The Biblical Nature of Diversity
By: Elise Barnes
I’m often hesitant to speak on racial and ethnic diversity even though God has profoundly shaped my own
personal testimony through cross-cultural experiences. This concern exists because I’m aware of the fact
that I have rarely ever been a part of the minority.
Most of the time I’m not in a true minority position. I am a woman, and in some cases that makes me a
minority. But I am a white woman in America. The only experiences I’ve had that allowed me to
personally identify with minorities were experiences that I intentionally placed myself into for a time. I
had to intentionally move to locations where the primary racial or cultural environment was not “home”
to me. It was not my own.
My experience growing up has been similar to many people in the church. Unless you have personally
made the decision to cross a cultural, racial, or ethnic border, you have most likely not experienced
diversity within the church. Statistically, our churches are ten times more segregated than their
surrounding neighborhoods and twenty times more segregated than their nearby schools.
That’s the reality of the American church today. But what I’ve been learning is that diversity is deeply
biblical and it should be pursued and celebrated in the church.
There are three main reasons I want this conversation to continue…
1) Because It’s biblical to pursue a multicultural church. From the beginning of scripture to the
very end, the Bible presents God’s heart for all people of the world. It’s not about any one
racial, ethnic, or cultural group.
2) Because our churches may be missing out on a key aspect of what it means to be the church. If
that’s true and diversity is biblical, it’s not reflected in our teaching, and it’s certainly not
reflected in our congregations.
3) Because the church is often guilty of staying quiet about important racial, ethnic, and cultural
It might come as a surprise to many that instead of sitting beside you on the pew on Sunday
morning, if Jesus were walking the streets of America today he would be walking in Ferguson or
drinking water in Flint, Michigan. He would be a refugee, or a homeless man. In a cultural
comparison, Jesus fits into these categories of our modern societies much better than our
While I was growing up, even though my family attended one of the largest churches in our community, racial and cultural diversity was nearly non-existent in our church. Our body of believers did not reflect the diversity in our area at all. Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon. Often, diversity hasn’t been incorporated into our church curriculum either. For example, our illustrations of the Bible often exclusively portray biblical figures with white skin. This may seem relatively harmless to many American Christians. But our tendency to view the Bible exclusively through our own cultural lens can become harmful. According to Curtiss Paul DeYoung, “In today’s context of racial and ethnic fragmentation, it is essential to rediscover the wide cultural diversity of biblical peoples.”
Personally, I wasn’t equipped to engage the Bible with an eye for diversity until college. Up until that point in my life, I didn’t know how to have conversations about racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. In part, that’s because we’re told to ignore differences rather than address them. In his TedX presentation “What I Learned from My White Grandchildren,” Tony Peterson shares his own experiences with some of these issues. He has a passion for starting conversations about multiculturalism in the church. Recently, Peterson visited Bryan College to share his story. During one of his guest lectures, he identified two mistakes we often make in America. We perpetuate the idea that race exists while we teach the next generation that it doesn’t matter. Peterson argues that in fact it’s the exact opposite.
Peterson’s statement was new to me, but he’s right. Scientific studies have established that race does not exist biologically, but socially and culturally. Instead of ignoring race, Peterson argues that the church should celebrate racial, ethnic, and cultural differences and champion the multicultural vision of the church, which can be identified throughout the entire Bible.
Often, people start the conversation about racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Bible with a look at the word “nations” in some important passages. Take Genesis 12, for example. God makes a covenant with Abram, promising, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). The word for “nation” refers to peoples. It’s not necessarily a geopolitical distinction. The people of Israel were primarily distinct because of religion, not because of race, according to DeYoung.
In fact, we have examples throughout the Old Testament of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity within Israel.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were referred to as a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). Assimilation into the Israelite nation was not uncommon. Many people in the line of David and Jesus came from other people groups. Rahab was from Jericho, and Ruth was a Moabite.
Even among Jewish people, Jesus himself was an ethnic minority, because he was from Nazareth of Galilee.
Not only did he personally experience marginalization, but his ministry dealt with many others in society who were marginalized based on race, ethnicity, and culture. The most famous example would be the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-26). Jesus disregards all social rules to speak with her.
During the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he tells his disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Once again, “nations” refers to ethnic groups not geopolitical distinctions.
Jesus sends his followers to make disciples of every kind of people. The early church reflected this multicultural community of believers. Just look in Acts 2 at Pentecost when people from all over the world heard Peter preach the gospel after the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the multicultural vision continues in Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Seek to see Jesus and be Jesus to the world around you by intentionally engaging in the mission for biblical diversity.