This is my search section here


← back to Sermons

    Mar 17, 2016

    Class 3: Diversity

    Series: Living as a Church

    Category: Core Seminars, Church Life, Church Unity, Spiritual Gifts, The Nature of the Church, Capitol Hill Baptist Church


    I. Introduction

    Many of you may know a member of our church named Bill Anderson. Bill started visiting our church in his early 60s. Wasn’t a Christian. At the time, he taught a class at Harvard called “The Madness of Crowds” that teaches the concepts of mass psychology by examining things like New England witch hunts, urban legends and financial panics. But a career studying crowds didn’t prepare him for the local church. In his words, he was “struck with the genuineness of the diverse Christian fellowship.” He said the relationships here seemed “highly uncommon” in his experience: these Christians interacted not as subdivided coalitions of people with similar interests, but as a single unit. This began the process that would eventually lead Bill to new life in Christ.

    Where did this corporate witness come from? It came from the gospel. When you become a Christian, you undergo a complete identity shift. Now, you’re a new creation (2 Cor 5:17); part of God’s family (Gal 4:5); united to Jesus (Rom 6:1-8). Being a Christian is more fundamental to your identity than your family, your ethnicity, your job, your nationality, your sexuality, your personality—or any other way this world defines identity. And so the unity you share with every other Christian is more profound than any other conceivable bond. That means that wherever the gospel exists, diversity should exist too. Diversity is a natural outgrowth of the gospel.

    And so, diversity’s probably more important—and at the same time less important--than you may have thought. It’s more important because, as Bill discovered, when people with no worldly bonds or connections love each other sacrificially in the church, it provides a grand witness to the truth of the gospel for a watching world. Far from “nice to have,” diversity should be one of the most obviously supernatural characteristics of a local church.

    But at the same time, diversity might well be less important than you’ve thought—because it’s not an end in itself. You can be diverse yet unhealthy, with no unity, love, or gospel. The kind of diversity that was compelling to Bill was compelling precisely because it highlighted gospel unity. And so diversity in a local church matters very little in and of itself; but it matters a ton to the extent that it reflects a deeper reality of gospel unity that is believed and lived out.

    So, if diversity is an important part of our witness and yet simply being diverse for its own sake isn’t the purpose of the church, how should we as a congregation think about diversity in our midst? In this class, we’ll start by examining the purpose of diversity in Ephesians 3 and then the character of diversity, the foundation of diversity, and finally three ways to cultivate our unity in diversity.

    II. The Purpose of Diversity

    First: what is the Biblical purpose of diversity in the local church? To answer that question, let’s return to the book of Ephesians, really the bedrock for this whole Living as a Church core seminar. Look with me at 3:8-11, where we see Paul’s purpose statement for the local church:

    To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)

    What is God’s eternal purpose? For the church to display his wisdom to all creation. How? Paul here says it has to do with a mystery that God has now revealed. What’s this mystery? He’s already told us, in chapter 3, verse 6.

    This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

    What God has done is amazing! For hundreds of years, God had promised that he would one day fold the Gentiles into his family. Isaiah 49:6: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Now, in Christ, using Paul’s gospel ministry, God has done it. Now, in Christ, the descendants of Abraham are not merely those who have his flesh but those who share his faith.
    And why do even the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” take notice of the unity between Jew and Gentile in the church? It’s because of how separated they were before Christ—a separation that Paul in 2:14 calls “the dividing wall of hostility.” It’s not simply that these two groups were of different ethnicity (though they were), or that they were culturally distinct (though they were), or that for theological reasons they were kept apart (though they were)—it’s that all of this separation was openly hostile. And yet in one moment, as Christ utters his last breath and the curtain separating man from God tears from top to bottom, the barrier dividing Jew from Gentile is also destroyed.

    “But,” a first century reader might object, “that kind of unity is impossible! That would take a miracle!”
    And that’s precisely the point. Look at Paul’s doxology in 3:20-21:

    Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

    Paul’s aware that when he describes Jews and Gentiles loving one another in the Ephesian church, despite centuries of animosity, he’s talking about a unity that’s infinitely beyond our human capacity to achieve. If it’s God’s power that’s “at work within us,” God will gain glory as his wisdom is manifest through the church.

    That’s true of our own church and every church that loves Jesus.

    So what’s the “eternal purpose” of diversity, here at CHBC? To show off the power of the cross! God does that by bringing into relationship those who would otherwise remain separate. In the first century, and uniquely in salvation history, that meant Jews and Gentiles worshiping together. But the basic principle of Ephesians 3 remains: God is glorified when previously separated people are unified in Christ.

    One illustration that’s helpful for this is marriage. Marriage celebrates unity and diversity simultaneously. The power of marriage is that husband and wife are different from each other: Eve was created to be a helper who “corresponded to” or “fit to” Adam (Gen 2:18). She was different. And yet at the end of Genesis 2, we read that Adam and Eve must “hold fast” to one another and be “one flesh” (2:24). As anyone who’s married understands, each person’s differences help make a marriage strong--but those differences only create weakness if there is no union, oneness, unity.

    So if the purpose of diversity is to display the power of the gospel, we should look more closely at just what we mean by diversity. What kind of diversity shows off the power of the cross? That leads us to our next point,

    III. The Character of Diversity

    For many of us, as soon as I say the word “diversity,” we think of ethnic diversity. And as those who live in a city where racism isn’t merely a haunting memory but a present reality, it’s good to have a concern for ethnic diversity in Christian congregations. Scripture celebrates ethnic diversity; certainly, that’s at least part of what Paul speaks of in Ephesians 3.

    But if all we ever think of is ethnic diversity, we’re limiting our application of Ephesians 3. When Paul talks about Jews and Gentiles, he’s emphasizing the fact that without the power of the gospel, these are two groups that would have remained apart. And so the “diversity” that we’re thinking about includes a multiplicity of backgrounds that wouldn’t exist except for the gospel. And with this as our definition, lots of differences come to mind that fit the basic pattern of Ephesians 3. Think of all the different boundaries that society respects but that the local church must overcome:

    1) Boundaries of age: Where in the world do you see young men having lunch with 80 year old women that they’re not related to? It’s not a common sight. But that’s just what I saw within my first month of coming to CHBC. I lived across the street at a single men’s house nicknamed the Bull Moose, and one of our roommates invited all the senior ladies of the church over for a Valentine’s Day luncheon. He recruited a bunch of dudes in their twenties to cook quiche and make salad. College students got dressed up and served tea to their sisters in Christ, we all went around and shared testimonies of God’s goodness, and sang “Amazing Grace.” It’s one of the most memorable times of fellowship I can recall – precisely because our differences highlighted our unity in Christ.

    2) Boundaries of economics: Our world’s familiar with rich people doing kind things for poor people. But when those rich people retreat their communities, they find themselves with other rich people—or at least with those with a similar educational pedigree. It shouldn’t be so in the church. That’s why James attacks the church’s unfair treatment of the rich in James 2:8-9. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

    3) Boundaries of politics: The local church must speak strongly on moral issues. But rarely does that moral authority translate cleanly into specifics of public policy. As a result, the local church should be a place where Christians with divergent views of government policy can find commonality in the more ultimate reality of God’s kingdom. For us, being on Capitol Hill, this is especially crucial. If you work in politics, you can debate each other all week long from 9 to 5, but as a church we’re united in submission to King Jesus.

    4) Boundaries of personality: 1 Cor 12 says that everyone has a gift and everyone is needed in the body. If someone is socially awkward, do you think they’ll find our church to be a refuge? Or, just as impatient with them as the cold world outside? Those who are extroverted might find it easier to make quick friendships in the church, but that makes them no more essential to the church than the quiet introvert who listens well, loves deeply and serves whole-heartedly.

    5) Boundaries of cultural background: Especially for those who grew up in the church, cultural background carries with it expectations for what a church should be like. As a result, some degree of sacrifice is necessary to have a church composed of Christians from suburban, rural, and urban backgrounds; liturgical, Pentecostal, and African-American religious traditions; and many different countries of origin. And that’s just fine. Our church has its own culture: we use the English language, we have simple musical accompaniment that comes from the European-American tradition. But sacrifice is needed from everyone, those in the cultural minority and majority. For those in the majority, that sacrifice might start by asking folks from different backgrounds what’s uncomfortable for them and how you can serve them. We should take Paul’s instruction seriously to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

    If what we’re after is boundary-crossing love that perplexes the world around us, then some types of diversity will often speak louder than others do. Jamie told me about a church in the suburbs of Boston in an area that is mostly white, but the congregation sits at the intersection of four towns with dramatically different class identities. So when a former addict from one town spends nights and weekends speaking truth into the marriage of a banking executive from the next town, something is happening that’s compelling to the surrounding world. Here at CHBC, on the other hand, located in what has been one of the most segregated cities in the country, ethnic diversity speaks volumes. Even though our church has more people from a Caucasian background than others, visitors will often comment on how the church includes such dramatically different backgrounds—and yet still seems to live together as a single community. Our diversity here isn’t perfect, but praise God for the unity and diversity he’s worked and continues to work in us.

    IV. The Foundation of Diversity

    Now, you might be asking, this all sounds great—but how can we grow in diversity in all these areas?

    My answer might at first sound naïve, and even offensively naïve. What must we do to see unity and diversity co-exist in our own churches? In one sense, we do nothing.

    We don’t need to do anything. Consider the evidence of Ephesians 2-3 that we looked at a few moments ago. Paul says in 2:14-16:

    For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself 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.

    Who did this? Who created one new man and made peace? Christ! In these chapters, Paul is simply describing what has happened in our salvation. There’s nothing left for us to do – the one imperative verb in the section is simply to remember what God has done (2:11,12). Another way to put this is that when Jesus prays in John 17:21 that “they may all be one,” we can have absolute confidence that God is answering Jesus’ prayer! This unity between those who believe the gospel is an accomplished fact, and the bond we feel with true believers we’ve never met is testimony to that.

    When you make a fire, what comes out? Heat. When Christ saves all sorts of different people and calls them to one another in his church, what happens? Unity. In that sense, there’s nothing for us to do to establish unity in diversity. God has already built the fire, through the gospel. Our role is to watch and feel the heat - and then to worship as God does the impossible in the community of the local church.

    But does the fact that God is the one who establishes our unity mean that we should lazily sit back and expect people with all sorts of different personalities and backgrounds to love another automatically? Not at all. In fact, we can selfishly and sinfully resist unity. Or, on the other hand, we can cultivate it. Like a farmer watering and fertilizing a plant with tender care, we can recognize that we’re not the ones who give the plant of our unity its life, but what we do matters tremendously to keep that plant growing and healthy.

    So, moments after Paul establishes that it’s God alone who unites Jew and Gentile in the Ephesian church, he says in Eph 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Like so many of Paul’s letters, the first half of Ephesians says “This is who you are in Christ” – you’re not only sinners made alive, you’re strangers made one. The second half of the book then says “Therefore, live as who you are in Christ.” The gospel has united you – now make every effort to keep the unity established through the bond of the peace that Christ obtained.

    How do we do that? Much could be said. Let’s focus on three suggestions. First,

    A. Recognize the Invisibility of Your Culture

    I wonder if anyone’s ever told you that you had an “accent” to your speech, and what you thought. Early on, my reaction to that was: “I don’t have an accent. It’s other people who sound weird.” It can work this way with our culture. Now, those who are part of a minority culture in a church usually don’t have any trouble being aware of it. It’s those in the majority who may need to have their eyes opened to the fact that not everyone shares their experience or their perspective. For example, one of the first times I got to lead in the prayer of confession on Sunday morning, most of the sins that I confessed are sins that young people, especially young men, tend to fight against. And the pastors challenged me after that! I’d worked from my own experience outward, assuming everyone was basically like me. Instead, I should have meditated more broadly and prayed about things that my 75 year old brothers and sisters in Christ are struggling with too. I needed to recognize the invisibility of my culture.

    In Acts 6, when conflict arose between two different groups within the church, it was because the Greek-speaking widows were being “overlooked” in the daily distribution of food. When you look at Acts 6, we don’t learn anything about why this group within the congregation was being neglected. But the fact that their complaint was against the Aramaic-speaking Jews, and that the apostles took the problem seriously, suggests that there may have been a majority-culture-invisibility problem going on. The issue of the majority culture in the church overlooking its assumptions and the minority culture being excluded isn’t new. And yet as long as the church has existed, the power of the gospel has stood ready to heal these divisions. So after the issue is addressed, we read in Acts 6:7, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.”

    When Paul in Romans 12:10-11 tells us to “love one another with brotherly affection” and to “outdo one another in showing honor,” this must surely involve working to make the assumptions of my own culture a little more visible so that I can care well for others. One of the best ways we can do this in our relationships is simply asking thoughtful, open-ended questions to learn about others’ experience of the Christian life and how it may differ from ours.

    That leads us to the second suggestion:

    B) Embrace Those Who Are Different from You

    Turn with me to 1 Cor 12:13-14:

    For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.

    Imagine with me if the church in Corinth heard that verse, and then decided that since Paul was calling the church to unity, the best way they could live in unity was to establish groups within the congregation for similar folks to be around those they’d be most comfortable with. So they’d make a group for Jews, and a group for Greeks; a group for slaves and a group for the free. We’d say, “No! That’s not what Paul has in mind at all!” And yet, if we only pursue fellowship with those who are just like us, that’s essentially how we apply those verses.

    Now, you might say, Matt, does that mean that we shouldn’t have men’s and women’s small groups? Or a youth group, or a women’s retreat? Not necessarily. Having friendships in the church with those who are the same age or ethnicity or occupation as yourself can be a wonderful thing. Often God uses those relationships to do important work in our hearts because we’re able to speak to one another out of our common experience. Relationships of similarity aren’t evil. But they can be dangerous, if they so characterize our community that they obscure the natural diversity that the gospel produces.

    The image of a “balanced food plate” used by the Department of Agriculture can be helpful here. (When I was growing up it was the food pyramid, but apparently they’ve upgraded to a plate.) It’s unhealthy to eat only burgers and fries – the plate has a section for fruits and vegetables, for grains, and for proteins. So we can think of striving to cultivate a balanced plate of relationships in the church. There are relationships where someone especially builds into you and encourages you. There are relationships where you build into and disciple someone else. There are mutual friendships. And then – here’s the key – there are relationships where you’re ONLY friends because you’re a Christian, not for any natural reason. All are healthy and important. Some of these categories can overlap. But if there aren’t any in that last category, we should be concerned.
    A good place to start is to ask ourselves some diagnostic questions. How often do you have meaningful conversations with those who are a different age from you? With those who are in a different line of work from yours? Who in the church with a different ethnic background from yours do you know well enough that you could pray for their family and their job?

    What if you ask those questions and realize you don’t know many who are different from you? Or you simply want to grow in this area? That leads us to our final suggestion:
    C) Make Sacrifices for the Sake of Unity

    Paul says in Rom 12:1 to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.” What does that look like in the church? He goes on in the same chapter: 12:9, “Love must be sincere.” 12:13, “Practice hospitality.” 12:16, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.”

    It’s very possible to enjoy the idea attending of a diverse church, and yet never lift a finger to get to know someone who’s actually different from you. In that sense, God calls us not to be “consumers” in the church, but to be producers. If we value diversity, we should put that value into action by making personal sacrifices to see it grow.

    So, let’s get practical. What kinds of sacrifices help foster our unity in diversity?
    • We can sacrifice our comfort to reach out and associate with someone we’re not naturally drawn to. Mk 9:35, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."
    • We can sacrifice our preferences in all sorts of areas – what kind of food at the fellowship event; which songs we wish the church sang more often. Rom 12:10, “Honor one another above yourselves.”
    • We can sacrifice our resources and time to serve fellow church members in need, to host them in our homes, to give them a ride to church, to care for their kids. 1 John 3:18, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
    • We can sacrifice our habits to make space for knowing others who may have different schedules from us or live in a different area of town. If you’re someone who always plans your schedule 2 months out, be willing to spontaneously go to lunch after church with someone who’s different from you – and vice versa.

    What’s the point in making these sacrifices? Again, it’s not diversity for diversity’s sake. The eternal Son of God already made the ultimate sacrifice. By his death, he has united those who were divided. Now, by our unity, we testify to his matchless wisdom and grace. What a privilege that we get to conspire together to cultivate our unity as a church so that his name might be famous! And in the upcoming weeks, we’ll take a closer look at a lot of areas in the life of the church where our diversity can showcase the unity Christ has made – areas like prayer, worship, evangelism, even church governance and discipline.
    But for now, let me leave us with the amazing vision of what all our diversity – and that of the church universal and throughout time – will look like around the throne of Christ. Revelation 7:9-12:

    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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!"