The Rise of Identity Ecclesiology


By Rollin Grams 

Revelation 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

Read this passage in the Modernistcolonial era from a postmillennial (i.e., basically that the Church is growing greater until Christ returns) perspective and you will think of universalism.  The inclusion of the nations, races, and ethnicities into Christendom is accomplished politically by the expansion of a Christian Empire and a State Church from Europe such as the Church of England.  The unity of diverse groups is established through a singular authority, whether government (headed by the King or Queen) or Church (headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury).  Moreover, a common language, English, a singular theological authority, Church dogma based on canonical Scripture, and a singular worship—the Book of Common Prayer—accomplish an overall unity at many levels despite the continuance of cultural variety at the local level.

Read this passage in a Postmodernist era (and probably with minimal concern for eschatology) and the perspective changes.  A recent directive from the head of a Christian organization announced that diversity training for employees would soon be implemented, and Rev. 7.9 was referenced as the basis for this.  Whereas the previously described lens for reading the text focused on how this passage pointed to unity, now the passage is used to endorse diversity.  Read a book like Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, and you get a deconstruction of the Modernist, colonial paradigm by attacking the so-called ‘White Church’ (the category is inadequate) and ‘Western’ culture and construction of equality through the affirmation of diversity and multiculturalism.  Rah writes,

The imagery of Revelation 7 points to a gathering of all believers, across all races, ethnicities and cultures. The call for those who are outside of Western culture is to lift up the message of the gospel through the unique expression of the image of God and the cultural mandate found in each culture (p. 134).

Enter Identity Ecclesiology.  It creates an ecclesiology focussed on and celebrating diversity among humans, such as race.  ‘White Church’, ‘white privilege’, ‘Black Church’, ‘diversity,’ and ‘Multicultural Church’ become the new categories for theological reflection on the Church.  Identity Ecclesiology is a highly polished lens, derived from contemporary, Western culture, through which everything is viewed.  Somewhat ironically—but predictably—when one views everything through the lens of race in order to affirm a version of equality that is multicultural, one requires a perpetual focus on race for that equality to be maintained.  (How inconvenient for multiculturalism when the children of immigrants adopt the new country’s language and culture!)  Multiculturalism is, in the most significant definition of racism, racist (not negative attitudes or discrimination, bad as these may be, but always viewing individuals in terms of their racial groups).  A ‘White Church’ is castigated for all its ills (or alleged ills), and a ‘Multicultural Church’ is held up as the new standard of excellence.  Diversity is something to be sought after in itself—it is not a neutral condition but a virtue.  Not the right interpretation of Scripture by understanding the author’s intent but hearing different cultural interpretations of Biblical texts is the new method of enquiry.  Not exegesis but appreciative discourse, particularly to highlight culturally diverse interpretations, is pursued.  In either the multicultural Western society or the multicultural Church, diversity is, in fact, a cardinal virtue.  Also, hiring for diversity is essential.  And never mind the country church or the neighbourhood church or the small church; the new standard is a large city church that collects ethnicities.  When your ecclesiology depends on city subway systems and motor vehicles and large parking lots to gather multiple ethnicities together for a worship service, your ecclesiology has become a political ideology.  To see the Church—or the local church—through ethnicities is itself racist.  I would term this Identity Ecclesiology.

Identity Ecclesiology is the result of several storms in culture.  One is the obvious storm of Western culture itself, beholden to a Postmodern critique of ‘totalizing narratives’ and rejection of truth so that local constructions of truth may be applauded not for what they claim but for their difference.  Identity Ecclesiology is also the result of immigration and urban dominance; ecclesiology is worked out in large cities during a time of migration of persons fleeing their own national turmoil for safer and more prosperous nations, only to find these nations have a cultural change that insists that their cultures of origin are of equal value.  Yet Identity Ecclesiology is also the result of the demise of mainline denominations.  Ironically, the mainline denominations have succumbed so much to the culture themselves that they are the primary perpetrators of a cultural theology that joyfully deconstructs orthodoxy and affirms heterodoxy and multiculturalism (whether or not they practice it).  Yet the demise of the denominations themselves—regardless of their theology or heresy—also contributes to Identity Ecclesiology.  This is because the demise of mainline denominations has allowed many Evangelical churches to float free from the historic Church. This might be temporary, since new denominations in the Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and probably (soon) the Methodist traditions are reclaiming not only orthodoxy but also the value of their connections to the historical Church.  Yet non-denominational churches and agencies or institutions have proliferated in the interim, and this hyper-baptistic ecclesiology is a reason for an anti-tradition, Identity Ecclesiology.

Do texts from Paul support Identity Ecclesiology?  Paul said,

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


Colossians 3:11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

What we find in such passages is a negation of the relevance of diversity, not a valuing of diversity.  Equality is not located in the equal worth of each social grouping but in the singular worth of Christ.  Christology, not sociology, is the basis for Paul’s ecclesiology.  (Side note for academics: the ‘new perspective on Paul’, I would argue, is largely a sociological reading of soteriology.  No wonder that the foundational book on the new perspective by E. P. Sanders–Paul and Palestinian Judaism–begins with an ethnic focus.)  Of course, a theology of the Church has social implications, but social equity is not the foundation for our understanding of the Church.  If it were in passages such as Gal. 3.28 and Col. 3.11, then we would have to value the perpetuation of slaves and Scythians (a barbaric culture from which many slaves came in Roman times).  If such were valued by Paul and the early Church for their contribution to ecclesial diversity, then their continuation would be important.  Instead, Paul minimizes the relevance of such social conditions.  What elevates the slave and the Scythian in the Church is not the value of their condition or ethnicity for the Church but their participation in Christ.

Postmodern leanings in the Church today—including some Evangelical churches, institutions of education, and mission agencies—are creating challenges that we might no longer be equipped to address.  The failings of Christendom, with its colonialism, patriarchalism, and any domination of others by the self-assured, superior group, have provided grounds for a permanent critique, a hermeneutic of deconstruction, of ‘catholicity’ (a Church united despite local differences) in favour of diversity (a Church united by celebrating local differences).  Past errors undermine the Church’s voice in the present context.  Moreover, Postmodernism has moved from affirming that each group’s identity is of equal value (a hopelessly flawed assumption) to a Tribalism that values victimhood groups more than others (a frightfully flawed conviction).  ‘Intersectionalism’ characterizes Western culture today: the higher level of victimhood one can claim by identifying with an increasing number of oppressed, minority groups, the higher one climbs in social status.

Rah’s railing against the so-called ‘white church’s’ ethnocentrism proceeds with two amazing omissions.  In his concern that theological enquiry should collect ethnically diverse authors (pp. 116-120), there is an inevitable disvaluing of academic quality and theological orthodoxy.  If we promote ethnic diversity to the primary level of theological discourse, we run the risk of changing the way we go about theological enquiry as a theological tradition.  Oddly enough—for Rah’s thesis—the African Anglican Church would be the first to call the WesternEpiscopal Church in America or Scotland or the Western Church of England to task for its failure to hold fast to thetradition of the Anglican Church.  The concern is to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), not to begin and carry on theological enquiry by hearing from diverse voices—even if it is to listen to ethnically diverse voices within the orthodox faith.

The second omission in Rah’s Next Evangelicalism’s railing against the ‘white church’s’ ethnocentricism is his failure to consider the remarkable story of foreign missionary work by the American and British Evangelical churches.  The story of ‘Modern missions’ is not just about the missionaries who gave their lives to tell the world about Jesus in foreign lands and translate the Scriptures in numerous languages that had never been reduced to writing before–bringing dignity to those cultures and helping to preserve them; it is also about the Western Church’s support of foreign missionary work.  Moreover, when Rah engages with the question of missions, his primary value is in missional reciprocity, where, as Oscar Muria suggests, ten short-term missionaries from the US to Kenya should be reciprocated with ten short-term missionaries from Kenya to the US (p. 136).  My suspicion is that Muria suggested this as a critique of western mission tourism more than anything else.  Yet Rah cites this suggestion as a positive way to conceive of missions in a multicultural Evangelicalism.  The notion that ‘mission’ may be about a task, not, as Rah hopes, cultural exchange and interaction (p. 136), seems to have missed his reflections altogether.  The proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ is a challenge to every culture.  Ray is aware of missiological discussion about the ‘translation’ (so Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls) of the Gospel into various cultures (in contrast, for Sanneh, to Islam), yet this truth about Christianity is not an endorsement of cultural diversity in itself.  First, culture is not static—it is always in flux.  The affirmation of a culture in itself can be embarrassed by persons within that culture who are advocating for cultural change.  Second, while the Gospel may find a remarkable ability to take shape in some form or another in diverse cultures, it is a challenge to every culture.  The Gospel is not just translatable, it is also transforming.

So, what is Revelation 7’s vision all about?  To answer this, we need to step back to Genesis 11.  The story of the Tower of Babel is the third story in Genesis 1 – 11 of the assertion of humans over against God.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve rejected God’s knowledge of good and evil, choosing autonomy from God to make their own choices.  In the story of Noah and the Flood, humans rejected God’s righteousness, for the thoughts of their hearts were continuously evil (Genesis 6.5).  And in the story of the tower of Babel, human beings rejected God’s superiority, seeking to ascend to the heavens to assert their equality with God.  So God caused them to speak different languages and scattered them abroad across the face of the earth (Genesis 11.9). Cultural diversity was God’s curse on humanity.  Revelation 7 (and other passages in Revelation, incidentally) picture eschatological unity of the diverse cultures of the earth by their worship of God, acknowledging Him as their Lord.  What do every nation, tribe, people, and language cry when they gather before the throne of God?  They cry, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7.10).  Ecclesiology needs to be Christocentric, not ethnocentric.  Revelation 7 is not about the innate worth of diverse cultures but about the undoing of difference in the transformative unity of life submitted to the Lamb upon the heavenly throne.

We do, indeed, need to ask, ‘What is the next Evangelicalism?’  Under the pressure of Western culture and Postmodernity, it may well end up being a multicultural, Identity Ecclesiology that prioritizes cultural diversity and asserts the equality of all cultures.  Or it may reclaim its connectivity to the historic Church through catechetical instruction in continuity with orthodoxy, its vision for Christian mission as the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth rather than a cultural exchange and the pursuit of intercultural studies instead of missions in Evangelical seminaries, and its affirmation of individuals as worthy because Jesus died for them instead of worthy because of the contribution of their particular ethnicity to enrich the multicultural church.

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