Beckett: The Church as Unified Diversity

Using Ephesians 4:1-16, Dr. J.A.O. Preus III speaks on the challenge of maintaining a proper balance between unity and diversity. The church is both unified while also consisting of great diversity, a point that Dr. Vince Bantu made at this year’s multiethnic symposium at Concordia Seminary: “Unity does not deny diversity; unity includes diversity.” Yet Preus asks some important questions worth considering, “How do you tell the difference between good unity and bad unity, or between good diversity and bad diversity? What kind of diversity is good and what kind is not? When does diversity become disunity” (p. 54)?

Drawing from Dr. Justo González, he notes that the LCMS has had an either/or mentality rather than a both/and mentality—that to be Lutheran is to be Anglo, and one cannot be both Hispanic (i.e., non-Anglo) and Lutheran. You’re either Hispanic or Lutheran (= Anglo); you cannot be both.

There’s a lot of truth to what he says. He notes how the LCMS is a long way from Germany and Scandinavia (p. 53), yet I keep hearing talk in our Lutheran circles about creating a repristinated return to German Lutheranism and German liturgy. As a Hispanic, I’m bold enough to challenge them, “I’m Puerto Rican; I can’t be a German Lutheran. What you’re telling me when you say that is that I don’t belong to Lutheranism. Why can’t we all just share a common Lutheran confession instead of imposing your German whiteness onto Hispanics and Africans like me?” I’m Hispanic and Lutheran. Why do I have to choose between one and the other? ¿Por qué no los dos? (“Why not both?”) What Preus says next is highly crucial for every Lutheran to hear:

Our success [in relating to people of different cultures and languages, specifically to Hispanics] has at best been mediocre. I think that’s partly because we haven’t done a very good job at discerning the difference between theology and culture… Although our theology, and the practice which flows from it, are mediated through a particular culture, as indeed they must, it is critical that we do not confuse the two and fail to maintain a clear distinction between them. Theology is expressed through cultural forms, but theology is not the same as culture. Of course, our theology may create a culture for the church, which at points may stand in contradistinction to the culture of society [as it must do at times], but the church’s culture cannot be simply identified with one or another ethnic culture, whether that culture is Germanic or Hispanic. Instead, our theological culture becomes incarnated in a variety, a diversity, of cultures.

pp. 54-55

Preus is displaying a dualistic/paradoxical—or both/and—paradigm inherent in Lutheran theology. He also reflects the Niebuhrian “Christ and culture in paradox,’ although Niebuhr does eventually misrepresent Lutheranism in this cultural paradigm. Yet his coverage on this paradigm is worth considering. He does present Luther quite well, however, when he says, “Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed; and more than any other he discerned that the rules to be followed in the cultural life were independent of Christian or church law” (Niebuhr, 174; emphasis mine).

Examples from Luther’s day in which the cultural life of the Christian were independent of church law includes “[t]he education of youth in languages, arts, and history,” music, and even political activities such as serving as a soldier (Niebuhr, 174-175). Among these, we can also include the diversity of ethnic backgrounds. Then Niebuhr quotes Luther, saying, “The hope of a better culture ‘is not their chief concern, but rather this, that their own particular blessing should increase, which is the truth as it is in Christ'” (Niebuhr, 178).

Thus, from this brief account of Luther’s view on culture, we can see that Luther himself—the most German Lutheran of all German Lutherans—was not concerned with a “German Lutheranism.” Rather, he was merely concerned with the cultural life a Christian lived independent of church law and that their chief concern ought not to be a “better culture” but, rather, the truth of Christ. Therefore, Lutherans who desire a repristinated return to German Lutheranism are not seeking the truth of Christ but a German Anglo culture dependent on some sort of Lutheran synodical law—a kind of Lutheran colonialism.

Furthermore, Lutherans who hold to an either/or cultural paradigm rather than one that is both/and are not remaining consistent with the historical Lutheran theological framework that has historically viewed the diversity of human cultures finding unity in Christ rather than a humanly invented church law of culture. This is not a culture that becomes homogeneous but rather the paradoxical diverse unity wrought by the transcending power of Christ and His saving Gospel, contrary to Niebuhr’s preferred “Christ the transformer of culture” paradigm.

This does not mean we set aside theological unity, which is essential; but good theological unity does not neglect cultural diversity. As Preus intimates, cultural diversity is necessary “not in the sense that it is a ‘necessary evil,’ as if ‘cultural diversity is really a bad thing and we cross cultural and linguistic barriers because we have to, but that we would really rather have them all learn English (or German) culture and language.’ I say it is necessary because the one theology must be proclaimed in diverse languages and cultural expressions. After all, our mandate is to make disciples of all nations and we have no choice but to do so through the languages and cultures in which the world’s people live. There’s no other way to reach culture-bound people” (Under the Cross of Christ, pp. 55-56).

I share the same concerns as Dr. Preus:

I think that sometimes in the past we have learned other people’s languages and cultural forms, all of them, not just Latino, as a sort of condescension, or in a grudging way, as if the diverse ethnic groups are a “problem and that if only they would become more like us, things would go better.” …We have to get past our tendency… to see things in an either/or way: Either you’re Hispanic or you’re Lutheran. Either you’re German or you’re not Lutheran, etc. It is certainly possible to be Hispanic and Lutheran. But in order to see our way clear to be both Hispanic and Lutheran, we’re going to have to learn the difference between theology and culture; between what is theological and therefore cannot be compromised and what is cultural and therefore must be acknowledged and even celebrated.

p. 56

I think Lutheran Bible Translators is a phenomenal example of this goal in their work of translating and teaching the Scriptures in various countries’ native tongues and cultures. In my view, they truly exhibit a genuine both/and Lutheran theology in the missio Dei (mission of God). In their work, they refuse to compromise on theological truths while also acknowledging and celebrating cultural diversity in these various countries. Their work is truly commendable.

Dr. Preus helps us to see that we already confess a diverse unity today in the Apostles’ Creed, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, the communion of saints.” As Preus explains, “That the church is catholic means that it is universal and is not confined geographically” (p. 57). By this same token, the church catholic is not confined culturally either, or ethnically. Revelation 7:9 attests to this fact of the church’s ethnic and geographic catholicity.

“What does such a church look like?” asks Preus (p. 57). For many Lutherans today, when they look at the church, they are looking at it through a telescope—they are viewing it from a distance to magnify one specific angle of the church. Rather, we ought to view the church throughout a kaleidoscope—a closeup manifold view of colours, shapes, and sizes.

In the same vein, what it looks like for the church to be apostolic is to “recognize that God’s concerns for His church extends not only over days and weeks and months, but over decades and centuries and millennia as well” (p. 58). God’s Word is timeless truth, which also means the apostolic doctrines are timeless truth since they are God’s Word breathed out by the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). This paradosis (tradition) of the Apostles is handed down from generation to generation throughout decades, centuries, and millennia of the church through a diverse people coming from diverse cultures and ethnicities. As Preus closes his speech, “The church that is apostolic is the church that is not just for our time or for our place, but that has solidarity with the church, with God’s people, from all times and all places” (p. 59).


González, Justo, J.A.O. Preus III, Douglas Groll, Aurelio Magariño, and Gerald Kieschnick. Under the Cross of Christ Yesterday, Toady, and Forever: Reflections on Lutheran Hispanic Ministry in the United States. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary, 2004.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ & Culture. Broadway, NY: Harper & Row, 1951.


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