It Is Time to Talk, Part 1: Does the Bible Call for Racial Integration?

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It Is Time to Talk, Part 1: Does the Bible Call for Racial Integration?

7-17-2020 Editorial Note: This series was originally published in January 2016 to address the issue of segregated conferences. Within the North American Division (NAD) of Seventh-day Adventists, a parallel structure of both local state and regional conferences exists which are largely divided along racial lines. This article is part of a series entitled It Is Time to Talk, by David Penno, PhD (Leadership). Penno highlights the need for careful dialogue on the subject of segregated conferences within Adventism towards fostering more cooperation and collaboration between state and regional conferences and their respective constituencies. Given the continued call for racial and organizational unity within the NAD, The Compass Magazine provides this series as a helpful guide to this ongoing conversation. 

In a conversation with a General Conference leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I learned that one of the topics most frequently referenced by members who contact him in his official capacity is the organizational ethnic segregation that still exists in the church, particularly in North America. Over the last half century, Western societies have sought to eliminate organizational segregation even as they continue to struggle with prejudice and inequities in their social systems. It seems that the time may have come for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America to begin a serious dialogue on this subject.[1]

Because of the sensitive nature of this subject, it needs to be approached in a careful and Christlike manner. We need to create what William Isaacs calls the “container” for deep, honest dialogue, where we can safely yet effectively seek answers to difficult issues.[2] I do not pretend to have the answers on this subject, but I hope that these articles can move the church toward creating a container and engaging in a serious discussion on this very important topic.

In this series of four articles, we will first look at two different theological approaches to integration in the church, and then we will explore some sociological and psychological dynamics that affect how people group themselves. Next we will review some of the historical events that led to our current organizational structure, and finally I will share a few results of some research that I conducted, asking clergy and members to share their thoughts on organizational segregation in the Adventist Church.

Theological Approaches to Integration in the Church

There are at least two diverse theological approaches to segregation and integration in the Christian church. One is the “homogeneous unit principle” and the other is the “united in Christ” approach. In this article, we will describe these two approaches and comment on them.

Homogeneous Unit Principle

Donald McGavran[3] has proposed the homogeneous unit principle as foundational for church growth among evangelicals. “Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers,” he writes. Therefore, McGavran suggests that local churches should be mono-cultural and focus their evangelistic efforts on their own ethnic group. The thinking is that the church should circumvent cultural barriers when evangelizing rather than seeking to overcome them.

Pawan Dhingra illustrated this when he studied four second-generation Korean churches that were attempting to become multicultural churches. His study contains this quote from one of the members: “I like going to church where everybody is all Korean, where everybody looks like me, where we share the same culture.”[4]

Peter Wagner helped develop the American Church Growth Movement based on the homogeneous unit principle. He followed McGavran at Fuller Theological Seminary and continued his work in the area of church growth. Wagner supports McGavran’s principle for churches. He believes that the idea that all cultures should melt together to form a new unique culture is more an American idea than it is a biblical or Christian idea.[5]

Wagner rejects the idea that the United States is the “melting pot” of cultures. Instead, he follows Andrew Greeley in using the metaphor of a “stew pot.” “In a stew pot, each ingredient adds its characteristic flavor to every other ingredient, but all maintain their own identities and integrity.”[6] Wagner believes that belonging to a people group distinct from others is natural and healthy. He even posits that God intended humans to live this way based on the confusing of language and the scattering of peoples at the Tower of Babel. Congregations should be composed of homogeneous units, but there should be intentional interaction and fellowship between these congregations rather than total segregation and isolation.[7]

Evangelism is effective when people are asked to join a homogeneous unit.[8] Wagner states that a multicultural church “seldom grows,” and when it does, it is usually “heavy on transfer growth and light on conversion growth.”[9]

Although it is often accused of being racist, Wagner sees the homogeneous unit principle as “a powerful antidote for cultural chauvinism, racism, and discrimination.”[10] He believes that this principle respects the culture of those evangelized by not requiring converts to change their culture to become Christians. Every attempt at defining a “biblical theology” always includes elements of a particular culture. To attempt to impose this on Christians of other cultures is a form of racism. As examples, Wagner[11] cites the Judaizers of Acts 15 and the modern descendants of the Anabaptists who have preserved sixteenth-century German and Dutch culture within their theological framework. To attempt to make this prescriptive for all Christians would be a form of racism.

Wagner also believes that homogeneous units cannot be combined at the congregational level without one unit assimilating into the other and losing its distinct identity. He affirms that most attempts at truly multiethnic local churches have failed. However, Christian love demands genuine fellowship at the “supra-congregational” level rather than isolation from each other.

One study[12] looked at variations in ethnic diversity in local congregations representing five major denominations in the United States. The researcher concluded that perhaps ethnic diversity should not be the goal of congregations. “Perhaps homogeneity is necessary to produce religious vitality. A distinct racial-ethnic identity is a source of strength and vitality, especially for religious communities composed of minority groups (Dudley & Roozen, 2001).”[13] The author proposed that cell churches might be a way to combine homogeneity (in the small groups) with diversity (at the joint corporate worship services).[14]

Kraft[15] distinguishes between the form of homogeneous units and their use. The form is an anthropological reality that cannot be denied and should not be changed. What often needs to change is the use of homogeneous units. Christianity should seek to change the evil uses of such units but not to destroy the units themselves. “We should take a position that attempts to reinforce the strengths of homogeneity but to overcome its difficulties.”[16]

Kraft believes that only insiders can change a homogeneous unit, though they can certainly be influenced by outsiders (i.e., missionaries). He also sees the desire to expunge all homogeneous units (except the dominant one, of course) as an American cultural concept, which is not found in Scripture. “Ours is a society that seeks to ‘integrate’ minority groups in order to avoid the embarrassment of having them around.”[17] This desire is related to cultural imperialism that seeks to homogenize all people (eventually the entire world) into one basic culture. Thus the validity of other cultures is denied, according to Kraft.

Some have described the Saddleback Community Church founded by Rick Warren as an example of a church built on the homogeneous unit principle. Warren seems to substantiate this claim when he discusses how a church should ascertain its target for evangelism. He says that the target group should be defined geographically, demographically, culturally, and spiritually. He even provides a picture of “Saddleback Sam,” the mythical target person for his church’s evangelism.[18]

United in Christ

Other authors see the homogeneous unit principle as antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. Croucher calls it “ecclesiastical apartheid” because it ignores the unique insights and understandings of God that minority cultures offer and it denies the “unity-in-diversity” model of the church found in the New Testament.[19] Jürgen Moltmann wrote the following:

The church of the crucified Christ cannot consist of an assembly of like persons who mutually affirm each other, but must be constituted of unlike persons. . . . For the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful (“philia”), but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly (“agape”).[20]

Padilla believes that in Christ Jesus “a new humanity comes into existence” in which the barriers that divide people are now breached.[21] He sees the issues addressed in Acts 6 and 15 as problems created by a heterogeneous church. The list of nationalities represented on the day of Pentecost, the makeup of the churches in Syrian Antioch, Corinth, and elsewhere, and Bible passages such as Gal 3:28, 1 Pet 1:29, and 1 Cor 10:32 all describe a multicultural church at the local church level. Padilla argues that when one is reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, he or she is “simultaneously” enrolled in “a community where people find their identity in Jesus Christ rather than in their race, culture, social class, or sex,” and thus we are all reconciled to each other. Padilla further contends that

Unity in Christ is far more than a unity occasionally expressed at the level of “the supracongregational relationship of believers in the total Christian body;” it is the unity of the members of Christ’s body, to be made visible in the common life of local congregations.[22]

Thus, he sees the New Testament as demanding multiethnic congregations for an accurate witness to the world.

Chung, a pastor of a multicultural church, is quoted as saying that “the problem has been that culture has been the highest archetype.”[23] This pastor believes that unity in Christ should become the new dominant archetype.

Packer minces no words when he states his belief that “in the kingdom of God there ‘ain’t’ no comfort zone and never will be.”[24] DeYoung et al. recount Jesus’ ministry to the untouchables of His society and describe the multiethnic churches of the New Testament. These authors deny the validity of the homogeneous unit principle in evangelism, with the possible exception of some first-generation immigrants and geographically isolated ethnic groups.

Building congregations around a homogeneous grouping is a sociological principle based on what is comfortable and marketable. Unity is the New Testament model of church growth based on the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile people across socially constructed divides.[25]

Peter’s experience with Cornelius and Paul’s statement in Eph 2:15, 16 about one new man being created out of two (Jew and Gentile) are seen as undermining the homogeneous unit principle.

In addition, some Christian authors dispute the inherent validity of grouping people by race. Rosado states that “there is no biological basis for race.”[26] Ham et al. assert that on a socioeconomic level, “there is more variation within any group than there is between one group and another.”[27] Rosado concurs, believing that a middle-class Black has more in common with a middle-class White than with a working-class Black.[28]

Other critics have evaluated McGavran’s missiology from a sociological and anthropological viewpoint. McClintock finds it to be wanting, riddled with vague concepts and overly simplistic analyses. He states that McGavran’s missiology is founded on the structural-functional school of anthropology, and indicates that this approach is now rejected by most anthropologists. “The inherent weaknesses in his sociology . . . are so fundamental that they undermine his whole missiological approach,” McClintock concludes.[29]

Beyond the Homogeneous Unit Principle: How Catholics and Evangelicals Approach Integration Differently

Garces-Foley[30] states that the Roman Catholic Church, mainline Protestant churches, and evangelical churches in North America are all moving toward integration at the local church level. She sees this movement as driven by the dramatic increase in immigration into the United States since 1965 and an increasing acceptance of integration by Whites. In her comparison of the Catholic and evangelical moves toward integration, Garces-Foley notes that both groups claim as their motivation the biblical principles of reconciliation, inclusion, and unity. However, each group emphasizes different biblical principles and thus, in practice, seeks to create integration differently.

Roman Catholics focus on an approach that is “ethnic-inclusive” and based on the “theological principles of inculturation and hospitality,” designed to preserve and celebrate diverse cultures. Thus, Catholic integration involves a separate ethnic congregation within a White parish. Priests are often expected to learn a second language and to be competent in the cultural traditions of both groups within their parish. The goal is to move from “cultural pluralism” to “multiculturalism”; from totally separate ethnic parishes to interaction between cultural groups within a single parish. But cultural assimilation remains taboo.

Evangelicals take “ethnic-transcendence” as their model based on the Bible principles of evangelism and reconciliation. The focus is on the “commonly shared identity of born-again Christians.” Beginning in the 1990s, Garces-Foley sees a move toward reconciliation among evangelicals, as seen, for example, in the Promise Keepers push for ethnic reconciliations among its respondents. This new focus on reconciliation has brought the homogenous unit principle into question.

From the perspective of the church growth proponents, multiethnic churches undermine the primary mission of evangelism. They take as axiomatic that multiethnic churches will fail to attract many members and thus will grow at a much slower rate than homogeneous churches. While some proponents of multiethnic churches have accepted this axiom and argue that the trade-off—church growth versus reconciliation of all peoples—is worth it, others have rejected the homogeneous unit principle altogether. [31]

As this dialogue among evangelicals has continued, Garces-Foley claims that “with the successful synthesis of the goals of reconciliation and evangelism, the HUP [homogeneous unit principle] has rapidly disappeared from evangelical discourse.” She then refers to Bill Hybels and his commitment to move Willow Creek toward racial reconciliation. So while Catholics seek to emphasize diversity, evangelicals seek to subsume it under a new cultural identity created by a common relationship to Jesus.

What is particularly relevant for Seventh-day Adventists is the author’s statement that “evangelical and Catholic religious leaders are all explicitly attempting to achieve the same goal, which is to eliminate the historic divisions within their churches based on race, ethnicity, and culture.” Whether Seventh-day Adventists in North America choose to follow this path of integration or not is yet to be decided. But we do need to have a serious discussion about where we stand in this theological debate. Theology should be the foundation for any decisions we might make about organizational segregation. So it seems logical that theology should be part of the initial dialogue on this whole topic. It is time to talk.

In the next article we will review some sociological and psychological dynamics that cause people to naturally segregate themselves, even when they are free to integrate.

For discussion: Of the theological perspectives discussed above, which has the strongest biblical support? What other biblical principles apply to this situation?

Read more articles on this topic



[1] The content of this series of articles has been adapted from David Penno, An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity Concerning Race-based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Doctoral dissertation, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009).

[2] William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communicating in Business and in Life, (New York, NY: Random House, 1999), 242.

[3] Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, (3rd edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 163.

[4] Pawan Dhingra, “‘We’re Not a Korean American Church Any More’: Dilemmas in Constructing a Multi-racial Church Identity,” Social Compass 51 (2004): 367-379.

[5] C. Peter Wagner, Our Kind of People: The Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1979), 53.

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] Ibid., 150.

[8] C. Peter Wagner, “How Ethical is the Homogeneous Unit Principle?” Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 1 (1978): 12-19.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Kevin D. Dougherty, “How Monochromatic is Church Membership? Racial-ethnic Diversity in Religious Community,” Sociology of Religion 64 (2003): 65-85.

[13] Ibid., 82.

[14] Ibid., 70.

[15] Charles H. Kraft, “An Anthropological Apology for the Homogeneous Unit Principle in Missiology,” Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 2 (1978): 121-126.

[16] Ibid, 125.

[17] Ibid., 123.

[18] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 155-172.

[19] R. Croucher, Church Growth and Pastoral Stress,

[20] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973), 28.

[21] C. R. Padilla, “The unity of the church and the homogeneous unit principle,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6 (1982): 23-30.

[22] Ibid., 27 (italics in original).

[23] Dhingra, 367-379.

[24] E. Ellis, R. Franklin, C. Lyons, J. Ortberg, J. I. Packer, E. Gilbreath, et al., “We can overcome,” Christianity Today (2000): 40-49.

[25] C. P. DeYoung, M. O. Emerson, G. Yancey, & K. C. Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford University Press, 2003), 133.

[26] C. Rosado, “Practical to-dos about race,” Message (1998), 26, 27, 30.

[27] K. Ham, C. Wieland, & D. Batten, One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999), 54.

[28] Rosado, 26, 27, 30.

[29] W. McClintock, “Sociological Critique of the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” International Review of Mission, 77 (1988): 107-116.

[30] K. Garces-Foley, “Comparing Catholic and Evangelical Integration Efforts,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47 (2008): 17-22.

[31] Ibid., 21.

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About the author


David Penno, Ph.D., is associate professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and serves as project coach for the Doctor of Ministry program. He previously spent 25 years in pastoral ministry and served as evangelism coordinator in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He holds a doctorate in leadership from Andrews University.