The Church’s Multi-Ethnic Witness to a Watching World

In conjunction with the Telos collective, we are simultaneously publishing a post from Rev. Taylor Ishii.  Rev. Ishii was asked share his thoughts on the session that most impacted him. Here, the Rev. Taylor Ishii of Church of the Apostles reflects on the Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley’s session, Reclaiming Romans as a Missional Document for the Church. McCaulley is a scholar, author and speaker who serves as an assistant professor at Wheaton College’s School of Biblical and Theological Studies. McCaulley is also the executive director for the Anglican Multiethnic Network (A.M.E.N.). 

By the Rev. Taylor Ishii

Conversations about race are often in the headlines in our current American cultural moment. I use the word “conversations” loosely, as there is frequently more shouting from a particular position than considered words and careful listening.

In the midst of this cacophony, where is the voice of the Church?

In his talk at the 2019 Intersection Conference, Dr. Esau McCaulley argued that Scripture speaks clearly to matters of race and culture, because they are integrally related to the Gospel of Jesus that Paul proclaims in the book of Romans. Romans can sustain a vision for multi-ethnic churches precisely because the Gospel creates one people of God from the many nations of the world.

Leaning into his expertise as a New Testament scholar, McCaulley described the church in Rome as an ethnically and socio-economically diverse group full of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and wealthy Roman citizens. These factions threatened to split the church along ethnic lines. Paul’s letter was pastorally concerned with maintaining and sustaining a multi-ethnic church that worshipped Jesus as Lord together.

McCaulley explored four distinct movements in Romans. Here, I will summarize his key points and reflect on their implications for Anglican church leaders.

Movement 1: Recovering the Kingdom in preaching (Romans 1:1-17)

Key Points

Since the Reformation, most Protestant focus on the book of Romans has centered on Romans 1:16-17, Paul’s famous declaration that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of salvation through faith in Jesus for all. McCaulley drew our attention to the fact that in verses 1-5 of chapter 1, Paul describes the Gospel as consistent with God’s work revealed in King Jesus as the message of salvation for all the peoples of the world.

Implications for Anglican Church Leaders

According to McCaulley, a kingdom vision of the Gospel helps us see how “ethnic diversity is a manifestation of God’s sovereignty.” Because the kingdom of God is multi-ethnic and international, we cannot be content to view our churches as solely representing American ideals. We need each other to help tell the whole story of what God is at work doing in the world, in every people group.

As much as is humanly possible, given the demographics of our surrounding neighborhoods, our churches should reflect the kingdom of God. And when they don’t, are we willing to ask difficult questions about why that is not the case? More often than not, it’s because we haven’t put a value on being multi-ethnic.

Movement 2: Recovering Pauline anthropology and justification by faith (Romans 1-4)

Key Points

Paul lays out an analysis of the human condition, that we are all sinful, both Jew and Gentile. After Paul has humbled everyone, he recommends the gospel and its message of justification by faith in Jesus for all. The church then becomes the place where we are united in Christ.

But instead of a humility where every member sees their need for grace, churches can forget this Pauline truth when they assume the gospel is inherently connected to their cultural expression of it. This creates a sense of entitlement toward a certain experience of church (musically, culturally, etc.).

Implications for Anglican Church Leaders

It’s important to note we are not talking about the structure of the liturgy. The global witness of Anglican churches beautifully illustrates how cultures uniquely take on the heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. Pursuing multi-ethnicity means dying to the lie that our culture has the best or only embodiment of the gospel and liturgy. This might involve changes to create space for other cultures in what are often monocultured churches.

Pursuing multi-ethnicity means dying to the lie that our culture has the best or only embodiment of the gospel and liturgy.

As any church leader knows, such change will inevitably create opposition. How do we respond to “This doesn’t feel like my church”? Paul sets an example for us to glory in the salvation of people different from ourselves because it tells us something about the nature of God.

Movement 3: Recovering theology as a means of sustaining community (Romans 5-8)

Key Points

Are we communicating a big enough vision of the kingdom of God to sustain us through the misunderstanding on both sides that can happen when different cultures come together? Romans 5-8 is packed full of theology—a theology of baptism, spiritual transformation, and even suffering that we need to sustain the challenges of multi-ethnic churches. Paul intended every member of the church to understand this, not just the leaders.

Implications for Anglican Church Leaders

Being part of a multi-ethnic community is hard work. Humans by nature tend toward people who are like them, even in religious communities.In their seminal study on race and the American evangelical church, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found that even when white congregations understand the biblical importance of racial reconciliation, their vision is often limited to personal relationships with someone of a different race. Tackling larger issues of racialized injustice and inequality is often ignored.

However, “if white evangelicals were less racially isolated, they might assess race problems differently and, working in unison with others, apply their evangelical vigor to broader based solutions.”[1]  Shallow theological teaching inhibits these kinds of conversations and partnerships from happening.

Movement 4: Recovering apologetics and ethics for multi-ethnic church leaders (Romans 9-11; 12-15)

Key Points

When Paul talks about the relationship between Israel and the Church in Romans 9-11, this isn’t some irrelevant excursus. He is doing the theological work of creating a biblical case for maintaining a church that includes both Jew and Gentile. McCaulley challenged us to ask, “What is the hindrance to the gospel in my community?”

McCaulley challenged us to ask, “What is the hindrance to the gospel in my community?”

Implications for Anglican Church Leaders

Churches doing ministry amongst African Americans will need to be able to address the misuses of the Bible to promote slavery in American history. Churches ministering to immigrant communities need a nuanced understanding of immigration laws and the compassion to let them know that their passport status does not exclude them from God’s kingdom.

The inability to reconcile the teachings of Scripture with the lived-out witness of Christians leads many onlookers to level charges of hypocrisy at the Church. We’re called to demonstrate a Christian ethic, a lived Christian witness to Jesus, in an increasingly complex age. I thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts and change the destructive thoughts and patterns that alienate us from the message of the Gospel.

Counting the Cost of Witness

As McCaulley closed his talk, I was struck by the soberness of this picture of the multi-ethnic opportunity for the Church. Dr. McCaulley warned us that living out this vision is not the way to create instant church growth. But he also exhorted us, “You can never understand in your generation the long-term implications of faithfulness.”

Some church leaders have been wary to weigh in on race, cautious of attaching the Church to cultural trends. The Church, at its best, should be a witness to the world of the love of God for all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations. This isn’t just my personal hope, but the picture of heavenly worship we see in Revelation 7:9-12. The fact that many of our churches are far from this description should be a point of lamentation and prayer. Yes, our country has made strides toward healing our racial divisions and pain, but we have not yet arrived. In a nation that continues to become more and more ethnically diverse, our neighborhoods are not being reflected in our pews.

The Church, at its best, should be a witness to the world of the love of God for all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations. Click To Tweet

I am reminded of this through my work in an organization called Path to Peace, a network of Christians in Baldwin County, Alabama, committed to witnessing to racial reconciliation through the Church because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. I occupy an interesting space in the group as the only Asian-American who represents a predominantly white congregation yet is able to resonate with some of the realities of being a minority in America like my Black brothers and sisters. It is hard work where it feels like the laborers are few, but we know that we must press on together on account of the Gospel. However imperfect, we want to be a source of Christian unity for all people and nations in our community.

There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the collective minority groups in America will make up the majority. If every space in our community is ethnically diverse except the Church, what are we implicitly communicating about the Gospel?

If every space in our community is ethnically diverse except the Church, what are we implicitly communicating about the Gospel?

 

Part of being sacramental is affirming that embodiment matters. Do we just want ideals about reconciliation, or will we push toward concrete action, even at great cost? As Anglican churches seeking to preach and live the gospel with nuance in different cultural and ethnic locations, we must truly reckon with the reality of the Word made flesh in Jesus, who is reconciling the whole world, every nation, to himself.

Listen to Dr. Esau McCaulley’s full talk, “Reclaiming Romans as a Missional Document for the Church.”

Taylor Ishii grew up in Orange County, California and has served in churches in California, Texas, and now Alabama. He is passionate about equipping teenagers to learn Scripture, understand God’s call on their life, and serve both the church and the community in which they live, all while having fun and celebrating the lives God has graciously given us. Taylor was ordained a priest in 2016. He loves to watch and play soccer, read theology, and play board games. He is married to his wonderful wife Hillary, and they have a beautiful baby girl.

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