My congregation sits in the center of Milwaukee, a city frequently residing atop lists of “most segregated cities” in America. Our congregation always observes the celebration of Juneteenth, a landmark occasion I was embarrassingly unfamiliar with prior to my arrival. Juneteenth is a blending of “June” and “nineteenth,” honoring the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned about their emancipation. It is the oldest-known celebration of black freedom from slavery.
America’s founding documentation claims “self-evident truths . . . to liberty . . .”—unless you were black. Founding fathers advocated for human rights imbued by God while simultaneously retaining slavery. Many who considered themselves faithful Christians even attempted to rationalize their inhumanity by distorting Scripture to support their agenda.
In my five-plus years working in the city, a scriptural truth that somehow escaped me until now is God’s desire for a multiethnic church. Just read Acts chapters 8 to 15.
The book of Acts snapshots what the early church, moved by his Spirit, did after Christ’s ascension. This section of Acts teaches that God directed his people to share the gospel with a multiethnic outreach attitude. In Acts 8, Philip is sent to witness to ethnically despised Samaritans. Then God miraculously transports him to share the gospel with a North African official. In Acts 9, we learn of the conversion of Saul, who was chosen to share the gospel with Gentiles as well as Jews. In Acts 10, Peter is shocked that God wants him to evangelize in the home of an “unclean” Roman centurion. In Acts 11, Peter must defend his actions to religious leaders who wanted to exclude those ethnically and culturally different Gentiles.
[Our Savior’s] love included all of humanity with all humanity’s diversity.
In Acts 13, we’re introduced to the church in Syrian Antioch, founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. It became the capital of Syria and the third largest city of the Roman Empire. The city was at a cultural crossroads, ethnically and culturally diverse. From the first, they welcomed Jews to the mix as full citizens. When the early Christians were persecuted in Jerusalem, especially after the death of Stephen, they scattered to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch and spread the gospel “only among Jews” (Acts 11:19). Some believers came from Cyprus and Cyrene to ethnically diverse Antioch and began to share the gospel with the Greeks as well. Many believed. The church was no longer ethnically limited to Jews. It became multiethnic. Consequently, outsiders had to give these followers of Jesus a new label. They landed on the descriptive “Christians” (Acts 11:26), a name that removed any reference to their ethnicity. They were believers, Christian, from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Acts 13-14 then give us Paul’s first missionary journey. Acts 15 provides details from the most important meeting of the early church. Topic? The cultural flexibility of an unchanging gospel.
While Acts depicts the early church, Revelation previews the final version. What do we find? A multiethnic church. “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
The thing that unites people in Christ’s church is not preferences, politics, or pastimes. It’s certainly not skin color or cultural heritage. The unifying factor is faith in a Savior who humbled himself to love us undeservedly. His love included all of humanity with all humanity’s diversity. The less we allow cultural and ethnic diversity to be barriers, the more obviously the world will see the otherworldly unifying force that is the gospel of Jesus.
Author: James M. Hein
Volume 109, Number 06
Issue: June 2022