Many reading this book live in places where churches share guilt for the moral scourge of racism. As a result, we care deeply about the presence of ethnic diversity in our churches. And this concern is noble. Scripture celebrates ethnic diversity. Certainly, that’s at least part of what Paul speaks of in Ephesians 3.
But if by diversity we only ever mean ethnic diversity, we’re missing the main message of Ephesians 3. After all, not every region of the world has ethnic diversity. The diversity I’m writing about is any multiplicity of backgrounds where unity is possible only through the gospel. With this as our standard, many types of differences fit the basic pattern of Ephesians 3. Think of all the different boundaries—respected by society—that the local church must transgress.
Boundaries of age. “Multigenerational” has become a buzzword among evangelicals for good reason: it’s not something we often see in the world. This was perhaps the first kind of diversity that attracted me to my own church, as the generation who joined in the 1940s was infiltrated in the 1990s by a generation recently come of age. Amazingly, they functioned as a single community! Young men spent their Friday nights in nursing homes. Octogenarians vacationed in Cancun with twenty-somethings.
Boundaries of economics. Our world is familiar with rich people doing kind things for poor people. But then those rich people retreat to the comfort of other rich people—or at least those with a similar educational pedigree. Not so in the church. That’s why James castigates the church’s preferential 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.”
Boundaries of politics. The local church must speak strongly on moral issues. But rarely does that moral authority translate cleanly into the details of public policy. As a result, Christians with divergent views on government policy should find unity in the more ultimate reality of God’s kingdom. Of course, there are groups—such as the Nazi party in 1930s Germany—whose claim of moral authority so stretches credulity that the church must chose political sides. But by God’s grace, we often find ourselves in less extreme situations.
Boundaries of social ability. Do socially awkward people describe your church as a refuge? Or do they find it as cold and impersonal as the world outside? Social ability is no barrier to true fellowship in the Spirit.
Boundaries of cultural background. Especially for those who grew up in the church, cultural background carries with it expectations for how a church should feel. 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. That’s just fine. But explain to your congregation that everyone must sacrifice, in both the majority and the minority culture. Unity will often require sacrificing our interests for those of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
If we seek boundary-crossing love that perplexes the world around us, then some types of diversity will often speak louder than others. A church in the suburbs of Boston comes to mind. Everyone might have similar skin color, but the congregation sits at the intersection of four towns with dramatically different class identities. So when a former addict from Weymouth spends nights and weekends speaking truth into the marriage of a Hingham banking executive, something is happening that perplexes the surrounding world. In my church, on the other hand, located in what has been one of the most ethnically segregated cities in the country, ethnic diversity speaks volumes. To be sure, ethnic diversity can be found among non- Christians in my city—so long as we’re only talking about, for example, young political liberals from Ivy League schools. But the first comments I often hear from visitors is about how my church includes such dramatically different backgrounds—and yet still functions as a single community.
What about for your church? What boundaries has the gospel overrun that society fiercely respects?