Biblical Model of Healthy Multi-Cultural Relationship

by Virgo Handojo, Pastor  ofJemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah, Sierra Madre, CA

One of the challenging tasks the children of God face today is how to build a healthy relationship within culturally diverse churches. A story of how the early church worked at this can be seen through the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-21.

Act 15: 1-2 shows some of the tensions in the culturally diverse early church as it says, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.”

The early church’s challenging task here is how they relate with the emergent church that has a different culture and tradition. The issue centers on the question of finding a balance between maintaining the ethnic identity, and acculturation identification with the dominant church as required by the Moses law through the circumcision ritual.

There is a tension between the Jerusalem church under James and Peter and the Gentile converts under Paul and Barnabas, between Jerusalem’s dominant group and the new emergent Antioch and Galatia churches. The core issue is the definition of Christian identity. The dominant church argued that the Gentile converts should be turned into good Jews under the Mosaic law before they were accorded full Christian-status. On the other hand, Paul and Barnabas hold an attitude that argues for the ethnic Gentile converts church.

Hypothetically, we can develop four different models of balancing ethnic identity and acculturation.  It depends on whether the demand of maintaining ethnic identity is strong or weak and whether the demand of identification with the dominant culture is strong or weak.

The church that adopted an assimilation model has a strong attitude toward acculturation, but is weak in maintaining their culture of origin. For them, “You live in America, you have to be American.”

A Separatists church will have a strong ethnic identity but be weak in acculturation. For an Indonesian church, Indonesian is first. “I am betraying my cultural identity if I join the US Mennonite church. The US Indonesian church should be tied only to the Indonesian church in Indonesia.”

The marginalized church will choose to be independent. They have both weak ethnic identity and acculturation. For them, “God built our church here; we should be independent from anybody.”

A Bicultural church will choose to have strong ties both to their ethnicity and to the dominant culture. “I am proud to be Indonesian, but we need to learn and relate with the US church.”

Interestingly, in Acts God led the early church to choose the Bicultural or salad-bowl model as an ideal relationship for the early church (Acts 15:13-19). The Gentile convert church intentionally rejected the circumcision required by the Law of Moses in order to maintain their own identity. But they also chose to build strong ties with the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:20). Each group maintains their identity and uniqueness, but they also intentionally build strong ties with each other.

I believe we should adopt the Biblical ideal model as a public policy to build a healthy relationship with emergent churches, allowing us all to maintain our identities while also building relationships with one another that we may learn from each other.