Christina Edmondson on Doctrine and Multicultural Hospitality

To become more multicultural, congregations must help members discern differences between biblical doctrines and cultural biases.

Christina Edmondson is the dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She cofounded a multicultural accessibility committee at New City Fellowship Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In this edited conversation, Edmondson discusses doctrinal interpretations that make congregations more or less welcoming to many cultures.

Why does New City Fellowship have a multicultural accessibility committee?

Before New City Fellowship officially launched, Danielle Veldman and I were tasked with helping our church planting group look at practices and policies that are prohibitive or welcoming. We designed workshops around becoming a multicultural congregation.

The MAC, as we call it, has ten members now. We are like a filter for all other parts of our congregation. We love the church, love people, and ask questions—out of love—to help make our church more accessible to the community.

How do your elders see the MAC’s role?

Doctrinally, the role of elders is to equip and free lay people to do the ministry of the church. Our committee tries to do the same. We help the saints use their gifts to serve the congregation and the neighborhood.

We have a relationship in which we can go to the elders with ideas of concern or items to pray over, such as theological implications of #MeToo regarding sexual abuse in the church. Sometimes elders come to us, like “We need someone to help us think through Black Lives Matter.” The MAC is always conscious to not come across like Big Brother standing over everyone with a checklist. But the elders have given us the charge and confidence to lead in asking how we can better serve our congregation’s evangelical commitment to make disciples of all nations.

What’s the relationship between Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) theology and multicultural accessibility?

Although the OPC denomination is quite homogenous, New City Fellowship is about 75 percent white, 25 percent people of color. Many people come here from non-Presbyterian and non-Reformed backgrounds. They’re attracted to our emphasis on expositional biblical teaching and community.

We know we’re a bit more didactic than the average church, because we usually preach through entire books of the Bible. Twice a year we host workshops on being a multicultural church. Everyone who becomes a member is encouraged to attend. We talk often about doctrines related to identity, total depravity, Christian liberty, and the regulative principle of worship.

Can you say more about identity and total depravity?

The case for becoming a multicultural congregation must be made through leadership, so people see our various ethnic identities, narratives, and experiences of the gospel as gifts to be shared. Yet our committee has a conscious awareness that racism is a principality that has insidiously hidden itself inside teaching and theology by presenting itself as normative.

To help people to understand their own identity, we start with implicit bias, which refers to the unconscious outworking of our stereotyped beliefs. I’m biased. You’re biased. We all are. Most white American don’t see themselves as racist. Yet taking a Harvard Implicit Bias test overwhelmingly shows that most Americans prefer white faces more than black faces and prefer light skin more than dark skin.

How does total depravity influence identity?

In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), we believe in total depravity, and we apply that doctrine to racism. My work outside our church is all about anti-racism. My husband, Mika, is our pastor. He and I both spoke at the MLK 50 conference in Memphis and the Spring 2018 Talking Points conference at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

Every church should know how its historical identity affects accessibility. In other words, who was this denomination or congregation formed for? What does that identity mean today as we reflect on divisions of people in our community? How does clinging to our historical identity influence which people come to our church?

What’s the connection between Christian liberty and becoming a multicultural church?

We look at cultural preferences from a doctrine of Christian liberty. In fact, we have the Christian liberty and calling to practice multicultural hospitality in worship. This means asking questions about the difference between what God’s Word requires in faith and worship and what God has left each of us to decide according to our own conscience.

When we oppose a worship practice, it’s important to ask who benefits by requiring or opposing something. So now, why don’t I favor drums in church? Is my opposition a form of cultural idolatry?

People tend to understate or overstate their theological commitments. Churches might teach that only men may be elders—men who meet certain qualifications. But then they cite that teaching as reason to place even more restrictions. I know of churches hesitant to let any non-ordained person, male or female, read Scripture. They say that only elders may interpret Scripture, and anyone who reads aloud is interpreting, simply by their tone, pace, and emphasis.

And what about the regulative principle of worship?

Many churches cite the regulative principle of worship as the reason not to change their service in ways that might make it more culturally accessible. This doctrine states that Scripture is sufficient to tell us what to do in church. But we often fail to see how we approach this from a particular cultural lens. You end up with churches that only sing psalms or don’t permit musical instruments.

Some Christians oppose the practice of rapping Scripture. They say that rapping is “not in the text.” Yet many churches use musical forms from the 15th, 16th, and 18th centuries that are not in the text. These cultural fencings of the law reflect our own cultural biases. 

LEARN MORE

Read Christina Edmondson’s blog post “Go to Nineveh.” Listen to audio from the annual conferences that Edmondson organizes for her church on “topics that we need to think well about together.” Check out these rappers who present Scripture.

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