As a Christian educator and minister of the Gospel, I am often asked if there is a biblical basis for encouraging diversity. My simple answer is yes, absolutely!
The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that the church is to be a multi-cultural, multi-national, and multilingual gathering of believers. The scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, tell the story of God’s love for all people and his supreme desire to redeem for himself individuals from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue for his eternal praise (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). A few brief examples of the biblical basis for diversity follow.
First, it is important to know that diversity is revealed in the very nature of God as seen in Genesis 1:26. In that passage the use of the plural, “let us” provides insight into his eternal existence as the one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s tri-unity is itself a model of “diversity in unity” that also is the source and origin of the diversity that characterizes his physical creation as well as the composition of the church.
Second, the creation story in Genesis bears witness to God’s creativity not only in fashioning the heavens and the earth, and in creating every living thing in all of its variety, but also in the creation of man in his own image (Gen. 1:27). When God created man in his image he thus instilled in him an inherent quality and worth distinct from all other creatures. Therefore, we are not surprised when the Psalmist, reflecting on the splendor and majesty of the heavens, asks, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, created just a little lower than the angels, yet crowned with glory and honor?” (Psalm 8:4, 5) There is a dignity bestowed on man as a result of being created in God’s image that has immense implications for how we see and relate to one another. Every person on earth, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or station in life, is to be valued because of the image of God.
Third, Acts 17:26, 27 reveals another way in which the Bible encourages diversity – God’s love for all the nations (Greek, panta ta ethne, or all the ethnic groups). In Paul’s sermon at Athens he reveals that the nations descended from one man to inhabit the whole earth and that it is God who determines their time and place in order that people might seek him and find him since he is near to all. God loves the nations and it was always God’s purpose to bless and redeem them through his Son. Abraham was chosen to be a father to his people but he was also blessed for the benefit of all the people of the earth (Gen.12: 1-3). And it is for this reason that Christ lived and died as John writes, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). God loves the nations, he loves across geographic boundaries, and he commanded his followers (then and now) to go into the entire world to witness and make disciples (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8).
Fourth, at the announcement of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4, it is evident from his text (Isaiah 61) and his exposition (Luke 4:21-27) that he came to save the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, Jews, and gentiles. Jesus’ love for all people is clearly evident as the gospels record examples of his ministry to a Roman officer (Matthew 8:5-13), a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), and a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-30), in addition to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). And in the case of the Roman centurion Jesus made reference to his faith being greater than any in Israel and used that occasion to make reference to the kingdom of heaven being populated by those “from east and west” (Matthew 8:10-12), no doubt an allusion to his “other sheep, which are not of this fold” (John 10:16a). Yet, Jesus’ desire for his diverse followers is that they “become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16b), “perfected in unity” so the world would know that he was sent by God (John 17:21-23). What an example for today’s church!
Fifth, Jesus’ love for all is also exemplified in the life of the early church as evidenced in its composition and mission. The apostles were themselves from diverse backgrounds and it is important to note that they were fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots among others. These leaders of the early church were anything but homogeneous and that was also true for the fledgling church. We know that on the Day of Pentecost this leadership team was “together in one place” when the Holy Spirit came upon them within earshot of representatives from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:1-5). That gathering of “devout men” from multinational and multilingual backgrounds heard the wonders of God being spoken in “his own language” (Acts 2:11) and they would subsequently hear the preaching of the Apostle Peter as well. The new church, growing in size and complexity, also remained faithful to the mission to carry the gospel across geographic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries, as gentiles representing the entire Mediterranean region were added in response. As a result, the first truly multiethnic church and leadership team emerged in Antioch (Acts 11:20-26, 13:1-3) and it was the church in Antioch that would have the distinction of sending off Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which the Holy Spirit would send them.
It is important to note that although the Bible encourages diversity it does not preclude the church from experiencing problems in its commitment to be diverse. The promise of the “one new man” in Ephesians 2:11-22, can be easily offset by the challenge of lingering barriers and walls of hostility that often exist between diverse people, including the negative effects of ethnocentrism, partiality, or favoritism (James 2:1-13). The answer to divisions in the church is the cross by which (i) Jesus reconciled all things to himself (Colossians 1:19-21) and put to death the hostility that exists between us; (ii) where we receive forgiveness, peace, togetherness, and renewal; and (iii) where united we worship the creator who redeemed us from every nation, people, tribe and tongue. Lord Jesus, may it be so with us, unity in diversity, on earth as it is in heaven!