This post is the basis for a shorter edited version written for World Vision Canada’s Beyond the Welcome tool kit, a project designed to help Canadian churches open themselves up to new immigrants in their communities.
Here’s the question I want to answer in this post: Why is integrating new immigrants into the local church community biblically and theologically important? For the sake of brevity, I will focus on lessons we can learn from the early Christian church as recorded in the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts, in answering this question.
The Great Commission: “To All Nations”
The Great Commission in Matthew 28 explicitly makes the point that the disciples are to “make [new] disciples of all nations” (v. 19 NIV). The Greek word for “nations” is ethne, the plural of ethnos from where the English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity” are derived. Thus, the Great Commission has more than simply political nations in mind. Similarly, Luke records the risen Jesus as commanding that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). The Great Commission, therefore, is actually a cross-cultural commission! Jesus is commanding a group of mono-cultural Jewish disciples to make disciples of all ethnicities. This cross-cultural aspect is even more prominent if we consider how “all nations” is often a short-hand in Judaism for “Gentiles”. Cross-cultural ministry, therefore, is not optional. It is in the very DNA, so to speak, of Christ’s mission to his church. From its onset, God’s vision for the church is that of Revelation 7:9, where a great multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language” will stand before the throne and the Lamb.
Reaching out cross-culturally to recent immigrants who are often culturally different and integrating them into the local church community is intrinsic, not foreign, to the local church’s fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission.
The early church, however, had to struggle initially with obeying this cross-cultural commission to preach to Gentiles, as seen in Acts. But Luke, the author of Acts, himself a Gentile convert, highlighted God’s interventions in the conversions of the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25), the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40), and of Cornelius (Acts 10) to make the point that God wants his church community to be a diverse community. In Luke’s narrative, it was God who pushed the cross-cultural agenda, so to speak, onto the Jewish Christian disciples.
Dealing with Diversity in the Early Church: Hellenist Widows
An ethnically diverse community has its challenges and tensions, and the early church was certainly not free from them. In Acts 6, the first sign of cultural tensions arose when “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Who were these Hellenists? Biblical scholars do not have a consensus on their identity. Some think they were Greek-speaking Palestinian Jews but this is unlikely as most Palestinian Jews were already bilingual (Greek and Aramaic). The most likely proposal is that Luke was referring to Diaspora Jews who were part of the Diaspora throughout the Roman Empire, like the ones in Acts 2 – pilgrims to Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5; also see Acts 2:9-11). These Diaspora Jews were more influenced by the Greco-Roman culture, thus, Hellenistic Jews. “Because it was considered virtuous to be buried in the land of Israel, many foreign Jews would come to spend their last days there, then die and leave widows. … Thus a disproportionate number of foreign Jewish widows lived in Jerusalem, which did not have enough foreign Jewish synagogues [see Acts 6:9, Synagogue of the Freedmen is a synagogue for Jews descended from former Roman slaves] for their distributors of charity to supply all the widows adequately. This urban social problem of Jerusalem spilled over into the church.” (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1993, p. 338) These Hellenists and their widows were, in modern day terms, immigrants to Jerusalem, and are a cultural subgroup within the Jewish community. So, we see that the early Jerusalem church included both Palestinian-born Jews and immigrant Hellenist Jews.
The apostles heard and remedied the injustice occurring in the neglect of the Hellenist widows. They instructed the church to elect seven leaders to supervise the food distribution process. The fact that all seven who were elected had Greek names, and one was even specifically identified as a Gentile convert to Judaism, “Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5), means that the entire food distribution process to both Hebrews and Hellenists was given over to the immigrant Hellenist’s leadership. This almost seems like an early form of “affirmative action”! It was an amazing act of redistributing power and of affirming and empowering the immigrant Hellenist’s gifts and leadership.
In this early case history of a cultural tension between an established majority subgroup and an immigrant minority subgroup within the early church, we see the apostles choosing the path of change – of creating a new leadership structure – and of empowering the immigrant subgroup’s ability to exercise their gifts and leadership in the church. In other words, the apostles did not choose to maintain status quo nor pushback on diversity but chose to push further forward into integrating the subgroup into the structure and leadership of the early church.
Dealing with Diversity in the Early Church: The Jerusalem Council
As the number of Gentile Christians grew, especially with Paul’s missionary efforts, further tensions rose within the early church. In Acts 15, the issue of whether Gentile Christians need to keep the Mosaic Law, or in other words take on Jewish culture, in order to be saved was debated in a council in Jerusalem. Peter argued that God “has made no distinction between them [i.e. Gentiles] and us [Jews]” (Acts 15:9). The council concluded that it was not necessary for the Gentiles to become Jewish – to be circumcised especially – in order to become Christians and full members of the church on equal terms with Jewish circumcised Christians. This decision clearly shows that the early church leadership chose to affirm cultural diversity over uniformity.
Worthy of note is that in a milieu where specialized ethnic/class religious communities were relatively common, the early church did not consider segregated congregations as an option. We saw in Acts 6:9 that early Judaism practiced segregated congregations – a synagogue of the Freedmen for Jews descended from Roman slaves. And Luke identified the opposing members as “Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia” (Acts 6:9), all regions outside of Palestine, suggesting that these were immigrant Diaspora Jews or their descendents. Therefore, the concept of a separate religious community for a specific cultural or ethnic group was not foreign to the early church apostles and leaders.
But in the discussions in the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15, the idea of ethnically segregated churches – one for Jews and one for Gentiles – was never an option on the table! The choice was always and only between assimilating Gentile Christians into Jewish customs/rites or accepting them as they were into the one local church community.
In summary, the early Church’s dealings with cross-cultural issues always fall on the side of affirming a multicultural community or of diversity over uniformity. Marginalized cultural subgroups were empowered into leadership roles. Excluded Gentiles were included into the Christian community, without them having to lose their cultural identities.
In connection with the new immigrant question, we find that:
- Reaching out to welcome and integrate new immigrants into the local church community is integral, not an add-on option, to the local church’s cross-cultural mission of making disciples from all nations.
- Embracing positive change by creating new structures and redistributing power to combat injustice, and by affirming and recognizing the gifts and leadership of new immigrants are strategies that have early apostolic church and biblical precedence.
- The early apostolic church’s vision of the local church was one of an inter-cultural community, rather than separate local churches serving mono-cultural communities. Hence, an inter-cultural local church welcoming and integrating recent immigrants from diverse cultures is a more biblical vision of church than a host of ethnic specific immigrant churches reaching out to their respective immigrant communities.