Church in a changing world

How the church becomes more church-ish in a diverse world.

Scott McKnight


Kerry Stewart listened into today’s seminar and summarised the session on a diverse church for you.

We are going to think about when different people start to mix with us. It’s nice for us when everyone is the same, we seem to like that.

Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul has ventured into the Roman Empire and discovered that the Gentiles wanted to be part of the spiritual movement. However, he was working things out as he ministered so he now had to consider how to deal with all these issues that were different to what he had faced in Israel. Paul needed to find a way for unity to transcend their diversity.

Colossians 3:11, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”.

Paul went to preach to everyone. The people had to be willing to come to the table together, and like it. His aim was to create a kind of society that had never been seen before. That is still the mission of the church today.

We use this saying all the time at home in the States, that 11 o’clock on a Sunday is the most segregated hour in American society. This is a demonstration of a failure on behalf of the church; the opposite of what Paul was striving towards. The reason why people do church separately is because the American way is to colonize and make everything the same therefore everybody should be forced into a single mould, all Presbyterian, or all Methodist sticking together. We tend to force people into similarities and all being alike which is actually why people have learned to separate. People are designed by God to mix into the same salad bowl, but the oil of the Holy Spirit will enhance the taste of each and bring unity to the bowl. Paul’s goal was not to get Gentiles saved but to get saved Gentiles, saved Jews, saved

citizens, saved men and saved women in the same salad bowl and love the celebration of diversity in Jesus Christ.

It’s ok to say I want a church that is diverse, but it is much harder if that happens. Paul worked this out in his letter to Philemon when he brought his theology to bear in a precise situation, by working out what it is like to be neither slave nor free.

At the time this was written it is estimated that 30 per cent of the Roman Empire was made up of slaves. When slaves went on sale it was standard to put them on a block, nude with a sign around their neck documenting any weaknesses they had. A slave male remained a boy his entire life. He couldn’t marry and have an inheritance since laws were actioned that they would not reach maturity in society. It was common for a slave owner to use his slaves as sexual vessels, whether male and female.

Onesimus was a slave from Colossae. He ran away from his master, Philemon, most likely to seek legal means of advocacy from Paul. The letter Paul wrote with Timothy would have been performed to the church and in the presence of Philemon, so they would be hearing it together for the first time. The moment of truth arrives for Philemon who has no idea what is coming next. Onesimus is there along with other slaves. In his introduction Paul begins by buttering Philemon up, highlighting his faith and strong partnership. His aim was to keep Onesimus with him as he was going to help spread the gospel, but he wanted this done in freedom which is why the language used was subtly persuasive. Paul is pulling out his best rhetorical moves; I don’t think he is being coercive. To me, this letter is an example of what it means to be a brother in Christ.

In applying this example to our lives we should recognize that denominations have been fractures in the church from the very beginning. In creating divisions some people are striving to be faithful to the gospel, but Christ prayed for the unity of the church. He wanted people to get on with one another.

The spirit transforms our abilities and transcends our inabilities.

We need to cross the room to express unity in our communities in a way that dramatizes that this is a new type of church in our world. I

believe the most important thing here is love. Love is a rugged commitment to be with one another. That’s where it begins, and it applies to being with other Christians in our societies. In Heaven we are going to be one.

This can be difficult in real situations so we have to learn to celebrate differences. A Jew was still a Jew but they transcended their Jewishness in Christ when they mixed with Gentiles. The discomfort of mixing with other denominations might be a good thing for us. In my experience it is joyous, but there are boundaries. We enjoy one another in Christ.