|Vol. 13 No. 3 March 2011||
Congregational Racial Distinctions
Louis Rushmore, Editor
I just have a quick question, that may be more a matter of personal judgment, yet I ask for yours. Do you believe that it could ever be a matter of a Christian’s personal judgment to regularly identify (place membership) with a congregation of his own ethnic background, and purposefully choose not to identify (place membership) with a congregation that is not his own ethnic group, and that not be racist? Have you ever dealt with some who were concerned with those whom he/she were within a congregation, i.e. predominantly Black or predominately White, or were concerned that in bringing people to Christ, that they would be concerned about the ethnic background of those in the congregation? I know these questions are blunt, but I ask to see what your advice is, though I personally don’t have a problem with any particular ethnic group.
Some questions may be “quick,” and yet the answers to them may not be nearly as “quick.” To your first question, “Do you believe that it could ever be [emphasis added, Louis] a matter of a Christian’s personal judgment to regularly identify (place membership) with a congregation of his own ethnic background…?” my short answer is, “Yes.” On the other hand, someone else might have racist motivations for identifying with one’s own ethnicity.
Decades ago, there was a biracial (i.e., black and white) congregation of the Lord’s church in a small southern town that seemingly could not succeed in encouraging the community to worship with it. The Christian brethren enjoyed perfect harmony, but apparently white non-Christians would not consider the Gospel of Christ and worshipping with the little church because it had black members. Contrariwise, it was equally apparent that non-Christian black people had no more intention of investigating the Gospel and worshipping with the little congregation than white people in the community.
Times have changed some, fortunately, but still, sometimes, aside from any racist motivations among the children of God, the Lord’s church may more easily thrive in some communities with separate black, white, Hispanic, Korean, Burmese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. congregations. This may be largely to reach non-Christians among different ethnic groups. Secondarily, there is nothing inherently wrong with identifying with and feeling more comfortable with people who are like us and with whom we readily share cultural or ethnic similarities – as long as our motivations and actions are not racist and Christians freely fellowship each other despite differing ethnicities, etc.
However, the communities and congregations of the Lord’s church where cultural diversity is respected widely and permits free interaction are ideal in my opinion. I am aware of contemporary congregations in which maybe five different ethnic groups are represented among the members, and they are as or more harmonious than any typical congregation that I know. God bless them for that! I wish the entire world and the churches of Christ everywhere were as open to deemphasizing the topical dissimilarities between persons and capitalizing on our fellowship as the children of God (Galatians 3:27-28).
Bonnie and I are white (though occasionally Bonnie is mistaken for Indian or Burmese – until she speaks!), but we happily worship a large percentage of the time (as we travel in the States) with black brethren. Often in these travels we also worship with biracial congregations, some predominantly white, some predominantly black and some about evenly represented by both of these races. Overseas in such places as India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma) we worship exclusively with brethren of other ethnicities excepting those who accompany us.
Underneath our exterior shells are our souls – made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27); similar to the relationship that exists between our bodies and the vehicles (e.g., automobiles) we operate, our souls operate our physical bodies. Not only are our bodies temporal, but our relationships are earthly as well (i.e., marriages do not occur in heaven, Matthew 22:30). As far as I can ascertain, any one of us could have been born into any family on the planet, born on any continent or in any nation, or born into any racial group. Further, though these dissimilarities may occupy an inordinate amount of attention now, neither will any of this persist nor matter in the next life.
Finally, cultural differences among those subscribing to Judaism in the first century manifested itself in separate synagogues along those ethnic distinctions. There were an estimated 480 synagogues in Jerusalem (Barnes). Questioning such a high number as that, another resource still admits several synagogues wherever Judaism was practiced. “Other ancient cities [in addition to Jerusalem] with large Jewish immigrant populations also sported diverse synagogues” (Keener). “Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). “Jews from many nations resided in Jerusalem in their own ‘quarters,’ and some of these ethnic groups had their own synagogues” (Wiersbe). Apparently, there were several synagogues in Damascus (Acts 9:2), at least some of which would have existed to accommodate racial and ethnic distinctions and cultures. “People with similar cultural and social backgrounds often choose to worship together” (Stern). “In Jerusalem, and probably in other large cities, the several synagogues were arranged according to nationalities, and even crafts” (Vincent).
The early church suffered a temporary crisis in Jerusalem due to unequal treatment of widows within the church from differing ethnic backgrounds, but the apostles instructed the church to appoint servants of the church to address those deficiencies (Acts 6:1-7). Ideally, then and now, Christians irrespective of differing ethnicities can worship together. However, at least there must be recognition of equality of souls between ethnicities.
Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Keener, Craig S. IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. CD-ROM. Downers Grove: InterVarsity P., 1993.
Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. CD-ROM. Clarksville: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. CD-ROM. Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1989.
Vincent, Marvin R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2005.