by John Gration
As one follows the debate on the subject of the homogeneous unit principle, one cannot help but wonder if it is more academic than real. That is, are missionaries doing anything differently from what they did 25 to 40 years ago, before the term came into vogue?
As one follows the debate on the subject of the homogeneous unit principle, one cannot help but wonder if it is more academic than real. That is, are missionaries doing anything differently from what they did 25 to 40 years ago, before the term came into vogue? In a word, has the principle really given rise to a new practice, or are we simply describing what has always basically been taking place?
Missionaries worked among specific tribes that spoke their own language; quite naturally homogeneous churches developed. Missionaries carried on a ministry with certain classes of people, often congregated in a limited geographical area; it is not surprising that rather homogeneous churches evolved. Other missionaries preached the gospel to those from a certain religious background; as people believed and began to form churches, these churches naturally reflected a distinct homogeneity.
As the gospel began to permeate different societies, social and economic effects began to be felt, something McGavran calls "lift." Certain members of a local church rose economically more quickly than others; thus it was not unusual to find in one church people of various economic levels. This introduced an element of heterogeneity. But no one ever insisted that the homogeneous unit principle was a totally rigid, fixed absolute. If culture is dynamic and not static, which it is, then it is not surprising to find this same characteristic operative within the principle. There is a functional flexibility operative within it that reflects the corresponding situation within the society in which it is found. The principle is thus relative not absolute; it is flexible and dynamic, not rigid and static. Rather than being externally imposed on a culture or society, it grows out of its dynamic operations. It is almost a "law" of society.
In this sense many missionaries followed and practiced the homogeneous unit principle in their church planting ministries without even knowing it, since in its functional aspect it is a given of society. In this sense many of them never knew they had a problem or were being unbiblical until the missiologists constructed the concept. From this perspective it is an academic problem more than a field problem.
It cannot be denied, on the other hand, that there are cases where it does involve a field or practical problem. In Bangladesh, for example, converts from Islam have often been forced to fit into a church oriented to converts from Hinduism. This has presented great problems and barriers to effective witness and church growth. In such situations, however, another equally important principle has been overlooked and not practiced. This basic principle is that each group of people has the right to worship God in its own unique context, whether that context be defined in terms of such things as language, culture, or mentality. The evangelizing team has no more right to insist that its language (or even that of an indigenous neighboring group) be learned and used in worship than that its particular liturgical form be followed. For example, an Indian tribe in Latin America need not worship in Spanish.
It thus needs to be recognized that while linguistic diversity in a church situation is often a necessity, cultural diversity is also legitimate. If not, then who is to decide which cultural form for church worship, for example, becomes the norm and thus definitive? A failure to accept this principle leads to cultural imperialism in an ecclesiastical context.
Meanwhile, the whole issue of the unity and oneness of the body of Christ, delineated in such passages as Ephesians 2, and which is the essence of the theological objection to the homogeneous unit principle, has not been mentioned. Such teaching is central to Scripture and lies at the heart of the gospel. This unity, like the homogeneous unit in society, is a given. The one is fixed in Scripture; the other in society.
Do we ignore the scriptural given because the homogeneous unit principle "works" in church planting; viz., homogeneous churches normally grow faster? A pragmatism that contravenes Scripture, if this indeed is the case, cannot be entertained. On the other hand, do we deliberately work against the principle in church work in order to meet what is perceived as the demands of scriptural teaching relative to the unity and oneness of the Body of Christ?
Such a deliberate "integration" of heterogeneous elements within a given church setting could be somewhat analogous to forced busing of students to insure racial integration in our public ‘educational institutions. The Supreme Court has decreed that the law of the land demands it. Whatever the cost, it therefore must be done.
If it can be shown that heterogeneous churches are God’s norm and demanded by Scripture, then that must be the "law" under which the church planter operates. In such a situation he may be assured that this is the best possible course and will ultimately, if not immediately, show evidence of God’s blessing because it is according to his revealed will.
But we are left with only these two alternatives-on the one hand, a pragmatism that willfully flies in the face of clear biblical teaching regarding Christian unity, and on the other, submission to an imposed heterogeneous church situation that deliberately denies the validity of the cultural given of a homogeneous unity of society seeking expression within an ecclesiastical context? Is this a case where a cultural given must bow to a biblical absolute, as for example, infanticide in certain cultures?
I would like to suggest that these two givens, the scriptural and the cultural, are not as antithetical nor diametrically opposed as might appear, or as they have sometimes been presented.
BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE ON UNITY
Much deeper study needs to be given to the concept of the unity and oneness of the body of Christ from a biblical perspective. It would appear that in discussions relative to biblical unity and the homogeneous principle, unity has all too often been confused with uniformity. Almost ironically, the principle is built upon the basic premise of heterogeneity; namely that people and cultures are different. And not only are they different, but this difference is legitimate, growing as it does out of God’s own creativity. If it be argued, and that properly, that linguistic diversity is a result of sin and God’s specific judgment on it (Gen. 11:5-9), the fact remains that there is not one "holy" or "good" language that all the redeemed should learn. God still speaks to men in their different tongues and never calls them to leave their mother tongue in order to be able to speak one common language of the church. Vatican II has brought linguistic diversity to the liturgy of even the Roman Church.
Paul recognized clearly the diversity of man from a number of perspectives and adapted his evangelistic strategy accordingly (I Cor. 9:19-23). Cultural diversity, therefore, is not only a given but a legitimate one. It exists with biblical sanction. There is no such thing as one Christian culture to which all other cultures must conform. Rather, each culture has the possibility of being gradually transformed by the redeeming grace of God into its full potential, and to the degree that it is possessed by the Spirit of God it becomes " Christian," i. e., belonging to Christ.
Cultures in the process of transformation become then the vehicle for worshipping God and glorifying him. This embraces their various components whether one thinks, for example, of language or artifacts such as a drum. Even as Christ indwells (lit., "settles down and feels completely at home," Wuest) an individual believer (Eph. 3:17),so the believer can increasingly feel at home within a culture that is in the process of being divinely transformed.
In a word, then, whatever spiritual unity means, it cannot be equated with uniformity. The whole thrust of the body imagery in I Corinthians 12, while emphasizing unity and oneness, bespeaks of tremendous diversity. The members of the body in the great contrasts Paul presents are anything but uniform (I Cor. 12:15-21).
Heterogeneity is the hallmark of the body of Christ, with its "seemly" and "unseemly" members. If this is true within one assembly, or at least within the church in one given locality, how much more so when the church world-wide is in view. And yet Paul urges the utmost respect for this great diversity. Without it one cannot even meaningfully speak of heterogeneity. It cannot even exist. To put it another way, unity in the midst of great heterogeneity can be experienced only if there is diverse elements in the first place. One can hardly talk about unity in a context of uniformity. It is only meaningful to speak of unity where there is evident diversity. Thus the recognition of the legitimacy of various homogeneous units in society makes possible true heterogeneity when these units (in part or in whole) come together in the context of the church and find in Christ a transcending unity.
The homogeneous unit principle stands therefore not upon pragmatic grounds alone, but rather it is seen to be in reality a reflection of biblical truths. The observance of it preserves the beautiful diversity of individual cultures and subcultures. In such a context worship can ascend to God in a myriad of forms, as each group offers the indigenous fruit of its lips (Heb. 13:15). To impose an external unity, whether of language or form, for the sake of expressing a supposed oneness in Christ is to deny the right to authentic diversity.
UNITY IN RELATIONSHIPS
If the unity of the Body is thus not to be found through uniformity, where is it to be found and how is it to be expressed? I would suggest that the biblical focus and the existential locus is in the area of relationships. This is the thrust of the body imagery in I Corinthians 12:14-27. Tremendous diversity, yes, but ultimately total interdependence, expressed by Paul in terms of mutual need. No member of the body is autonomous and can say "I have no need of you" (vs. 21). There is a functional relationship that grows out of their all being members of one body (vs. 25b). The direction of each member is toward another member. Each member of the body relates to and contributes to the others. Diversity makes this possible. Anything different would mean a physical monstrosity.
Homogeneous unit churches? Yes, where cultural diversity in one form or another suggests that this is the best way this particular "member" can function in relationship to the whole body. But its relationship to the whole must never be lost sight of. This is an equally important biblical principle. Faithful adherence to it will provide the antidote to racism or attitudes of apartheid. If these latter are the reasons for developing a group along homogeneous lines, then the starting point is wrong, and this is the basic problem, not the homogeneous unit principle itself.
Unfortunately, too many examples of homogeneous churches can be cited in a context of racism, both overseas and in the United States. How then do these situations differ from church development along homogeneous lines that is here being defended in certain situations as both legitimate and even desirable? The basic difference is found in the source of the choice to follow homogeneous lines. In most, if not all, the cases where homogeneous churches develop in a racist context, the decision to do so is one that has been externally imposed by a dominant group, either ethnic, political, or social. Overt examples of this can be cited from South Africa and India. Far more subtle, though just as real pressures have been exerted on minority groups in the U.S. to develop their own churches where they will "feel at home. " This is a far different situation from where the minority group chooses in total freedom from external pressure of any kind to develop a church along homogeneous lines for some of the reasons already suggested. Such a church, it must be underlined, must itself be sensitive to the matter of its own relationships.
It may be pointed out that even a church characterized as heterogeneous, and thus seen as reflecting more fully the biblical norm relative to its composition, can itself be just as guilty of failing to function biblically within the total Body. It can forget the responsibility of its relationships to other groups. It can live in relative isolation, smug in its own snugness. It can deny and belie the essential unity of the Body by its refusal to give and receive from other parts of the body.
"Heterogeneous" churches no less than churches characterized as "homogeneous" are thus liable to live far below the norm of biblical body life. By the same token, they can fail to exhibit the unity of the Body because of internal strife, dissension, and an unbiblical individualism. On the other hand, "homogeneous" churches can function both internally and in their external relationships in such a way as to exemplify the unity of Christ’s body before a watching world.
The key issue therefore is not so much the composition of individual churches, whether they be "homogeneous" or "heterogeneous," but how they function both in their internal organic relationships and in their external relationships with other parts of the Body. It is here that the unity of the Body will be exhibited or denied. It is here that the biblical focus rests. And so should that of the biblical missiologist.
MODEL AT FIRST BAPTIST, FLUSHING, N.Y.
Probably the model having the most potential for exhibiting total respect for maintained homogeneous units in a context of true spiritual unity is the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual local church. The First Baptist Church of Flushing, New York continues to show that it can happen. It is made up of a number of ethnic and linguistic "congregations" that compose the total church. A pastoral staff from Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese backgrounds, among others, ministers to "their" people in separate services. Prayer and Bible study groups flourish in other languages. Even church dinners reflect the ethnic diversity of the church, located in an area where more than fifty languages are spoken.
According to the senior pastor, Rev. Russell Rosser, the key to the healthy life and outreach of the church is their emphasis on relationships. A priority is placed on love and the preservation of unity. Members from the various "congregations" share weekly in common worship services where the message is often translated. The pastoral staff meets for four hours a week for in-depth sharing in the Word and prayer and for ministry to each other. The church board reflects the ethnic diversity of the membership. Each group, however, is free to determine the extent and closeness of its relationship to the organizational structure of the church. Several are less closely involved than others, largely because of linguistic barriers. The point is that at no point are relationships forced nor artificially produced. The believers share far more than a common building; that fact is by comparison almost incidental to their oneness.
This particular church is a microcosm of what the Body of Christ is all about: unity out of diversity. A failure to take either diversity (and thus homogeneous units) or unity seriously is both unbiblical and can hinder the witness and growth of the church. These two givens, societal and biblical, are too often seen as antithetical, and one is unnecessarily sacrificed for the other. Rather, the biblical perspective should be maintained with reference to both, and in this way the church will find an experiential alternative that will permit each to find appropriate expression.
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