How and Why Bethlehem Pursues Ethnic Diversity

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Founder & Teacher,

The aim of this article is information and solicitation. First, I want to inform the people of Bethlehem (and anyone else who cares to listen) how the staff and elders think about ethnic diversity in hiring pastoral staff and choosing elders. Second, I want to solicit the help of any friend of Bethlehem or Desiring God in helping us know about African-American, Asian, Latino, Native, or any other ethnic persons who might be a part of the pastoral staff at Bethlehem.

We realize that this kind of intentionality in seeking staff is controversial. Some would say, “Never consider ethnicity in hiring. Always be color blind and focus only on competencies, doctrine, and faith.” Here is the problem we see with that. Most people look at the ethnic diversity in the New Testament church and admire what they see. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

It is right to admire this diversity for many reasons:

  1. It illustrates more clearly the truth that God created people of all races and ethnicities in his own image (Genesis 1:27).
  2. It displays more visibly the truth that Jesus is not a tribal deity but is the Lord of all races, nations, and ethnicities.
  3. It demonstrates more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church to be “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
  4. It exhibits more compellingly the aim and power of the cross of Christ to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
  5. It expresses more forcefully the work of the Spirit to unite us in Christ. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

This list of blessings that come from biblically grounded ethnic diversity could be substantially lengthened. For example, every culture benefits from the insights into reality that other cultures bring. None of us has a corner on seeing things fully. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Therefore, it seems to us that the admiration we feel for this diversity in the New Testament should carry over into the desires we have for the visible church today. It seems to us that the local church should want these things to be true today at the local level where this diversity and harmony would have the greatest visible and relational impact. For us, this has implied pursuit. If we admire it and desire it, then it seems to us we should pursue it. What does that imply?

Four things: Prayer. Preparation. Probing. Preferring. These steps become increasingly controversial. They would be easier to simply avoid. We have chosen to take the risk.

  • Prayer: The leadership of the church prays privately and in public that God would have mercy on us and bless us with increased ethnic diversity.
  • Preparation: Not all people desire or are ready for the pursuit of ethnic diversity. We all need gospel-centered preparation for this. Therefore, we preach on these things, and we hold roundtables, and read and recommend books, and bring in speakers who know more than we do, and have seminars, and encourage relationships across ethnic lines, and expose people in worship services to different kinds of cultural expressions, etc.
  • Probing: We search for candidates for pastors and elders who are from various ethnicities. We pursue the web of relationships that we have. We make the positions known on the web and in other ways. We write articles like this one. Etc.
  • Preferring: We intentionally take ethnicity into account when making choices about who we will call to the pastoral staff and eldership. This is the most controversial. It has been labeled “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” Here is how it works at Bethlehem and why we make decisions this way.

One guiding principle is this: To the degree that one of the aims of an organization is to experience and display racial diversity, to that degree the intentional consideration of race in hiring is warranted. If, for example, the sole aim of an organization is productive efficiency, it would be unwarranted for the hiring guidelines to contain racial preferences. Whether all the employees are Black or Asian or White or Latino or Native is irrelevant. All that matters is maximum efficiency. So you don’t consider race in hiring. The only thing you consider is competencies that maximize efficiency.

But if one of the stated aims of an organization is to experience and display the beauty of ethnic harmony in diversity, then it would be reasonable and warranted to consider race as part of the qualifications in hiring. An obvious example would be hiring actors for a dramatic production that has Black, Asian, Latino, and White roles. One would consider race essential in the actors one hires for each role. One would not say: Competency in acting is the only thing that matters, and then use makeup to create the impression of race. Of course, acting competency matters. But so does race. That’s part of what the play is about. Hence, it is reasonable and warranted to take ethnicity into account when hiring actors.

Over ten years ago, we at Bethlehem set ourselves on a trajectory of intentional ethnic diversity. It coheres with the emphasis on “the joy of all peoples” in our mission statement: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. But we did not make it easy for ourselves. It would be easy if we said, “Diversity is the top priority that outweighs all others.” Or: “Diversity at any cost.” But there are things more important than ethnic diversity. For example, in hiring pastoral staff or choosing elders, there are theological and philosophical and personal commitments that are more important that ethnicity.

Embracing the Elder Affirmation of Faith (PDF) is a non-negotiable. Implied in this is a certain spirit of life and ministry captured by phrases like God-centered, Christ-exalting, and Bible-saturated. This too is a non-negotiable. Implicit in those expectations is a personal, authentic passion for Jesus—which is essential. And flowing out of all of those is a kind of commitment to marriage and childrearing that aims at radical, joyful obedience to Jesus.

All this means that the decision to call any particular pastor or elder is always made “on balance.” Ethnicity never decides the case by itself, and competencies and commitments never decide the case by themselves. Many factors figure in the decision on each candidate. We pray that the God of grace and wisdom will humble us and give us discernment and lead us into greater gospel-centered ethnic diversity and harmony for the glory of Christ and the good of all peoples. If you can help us forward in any way, we would be happy to hear from you.

John Piper