This article was first published in the e-journal Missio Dei. That journal’s web-site has unfortunately been taken down temporarily while it recovers from a malware attack. In the meantime, I’m making this piece available here.

Of Grant and Judy

We live, in the greater Toronto area, at the centre of the world’s most diverse meeting of cultures. Confronted with this flood of unfamiliar faces, those of us whose families have been here a bit longer often slide into one of two reactions. On the one hand, there is Grant. He sits at Tim Hortons, in the same seat he has occupied every Saturday morning for the last three decades. On this particular morning, though, he suddenly realizes that no one around him is speaking English. With a rush of inner vertigo his perspective shifts. He Image result for middle aged man drinking coffeesees himself as the outsider in his own neighbourhood. He cannot understand what the people beside him are saying. He cannot share the joke that just passed between the slight Asian man in front of the till and the middle-aged woman behind it. It is as if he came home and found that a stranger had moved into his bedroom. As he drinks his double-double, he settles into bitter resentment that these people keep coming here and not having the respect to even speak the language!

Others of us are more like Judy. On that same morning she is listening to CBC news. It seems a Muslim woman has been ordered by a judge to remove the veil from her face in court. Canadian law, explains the commentator, has always required that the defendant be able to see his accuser’s face. The man is charged with raping her, but it is not the concern for an accused rapist’s rights that bothers Judy. After all, he has not been convicted yet. No, her thought is “How ethnocentric!” Can the judge not see that those laws were made for a different time, when Canada was a monocultural ghetto for white Europeans? Judy is serenely confident, though, that the supreme court will strike down the judge’s ruling and the woman will not have the values of Christian Europe shoved down her throat. As the news moves on to another story she is barely aware of the sweet little surge of superiority that curls the corner of her lips into a condescending smile.

In truth, most of us probably have a little of both Grant and Judy in us. Living in Malvern, a working-class area of East Scarborough, I easily slide into a smug sense of superiority that I’m not as “backward” as the people in those “pure white” towns beyond the GTA. Nine out of ten people in our corner of the city are first generation arrivals to Canada. Most have come either from the Carribbean Islands or the Indian sub-continent. Here my wife and I, both Caucasians, are the visible minority! People stare in the supermarket at my daughter’s blond hair. After six months in Malvern we were passing through a Barry McDonalds and our three year old piped up: “Daddy! Why are there are so many white people here!” Even as I hushed her I savoured a glow of satisfaction that we had embraced such a multi-cultural neighbourhood.

Yet I’m also not quite so blissfully tolerant when some of those other cultures impinge on my life. My kids are not getting the same experiences that defined my childhood because their friends—the children of new arrivals—are being raised with a different set of rules. My Saturdays were spent wandering the neighbourhood with my friends or catching crayfish in the park a half-mile from our house. Weekends were dominated by regular sleepovers at my friends’ houses. But most of the parents in our neighbourhood keep their kids on a much shorter leash. Some of them are never allowed outside to play at all, or they cannot eat at our house because their parents do not trust us to cook Halal food. If I’m honest, I grieve for my kids’ lost experiences just as much as Grant grieves for his lost Tim Hortons. And once the first flush of multi-cultural pride is past, I discover that it is hard making friends across cultures. Some of those new neighbours are not so enthusiastic about getting to know me. All the social cues are off and all too often I end up wondering what I’ve said wrong. I very easily find myself sounding like Grant: “What about my culture! Don’t I get to preserve that?”

The Apostle Paul in Malvern

What does it mean to follow Jesus in this increasingly chaotic landscape? Where does culture and cultural diversity fit in the Kingdom of God? Or is it just a neutral fact of life to be “managed” by a Christian the same way it is by anyone else?

The Apostle Paul may seem like an unlikely figure to help us here. We have to remember, though, that he grew up in a city that was not so different from ours. Paul himself was a visible minority in his native Tarsus, on the south coast of what is now Turkey. Growing up in the Judean quarter He was part of a sizable ethnic sub-culture, likely a child or grandchild of immigrants. Tarsus was a pearl of Hellenistic society, home to Greek philosophers and poets and playwrights. But Paul’s family brought with them a different language (Aramaic) and a determination to hold on to their traditional way of life. Related imageNor were Jews the only group crowding into Tarsus and other cities like it. Egyptians, Syrians, Africans, Italians and Parthians all gained a little foothold. Each group tried to keep their own identity and distinctness intact by forming clubs where they could meet, sing their own songs, speak their own language, and worship their own gods. The whole Roman Empire was the scene of large-scale migrations in search of work and a better life, much like the streams of the frightened and unemployed that today flow into Europe and North America.

Maybe it is not so surprising, then, that the problem of cultural diversity was at the centre of Paul’s mission. He understood himself as “Apostle to the Gentiles.” That term “Gentiles” simply means “non-Jews,” anyone from “the nations” outside Judea or Galilee. Paul’s mission was to announce that God’s rescue in Christ was for them too! Paul explains in Galatians 3:28 that the old ethnic boundaries are coming down: “There is no longer Jew or Greek . . . for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This may sound wonderful to us (especially since most of us are Gentiles!) but it was shocking and heretical to Paul’s fellow Jews. They were God’s chosen people, priests to the rest of the world! Was the whole point of God’s plan not that the nations would come and join them as Jews? Instead, Paul insisted that God was welcoming the nations into this Kingdom without leaving their cultural identity behind. The boundaries of God’s people would no longer be the boundaries of one cultural group. They would all become, in Christ, heirs of Israel’s first father Abraham (Gal 3:6-14).

Why did Paul come to this conclusion? In part it was probably because he read the prophets. He quotes heavily in his letters from the latter parts of Isaiah. He knew very well the prophet’s announcement that faithful Gentiles would stream up to Jerusalem at the dawn of God’s restored Kingdom:

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD and to worship him . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. (Isa 56:6-7)

In Isaiah’s renewed Jerusalem some Gentiles even serve as priests and Levites in the temple. It is not clear in these oracles whether the faithful Gentiles are to become proselytes and be absorbed into Israel. Paul, though, clearly did not think they would become Jews. Rather, these worshipers from the nations would retain their diverse identities as Babylonians and Egyptians and Ionians and Carthaginians (Isa 66:19-21). The prophet’s message was, for Paul, that God would reunite humanity, undoing the scattering that had happened at Babel. Or maybe “undoing” is the wrong word to use. God was not simply going to re-boot human society as if Genesis 11 had never happened. God’s kingdom would be richer now because the ethnic diversity of the fallen world would be retained, the many cultural strands woven into a harmonious human fabric.

The other key factor in Paul’s multicultural vision was his belief that God’s final restoration had already begun. When the Apostle met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he became convinced that God’s Kingdom had dawned and that the churches were called to be a foretaste of the full renewal to come. “For if anyone is in Christ, that’s the new creation happening!” (2 Cor 5:17, my translation). Just as Isaiah depicted so clearly, this would mean that Jesus’ followers were now to welcome Gentiles into the “temple” that was the Christian community. The believers were to be a living example of the new, diverse and yet harmonious human society that God was moving to create in Christ. As far as they were concerned, then, there should now be neither Jew nor Gentile. God did not make the distinction any longer, so neither should they!

What did this mean in practice for life in Paul’s churches? Amid the immigration and cultural variety of Ephesus or Corinth, would Paul side with Grant or with Judy? The answer, I think, is that he would side with neither. Why? Because both embody attitudes that fall short of Christ’s new way of life, attitudes that will never allow the eschatological unity of all peoples to become a reality.

Cultural Dominance and the Cross

There are at least three challenges that Paul’s theology of culture poses to both Grant and Judy, and to all of us as well. The first is that we must give up our own culture. It is not that Paul wants our culture to be lost entirely. But he calls us to accept that when we welcome the “Gentiles” our own way of living will no longer form the framework for our public life and private relationships. This is not because we do not have a right to preserve the dominance of our own culture. It is because the question of rights is the wrong question to ask. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul tried to convey to the Corinthian believers that Christ had given us a new way of living that focused not on our own privilege, not on what we could claim, but on what we could give away to make our brothers and sisters stronger. As an example of living out the cross Paul said “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . To the weak I became weak” (1 Cor 9:19-23). He gave up the safety and comfort of his own Jewish way of life, not because he had to, but because that sacrifice would help open the door for Christ’s grace and strength to come to others.

So in Paul’s home base at Antioch, he and the rest of the Jews learned to “Gentilize,” to live as if they were foreigners. Why? Because the alternatives were either to split the church into separate ethnic branches or to make the Gentiles adopt a Jewish cultural identity. Paul vehemently refused to do either (Gal 2:11-14). God’s eschatological purpose is, in the Apostle’s understanding, neither to create a homogeneous people nor to create a set of separate peoples. The divine mission is about the creation of one new people of God that includes within it “all nations.” So, though Paul had been “Hebrew of Hebrews” he set aside his own cultural tradition and ate side by side with Gentiles from a table laden with unclean food.

That Antioch situation highlights the fact that this voluntary cultural sacrifice is especially necessary for the group that holds the cultural upper hand in a given time and place. Within any city there is always one group whose culture is easily mistaken for the universal norm, for Christianity itself. In the Jewish quarter of Antioch it was Judaism that held this “default” position. So it was necessary, in Paul’s view, for him and his fellow Jews to adopt Greek and Syrian ways of doing things. It was a matter of deliberately creating the space in Paul’s communities where Gentiles could be Gentiles for Christ, without feeling the tacit assumption that acting like a Jew was better.

In the context of southern Ontario, it is the culture English-speaking former Brits that is the default. Just walk into the average Caucasian church service and notice that all of the music was written in North America and Europe (or maybe Australia). Notice that we refer to communities of Thai or Filipino or Nigerian or Latin American believers as “ethnic” churches, as if the British were not just one more ethnic group. And notice, if we take our place in one of those congregations, how much of their music is a translation of hymns by Charles Wesley or songs by Brian Doerkson. There is good historical reason for the dominance of English-American culture in the churches of the GTA. After all, many of those churches in Thailand or the Philippines or Columbia were founded by North American or British missionaries. Likewise, it was understandable that Judaism was the default in Paul’s context, since God had used Israel as the vehicle of his revelation in Christ. Paul, though, would invite those of us who call British-American culture our own to give up our cultural rights. He would invite us to create a deliberately non-British, non-American space in our own communities where the nations can join our common life without becoming like us. We are called to “Nigeri-ize” or “Thailand-ize” or “Filipin-ize” so that the nations can join us without thinking they must “Britain-ize” or “American-ize.” And to the extent that newer groups (like, say, the Cantonese-speaking community from Hong Kong) become firmly established in the GTA, they too will need to hear this call to cultural sacrifice in order to make space for still other “nations” (like, say, the Mandarin-speakers from the Chinese mainland).

This cultural sacrifice is neither easy nor fair. We must not romanticize it. We are talking about a choice that is more costly than merely cooking with curry and listening to “world music.” This surrender of our cultural dominance, though, is one way in which we take up our cross to follow Jesus in his mission. It is one way in which we become a sign and foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

The Gifts of the Nations

For the Apostle to the Gentiles, though, the unity of Jew and Gentile involved much more than just exchanging outward cultural trappings. Paul’s life and work side-by-side with Syrians and Greeks and Romans brought him to a deeper grasp of his own relationship with God as a Jew. He did not merely “act like a Gentile” sometimes. Certainly, he learned to use their language, ate their exotic foods, and sang their unfamiliar songs. Yet it was also through his experiences with these foreign believers that Paul’s understanding of Israel’s covenant was profoundly changed. He may have known from that first day on the Damascus road that he was called to go and invite the Gentiles. It was not until he had lived with them, though, that Paul realized the Old Testament law was no longer binding even on Jews. When he needs to remind the Galatians of this new divine economy, Paul does not point them to the Scriptures. He points them to their own unique experiences: “I only want to know one thing from you—how did you receive the Spirit? Was it by doing what the law requires or by trusting what you heard?” (Gal 3:2). It was as he saw them worship together, as he watched them seized with ecstatic experiences of the Spirit, that Paul seems to have come to a new understanding of Israel’s law. It was through these Gentiles that God taught their Apostle what it meant to be a faithful Jew!

Paul’s example invites us, by analogy, to expect that our own faith will be transformed when the nations learn to live and work together. Our tendency in evangelical circles is to view culture as the outward “clothing” for the unchanging essence of the Gospel. What we often overlook, though, is that the supposed “culture-less” kernel of Christianity may in fact be shaped by our own cultural biases and blinders. There is a danger here that our apparent openness to cultural diversity in the church can mask a hidden (and so more powerful) bias in favour of our own cultural expressions. Looking back on the missionary visits to my childhood church, I can see now that we never expected our own faith to be transformed by the “recipients” of our good works. We would enjoy seeing white North Americans dressed up in Nigerian batik. We might wrap our tongues around the strange words of a Bantu worship song. But this was a game of “dress-up.” We would take off the foreign clothes again and nothing about our own understanding of the Gospel would be changed.

There is no reason for us to expect, though, that the gifts of the nations were all spent in Paul’s day. On the contrary, he encourages us to expect that our own grasp of the Gospel itself will be changed when we make space for other nations to live and worship alongside us. He invites us to see in the diverse cultures around us much more than an entertaining variety of tastes and colours and sounds. Paul invites us, instead, to expect that the nations will open up for us new dimensions of understanding Christ’s mission. This is, again, not an easy process. Paul’s insights about the law tore many first-century churches apart with fierce controversy. The problem is that we can never know ahead of time what God will bring us through our encounter with a new culture. We will only learn over years of life together what layers of our own faith are actually cultural “clothing” that has caught and bound us as we tried to join in God’s mission. There is a real risk here. We will undoubtedly go through stages of conflict and anxiety about how exactly God wants to change our hearts and souls through our inter-cultural relationships. If Paul’s example is any indication, though, we will only discover the shape of God’s mission, of our own calling, as we engage in this risky openness to the nations’ transforming presence among us.

The Redemption of All Cultures

At the same time, Paul also teaches us to be critical of all culture. This is the creative tension that secular pluralism constantly misses. Where Judy leaps uncritically to endorse a Muslim woman’s right to wear her veil in court, we need to ask some questions. Does the veiling of women perpetuate the view that women are property to be protected, or that men are unable to control desire? Canadian multiculturalism tends to say that culture–any culture–is inherently good. Any change in other cultures is a moral evil. So Christian missionaries are often criticized for “polluting” indigenous cultures from Brazil to Mongolia. Even in the secular discussion, though, this uncritical openness becomes unworkable at some point. We run into moral quandaries in development work when our notions of “development” conflict with local culture. Is the traditional mutilation of young girls in North Africa a “cultural expression” or simple abuse? Was our criticism of atrocities in the former Burma a crusade for justice or our imposition of our own cultural norms of human rights?

Paul, by contrast, assumes that all cultures are fallen. They can all be catalysts for the deepening of our grasp of God’s mission, but they will also include elements at odds with God’s Kingdom. Hence Paul had to push the Corinthians to be more critical of both the cultures that shaped their mixed community: “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22-23). In each of these cultural circles the Corinthians should expect to find dimensions that need to be subverted by God’s reign. To be sure, I need to be vigilant about the anti-Christian materialism and hedonism that pervade the culture of my birth. In a similar way, though, the concern with “face” and reputation in Chinese culture can conflict with Paul’s insistence on humility or Jesus’ call to emulate the powerlessness of a child. So even as we welcome one another, we need to talk frankly about what dimensions of each culture God may want to subvert.

The challenge is to be so immersed in the values of the Kingdom that we can recognize what genuinely opposes it. We are not looking just for what makes us uncomfortable, what feels impious or “unspiritual.” Neither are we criticizing the other nations from some position of cultural superiority. We are together allowing our cultural diversity to expose the ways in which all of our native cultures frustrate the biblical vision of God’s restored Creation.

God’s Cultural Mission

What Paul helps us to see is that God’s mission in our world and our community is a cultural mission. Cultural diversity is not neutral. It plays a central part in his work to re-make our disjointed cosmos. God is gathering a people from every language, ethnicity, and nation. Just like Paul, our role in that mission will require taking up at least three challenges:

  1. to give up the security of our own culture, especially when we are in a position of cultural dominance;
  2. to allow the multi-cultural life of our churches to transform our own faith; and
  3. to reflect critically on how God wants to subvert the fallen aspects of all our cultures.

These tasks are only possible, of course, when we begin to share our lives and our worship with our new neighbours. For those of us in Euro-centric Canadian churches, the initial challenge is to ask “how can we create a community the nations want to join?” We will not become diverse communities simply because we have changed our attitudes. It will also require deliberate action, finding ways to welcome these neighbours into our homes and into our church. Paul shows us that this is not merely another ministry, a niche activity to be labelled “ethnic outreach.” This cross-cultural hospitality is central to our being a sign and foretaste of God’s Kingdom, a new people in which there is no “Jew or Gentile,” European or African, Tamil or Mandarin, Filipino or Latin American, Mennonite or Russian Orthodox or Brazilian Pentecostal . . . “for all of us are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

One thought on “Paul and God’s Multicultural Mission

  1. Came to your article as a student of Tyndale in the Gospel, Church and Culture course. I had to say how relatable it was for me as a white child in one of those backwards towns to move to Malvern, where I was one of four white students of about 70 grade 7 students. It was the BEST experience to learn about the existence of other countries, food, and ethnicities. Just loved this. I’ve never connected my experience to Paul, but I do like that you helped me do that. Thanks 🙂


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