The church in Antioch of Syria

The church in Antioch of Syria: A model for multicultural ministries

In a New Testament climate of multicultures, the church at Antioch could well be a successful model for today’s church.

Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu, DTh, DMin, serves as president of the West Zimbabwe Conference, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

The world is fast becoming a global village. Monoculturalism is giving way to multiculturalism. In any setup, people of diverse languages, classes, tribes, and cultural and racial backgrounds interact more frequently than ever before. The interactions occur both by default and design, and so human beings are confronted by the reality of diversity. This is also true in the church. As a result, the church in the twenty-first century needs to actively embrace the idea of a diverse membership. Church leaders at various levels need to espouse vital multicultural leadership skills in order to remain effective and relevant to the dynamics and demographics of the church.

In this context, the church in Antioch of Syria, which comprised a diverse membership, has lessons for the twenty-first century church. This church could be used as a model of multiculturalism. What I will call the “Antiochian model” stems from the church in Antioch of Syria (Acts 13:1). The outstanding characteristic of the church of Antioch in Syria is that it managed to break down the middle wall of partition (Eph. 2:14–16), proving that multiculturalism is possible. The church has much to learn from the Antiochian model, a model which presupposes a church without walls as the major basis for multicultural ministry.

Why Antioch?

There are many reasons for choos-ing the church of Antioch in Syria as a model for multicultural ministry. First, Antioch marks a radical paradigm shift for Christianity, which was almost exclusively Jewish, to a Gentile-inclusive faith. Geoge Arthur Buttrick et al. confirm that “Christianity in Jerusalem was not destroyed, it was dispersed.”1 Therefore, Antioch was a confluence of both Hellenistic and Jewish culture. Bosch observes, “Antioch was the third largest city in the ancient world, after Rome and Alexandria, and capital of the com-bined Roman province of Syria and Cilicia during this period.”2

Second, the fact that the church in Antioch of Syria could harmoniously harness the energies of these ethnic groups and manage them in unity, is incredible. Joel Musvosvi extrapolates on the transformation that had occurred: “Different ethnicities scaled the walls that had divided them and came into one fellowship. The common citizens were taken aback by this flagrant disregard of long-standing socio-cultural norms. In cultural shock and consternation, they hurled scorn at the believers, mockingly referring to them as Christians [Gr. Christianous], people without boundaries.”3

The church in Antioch, at least, managed to break down the natural bar-riers across different ethnic groups and produced a society that was “neither Jewish nor ‘traditionally’ Gentile, but it constituted a third entity.”4 Even Luke is careful to note that at Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26, NKJV). This renders the characteristics of the church of Antioch both outstanding and instructive.

A missional church

One wonders how long it would have taken for the gospel to reach the entire Roman Empire if persecution had lingered. As persecution intensified after the death of Stephen, the gospel spread like a wildfire. The scattered believers went “as far as Phoenicia, Cyrus, and Antioch, preaching the Word to no one but the Jews only” (verse 19, NKJV). Luke also records that “some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (verse 20, NIV). This is probably the most radical paradigm shift in the execution of the gospel commission so far. The gospel had broken through the Jewish barriers and entered the Greco-Roman world. As such, Antioch marks a major and notable breakthrough of a mis-sional church. The innovation of these unnamed missionaries in the book of Acts is most probably unparalleled in the history of their time.

A  missional church, as demonstrated by the church of Antioch, does not erect racial barriers; it breaks them. Douglass L. Rutt correctly notes that “by far the biggest wall was that which divided the Jews and Gentiles.”5 That middle wall of partition, which had stubbornly stood years and years, crum-bled down as the church of Antioch pursued its mission. Therefore, one is not surprised by the fact that Antioch became the gravitational center for missions in the first century. Arnold Airhart rightly describes the church of Antioch as a “product of missionary evangelism.”6 Consequently, Antioch was not only a product of missionary endeavors but also became the first church to embrace a mission focus beyond the shadows of Jerusalem (Acts 13:2, 3).

life-transforming church

The early church began its mission in Jerusalem and enlarged its concen-tric circles accordingly (Acts 1:8). Ajith Fernando confirms that Antioch was known for its moral degradation. The moral rot was typified by the worship at a shrine in Daphne “owing to the cult prostitution.”7 In concord, William Barclay acknowledges that “ ‘the mor-als of Daphne’ was a phrase that all the world recognized as indicating loose living. It seems incredible, but nonetheless it is true that it was in a city like this that Christianity took the great stride forward to becoming the religion of the world.”8

Therefore, for Christianity to take such deep roots outside a Jewish cul-tural context distinguishes Antioch as a new center of mission with a radical paradigm shift in the transformation of lives. Again, Luke’s record that it was at Antioch of Syria, and not elsewhere, that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, bears much weight. As demonstrated, when these Gentile converts joined the church at Antioch, none of the former names would embrace the cosmopolitan body. They were no longer all Nazarenes or Galileans or Greek Jews, and in the eyes of the people of Antioch, they must have seemed a strange mixture.

Evidently, the transformed lives of the Antiochenes left the community with no option other than giving a new name to these believers. Such a transformation could no longer remain a private matter, and the society acknowledged the radical change. In the expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem to the other parts of the Roman Empire, Antioch presented a new face of what the ideal multicultural church should look like. For the first time in the history of the Christian church, a crucial breakthrough was made.

A diverse membership

For that reason, church members in Antioch learned to mix and mingle across racial lines. As Bosch observes, “There was to begin with, no church apartheid in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles ate together—something unparalleled in the ancient world, particularly since those Gentiles were not circumcised.”9 Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, when the leader-ship in Jerusalem heard about what God was doing in Antioch, they sent Barnabas, probably to investigate (Acts 11:22). The integration of the church at Antioch was so real, and so deep, that even Peter, who needed God’s intervention before embracing Gentiles, was taken aback—only to later retrogress in fear of the circumci-sion party (Gal. 2:11–15).

The membership at Antioch, unlike the one at Jerusalem, was more het-erogeneous than homogeneous.10 Therefore, it could be safely argued that Antioch would correctly represent a model for multicultural churches even today.

A diverse leadership

Another breakthrough for the church in Antioch of Syria is shown by the diverse and dynamic leadership profile. Luke is deliberate in profiling the leaders of the church in Antioch. The “new Christian church in Antioch . . . was served by prophets and teachers. . . : ‘Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul.’ ”11 “Thorsten Prill states, “By listing listing the names of these church leaders Luke highlights the wide range of both their social and cultural backgrounds.”12

This is a very useful characteristic of a multicultural church. The leadership team represents the diverse races, cultures, languages, and ethnic groupings of the society. The church at Antioch represents the cosmopolitan outlook of the third largest city after Rome and Alexandria. Barclay further highlights the qualities of these church leaders when he observes that “it has been pointed out that this very list of prophets is symbolic of the universal appeal of the gospel. Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus; Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa; Simeon was also a Jew but his other name Niger is given and, since this a Roman name, it shows that he must have moved in Roman circles; Manaen was a man with aristocratic connections, and Paul himself a Jew from Tarsus of Cilicia and a trained rabbi.”13

With such a diversity of leadership, one would expect disharmony based on tribal, racial, or ethnic affiliation. However, the church of Antioch demonstrates maturity and unity among its own leaders. Again, Barclay proposes, “That little group is an example of the unifying influence of Christianity. Individuals from many lands and many backgrounds had discovered the secret of ‘togetherness’ because they had discovered the secret of Christ.”14

An empowered church 

While the Holy Spirit plays a major and significant role in the inception and growth of the early church in general, the church of Antioch seemed to rely on the direction and instruction of the Spirit more often than did others (Acts 11:24, 28; 13:2, 4). Otherwise, without the aid of the Holy Spirit, how else does one explain the mission impetus and the unity of this unique church? The church at Antioch in Syria demonstrates the effective and transformational role played by the Holy Spirit in a multicultural context. Such a transformation cannot be achieved by human craftiness, intelligence, force, or wisdom—but only by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

A benevolent church

It was this church that sent relief to their fellow Christian brothers and sisters in Judea (Acts 11:26–30; Gal. 2:1–10). Apparently, the Antiochenes were not just inward looking; they considered and cared about the plight of others. Instead of adopting a policy of self-indulgence and an attitude of exclusivism, Antioch embraced others with both open hands and open hearts.

In a similar fashion, the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission, an area that needs so much assistance from around the world to help with their massive challenges, nevertheless takes up a quarterly offering throughout its territory for its “adopted area” in the Euro-Asia Division, which also has great needs! This is a powerfully relevant model for a contemporary Laodicean church.15

Effective conflict resolution

As the church in Antioch grew, it encountered new challenges. While a multicultural church presents opportunities for the church to explore its mission capacity and expand, once such growth is experienced, tension is inevitable. Yet such pressure invites the church to be innovative and operate outside the box.

The major bone of contention for the early church was participation with the uncircumcised Gentile believers around the Communion or fellowship table. The apostle Peter, who had received a vision and confessed, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism,” capitulated to the circumcision party when they put him in the spotlight (Acts 10:34, NIV; Gal. 2:11–14). Paul could not countenance the behavior of the senior apostle; he rebuked him together with Barnabas for what he thought was hypocrisy. Luke notes that “some men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the law handed down by Moses, you cannot be saved’ ” (Acts 15:1, ESV).

Was it necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised before they could fully participate in the fellowship meal? After much debate, it was agreed not to burden the Gentiles with unnecessary Jewish customs but, rather, that they should “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:19, 20, NIV). Interestingly, the church at Antioch did not raise theological arguments with the circum-cision party. Instead, the church sent a delegation led by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the church leadership (Acts 15:2, 3).

A model for today

While the situation at Antioch and that in the world today are removed from each other by centuries, some lessons can still be gleaned for both contextualization and adaption.

First, the church needs much innovation to break through the fog of minority seclusion. If the church maintains the same old method of monoculturalism, it may not succeed in this pluralistic society.

Second, the church should seek transformation of lives. Rather than focusing on the external differences presented by each racial group, the sole purpose of the body of Christ— the church—is to change the lives of believers so that they become faithful and loving disciples. Once lives are transformed, the Communion table allows for fellowship and mutual sharing without any barriers.

Another strong characteristic of the church of Antioch was the diversity of its leadership and membership. It is clear that such a combination of various gifts and abilities was not a liability to the church but a very strong asset. The church can tap into the wisdom of an Antiochian model, multiracial church, and use it in a very positive manner.

Above all, the church of Antioch was openhearted and liberal in giving assistance to brothers and sisters of another race. Such an attitude makes the church a place of shalom, whereby the needs of others become the very needs of the church.

Finally, the church would do well to learn from the Antiochenes what Paul means when he states, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20, NIV). Conflict resolution in a multiracial society and church is a critical tool for peace and harmony to prevail. Anger, bitterness, strife, hatred, and war are consequences of a failure in conflict resolution skills. The Antiochian church is a good model for a church to follow in a society bruised and fractured by political, racial, religious, tribal, and ethnic divisions.

The church in Antioch, with its diversity in membership and leadership, was very mature; and the Jerusalem Council amicably resolved any challenges (Acts 15:22–32). The same model can be applied in a multi­ cultural situation. Gelder surmises, “God invites redeemed humanity into a oneness that is to reflect fully the oneness of the Godhead.”16 When different races meet at the foot of the cross, that encounter itself should make a vast difference. The cross of Jesus transforms their former hostile attitudes and helps them love and embrace “others” from a different race. Consequently, “the Christian’s encounter with Christ creates both a cross-cultural and a countercultural community. At the cross, the church is a repentant community. It is a community that is oriented around the mission of Jesus Christ.”17

The model presented by the Antiochian church is centripetal, which is heterogeneous in nature, as opposed to a centrifugal approach, represented by the homogeneous unit principle. As seen in the Antioch church, a multicultural church was not necessarily a hindrance to mis-sionary agility. On the contrary, Luke showed that the multicultural church in Antioch was growing even faster than the Jewish church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:21, 24). However, the magnetic center that attracts and unites different races is Jesus Christ. This is precisely what Ellen White meant by stating that “Christ is the center to which all should be attracted; for the nearer we approach the center, the closer we shall come together in feeling, in sympathy, in love, growing into the character and image of Jesus.”18 Therefore, the Antiochian model suggests that Christ should be the center around which all people gather, regardless of race, tribe, gender, creed, class, or background.


1  George Arthur Buttrick, et al., eds., The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Acts, Romans (New York: AbingdonPress, 1954), 146.

2   David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,2011), 44.

3   Joel Musvosvi, “Race, Ethnicity, and Tribal Conflicts,” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, 48, publishedby Digital Commons at Andrews University, ?&httpsredir=1&article=1045&context=jams.

4  Bosch, Transforming Mission, 44

5  Douglas L. Rutt, “Antioch as a Paradigmatic of the Urban Center of Mission,” 4, /Antioch.pdf.

6   Arnold E. Airhart, Beacon Bible Expositions, vol. 5, Acts (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1977).

7   Ajith Fernando, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 300.

8  William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: WestministerJohn Knox Press, 2003), 104.

9  Bosch, Transforming Mission, 43, 44.

10 F. F. Bruce, “The Church of Jerusalem,” Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Journal 4 (April 1964),5–14.

11  Thorsten Prill, “Migration, Mission and the Multi-ethnic Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology 33, no. 4 (2009), 332–346, publication/283118771_Migration_mission_and_ the_multi-ethnic_church.

12 Prill, “Migration,” 36.

13 Barclay, Acts of the Apostles, 114, 115.

14 Barclay, Acts of the Apostles, 115.

15   cf. also “the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations” (2 Cor. 8:1–5, NIV).

16   V. C. Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House,2000), 122.

17  Leslie Pollard, Embracing Diversity: How to Understand and Reach People of All Cultures (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 20.

18 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 259.

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Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu, DTh, DMin, serves as president of the West Zimbabwe Conference, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

February 2018

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