A Short Review of United By Faith

DeYoung, Emerson, Yancey, and Kim’s book United by Faith defends the thesis that “Christian congregations, when possible, should be multiracial” (p. 5). UnitedByFaithThe authors devote several chapters to the history of multiculturalism within the church: its origins in the New Testament, its disappearance in the U.S. as a result of slavery and racism, and its reemergence in recent decades. The authors then answer the most common objections to multiracial congregations, posed from both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ perspectives, and provide practical steps for churches who want to become multiracial (which the authors define as “no one racial group constituting more than 80% of the membership”).

– The chapter on the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. was heartbreaking and appalling, especially as it applies to professing Christians who are -in theory- committed to loving other Christians as family. Reading of Native American Christians who left their lands to “keep peace with white farmers” and who where then scalped and burned while they “did not resist but rather sang hymns and offered prayers to God” (p. 100) or of the “approximately forty thousand ministers [who] were members of the Ku Klux Klan” (p. 60) will never fail to horrify me.

– Chapter 1 and 2 did a good job of showing the precedent for multicultural congregations in the Bible. The example of both Jews and Gentiles sharing the same church was familiar to me, but I hadn’t considered the cultural differences among Jewish Christians within the early church: Hebrews versus Hellenists, and Jews from Jerusalem versus Galilee (p. 22-23).

– The authors list three common sense exceptions to their thesis about the necessity of multiracial churches: first, in monoracial areas, there is no problem with churches being monoracial, although they should not neglect to teach the non-negotiable biblical truth of all Christians’ unity in Christ. Second, where there is no common language, churches can be monoracial. Obviously, there are serious logistical problems with demanding that churches conduct their services in all of the languages spoken in a given area. Finally, they suggest that churches may want to accommodate first-generation immigrants, who have a hard enough time adjusting to their new country’s majority culture without forcing them to accommodate to two or three other cultures as well. I might add one more tentative exception, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

– The four practical steps towards multiracial congregations are excellent: 1) multicultural worship styles 2) multicultural leadership 3) intentionality and 4) adaptability.

– Amazing gem of a quote from Malcolm X before and after his conversion to Islam.

– Occasionally, the book seems to read ‘multiculturalism’ into biblical narratives where it isn’t the main point of the narrative. For example, Peter’s withdrawal from non-Gentiles in Gal. 2:11-14 is *not* primarily about multiculturalism; it is about the nature of the law. And Paul’s stunning rebuke of Peter is not a defense of multiculturalism per se; it is about the nature of the gospel. This is a very serious point because it is the distinction of law versus gospel that is the *basis* for Paul’s insistence that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. If we invert this argument to place the emphasis on multiculturalism, we risk losing its theological rationale.

– The book does not provide a detailed discussion of when and to what degree cultures need to be reformed, at times verging on cultural relativism. For example, the authors talk about how cultural assimilation “murders the group [by] silencing its worldview, … its rich history, collective memory, and methods of religious belief and practice” (p. 116-117). The difficulty is that the Bible offers its own worldview and set of religious beliefs and practices. While we are absolutely free to retain any and all components of our culture which do not conflict with Christianity, we are not free to maintain any component of our culture’s “religious beliefs and practices” if they conflict with God’s commands.

– A minor concern I had was the biblical mandate for a multiracial church. I’m in full agreement that a multiracial congregation is a tremendously important Christian witness in a racially and culturally divided society. However, there isn’t a specific command in the Bible to have a multiracial church, which is why the authors can’t point to Scripture to ground their specific recommendations (why 80% and not 75%? Why three exceptions and not five?). While I think we can and should affirm the desireability of a multiracial church, particularly in our society, it’s difficult to argue that it’s biblically mandated such that non-multiethnic churches are sinning.

– My main objection is related to the last point: how do we balance the desire for a multiracial congregation with other concerns, particularly those that are mandated by the Bible? For example, it is a biblical requirement that elders must be able to teach. But what if two candidates are available for eldership in a Filipino church (one of the authors’ examples): a Filipino who is a good teacher or a Hispanic man who is only an average teacher? Or imagine that there were a sudden influx of the majority ethnic group into the church. Should we pull back on evangelism within that ethnic group to retain the multiracial character of the church? Obviously not. The authors don’t wrestle with the tension between our desire for a multiracial congregation and the Bible’s mandates.

– So I might add a fourth exception: multiracialism should be pursued to the extent that it does not unavoidably conflict with the church’s other duties. (I add ‘unavdoidably’ to keep people from invoking this exception as a lazy excuse to not pursue multiracialism.) You could plausibly argue that this exception subsumes the authors’ other three.

This was an excellent book and a great companion to Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith. It provides a good historical overview of racial segregation in the church, a theological justification for multiracial congregations, and practical advice for promoting diversity. My major concern was that it fails to address the important consideration of how to weigh a multiracial congregation (which is highly desirable, but not a biblical mandate) with other factors which are biblical mandates.

Personal thought: the resistance to multicultural congregations comes, at least in part, from Christians lack of charity and poor ecclesiology. We should always be ready to give up our ‘comfort’ for the sake of the gospel.

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