It seems to me that when we talk about what the church looks like, specifically, mission, vision, and values from Acts chapter 2, we uniformly miss one of the central components. Why is that? Take a look with me at Acts 2, the first description of the first church:
6 A crowd came together when they heard the sound. They were bewildered because each of them heard their own language being spoken. 7 The crowd was really amazed. They asked, “Aren’t all these people who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then why do we each hear them speaking in our own native language? 9 We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites. We live in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia. We are from Pontus, Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia. Others of us are from Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene. Still others are visitors from Rome. 11 Some of the visitors are Jews. Others have accepted the Jewish faith. Also, Cretans and Arabs are here. We hear all these people speaking about God’s wonders in our own languages!” 12 They were amazed and bewildered. They asked one another, “What does this mean?”…
42 The believers studied what the apostles taught. They shared their lives together. They ate and prayed together. 43 Everyone was amazed at what God was doing. They were amazed when the apostles performed many wonders and signs. 44 All the believers were together. They shared everything they had. 45 They sold property and other things they owned. They gave to anyone who needed something. 46 Every day they met together in the temple courtyard. They ate meals together in their homes. Their hearts were glad and sincere. 47 They praised God. They were respected by all the people. Every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.
Based on this passage of how the modern church was formed, we often talk about miracles, signs, supernatural spiritual gifts, bible study, community, sharing our possessions, and worship. However, the thing that is almost universally missed is the make-up of the church. The passage describes the first gathering of Christians consisting of people from different countries, socio-economic classes, ethnicities, religions, and cultures all worshipping Jesus together. Why do we often overlook that very important descriptor of the first church? I would argue that we overlook the importance of diversity in the church or see it as a bonus (nice if it happens but not a necessity) because of the deeply ingrained disposition of our fleshly hearts to place our own needs above others, sin.
In Genesis 3 we are told that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they immediately hid from one another and covered themselves, specifically the things that made them different from one another, their genitals. In this fallen world our basest instinct is to group ourselves by likeness and promote our own group above others. That is the opposite of Jesus’ golden rule to love others as we love ourselves.
What made the church so miraculous that people were committing their lives and possessions in droves was not just the powerful teaching and miracles but their unity in contrast to the splintered and segregated world they lived in. Without Jesus, slaves and free, men and women, rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, Romans and their subjects would never associate with one another much less join together as equals in something so sacred as spiritual community.
In Ephesians 2 the Apostle, Paul, tells us that Jesus has smashed all the barriers that our sinfulness has created amongst humanity so we can live as He intended us, unified in spirit and purpose, yet diverse in composition.
14 Christ himself is our peace. He has made Jews and Gentiles into one group of people. He has destroyed the hatred that was like a wall between us. 15 Through his body on the cross, Christ set aside the law with all its commands and rules. He planned to create one new people out of Jews and Gentiles. He wanted to make peace between them. 16 He planned to bring both Jews and Gentiles back to God as one body. He planned to do this through the cross. On that cross, Christ put to death their hatred toward one another. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away. He also preached peace to those who were near. 18 Through Christ we both come to the Father by the power of one Holy Spirit.
19 So you are no longer outsiders and strangers. You are citizens together with God’s people. You are also members of God’s family. 20 You are a building that is built on the apostles and prophets. They are the foundation. Christ Jesus himself is the most important stone in the building. 21 The whole building is held together by him. It rises to become a holy temple because it belongs to the Lord. 22 And because you belong to him, you too are being built together. You are being made into a house where God lives through his Spirit.
The church is a holy structure of diverse humanity joined and anchored by Jesus. It is our sin that divides and segregates us and it is the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus that reunites us. So yes, the reason we view the diversity of the first church as descriptive and not prescriptive is sin. And since self-protection and self-promotion are so ingrained into our fleshly DNA, working toward and achieving unity is really, really, really hard. That is why most of our churches are segregated by race, economics, gender, ethnicity, doctrine, and culture. We are deeply sinful.
So what are some of the implications of this proposition?
- We must repent of our sins of self-protection and self-promotion in neglecting God’s call to be agents of reconciliation.
- We must work to address and break down the barriers that divide us in and between our churches. To view this work as descriptive and not prescriptive is to deny the transforming power of the gospel.
- We must be willing not only to intentionally seek out and welcome those who are different than us into our communities, but we must be willing to allow our leadership, traditions and practices to reflect socio-economic, racial, gender, ethnic, cultural and doctrinal diversity.
- We must remember that our greatest example of the power of Jesus to an unbelieving world is our unity.