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Always Reforming: The Holy Challenge of Diversity

Yesterday I began to share some thoughts on diversity and uniformity within this Reformed resurgence. I concluded by asking why there appears to be such a distance between our desire for diversity and the reality as we observe it at our big conferences. There are many possibilities that would be worth exploring, but today I want to follow just one of them, and I choose this one because it has been playing out in both my mind and my experience. Here it is: I believe we fail to appreciate and pursue the sheer goodness of diversity—goodness that extends to us, to them, and to our shared display of the gospel.

From a comfortable and established majority position, we are prone to look at other groups and think, “They need Reformed theology.” That may be true. We believe that Reformed theology accurately captures the scope of what God tells us in his Word, that it calls us to think the highest thoughts of God, and that it motivates the greatest mission. We would love for them, whoever they are, to experience the joy that comes when we see God elevated and magnified. But I think it is the complementary part of the equation that we neglect: Reformed theology needs them. We need them, not in complete conformity but in diversity.

Some recent comments from Marcos Ortega express this well. (Marcos blogs with several others at Reformed Margins. Consider the implications of the blog’s name, that as they speak to and about the Reformed faith as minorities, they are speaking from the margins.) After telling of his indebtedness to the white Christian leaders who led him into the Reformed tradition, he goes on to say this:

Now we [minorities] are in the tradition. And there are things in the tradition that have been neglected because of the relatively monolithic worldview that the Reformed tradition long held. This is not the fault of our white brothers and sisters. They cannot be expected to have worldviews like our black and Latino and Asian brothers and sisters. We cannot expect to hold worldviews that are naturally foreign to us because of ethnicity, background, etc. But we can listen to those other worldviews and together deepen our understanding of one another in the love of Christ.

If we are complacent with the uniformity of the Reformed movement, we are impoverishing ourselves and others.

He continues by saying, “When minorities began to embrace the Reformed tradition, we brought something in with us. And it is a valuable thing. And it will require all of us to learn from one another.” Ortega puts into words what I have been trying to express for a while now. This diversity is valuable and is something we ought to deliberately pursue. If we are complacent with the uniformity of the Reformed movement, we are impoverishing ourselves and others. We are denying to all of us the ability to grow deeper into the doctrine we so love. There must be whole dimensions of it we have missed or misunderstood or misapplied because of our relatively monolithic worldview. That problem can be addressed only through diversity, from listening more than speaking, having as much desire to be changed as to change others. Reformed theology even offers the language to support this, having long claimed to be semper reformanda, willing to be constantly challenged and changed when convinced and convicted by the Word of God.

Listen to him again as he talks about the cost and the benefit:

Sometimes, it will mean being told that you were wrong. I know acknowledging your mistakes or your blind spots is a difficult and painful thing. I understand because I have had to do so many times. But if we are to grow as a tradition, if we are to sharpen one another and build one another up in the faith, then we must begin acknowledging our faults. We must allow others to point out our blind spots. And we cannot respond with vitriol whenever our weaknesses are pointed out.

The Reformed tradition is not the same as it was. Praise God! It can’t be. It can’t be because it is too good, too sweet. It has captivated all kinds of people. It has drawn all kinds of people—black and white, Australian and Asian, urban rich and rural poor—who are passionate about those essential doctrinal truths. As they come to Reformed convictions, they necessarily bring their own background with all of its strengths and weaknesses, all its insights and blind spots. This is so good! This is so necessary. It proves how much we need one another. Let me turn one more time to Ortega:

[W]e love the tradition as much as our white brothers and sisters. We do not claim to be Reformed because we are trying to take territory away from anyone.

I want to pause right here. Until recently I would have considered this an unnecessary statement. Who would consider Reformed theology territory that needs to be defended? But then it happened. A group of people attending a conference made it clear to a minority there that he was on their turf, that he was welcome to attend and participate, but that he did so as an outsider looking in. His pain haunts me. He saw the ugly juxtaposition between the soaring beauty of the truth proclaimed from the front of the room and the sinking horror of the error spoken by those sitting beside him. He wept. They did not. This really happened.

Back to Ortega:

We claim the name Reformed because this is where our convictions lie. Now that we have brought new backgrounds and new presuppositions into the room, the Reformed tradition will begin to change. I believe it’s a healthy change in a fuller, more robust direction. So let’s work together through these growing pains and build one another up in peace and love as Christ so desires.

The lack of diversity at our big conferences simply reflects a lack of diversity in our little churches.

I began many hundreds of words ago by shining a spotlight on conferences, but I need to turn on a second spotlight and shine it on our churches. This Reformed resurgence is not first a movement of conferences but a movement of local churches. The lack of diversity at our big conferences simply reflects a lack of diversity in our little churches. If there is to be diversity in Reformed conferences, there must also be diversity in Reformed congregations. Diversity needs to grow from our churches to our conferences and from our conferences to our churches. A heavy train puts an engine on the front and on the back, one to push and one to pull. Just think of all the strength we can bring if we pull with our churches and push with our conferences.

I don’t mean to implicate others and absolve myself. I have the joy of serving and worshipping at a very diverse church, but have to admit that this is more a happy byproduct of living in the world’s most diverse city than of deliberately valuing and pursuing diversity. But even then I can attest that I have learned so much from serving and observing the growing Ghanian community that now comprises a significant percentage of our church. (And, to keep things above-board, I’ll also give a shout-out to the Nigerians!) I have happily benefited from worshipping and fellowshipping alongside East Asians, French Canadians, Romanians, and Sri Lankans. They have been a blessing to me not only because of what is the same between us, but because of what is different. There is such joy to be found right there in the beautiful space between the similarities and the differences.

Reformed theology continues to grow and spread. Why wouldn’t it? How couldn’t it? It is beautiful and deep and challenging and true. As you go almost anywhere in this world you will find Christian brothers and sisters learning, teaching, and delighting in the same time-tested truths. But if you go to our churches and our conferences, you are likely to see more uniformity than diversity. This acknowledgement gives us and this movement the opportunity, the privilege, and the responsibility to seek out, to honor, and to learn from people who represent and display every bit of the glorious diversity our God saw fit to create. It is time we rise to that holy challenge.

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