Seven Obstacles That Stand in the Way of Ethnic Unity

A biblical church pursues ethnic unity more than a diversity quota. The point isn’t to have a visibly diverse audience—though that’s a healthy sign. The point is living as one new body, demonstrating the glory of Christ’s uniting power, just like Paul says in Ephesians 2.

But like anything worth pursuing, there are obstacles—real and challenging obstacles. In this passage, Paul identifies seven obstacles that stand in the way of ethnic unity:

1. Satan

Let’s start with what might be the most obvious obstacle: Satan. He hates unity, especially in the church, and he’s always going to oppose it. He’ll do this in a number of ways. He might suggest that pursuing ethnic unity is too hard. He might whisper that ethnic unity is merely a political concept. He might distract us with other important tasks. Regardless of his tactics, be mindful who the true Enemy is. It’s not anyone sitting in our pews.

2. Pride

Pride cuts all of us down to the core. Here’s how John Piper put it:

Racial tensions are rife with pride—the pride of White supremacy, the pride of Black power, the pride of intellectual analysis, the pride of anti-intellectual scorn, the pride of loud verbal attack, and the pride of despising silence, the pride that feels secure, and the pride that masks fear. Where pride holds sway, there is no hope for the kind of listening and patience and understanding and openness to correction that mature relationships require.

Tony Evans put it simply, saying, “We have skin issues because we have sin issues.” Beware where personal pride rears its head. Church unity, Paul says, grows only out of the soil of humility.

3. Preference

Cultural preferences aren’t necessarily wrong. We all have them. But sometimes, for the sake of unity, it’s appropriate that we set them aside to help someone else feel more comfortable. In order to be a part of a multiethnic church, we in the majority culture have to be willing to be uncomfortable, especially when people aren’t doing things “our way.”

4. Naïveté

Many of us in the majority culture tend to judge every other culture against our own. What we do is normal. What other cultures do is “cultural.” We’re not usually trying to be condescending or ignorant. We simply don’t see that where we stand is culturally situated, too.

As we grow to see our own cultural perspectives, it’s good to remember that cultures, like people, are mixed bags. Some cultural perspectives are simply different. Some cultural perspectives are wrong (insofar as they differ from God’s heart). Some cultural perspectives are right (insofar as they align with God’s heart).

Each and every culture has weaknesses and blindspots that make them particularly susceptible to certain errors. The least we can do is work hard to understand the cultural perspectives we all bring to the table.

5. Poor Listening Skills

When it comes to discussions of race, our poor listening skills really begin to display themselves. James tells us that we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Wow, if there were ever a place for us to apply this verse, it’s in discussions of race. We have to ask ourselves: Are we seeking to understand more than we seek to be understood?

The counselor M. Scott Peck said, “To listen to someone is to love them.” Before offering a solution or minimizing someone’s pain, love validates and sits with another. As Albert Tate said, “It’s hard for me to love someone when I’m so busy trying to defend myself.” The gospel compels us to bear each other’s burdens, and that starts with listening to each other.

6. Ignorance of Our History

Many of us in the majority culture have proven woefully ignorant of how the racial situation in our country came to be. We barely understand, for instance, what Jim Crow laws were, let alone what kind of societal disparities they created. We’ve become comfortable with our own version of history, skipping over elements that embarrass us or make the United States look shameful.

Of all people, Christians should be willing to embrace the truth—good, bad, and ugly. After all, should it surprise us to learn that many of our ancestors were depraved sinners? Not if what Scripture says is true!

7. Quiet, Unchallenged Biases

Even as Christians, sin still lives in our hearts. The pride of racial superiority, the idolatry of preferences, feelings of suspicion and superiority—all of these still lurk, even when we’re aware of them. Just because we’re able to filter our biases in conversation doesn’t mean they cease to exist. This is why Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 10, to “take every thought captive.” If we’re not actively killing sin, it’s killing us. That’s as true of racial prejudice as it is sexual ethics, truth-telling, anger, or jealousy.

But there’s good news. Despite these obstacles (and many others) to ethnic unity, the gospel motivates us to lay down our preferences for others. Jesus laid aside everything to dwell among us. If he did that, can we not do that for others?