The Need for a Comprehensive “Theology of Diversity”

The Need for a Comprehensive “Theology of Diversity” March 29, 2017

Today we welcome back H. Paul Thompson, Jr., Dean of the College of Humanities and Professor of History at North Greenville University. After writing about the 2016 election(s) earlier this month, today Paul calls for a “comprehensive theology of diversity.”

H. Paul ThompsonLiving in geographically and demographically different parts of the country and being biracial has taught me to appreciate the importance of diversity, especially in the Body of Christ. Diversity is a critically important issue for the evangelical Church to come to terms with, for as biblical scholar Frank Chan argues:

A church that does not know how to speak intelligently about, say, the existence of multiple perspectives, or the struggles of a minority culture within a dominant culture, or the polarization of competing people groups within a society will be ill-equipped to take leadership in the twenty-first century.

To the extent that church leaders and theologians address diversity, they are primarily addressing racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity. A simple Google search for the phrase “theology of diversity” supports this point, but even more, it suggests that the bulk of the writing on this subject has occurred in the last twenty years. By the nineties, however, large segments of secular society had already embraced various rationales to support the legitimacy, if not desirability, of intentional racial and ethnic diversity in all sorts of organizations.

Unfortunately, from the sixties to the nineties evangelicals failed to offer an intentionally unified, consistent, comprehensive, biblically-grounded, and public defense of racial and ethnic diversity. Truth be told, we need more than that. We need a “comprehensive theology of diversity” that embraces diversity, writ large, as a positive good.

When the apostle Paul declares that for those “in Christ” “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28), he is obviously presuming racial and ethnic diversity. But when he goes on to say that there is “neither slave nor free,” he is making a clear reference to different social statuses, or, more importantly, if I may, a reference to socially, culturally, and legally sanctioned unequal power relations. Paul goes on to say that in Christ there is “neither male nor female.” In just this one passage Paul presumes that the body of Christ is diverse in at least three different categories, and then asserts a radical egalitarianism within the Body of Christ.

But wait, there’s more! In Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12 Paul discusses the diversity of the gifts that the Spirit gives to, and manifests through, members of the Church. So, for starters, a “comprehensive” theology of diversity would articulate the inherent value of diversity in the Church in at least four areas. Anything less does an injustice to the full counsel of Scripture.

More importantly, beginning with the mystery of the Godhead itself, we see modeled one of the most desperately needed characteristics in America today, namely “unity in diversity.” Diversity is one thing, but the church is uniquely positioned, and according to Jesus’s high priestly prayer, uniquely empowered, to model “unity in diversity” before a fallen world. He said He gave his disciples the “same glory” that He and the Father shared “that they may be one just as We are one” (John 17:22). Paul went to great lengths to articulate the inherent interconnectedness and interdependence that exists among the diversity of gifts within the body of Christ. James condemned treating one group of people more favorably than another (Jas 2:1-13). Sadly, despite this truth, in the 1960s and 1970s secular society was not able to look to the evangelical church to see how diversity operates in a unified, harmonious manner.

People love to criticize the mono-racial local church, but where is the critique of the multi-cultural congregation that is all middle-class? We need to grieve just as much over the blind spots, unchallenged prejudices, and cultural shortcomings exhibited by socially homogeneous churches as we do over racially homogeneous churches. Many of the same challenges plague racially and culturally homogeneous Christian schools.

It is instructive to note that by the nineties secularists were beginning to employ their non-religious diversity rationales to expand LGBT rights. The evangelical church scrambled to respond, but secularists set the terms of the discussion in a way that might not have happened had we already settled on a clear, comprehensive Bible-based approach to diversity. In the eighties we successfully demanded to be called pro-life, not anti-abortion. It’s possible that because we were still working out our theology of racial diversity in the nineties, and later, that we missed an opportunity to focus our resources to effectively replicate that older semantic victory in the LGBT debate by insisting on the use of a more theologically astute phrase such as “same-gender attracted.” Sadly, secularists have won that battle in the public sphere.

We are shortchanging God’s kingdom when our institutions lack diversity, for even social science research is now demonstrating that homogeneous groups are “less creative and insightful than diverse ones,” and that diverse groups generate “better” answers to problems. More importantly, God calls and empowers us to demonstrate to the world a unity in diversity that it should only be able to dream about, but we blithely fall way too far short of our high calling. Oh that Christians would be as committed to diversity as God is!

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