the shape of leadership

A Biblical Vision of Community

Unity amid diversity is God’s idea

Renea Brathwaite on April 24, 2024

I am an immigrant. I came to the United States more than 30 years ago from a country where my skin color blended in with most of my contemporaries, my speech pattern was the norm, and my culture was invisible.

All of this was so ubiquitous, it was like the air I breathed — vital, yet imperceptible to me. Without realizing it, I experienced the privilege of belonging to the dominant culture.

There was diversity. After all, my high school attracted expatriates from across the globe.

I assumed there was equity. It seemed everyone had an equal shot at success. Like many others, I considered education the great equalizer.

Surely, we were inclusive. Or were we?

I remember being surprised when an intelligent international student in my school struggled with the math portion of a standardized exam. A series of probability questions depended on test takers knowing how many playing cards were in a deck. What seemed to me like common knowledge eluded her and limited her ability to succeed.

For the first time, I realized my cultural identity helped me and excluded others. I was an insider, which meant there were also outsiders. We seldom used terms like diversity, equity, or inclusion, but this incident still informs my understanding of such concepts.

The tables turned for me when I landed in New York on Dec. 22, 1992. Suddenly, I was a stranger in a strange land.

As a Black man, I experienced the kind of discrimination I had heard about but dismissed as exaggerations. Police officers and store detectives followed me. Women in elevators and subways seemed fearful of me. I had trouble catching a cab. On one occasion, I was unjustly arrested and treated like a criminal.

In an effort to fit in, I changed the way I spoke and dressed. Nevertheless, I continued to feel not only like an outsider, but a despised one. It seemed Black was not beautiful. It was inferior and even criminal. Black was other.

Thankfully, that was not the whole story. I found a church that welcomed my wife and me, understood our struggles, and nurtured us.

Christian and non-Christian friends of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities provided the emotional support and practical help we needed to navigate the complexities of American life.

From each of these experiences came lessons I carry with me to this day.

Some bristle at any mention of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” They view such language as irredeemably political or even corrupt. Yet leaders of the civil rights movement, from which this phrase arose, referenced Scripture and saw their work as advancing the gospel.

At a fundamental level, the idea of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community is biblical. After all, God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves (regardless of differences), care for the marginalized, and proclaim the good news to all.

Jesus said our love for one another should be so evident everyone knows we belong to Him (John 13:35). In a deeply divided world, the Church has an opportunity to depoliticize the language of love and justice, demonstrate God’s vision of community, and build bridges of compassion.


Kernels of Truth

There are three reasons discussing these issues is controversial today.

First, we have become extremely polarized. Many subscribe to a simplistic binary that insists, “My side is good, and the other side is evil.”

From that perspective, anything the other side believes must be evil. Such thinking hinders our ability to engage in gracious dialogue and find common ground.

Second, many believers worry that the cultural pressure to accept everyone and everything undermines Christianity’s moral claims. This is a valid concern. However, we can uphold biblical truth while also winsomely representing Christ to a world He died to save.

Third, terms like diversity, equity, and inclusion mean different things to different people. However, we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

As an immigrant, minister, and chief diversity officer for a Christian university, I believe we can embrace differences and treat one another respectfully without compromising faith. Indeed, we should be leading the way when it comes to welcoming all kinds of people and loving them as Jesus did.

Beneath the husk of perhaps overused words are kernels of biblical truth the Church must uphold to stay true to its calling. This is especially important for a Fellowship like ours that emphasizes the Spirit’s outpouring on “all people” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17) and that represents an extraordinarily varied, globally engaged body of believers from more than 150 nations.

We must never lose sight of our Movement’s roots in the Los Angeles Azusa Street Mission, located just a few blocks from skid row during the Jim Crow era and led by William Joseph Seymour, an African American descendant of slaves.

Considering our beginnings on the “wrong side of the tracks,” we in the Assemblies of God should be champions of biblical diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Biblical Diversity

Diversity is about making room for all kinds of people. It includes consideration of such traits as race, ethnicity, nationality, and biological sex.

From flora to fauna, the natural world demonstrates diversity is part of God’s design. And Scripture reveals His redemptive plan is for all people — for anyone who is willing to accept the free gift of salvation.

When God called Abraham, He had in view blessing “all the peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3).

The apostle Paul elaborated on this theme in Galatians 3, explaining that in Christ, Gentiles “who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham” (verse 9).

Even more radically, Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (verse 28).

In a deeply divided world, the Church has an opportunity to depoliticize the language of love and justice, demonstrate God’s vision of community, and build bridges of compassion.

In other words, the Church’s diversity should not undermine its unity. Every Christian is part of the community Christ established.

First Corinthians 12:12–14 puts it this way:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

This vision of a diverse but unified Church reaches its glorious culmination in Revelation, as a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” worships before God’s throne (7:9).

Throughout the Bible, God’s missional intention shines through. The good news is for “all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Regardless of our differences, anyone who believes in Jesus can experience eternal life (John 3:16). This is the biblical meaning of diversity.

Following his rooftop encounter with God, Peter declared, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34–35).

If God welcomes all kinds of people into His kingdom, we must embrace them as brothers and sisters.

Diversity is not an afterthought for God. It has always been part of His plan.

In Christ, we truly find one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Ephesians 4:4–6). Yet we have many kinds of people. There is diversity in unity and unity in diversity — uniqueness and difference.


Biblical Equity

Equity is an expression of justice that involves creating opportunity for all to thrive.

A mentor and colleague explained equity in terms of his two grandchildren, each of whom has special needs. Treating these kids the same would be unhelpful since their needs are quite different. Disregarding what each child needs in the name of fairness would mean failing to address the needs of either.

Consider another analogy. Suppose you gave each member of your congregation a pair of size 10 shoes, without regard for anyone’s actual foot size. You could say you treated everyone equally, but did they benefit equally?

Despite your generosity and good intentions, many people would have no use for the shoes. Even those who wear a size 10 might not find the style or fit to be suitable for their needs.

Imagine how different the outcome would be if you simply asked each person what he or she needed. The same expenditure could yield much better results.

This illustrates the difference between equality and equity. Trying to treat everyone the same results in frustration for many.

In Scripture, we see descriptions of equity in action. God established special protections for those on the margins of society — particularly immigrants, orphans, widows, and the poor. Consider the following Old Testament legal provisions:

  • Prohibition against oppressing immigrants (“foreigners”) (Exodus 23:9).
  • Command to treat immigrants with love (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19).
  • Allowance for the needy to glean food from fields (Leviticus 23:22).
  • Care for the indigent and protections against exploitation (Leviticus 25:35–36).
  • Prohibitions against treating vulnerable populations inhumanely or unjustly (Deuteronomy 24:17; 27:19).

Notice these provisions addressed the needs of certain groups. The rich could not glean from fields, but that’s only because there was no need for them to do so. Equity keeps the marginalized from falling through the cracks.

In a world of greed, cruelty, and self-centeredness, caring for the vulnerable has always been a distinguishing characteristic of God’s people. For example, Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”

Isaiah 10:1–2 pronounces a woe against those who “make unjust laws,” “deprive the poor of their rights,” and “withhold justice from the oppressed.”

Micah 6:8 puts God’s expectation for His followers in unambiguous and memorable terms: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The New Testament echoes this emphasis on equity in action, connecting it with sincerity of faith.

According to James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

James also forbids favoritism (the opposite of equity or justice): “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8–9).

These texts reveal the community of faith bears a responsibility to care for its members, regardless of their socioeconomic status or ethnicity. Christians must demonstrate Christ’s love by practicing biblical equity.

The Book of Acts shows how the earliest Christian community lived this. Luke describes the infant Church in Jerusalem this way:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need (Acts 2:42–45).

This was not a coerced system but a shared sense of Christian identity and sacrificial love. Luke connects these characteristics to the Spirit’s work and God’s grace among believers:

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:31–35).

The picture here is of koinōnia, or Christian fellowship. In such a community, the realization of God’s work in the lives of believers should contribute to the flourishing of each member.

Faithfulness to Scripture requires attention to the poor and disadvantaged among us.

Yet Luke does not shy away from describing troubling issues that arose. In Acts 5, he decries the unethical actions of Ananias and Sapphira. In trying to claim glory for themselves, this couple lied and violated the community’s spirit of generosity.

Moreover, in Acts 6, the minority Greek-speaking widows experienced an inequitable distribution of support. There is no explanation of why this occurred, but experience tells us it is easy for a majority group to underestimate or ignore the needs of minorities.

Whatever the cause, leaders seriously engaged the problem once they became aware of it. They came up with an equitable solution that was sensitive, honoring, and pleasing to the entire community.

Given this biblical survey, it would be difficult for any believer to dismiss equity from a central place of Christian concern. Faithfulness to Scripture requires attention to the poor and disadvantaged among us.

Our goal, therefore, must be promoting effective systems that demonstrate belief in our shared humanity and a commitment to the thriving of all. This is part of our witness.

As Luke reports in his summation of the episode of inequitable distribution, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).


Biblical Inclusion

The term “inclusion” likewise requires explanation and biblical framing.

Some interpret inclusion to mean God, and by extension the Church, must accept everyone — regardless of their belief in or adherence to Christian truths, values and conduct.

This problematic definition of inclusion typically allows little space for the spiritual and ethical transformation Scripture teaches. In essence, the message of this type of inclusion is, “Come as you are; stay as you are.”

But the Bible is clear on this point. While the call to become a Christian is universal, true faith in Christ results in a new birth and new spiritual orientation, aligning believers with God’s heart.

There is no such thing as a Christian who does not repent. Seeking forgiveness and forsaking sin are precursors to full acceptance into God’s family. Hence, the response of those who respond to God’s call must be recognition and acceptance of the ways in which their lives fall short of His requirements.

Peter captures both the inclusive nature of the gospel and the nonnegotiable requirement of repentance:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

Within the Church, inclusion refers to the ongoing, deliberate process of creating the culture, practices, systems, and environment that facilitate maximal participation and flourishing of all its members.

As Paul put it in Romans 12:5, “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

Thus, we seek ways for the entire community to participate in the Church’s life and mission. In biblical terms, this is hospitality (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9).

Hospitality is a generosity of spirit that allows us to be kind and winsome. When we are hospitable, we reflect God’s concern for all, and through this attention to openness, we prepare intentional spaces for new members to join our community.

In another sense, inclusion means being a community that continually welcomes its diverse members and their godly perspectives, ideas and gifts.

Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 is salient. Each person in the body of Christ has a unique role to play in the Church’s mission. One member can’t say to the other, “I don’t need you!” (verse 21). “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (verse 22).

We truly need one another. In fact, the Greek word allēlōn (meaning “one another” or “each other”) appears at least 100 times in the New Testament. This concept rests at the core of Christian inclusivity.

Another image Paul uses to depict inclusion and unity is that of a temple:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:19–22).

Ephesians depicts an interconnected, organic Christian community united to Christ, with each individual believer nurturing and lovingly supporting one another.

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:15–16).

When we provide inclusive spaces for the diverse body of Christ, health and growth ensue. The varieties of gifts, perspectives, and experiences — all energized by the Holy Spirit — cause the whole to become greater and more vibrant than the sum of the parts.

By being inclusive, in all biblical aspects of this word, we set the stage for the Church to accomplish its mission of discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19).


Grace and Truth

Biblically framed and rightly understood, diversity, equity, and inclusion — and the work to achieve these goals — are not the enemies they are sometimes portrayed to be.

In fact, once we remove the husk, we can locate each kernel of truth within a Christian worldview. I, for one, cannot imagine any Christian church that is vitally connected to Jesus Christ failing to welcome diversity, seek equity, or include meaningfully those God calls.

As a global, intergenerational Fellowship of Spirit-filled believers, we must continue thinking biblically and critically on matters such as these. It will require courage, but we need to retain a kind, prophetic, and compelling voice amid disinformation, disunity, and polarization.

May we remain faithful and loving stewards of Christ’s mission. With the help of the Holy Spirit, may we follow our Lord’s example by speaking with both grace and truth (John 1:14).


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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