The Theology of a Multi-Cultural Church
By Paul Fiddes
I much prefer the term 'multi-cultural' to 'multi-racial' when describing the church of Christ. When we think theologically there can be only one race – the human race – since we all have a common origin: I mean that the origin of all people is in creation by God, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). As Paul is reported to have declared to the citizens of Athens, 'From one blood God made all nations … for we too are his offspring' (Acts 17:26). Racial justice is about working out the implications of being one race. Creation in God’s image gives every human being the same dignity and worth, and it follows that each person has rights since she or he shares in the rights of God. There are not different ‘races’, but there are, however, many people-groups or ethnicities, and each has its own culture.
There is then both unity and a glorious diversity generally in the world. We should celebrate diversity as a mark of the overflowing generosity of God’s creation, the beauty of its many particular parts. The one creator God has brought into being the many created persons, animals and things. This reflects the very nature of God in whom there are both one supreme reality and different relations of love; this is what Christian theology calls the Trinity.
In creation, God makes room within God's own inner, interweaving movements of love for many created beings. Within the dance of God's own life, God opens up space for human dancers in all their glorious diversity. But the existence of many different people-groups is no basis for racism. Because they have a common descent one group cannot be superior to another. There can be no ranking, no hierarchy in celebrating diversity, only a valuing of different cultures which have developed through history and in different geographical contexts under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit of God.
The church, as ‘multi-cultural’ should be a witness to God’s intention for this diversity in unity. The very word ‘multi-cultural’ expresses both multiplicity and unity at the same time, being many-in-one. The church must look for its life to be enriched by the different cultural heritages of its members, just as it rejoices in its members’ different spiritual gifts. In fact, a cultural heritage is a gift to the whole body of the church. The church must be ready to open its life and ministry to ways of expression and to customs of life that some may find strange. It must be willing to let years of habit that belong to one culture (perhaps the host one) to be disturbed and invigorated by different ways of being disciples of Christ.
This diversity is held within a unity. The church knows that there is a reason for this situation in addition to a common origin in creation; it is rooted in redemption. The writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians stresses that Christ in his body has broken down all the walls that stand between different peoples, so that there is "one new humanity" in Christ (Eph 2:14–15). Christ is the clearest image of God that there is, the Son in the image of the Father; through his salvific work the image of God in humankind has been renewed, so that there can be no doubt that we all have one ancestry, that we are one race.
Being ‘one humanity’ in Christ is not only the case with disciples of Christ, although they know this truth and must witness to it. The saving work of Christ in becoming incarnate, giving his life sacrificially and rising from death was done in the world, in the midst of humanity. It has happened, objectively, once and for all. The image of God in humankind, which makes us all one race, has been renewed. Of course, the benefits of this work need to be received; people need to respond to the work of Christ in faith. But it is an objective fact that Christ has made a new humanity, and the church can be a demonstration of what a multi-cultural society can look like outside the church as well as inside it.
Now, we see opposition to this multi-culturalism inside and outside the church arising whenever it is thought that a nation-state should be composed of a single or a dominant ethnicity. Even church members may feel that diversity of cultures would be better expressed by people—one hears it said—‘staying in their own countries where they belong’. Not only does this attitude, sinfully, transgress against the making of one new humanity in Christ, but it is contradicted by the biblical idea of covenant. The Baptist tradition has been to understand the church as bound together, not by a single heritage, but by covenant, an agreement of different people with each other and with God through Christ as the covenant-maker.
Thus, in society too we will see people as bound together by covenant, not by a single ethnicity, but by different people-groups covenanting together. Those who covenant will agree together on what features should bind them to the common good, just as members of a local Christian congregation agree together on their life and mission. From a Christian point of view, we know that God is also involved in this social covenanting, but we do not expect this to be acknowledged. It is the hidden nature of the kingdom which will become manifest in the future new creation, and meanwhile the church as a multi-cultural community bears witness to its reality.
Paul S Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford; and Principal Emeritus and Senior Research Fellow, Regents’ Park College, University of Oxford.
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