Interesting thing about the elder board at Antioch church: it was ethnically and economically diverse.
- Barnabas; (Acts 4:36) “son of encouragement”; priestly tribe, Cyprus; landowner
- Simeon who was called Niger; Jewish name, apparently with nickname (Latin) meaning “black.” Child of mixed marriage? (Jewish father, African mother?)
- Lucius of Cyrene; Roman name (upbringing) from city in Libya (No.African)
- Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch; possibly foster-brother; Jewish name; associated with a despised, despotic ruling family; exposed to wealth.
- Saul; well educated Jewish lawyer. Vicious persecutor of the church; excellent teacher
In other words, the Antioch church became a church that only the Spirit of God could have imagined! For the whole story and what we can learn from it, click here.
Intercultural unity — when people of different cultures fellowship deeply together in unity — is good for the health of the Christian community. Let me share some of my thinking:
- Intercultural unity can expose unhealthy ways in which our culture can become one and the same with our faith — as if there is no other valid way of worship that pleases God other than our way.
- Intercultural unity can expose ethnocentrism, a cultural arrogance that assumes our way is the right way.
- Intercultural unity can expose syncretism, the merging of absolute truth with optional cultural practices.
This is what the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) accomplished. The Jewish leaders, under direction of the Holy Spirit an at the uncomfortable assistance of those ministering to Gentiles, realized that their customs were not essential for pleasing God.
When you think of all that the Jewish leaders laid down at the foot of the cross, and what little they retained, you have to admire their sacrificial obedience. But what a benefit for the kingdom of God! Their gracious conclusion (Acts 15:28-29) unleashed exponential growth among the Gentiles for centuries to come.
But the tipping point had to come. The weight of Gentile acceptance of the gospel had to, at some point, overpower culturally Jewish dominance of the Way. So it was to their credit that the pillars of the Jerusalem church saw the inevitability of change and cooperated with the Spirit’s new wine skins.
Such changes have continually happened ever since, and in our day the rising tide of immigration is pressuring the dominant church to yield. If leaders will take a lesson from Peter and James, we will see what the Spirit is doing in our generation, one in which no ethnic group will hold a majority, one in which people from all nations now call the U.S. home.
Like the founding Jewish apostles, we can view this as an opportunity to be seized. Rather than retrenching in the fortress of cultural Christianity, we can take an honest look at our syncretism and take gradual but courageous steps to pare down the things that are “essential” and welcome into the fold a broad spectrum of expressions of following Jesus.