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Our Modern Ephesian Moment: Four Markers of Meaningful Ethnic Belonging In Multiethnic Congregations

In 2011, America reached an important milestone in that for the first time in the history of the country, more minority babies than white babies were born in that year. The leading American demographer, William Frey, helps us understand that not only are minority groups growing, but the rapid growth of multiracial populations will have a significant impact on the dynamics of social life in America. These dynamics are further impacted with the reality that the White population is aging and having fewer children, the Black population is growing in the suburbs, the continued migration patterns are changing, all which means that by the year 2040 there will be no racial majority in the country[1].
At the beginning of the 21st century, North America is seeing the multiethnic church movement go beyond just rhetoric and percentage-based diversity to actual sophisticated models and expressions. The authors of United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation As an Answer to the Problem of Race provide what has been the historical, sociological, and theological imagination for what these kinds of churches could and should look like as North America continues to see diversity increase to very high rates. Going beyond mere racial percentages in church attendance, the authors conceptualize the dimensions for what meaningful diversity can look like for local congregations from organizational culture to levels of integration[2]. Multiethnic churches have in a way become incubators for ethnogenesis, providing an avenue where Americans are encouraged to explore and negotiate their racial and ethnic identity through theological formation and Biblical community. While other institutions such as schools and places of employment may encourage diversity and meaningful representation, they are unlike religious congregations which emphasize together becoming a people, and in particular, lack the Christian themes of being a household, a temple, and forming one body.


The essence of the oneness of God’s people amid diversity is a Biblical theme expressed throughout both Old and New Testaments, but the ecclesiological and eschatological vision is perhaps made most explicit in the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Andrew Walls writes that the original Ephesian moment—in reference to the instantiated congregation in Ephesus which was composed of both Jew and Greek—was brief, ending in 70 C.E. in the destruction of the Jewish state, scattering the Jews and leaving the church monocultural again. However, Walls maintains that Paul assumed a culturally diverse church when he wrote this epistle,

The Ephesian letter is not about cultural homogeneity; cultural diversity had already been built into the church by the decision not to enforce the Torah. It is a celebration of the union of irreconcilable entities, the breaking down of the wall of partition, brought about by Christ’s death (Eph. 2:13-18). Believers from the different communities are different bricks being used for the construction of a single building—a temple where the One God would live (Eph. 2:19-22).[3]

Paul’s revelation to the Ephesians was that embedded in their local churches was the revealed mystery that Christ is known to a greater extent, and even perhaps to the fullest stature, when displayed by both Jew and Greek living in unity for the gospel. The eschatological vision of the true Israel had now been made complete in Christ by uniting Jew and Gentile, where congregations like the ones in Ephesus were an instance and an embodiment of this vision. Each member came from a culture that needed to be converted to Christ where “Each was necessary to the other, each was necessary to complete and correct the other; for each was an expression of Christ under certain specific conditions, and Christ is humanity completed”[4]. Walls glances through church history to make the point that this level of interdependence has shaped the universal church and has been the impetus for both theological development and missions throughout the ages. And perhaps what can be deduced from his theological framing is that now in our generation and our day, since the levels of diversity are greater than ever, perhaps our dedication and response to our current Ephesian moment should also be greater than ever.
In another work, Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Walls puts forth two principles that represent opposing tendencies in cultural engagement that can tend to generate tension, yet both originate in the gospel: the indigenizing principle and the pilgrim principle. Although Walls originally formulated these principles in the context of pioneering missions and evangelism, they are easily transferable to the theological and spiritual development of a particular congregation. Therefore, when applied to the modern Ephesian moment, these gospel principles can help us better understand the tension presented in multiethnic congregations as opportunities for community formation and meaningful belonging.
The indigenizing principle comes from understanding that God accepts us “as we are” which includes not just our individual selves, but also the cultural context from which we come from. The impossibility of separating an individual from their social context leads to the necessity of indigenizing both faith and community and for creating a place where they can “feel at home” as a Christian. Walls points out that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was the process by which a “home” was being created for Gentile Christians and by which their faith was becoming more indigenous.[5]
The pilgrim principle says that God in Christ not only takes people as they are, but he also takes them in order to transform them into what he wants them to be. The Christian’s faith experience should whisper to them that there is not yet an abiding city and that being faithful to Christ will put them out of step with society and even their own culture. This principle is a challenge to one’s natural sense of identity and belonging. Where the indigenizing principle particularizes the faith of the Christian to their culture and group, the pilgrim principle universalizes it. The believer is introduced to more than what they have ever known, which includes meeting members of the family of faith, some of whom will be very different in background.[6]
When applied to multiethnic congregations, these two principles can provide for us a categorical understanding of the tensions and growth opportunities often experienced in multiethnic congregations. I contend that these tensions and opportunities are a part of an ethnic reasoning process used to form an instance of a new ethne[7], which could be thought of as situational ethnicity[8] or micro ethnicity[9], which, like the first Ephesian moment, is more likely time and geographically bounded rather than long-term and fixed. In our modern Ephesian moment, Wall’s two principles can help us identify some markers for meaningful diversity in Biblical community where the hope is that one does not need to betray their own ethnic identity in order to embrace and be embraced by someone of another.


The following markers are not meant to be exhaustive, but instead, are an initial set of indicators that should be further developed and built on. They are derived from Wall’s theological framing as described above where markers one and two are implications of the indigenizing principle and markers three and four are implications of the pilgrim principle. Each marker is stated from the perspective of an individual rather than being representative of an entire ethnic group so as to reflect the personal journey of meaningful integration into a multiethnic congregation. However, they do not discount the reality of collective experience and its impact on how someone perceives membership and belonging. They also take into consideration how the Apostle Paul might have meant for his epistle to be read and understood both collectively and individually by the church in Ephesus.

Marker #1: The congregation fosters ongoing growth in the person’s awareness and acceptance of their ethnicity, encouraging them to grow in their uniqueness in Christ.

The first marker is an implication from Wall’s point that “the very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ”[10]. However, this does not mean that people should bring just a portion of who they are to the community. They are not supposed to bring only the parts that they think are compatible with others, expecting that the sum of these portions will somehow achieve the height of Christ’s full stature. In Wall’s vision, to achieve full stature, people of the congregation are encouraged to bring all of who they are, particularly the parts of themselves which are integral to their personhood. A male and female cannot subdue their gender and expect to fully contribute. In the same way, a person should not be asked to subdue their ethnic identity if the congregation is wanting to achieve its maximum glory in Christ.
More than that, the Apostle Paul writes about what happens with unity in diversity, “being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). The process of being joined together in the Lord brings growth. Often, diversity will bring tension. But growing together in a social unit and learning to share a common language allows people to develop accommodations for one another, which radically diminishes confrontation and conflict[11]. And more than just resolving tension, there is something uniquely drawn out of a person that only someone of another culture can evoke. There is more to be explored and experienced in one’s own culture when shared with someone of another culture. In a community of uniformity, there are cultural elements created by Christ and made more magnificent in Christ that may never be manifested if a person is left to themselves. But in our differences, what is culturally unique about someone is highlighted and made obvious.

Marker #2: The congregation accepts the person’s ethnic perspective as normative and valuable to its development as a theological and discipleship community.

The second indigenizing marker is formulated by Wall’s challenge to the theological development of the modern church,

The Ephesian question at the Ephesian moment is whether or not the church in all its diversity will demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments, the interactive participation that is to be expected in a functioning body. Will the body of Christ be realized or fractured in this new Ephesian moment? Realization will have both theological and economic consequences.[12]

While Walls may be addressing a larger hermeneutical community beyond one local church, any ecclesial body can make the application at their macro, meso, or micro-level. A community of diverse Christians whose doctrinal and practical theology has little input from its congregants will have little impact on its congregants. That sort of community may only be capable of regurgitating inherited philosophical formulations rather than being capable of self-theologizing. The point here is not to promote novel and fringe theologies for the sake of it, but rather to encourage mature believers to contribute from their ethnic locality to the theological imagination and repertoire of the congregation.
While the Ephesians may not have been able to perceive on their own the insight Paul revealed to them in chapters two and three, they were very much a part of his discovery process as he declares to them, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). The theological development in Paul’s life and in the life of God’s covenant people is that Gentiles have an equal stake in the church because of Christ. It should not be conflated that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the true Israel implies that a church’s local theology is a hodgepodge of ethnic experiences. But what the mystery does imply is that there is no cultural gatekeeper for the gospel. Just as Christ converted the Jew to reinterpret their history in light of him, he has also converted the Gentile to do the same.

Marker #3: The congregation sees the completed work of Christ as the means to regulate the person’s ethnic pride, combating ethnocentrism and elitism.

The third marker follows Wall’s postulation that none of us can reach Christ’s completion on our own because we need each other’s vision to “correct, enlarge, and focus our own.” Salvation history is not complete in Abraham or in Jewish history. Neither was it complete in the inclusion of the Greeks. Even in the first century, there was no single original form of Christianity and throughout history, there has never been one[13]. And to date, it is not yet complete in the African, Asian, and Latin American churches. Each generation contains communities of believers on a pilgrimage to become more complete in Christ in the context of the other. Therefore, there is no room for a preferred ethnic ruling class within the body of Christ. This is a consistent theme in Paul’s writing as he opposed even his apostolic peers when they caved in to the carnal pressures of ethnic elitism and the discrimination of the Gentiles at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14).
The person and work of Christ is the anchor for a believer’s primary identity. Ethnocentrism is a form of idolatry that is not compatible with someone who has been crucified with Christ and whose life is not their own (1 Corinthians 6:20). God has reconciled both Jew and Gentile to himself in one body through the cross, killing the hostility that one may raise over the other (Ephesians 2:16). Meaningful belonging to the body of Christ will always mean that a fixed ethnicity is not the final destination for a believer. A healthy multiethnic congregation is a safeguard against ethnic idolatry. The congregation must always be discerning with the individual what is redeemable about their culture and expose to them what must be put off in regards to their former way of life (Ephesians 4:22). Just as the gospel anchors our identity in Christ, it is also the knife that performs surgery on our hearts, cutting away any excessive ethnic pride.

Marker #4: The congregation challenges the person to regularly give up their preferences in order to live peaceably and to reflect the gospel to the world.

Lastly, as a pilgrim who is becoming more like Christ in a multiethnic congregation, they should find themselves freely contextualizing their life to maximize the exposure of the gospel to an unbelieving world. Paul’s versatility in becoming “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22) speaks not of a compulsion to be like others, but of the freedom to not be enslaved to his own cultural preferences. In Christ, Paul was given many modes and many expressions so that he could easily sacrifice a preference if it meant winning someone over with the gospel message.
Walls explains about incarnation that since Christ continues to be formed in local Christian communities whose ways of life are quite different from the one in which the incarnation took place means that, “sacred time” is not confined to just Jesus’ time on earth, but extending it to all of history, therefore even redeeming the very idea of “time” and “history”[14]. Christ momentarily gives up eternal transcendence, to allow himself to be subjected to time so that in his sacrifice, he becomes the redeemer of history. That is the very pattern for the Christian, especially as it pertains to their personhood. The pain in sacrificing for others and the frequency at which it happens are a part of the process through which one’s ethnicity is negotiated in the context of diverse preferences. The paradox is that by living down your “Jewishness” sometimes in order to win over a Gentile to Christ, it is not self-detrimental and in fact, it puts on display how strong your “Jewishness” really is––because a weaker “Jew” probably could not do that. A congregation in which your identity is bent without being broken so that others may be welcomed in says that its members must have meaningful ethnic belonging.


Multiethnic congregations should be pliable by definition and should not be places of rigid ethnic culture. They can be incubators in which people simultaneously grow in the particulars of how Christian faith can look in their own “skin” and in the pilgrimage of being transformed by how it can also look in the skin of others. Those who meaningfully belong to these congregations find themselves as a situational ethnic person, able to turn on and off certain cultural levers in their minds in a given situation, all the while becoming better learners of themselves and others in the process. The process of ethnic reasoning is how ethnicity is lived out at the micro-level. And the further the gospel is driven down to the micro-level, where Christ makes sense of someone’s lived ethnic experience and reinterprets it more beautifully than anthropology or sociology ever could, then the person not only experiences meaningful belonging to a congregation, but they are also becoming a member of the people that God has purchased for himself in Christ where the Spirit dwells as a holy temple.

End Notes
[1] Frey, William H. 2018. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America. Revised, Updated edition. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, p. 5.
[2] DeYoung, Curtiss Paul, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim. 2003. United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation As an Answer to the Problem of Race. 1 edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, p. 166.
[3] Walls, Andrew. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, p. 77.
[4] Ibid., p. 78.
[5] Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Edinburgh: Orbis Books ; T&T Clark, p. 7.
[6] Ibid., p. 9.
[7] Buell, Denise Kimber. 2005. Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. Gender, Theory, and Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 138.
[8] Naylor, Larry L. 1997. Cultural Diversity in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 120.
[9] Fenton, Steve. 1999. Ethnicity: Racism, Class and Culture. Macmillan International Higher Education, p. 13.
[10] Walls 2002, p. 77.
[11] Boscoboinik, Andrea, De Vos A George, Fabienne Doucet, Louis Freedberg, Mary Kay Gilliland, Philip Hermans, Lotte Hughes, et al. 2006. Ethnic Identity: Problems and Prospects for the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Lola Romanucci-Ross, George A. De Vos, and Takeyuki Tsuda. Fourth edition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, p. 212.
[12] Walls 2002, p. 81.
[13] Buell 2005, p. 168.
[14] Walls 2002, p. 73.