Based on the book “Landmark Essays in
Its 10 years since I sat round a table in a
But then came a sharp question from an African leader seated around the same table. So many of Africa’s problems stem from tribalism, he said, and only the gospel – nothing else – has the capacity to transcend tribal allegiances and unite people in spite of their racial, linguistic and cultural identity. Planting churches along tribal lines might ‘work’ but it denies the very essence of the gospel. Why do you do this in my country?
Rene Padilla is a Latin American mission activist with a long and varied ministry that has combined preaching, prison outreach, work amongst drug addicts and a host of other initiatives that were instrumental in advocating for a greater social involvement for evangelicals. Writing in 1982, he voiced his criticisms of church growth theory based on the homogeneous principle. He does so by arguing for the distinctive oneness of the church which, he states, is itself a prophetic embodiment of God’s purpose to unite all things in Christ Jesus. He shows how the New Testament church, from the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council onwards, grasped this unique insight that we are all one in Christ Jesus, and did so in spite of generations of prejudice and fear.
His conclusions might be summarised as follows. The numerical or quantitative growth of the church is a legitimate concern in Christian mission. God desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) so we should long to see all coming to Christ, and that longing should be expressed practically. The issue is not that men and women prefer to come to faith without crossing the aforementioned barriers. The question is whether it is theologically defensible to package the outreach of the church in such a way that they do not have to do so.
Padilla’s conclusions are clear. Firstly, the New Testament offers no hope for those looking for a mission strategy other than one where Jews and Gentiles, more often than not, heard the gospel together, responded together and united in faith together.
Secondly, the breaking down of barriers is an intrinsic component of the gospel and not an accidental by-product of it. Evangelism should therefore call people into a new humanity that transcends barriers of gender, race, language and culture.
Thirdly, the church grew, and did so across cultural barriers. There is no evidence of a homogeneous church other than those who, by reason of geography, probably spoke a common language.
Fourthly, the apostles never contemplated churches made up of homogeneous units who would only express their oneness in inter-church relationships. Each congregation was to express the unity and diversity of the body of Christ.
Begrudgingly, quoting Lesslie Newbigin, Padilla says he must admit that “the witness of separate congregations in the same geographical area on the basis of language and culture may have to be accepted as a necessary but provisional measure for the sake of the fulfilment of Christ’s mission.” But he says this through clenched teeth!
Padilla concludes that the homogeneous unit principle has no backing in scripture. He asks, what can such a principle say to an affluent suburban church hermetically sealed again the poverty-stricken inner-city, or to the church in which a racist feels at home because of the unholy alliance between racial segregation and Christianity?
What has this to say to us today? Most of our
But in the
A final word about
The challenge for us and others is to see how this part of the Body of Christ is to integrate with other parts in the years to come. And to be honest, I have no idea whether that is achievable, or even desirable. Rene Padilla would be disappointed with me, especially as I believe he is right!