linguistic lines.4 This striking heterogeneity of the apostolic model flows from the pervasive and firm conviction of unity in Christ, who has reconciled believers to God and one another (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).5 The “otherness” of different people is surpassed by the “oneness” that these people share in Jesus Christ.
As the early church grew, the apostles faced several problems arising from the diversity of nascent congregations, but never partitioned the church into homogeneous units. The evidence of Acts is that the church initially formed at Pentecost comprised of Jewish Christians from wide-ranging cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Acts 2:5–11). In Acts 6:1–6, tensions rose between those from different cultural-linguistic groups, namely the Diaspora (Hellenistic) Jews and the Syro-Palestinian (Hebrew) Jews. The apostles did not separate them, but resolved the issues through appointing men from the minority groups for the work of service. Acts further reinforces the heterogeneous nature of the early church by telling us about the diversity of the leadership in the church of Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1), which included a former Pharisee (Paul), a former Gentile (Lucian), a former Levite (Barnabas), a member of the court of Herod (Manaean), and a man of dark skin (Simeon, called Niger).
In Romans, Paul addresses a congregation that was undoubtedly composed of people from varying ethnicities, both Jews and Greeks (Rom 7:1; 11:13). Paul implores them to live together in love because of the gospel and to sacrifice their own preferences for the sake of others (Rom 13:8–10; 14:1–23). Here we see that the gospel has implications not only for individual salvation but also for corporate sanctification—believers must learn to live in community with those different from them by following Christ’s example and considering others above themselves.
In 1 Corinthians, writing to a congregation with members from diverse backgrounds, Paul asserts their oneness in Christ and exhorts them to prefer one another and show sensitivity to the consciences of weaker brothers (1 Cor 10:23–33; 12:12–13). In both these instances, the question of separate churches along homogeneous lines is completely foreign to Paul’s thought. “Strategic” considerations for more effective outreach or to make people feel more comfortable never take precedence over shared life in Jesus Christ. Rather, the conviction that believers are a new humanity in Christ drives Christian unity within the church, as believers love one another just as Christ has loved them. Indeed, Paul proclaims that the manifold wisdom and glory of God is manifested through the unity of diverse people in the church (Eph 3:1–10).
The early church also radically broke down social and economic class divisions. Paul radically subverts the social order of slavery by exhorting slaves and masters to fellowship together as brothers in Christ in one congregation (1 Cor 7:17–24; Phlm 8–16). Faith in Christ obliterates social status as a boundary to fellowship. Likewise, James commands that there be no partiality or special treatment given to rich persons. James assumes that rich and poor people will fellowship together in unity, rather than being separated in homogeneous units along socioeconomic lines (Jas 2:1–9). The New Testament also shows us that churches were “multi-generational,” consisting of both younger people and elderly people, living in fellowship, unity, and self-sacrificial service (1 Tim 4:12; 5:1–16; Titus 2:1–8; 1 John 2:12–14).
The apostolic model of multi-ethnic heterogeneous congregations is not limited to the New Testament, but is also supported by the evidence of early Christian history. As David Smith says, “It was precisely the heterogeneous multi-ethnic nature of the church which made an impact on the divided Roman world and led to the growth of the Christian movement.”6 While homogeneity in churches simply reinforces the status quo of society, the biblical evidence shows us that the gospel broke down and cut across ethnic, social, economic, and cultural barriers in ways never before seen in history.
THE NEW TESTAMENT POLEMIC AGAINST ETHNOCENTRISM
Another reason why homogeneity runs contrary to the New Testament is that it promotes and reinforces an ethnocentric mindset. Throughout the NT we see an attack on ethnocentrism, and consequently, a mandate for believers from differing ethnic backgrounds to accept each other lovingly and to live together in harmony in local churches.7 Paul is unwavering in his insistence that Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus Christ, so that in Christ, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11). Christ has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility,” and reconciled Jews and Gentiles to God “in one body through the cross” (Eph 2:14–16). Believers are part of God’s new creation, they were once all sinners in Adam, but are now the new humanity in Christ.
The issue is most clearly seen in Galatians 2, in Paul’s rebuke of Peter for his separation of himself from the Gentiles (Gal 2:11–16). Peter, along with other Jewish Christians in Galatia, was acting in fear of Jews who would be offended by the sharing of table fellowship with Gentiles. But Paul insists that this sort of withdrawal is an affront to the gospel itself (Gal 2:15–21). Here, the acceptance of Gentiles—those from a differing ethnic group—as fellow members of God’s family by sharing table fellowship takes priority over a pragmatic desire to avoid offending others.
In Romans as well, Paul attacks the root of ethnocentrism. Paul asserts universal human depravity and the power of the gospel for salvation in God’s act of justification for both Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Rom 1–3). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by grace through faith in Christ (Rom 3:21–26). All become children of Abraham through believing in the God who justifies the ungodly (Rom 4). All stand condemned in Adam, and all in Christ are justified (Rom 5:12–21). Paul warns both Jews and Gentiles not to grow arrogant, but to recognize God’s grace to both peoples (Rom 2:17–29; Rom 11:17–24). The evidence from Romans indicates that Paul was almost definitely writing to a heterogeneous congregation, exhorting them to lay aside ethnic pride and live together in Christian unity.
The polemic against ethnocentrism is not limited to Paul; it is pervasive throughout the Gospels as well. Jesus offends the ethnocentric pride of the Pharisees by his associating with Gentiles, tax-collectors, and sinners. The Gospels teach that citizenship in the kingdom of God is obtained by faith in Christ rather than by ethnic identity.7 The call to repentance includes a call to repentance from ethnic and racial pride. As John Piper frames it, “Faith in Jesus trumps ethnicity.”8 Piper adduces several examples of this theme in the Gospels: the commendation of the Centurion’s faith (Matt 8:5–13), the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33), the healing of the ten lepers, of whom only the foreigner returned to give thanks (Luke 17:16), the healing of the Syrophoenician’s daughter (Mark 7:26), the cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:17). Clearly, Jesus was not afraid to offend the ethnocentric pride of the Pharisees.
Now, to be clear, proponents of the “homogeneous unit principle” argue that they do not want to promote ethnocentric pride in Christians, but rather, they maintain that homogeneous churches are more culturally sensitive and accomodating to unbelievers who might feel uncomfortable crossing cultural barriers. In other words, advocates of homogeneity believe that it is more strategic to remove cultural barriers to the gospel by establishing monoethnic and monocultural churches. However, it is naïve and far too hopeful to assume that sinful people who have an inherent disposition toward ethnocentric prejudice will somehow grow out of it without being called to live in community with those who are different from them.9 The evidence of the New Testament indicates that Jesus and the apostles never accomodate the ethnocentrism of unbelievers, but instead include the call to repentance from ethnocentrism and the call to embrace “others” as an integral part of the gospel message. While the “homogeneous unit principle” emphasizes seeking to win people by not offending their ethnocentric sensibilities, Jesus’s approach is radically different—Christ lays the axe to the root of ethnic pride.10
WERE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES “MONO-ETHNIC”?
Donald McGavran, the father of the Church Growth movement who formulated the “homogeneous unit principle,” argued that “New Testament congregations were strikingly monoethnic.”11 McGavran maintained that under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the apostles moved forward along the lines of homogeneous units, reaching primarily Jews at first, in order to grow the church: “As long as Jews could become Christians within Judaism, the Church could and did grow amazingly among Jews. . . . These, becoming Christians within the synagogue, could do so without racial and class barriers.”12
So naturally, we must deal with the question of whether this is a faithful reading of the New Testament. I contend that McGavran’s reading of the evidence is skewed because he has overlooked the way that Luke shows salvation history as progressively unfolding in the book of Acts.13 The apostles were not guided by any kind of a “homogeneous unit principle”—this is manifestly clear from the cultural and linguistic diversity among Jews on the Day of Pentecost, and the heterogeneous nature of the congregations planted after Gentiles were brought into the church. Luke portrays the advance of the church’s mission along salvation-historical lines in Acts. Luke’s point is that the gospel, proclaimed by the apostles and powered by the Holy Spirit, crosses insurmountable boundaries as the people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ. Thus, Donald McGavran and the Church Growth movement have used a flawed reading of Scripture to support homoegeneity, by imposing a preconceived pragmatic framework on the text.
The apostolic model of the church in the New Testament indicates that, wherever possible, churches should not be established or partitioned along lines of ethnicity, culture, class, age, or any affinity group. In some cases, differences in language might necessitate separate churches. But even in these cases, if there is a lingua franca in which people can communicate, linguistic differences might not necessitate separation.
The glory of Christ is seen most vividly when outsiders observe the cross-shaped and cross-cultured love and unity that believers from varying backgrounds share with one another. A pragmatic desire for rapidly growing and multiplying churches should not lead us to compromise the unity that Christ has purchased with his blood. René Padilla puts it well:
It may be true that “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers” but that is irrelevant. Membership in the body of Christ is not a question of likes or dislikes, but a question of incorporation into the new humanity under the Lordship of Christ. Whether a person likes it or not, the same act that reconciles one to God simultaneously introduces the person into a community where people find their identity in Jesus Christ rather than in their race, culture, social class, or sex, and are consequently reconciled to one another.14
Am I against rapid growth and multiplication? By no means! I too deeply desire to see multitudes of people groups reached for Christ. But I ask that gospel laborers bear in mind that nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to segregate churches by people group. As we have seen, the evidence of Scripture points in exactly the opposite direction—people from differing tribes, tongues, and nations are brought into the one people of God to worship God together in fellowship and harmony as a kingdom of priests to our God. May the church in America continue to labor for racial reconciliation, as we learn to recognize that in Christ there is no “Negro” or “Ku Klux Klansman.” Likewise, may we recognize that in Christ, there is no “Brahmin” or “Dalit” or “Tutsi” or “Hutu.” May our unity be reflected in the demographic compositions of our congregations as a display of the manifold wisdom of God, who has reconciled us to himself through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 3:10). May he receive the glory and honor of which he is worthy!
1 This article includes several edited and modified excerpts from the author’s forthcoming article, “Caste and Church Growth: An Assessment of Donald McGavran’s Church Growth Principles from An Indian Perspective,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Missions and Evangelism (forthcoming).
2 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 190–211.
3 Of course, I am not referring to monoethnic contexts, such as rural regions or even suburban America, where the demographics of the context is predominantly from one culture / ethnicity, and thus monoethnic churches are inevitable. I am referring specifically to contexts in which more than one culture / ethnicity is represented. Even in monoethnic contexts, however, I do not believe that churches should be established along homogeneous lines related to class, age, or affinity.
4 See the incisive criticisms and thorough refutation of McGavran’s Homogeneous Unit principle by the Latin American theologian C. René Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6 (1981): 23–30. Much of my discussion here is indebted to Padilla’s persuasive and penetrating examination of the biblical evidence.
5 David Smith, “The Church Growth Principles of Donald McGavran,” Transformation 2 (1985): 27.
6 Ibid., 28. Cf. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, rev ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004).
7 A renewed emphasis on the NT’s polemic against ethnocentrism has been one of the helpful contributions (despite other problems) of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” See for instance, N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 774–1038.
8 See John Piper’s excellent discussion in Bloodlines, 115–27.
9 Ibid., 118.
10 This is sadly confirmed by my own experience with several monoethnic congregations around the world, as well as the painful experiences of friends in the work of pastoral ministry in India. For instance, in direct violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18, people prefer marriage to unbelievers from the same ethnic / caste group over marriage to believers of other ethnic groups. At times, when two believers love each other and desire to marry across caste or racial lines, ethnocentric prejudice raises its ugly head as their professing Christian families refuse such inter-marriage. Apparently, the “homogeneous unit principle” has fostered and reinforced sinful ethnocentric prejudice within a people professing to know Christ.
11 Some proponents of homogeneity argue that a parallel should not be drawn between the Jew-Gentile divide and modern racial, ethnolinguistic, and cultural divides on four counts: (1) “Jew” and “Gentile” are not primarily ethnic terms; (2) the division between Jews and Gentiles was rooted in the Law, unlike modern ethnic divides; (3) the cultural distance between Jews and Gentiles in NT times was not as great as the cultural distance between ethnicities today, and (4) Jews struggled to accept Gentile salvation, which is not the case in the Christian landscape today. Richard W. Hardison, “A Theological Critique of the Multi-Ethnic Church Movement: 2000–2013,” (Ph.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014), 117. First, it is true that “Jew” and “Gentile” were not primarily ethnic distinctions, but primarily religious distinctions rooted in the law covenant. Yet, the hostility between Jews and Gentiles was more than merely religious; it extended to culture, language, and ethnicity. The notion that Jews and Gentiles did not share a great cultural distance is simply incorrect, as any survey of literature from 2nd Temple Judaism indicates. Finally, it is true that Jews struggled to accept Gentile salvation, which is not the case today, but the ethnocentrism of the Jews is parallel to ethnocentrism of all human beings at all times, simply because we are fallen people who struggle to accept and live in community with those unlike us. Therefore, though there are some points of discontinuity between the Jew-Gentile divide and modern ethno-cultural divides, there are enough points of continuity to warrant the parallel. Furthermore, the New Testament does extend the call to unity beyond “Jew” and “Gentile” to include categories like “Barbarian” and “Scythian,” which are ethnolinguistic categories (Col 3:11). In the New Testament, unity in Christ trumps all other issues of identity, and the call to embrace the “other” encompasses all categories of “otherness,” and takes shape in the form of life together in the local church.
12 Donald A. McGavran, “The Priority of Ethnicity,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 19 (1983): 15.
13 Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 202.
14 As Padilla notes, “Luke’s record, however, does not substantiate the thesis that the apostles deliberately promoted the formation of ‘one-race congregations’ and tolerated Jewish prejudices against the Gentiles for the sake of numerical church growth. In order to claim that it does, one needs to come to Scripture with the preconceived idea (1) that the apostles shared the modern theory that race prejudice ‘can and should be made an aid to Christianization,’ and (2) that the multiplication of the church invariably requires an adjustment to the homogeneous unit principle. Without this unwarranted assumption, one can hardly miss the point made by Acts that the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles was such a difficult step for the Jerusalem church that it took place only with the aid of visions and commands (8:26ff.; 10:1–16) or under the pressure of persecution (8:1ff.; 11:19–20). No suggestion is ever given that Jewish Christians preached the gospel to ‘none except Jews’ because of strategic considerations.” Padilla, “Unity of the Church,” 25 (emphasis original).
15 Padilla, “Unity of the Church,” 24.