The verse above needs to be read in its proper context. It is essentially a summary statement that affirms that our earthly behavior ought to reflect a heavenly disposition. This means that our ability to accept one another lies with our identity with Christ. Heaven-bound believers are differentiated from earthly people, not by racial status but via changed behavior in Christ. Paul urges us to set our hearts on things above and not things of this earth. Sometimes, we become too fixated about visible things in heaven and earth that we miss Paul’s concern about the invisible things that happen inside our hearts: the need to accept one another, as Christ accepted us.
"Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." (Col 3:11)
Beyond the External Façade
It is easy to take this verse and parade our own doctrines of democracy, free-speech, and mutual acceptance of human rights etc. In churches, we tell members that we are all equal in Christ. In practice, we see people gathering in ethnic enclaves, speaking in languages that seem more comfortable to self, and in the process isolating others. In some churches, even the name itself is a double-edged sword. For example, does the name ABC 'Chinese' Church of Christ tell us that the church is only for Chinese people? Is the 'Korean' Free Church only for those that are conversant in Korean only? What about the Spanish, the Vietnamese, the Hmong and other ethnic groups? For logistical and programming purposes, it makes sense to concentrate on one main language that the majority is comfortable with. However, when people switch to their own preferred language toward their friends, in front of strangers, it is like saying: “Sorry, you don't speak my kind of language like my friend. Good day to you.” A visitor to such a church will most certainly feel unwelcome and isolated.
I remember seeing an early 2005 cover story of ChristianityToday with the heading: “All Churches Should Be Multiracial.” The lead story is essentially an excerpt of a book (United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, Oxford 2003) written by a multiracial team comprising Karen Chai Kim, George Yancey, and Curtiss Paul DeYoung. In it, the authors made a brave proposition, that the ‘21st century must be the century of multiracial congregations.’ Furthermore, they said that where possible, all churches should seek out a diverse makeup in their congregations. They were quick to make 3 exceptions. The first case is a geographical one where only one racial group exists and a multiracial one is not possible. The second case deals with the lack of a common language. The third case involves understanding the struggles of new immigrants that they should be given some time to adapt, before pushing any multiracial agenda on them.
While there are biblical examples and sociological benefits, I still feel that the article is too lopsided, stuck mostly at the level of physical representation. It hardly deals with the next chapter of what happens next? I suspect that it is far easier to shape our external congregational mix than to change our internal attitudinal stance. The former brings together people based on their race, language and ethnicity. The latter reaches much further. Let me explain. Suppose a church is successful in getting equal percentages of racial groups A-Z. What about common values? How are they going to learn to work together and live in peace and harmony? If numbers are successfully brought in for the sake of meeting the ethnic quotas, will that automatically result in a healthy multiracial church? What happens if individuals are not changed in the first place? What if they are simply following the wishes of the leadership and are not at all interested in people other than their own kind? I assert that a multiracial mix is only a small step in the long journey of friendship and acceptance. Paul’s letter to the Colossians points us the way.
A More Excellent Way
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." (Col 3:12-14)
Even though Paul mentions Greek, Scythian, slaves and others, having a multiracial mix is not the end of it all. His objective is a unity in Christ that surpasses our earthly vision of a multiracial congregation. Unity is not uniformity. Unity transcends physical appearances. It does not discriminate. In a nutshell, it is maintaining a heavenly perspective that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ that we must learn to maintain a heavenly perspective of what living together means: Accepting one another, as Christ accepted us. Indeed, numbers and statistics do not define unity. One of my favourite quotes comes from a respected pastor I know:
“Diversity without Unity = Crowd;
Unity without diversity = Cult;
Diversity with unity = Community.”
We are all affected by sin which tempts us to discriminate people based on differences. Even people from the same tribe can show prejudice against one another. As long as people keep scrutinizing for differences, they will find it. In the hands of a chauvinist a minor discrepancy springs major divisions. When people starts to major on the minors, a small thing quickly snowballs to a major issue.
All of us are unique individuals. Our differences reflect more of the generosity and creativity of God. The way to live together in unity and harmony is not in terms of looking the same on the outside. It is behaving Christlike on the inside. If there is any desire to differentiate, let it be for praise and thanksgiving, not to isolate and set people further apart.
Achieving a multiracial mix may be a calling for some. Accepting one another in Christ is a higher calling for ALL. Desire the better gift. Yearn for a visible multiracial congregation. Extend a welcoming hand toward people from all walks of life, who share the faith or seeks God. Open our doors to acknowledge one another gratefully. Create opportunities to be a friend to others. Seek out such friends. Better still, be such a friend.
“A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.” (anonymous)
Thought: Do you prefer to stay in your comfort zone of familiar friends? Or to extend a hand of welcome to people different from you? What does it take to deny gratifying one's selfish desires in favor of satisfying the needs of others?