The foundation of genuine community part 1

The foundation of genuine community (part 1 of 2)

While studying for a master’s degree, I took a class designed to teach those in ministry how to grow in personal spirituality. One assignment was to choose a prayer partner and then pray regularly together. God led Ben and me to choose each other, and we prayed together during those few weeks. After the intensive ended, we continued to pray via telephone. We developed a deep friendship that persists today—14 years later. This relationship brings great joy and happiness to our lives. . .

-Doctor of Ministry project coach, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

While studying for a master’s degree, I took a class designed to teach those in ministry how to grow in personal spirituality. One assignment was to choose a prayer partner and then pray regularly together. God led Ben and me to choose each other, and we prayed together during those few weeks. After the intensive ended, we continued to pray via telephone. We developed a deep friendship that persists today—14 years later. This relationship brings great joy and happiness to our lives.

Ben is African American; I am Anglo. What enabled two pastors, each from a different organizational context, to develop a deep relationship of friendship and trust? The key is found in the biblical concept of community and our individual role in it.

A new primary identity

Paul, in Galatians 3:26, 27, 29,1 presents God’s ideal for the followers of Jesus.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. . . . And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

Paul uses the word sons ( huioi ) the same way that Spanish speakers use hijos. Hijos is the plural of hijo, son. But if parents have sons and daughters, they refer to them collectively as hijos. So, in verse 26, Paul refers to all Christians of either gender. Our faith relationship with Jesus makes us part of one community, the Body of Christ. Through baptism, we join the family of God and are equal heirs of salvation.

This truth i s the primary foundation for genuine community, particularly in the church. Understanding and living this truth is vital for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church—a church called to reach “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV).

In Romans 6:3–7, Paul describes the change in the believer’s life when they join the community of faith through baptism. First, the old self is crucified. Second, we begin to walk in newness of life. One part of this change includes a shift in our selfidentification and how we view our own ethnic and cultural background.

Galatians 3:28 describes this change. The temple in Jerusalem in Paul’s day included a court for the Gentiles, one for Jewish women, and another for Jewish men. Exclusion was built into the architecture of the sacred grounds. In this context, Paul says that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Did Paul intend to say that these three distinctions have physically and literally been eliminated? Of course not.

God does not intend to eliminate these differences but, instead, re-prioritize them. My primary self-identity is no longer my ethnicity. My primary self-identity consists now in my status as a child of God through my connection with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I am a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ. That is who I am at the deepest level of my being. Other distinctions are secondary and subservient to our identity in Christ. Ellen White wrote in 1891 that

The black man’s name is written in the book of life beside the white man’s. All are one in Christ. Birth, station, nationality, or color cannot elevate or degrade men. The character makes the man. If a red man, a Chinaman, or an African gives his heart to God in obedience and faith, Jesus loves him none the less for his color. He calls him His well-beloved brother.2


We do not lose our ethnic and cultural distinctions as we become a Christian, but these distinctions are no longer primary. I am first a Christian, a brother in Christ, and secondarily a white person of German descent. Leslie Pollard writes, “the challenge for Christians is to allow the gospel to establish primary identity.”3 We must become a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17), with a supra-cultural identity.

One bloodline

Paul writes that all humans derive from the same bloodline, first established in Eden (Acts 17:26). Genesis 11:8 records that God scattered humans across the face of the earth by confounding their language, forcing them to separate and live in different geographical areas. This geographic isolation over time allowed for the development of physical and cultural variations.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western scholars often divided humans into three or four categories: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, and later Australoid.4 Eventually many other categories were added. These categories were defined by perceived physical differences. But recent studies in genetics have demonstrated that, biologically, at the genetic level, all humans are very closely related. According to the National Institutes of Health, for any two humans on the planet, there is an average genetic difference of only 0.1 percent.5 Often, more similarity between individuals from different ethnic groups exists than between individuals within the same group. “Research results consistently demonstrate that about 85 percent of all human genetic variation exists within human populations, whereas about only 15 percent of variation exists between populations.”6

Melanin, which makes human skin darker, is present in all humans except true albinos. We vary only in the degree of melanin we have. If couples composed of one Black individual and one White individual have children, genetically speaking, the color of the grandchildren produced by their children cannot be predicted.7 Culture, not biology, is what primarily separates us.

Defining culture

But what is culture? According to Kraft,

. . . culture consists of two levels: the surface behavior level and the deep worldview level. At the core of culture and, therefore, at the very heart of all human life, lies the structuring of the basic assumptions, values, and allegiances in terms of which people interpret and behave. These assumptions, values, and allegiances we call worldview.8


Hiebert says that “worldview is based on foundational assumptions about the nature of reality, the givens of life. To question them is to challenge the very foundations of life, and people resist such challenges with deep emotional reactions.”9 We differ at the level of behavior and worldview; and here, even in the church, we often come into conflict with each other. This is the level that Paul addresses in Galatians 3:26–29.

And how do we get our culture? It is not inherited. Children are born without culture.10 Therefore, if a baby is born in Chicago to Jamaican parents, and is immediately flown to Beijing, China, and raised by ethnic and culturally Chinese parents, that child will be culturally Chinese. He or she will speak Chinese, live the Chinese culture, and view that world as other Chinese do. Some people can successfully change their culture, often when they emigrate to another country or region.11 Culture is acquired, usually from our family, close friends, and neighbors, although television and the Internet also play a significant role.

On mission together

My father was a member of a heavy bomber crew for the United States Army in World War II. His crew flew 13 combat missions over occupied Europe from October 1944 to April 1945. He remembers that, on at least one of those missions, the Tuskegee Airmen flew escort for his squadron. The Tuskegee Airmen were the all African-American Air Force fighter group that flew in the European theater during the war. They are famous for having never lost a single bomber to enemy fighters while flying escort. So on at least one mission, when his B-24 flew into enemy airspace and as my father scanned the sky, his hands on a .50 caliber machine gun, his eyes fell upon the sleek P-51 fighters flying above the bomber formation that sported the distinctive red tail markings of the Tuskegee Airmen. At that moment it did not matter to him that there were Black pilots in those cockpits. What mattered to him was that the men flying those Mustangs were fellow soldiers, ready to give their lives to protect his. Their common identity as comrades in arms superseded their ethnic differences.

The message to us, with a common mission, should be obvious.

Changing how we relate

How we react to persons of a different culture is determined to a large degree on how we identify both them and ourselves. Some have described an individual’s or a group’s reaction to persons of another culture along the following scale: xenophobia, forced assimilation, ethnocentrism, segregation, acceptance, and celebration.

Xenophobia is the total rejection of persons outside one’s cultural group. Ethnocentrism includes the assumption that my culture is the normal one, and all others are aberrations. Segregation allows that the other culture has some degree of validity, but people of that culture must be separated from those of the dominant culture as far as possible. Acceptance of other cultures involves seeing the other culture as valid and allowing it to function on an equal footing with the dominant one. It is a kind of “tolerance.” Nothing more.

In contrast, celebration of another culture moves beyond toleration or acceptance and actually finds joy and happiness when entering experiences shaped by other cultures. In this case, we actually like to eat the food, sing the songs, participate in the worship style, or speak the language of others. I have experienced this in my work with the Atlanta Ghanaian church family. I was privileged to serve as their pastor for three years as this congregation was forming. I came to enjoy these brothers and sisters in Christ—their unique worship service, music, dress, and food. Even after my tenure as their pastor ended, I would return to enjoy the fellowship and joy of worshiping with them.

The foundation for genuine, joyful community is our relationship with Jesus Christ that enables us to move toward celebrating each other in the diversity of our cultures, social status, and gender. As we develop our relationship with Jesus, we can develop a deeper and wider community that is joyful, genuine, and real. Jesus prayed for this unity. And this type of community becomes a magnet that draws unbelievers to Christ. Ellen White wrote that “the secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ. The reason for all division, discord, and difference is found in separation from Christ.”12

Education level, socio-economic status, ethnicity, cultural preferences, language, nationality, family history, fame, achievements, gender, skin color, physical characteristics, for example, all are superseded by our oneness in Christ. That is our primary definition for self-identity, and that foundation unites us across all barriers.

In part 2 of this series we will look at particular ways that pastors and church leaders can guide members and congregations to develop genuine community across ethnic and cultural lines.


1. All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise noted.

2. Ellen G, White, The Southern Work (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1898), 8.

3. Leslie Pollard, Embracing Diversity (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 19.

4. Elizabeth Prine Pauls, “Culture Area,” accessed January 17, 2011,, paragraph 9.

5. National Institutes of Health, “Understanding Human Genetic Variation,” accessed January 17, 2011,, paragraph 15.

6. National Institutes of Health, “Understanding Human Genetic Variation,” paragraph 17.

7. Ken Ham, Carl Wieland, and Don Batten, One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999), 58–68.

8. Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.

9. Paul G. Hiebert, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 84.

10. Stephen A. Grunland and Marvin K. Mayers, “Enculturation and Acculturation,” accessed January 17, 2011,, paragraph 9.

11. Grunland and Mayers, “Enculturation and Acculturation,” paragraph 47.

12. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 259.

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-Doctor of Ministry project coach, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

July 2011

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