Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Hermeneutic of Diversity

Mark DeYmaz' Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church is a terrific book. It makes a powerful case that one of the central purposes of the work of the gospel is to break down ethnic barriers in order to create one people of God in the Church. Therefore, the ongoing propagation of unjustifiable ethnic barriers or discrimination is antithetical to the gospel. DeYmaz' argument pulled together several strands of thought that had been present in my mind and provoked me to voice my support for the recent appeals from BJU alumni that the school's leadership acknowledge and apologize publicly for decades of such unjustifiable barriers and discrimination.

Several months ago, I posted a link to my review of the book and added a few other comments. That review contained some criticism of the author's exegesis of a few passages and the ecclesiological implications of his practical suggestions. The author responded and requested that I offer specific examples. I promised a reply in a day or two. That was just over four months ago. So while I apologize for my tardiness, I want to follow through on that commitment. In doing so, in no way do I want to undermine my appreciation for DeYmaz' worthy contribution on an important matter in 21st century American church life.

Here, then, is a chronological list of the passages where I'm unconvinced that DeYmaz' arguments are supported by the text.

Page 22: DeYmaz suggests that the unusual presence of cross-ethnic relationships in the church at Antioch is the reason the disciples first called Christians in that city. Though that's possibly true, the text offers no clear affirmation of that notion.

32-33: DeYmaz argues that something has been lost from the text after the Greek phrase “in the heavenly” in Ephesians 3:10. He believes that something has been lost from the original text since Paul would not have ended the sentence that way and since it’s inconceivable to him to limit “God’s display of wisdom to those rulers and authorities dwelling only in heavenly places.”

The problems here seem so obvious and substantial that I almost wonder whether I’m missing something. First, the last word in the phrase quoted above is a plural noun, not a singular adjective—heavenlies, not heavenly. Second, there is no significant textual variant whatsoever (according to my UBS Greek text) in the verse. Third, this same phrase, “in the heavenly places,” appears four other times in Ephesians (1:3, 20; 2:6; 6:12). In none of those identical usages is there any textual evidence whatsoever that anything has been lost from what Paul wrote. For these three reasons, DeYmaz’ analysis is wholly speculative and imprudent.

35-37: Commentators acknowledge that the first love from which the church at Ephesus departed is difficult to identify dogmatically. Is it possible that this first love was love and fellowship across ethnic divisions? Perhaps. But this is certainly not stated by in the text, and DeYmaz’ proposal that this is the first love simply on the grounds that it is the first quality for which the Ephesians are commended in Paul’s epistle to them is exegetically unsupported.

59-60: DeYmaz argues that churches should accommodate approaches to ministry and cultural expressions that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable to the ethnic majority. I agree that we should not assume from the start that either the majority or the minority cultural expressions are superior. But DeYmaz approach seems to assume that cultural expressions are neutral as media for communicating biblical truth. I do not accept that presupposition, and a faulty presupposition can have severely detrimental effects on churches that adopt expressions in an attempt to attract and accommodate groups. We must not compromise the clarity of the biblical message in an attempt to mold it into the shape of cultural expressions that may be incompatible with that truth. I believe DeYmaz is right to propose accommodation in the sense of not forcing others into our preferences, but wrong to assume that all forms are created equal.

71: DeYmaz builds many of his arguments on specific details nested in narrative texts. I think he often pushes the significance of these details too far, but other interpreters too often ignore the significance of these details. I think DeYmaz is correct to recognize the significance of the broad range of ethnicities present in the church at Antioch. So despite my disagreement with many of his conclusions, I don’t reject his approach categorically. In other words, I agree that Luke intended to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transcend ethnicity when he wrote about the multi-ethnic character of the church in Antioch. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that this is an example of choosing leaders based on their ethnicity. The presence of a broad range of ethnicities in the leadership may simply reflect the presence of a broad range of ethnicities in the membership.

71: DeYmaz suggests that Paul chose Timothy because of his multicultural heritage. Though it’s impossible to suggest this could not be true, the text simply does not affirm it. The reality is that of all the NT discussions of the qualifications for pastoral ministry, ethnic diversity is never offered as a decisive factor, or even a worthy consideration.

99: DeYmaz argues that the story of Ruth offers an example of cross-cultural competence (CCC). I think CCC is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think the message of Ruth is to pursue CCC. We find lots of examples of qualities and attitudes in Scripture that the text is not teaching us to imitate.

112: DeYmaz uses Philippians 2 to defend the neutrality of styles of worship, but there’s more to the conversation than that. Can all styles equally communicate truth about God, or is it possible that some styles are less equipped to do so? The discussion is not that simple. A blanket assertion that we should consider others’ interests above our own doesn’t trump that conversation. DeYmaz” argument overlooks the possibility that we may not serve the interests of an ethnic minority by appealing to its preferences. Of course, we must also remember that appealing to the preferences of the ethnic majority may be equally or even more contrary to its genuine interests.

Having said all that, I still recommend the book. Its central thesis is sound. Just read critically.


Kent Brandenburg said...

You gave it a fair review. No hatchet job. Thoughtful.

Coach C said...

I am curious about what you think of this quotation from Jason Janz' new work in downtown Denver.

"This value will be shown by the love that we have for each other as believers (Jn. 13:35). This testimony to an unbelieving world is the most powerful witness we can have. Regarding racial harmony, we will promote this in our ministry. We are committed to a multi-ethnic ministry which means we will have people from various ethnic groups on the leadership team. Also, our ministry style will reflect ethnic diversity."

Is racial harmony a byproduct of Christ-centered living or should physical diversity be a goal for the church? Specifically, when PBC states that "we will have people from various ethnic groups on the ministry team". Do the qualifications for leadership found in the NT include racial diversity?

Ben said...


Your first question sets up two alternatives that aren't mutually exclusive, in my opinion. I think the answer to both is yes, assuming that ethnic diversity is demographically possible. I some communities, it won't be simply because there's no ethnic diversity present.

Second, I don't think the qualifications for leadership in the NT include ethnic diversity. However, assuming PBC places biblically qualified people in leadership (without knowing what exactly their leadership team is), I think pursuing ethnic diversity is a reasonable factor to consider. It's a question of wisdom and prudence, not biblical mandate. I think most churches consider similar kinds of matters in raising up leadership.