Marriage and the Multi-Ethnic Church

A coalminer’s daughter and a German-immigrants grandson; he became a pastor and she the pianist. Difficult ministries and challenging relationships. Six children and 20 years in the south; I am but one. Enter: a high school graduate who never attended college, to the dismay of his highly educated and high society parents, married to the grand-daughter of a share-cropper from the woods of Georgia. Religion played a minor role at best, often none at all. They had four children; my wife is the oldest.

I grew up thinking people like me were middle class and people like here were upper class: the rich. She grew up thinking people like her were middle class and people like me were lower class: the poor. I grew up in rural Mississippi, she in the sprawling urbanity of metro-Atlanta. I spent my weekends tramping lonely through untroubled woods; she, with friends, at movies, cruising.

What happens when two cultures meet? There are only three options: Either one is destroyed and the other remains, or vice versa; or else the two become one and produce an offspring that is neither one nor the other but is a marrying of both, a retention of core values, key ideals, and dreams that fold into each other to produce something never before envisioned. We call this marriage.

I still struggle with my father’s anger, and she with her mother’s criticism. I withdraw when hurt; she advances. I am an introvert, while she is extroverted. But her love for family, for the connectivity of generations is a love that runs deeply in me, despite never having lived close to extended family. She has learned to value a spiritual heritage and I financial wisdom. I’ve learned to enjoy the delicacies of a nice dinner out, and she the experience of larger-than-life movies.

I guess I don’t understand the failure of multi-ethnic churches. How often have we heard of such organizations splitting in divorce: Over music, over heart-felt expressions of charisma; over preaching styles; over what Christmas decorations are used; over who leads Sunday School; over how to dress; over what are appropriate programs to spend money on? Every one of these individual issues has ten to twenty others attached to it—along with voice and unvoiced expectations; yet, each also has parallels in marriage where also two cultures collide.

I’ve never heard of such a church being referred to as a marriage. Partnerships, yes. Cooperative agreements, sure. Mutually beneficial endeavors, sometimes. But not marriage. And yet where else can we expect to find the tools necessary for seeing two cultures become one without losing the identity of either but in marriage? In marriage, it is called one flesh. “It isn’t instantaneous,” marriage counselors say. “It takes hard work. Sometimes you will want to quit. You can’t. You can cry, you can get angry, you can yell and scream. But you can’t quit. That’s what marriage is.” Culture issue after cultural issue threatens the marriage: how to spend money, where to spend the holidays, how to raise children, whether “yes Ma’am” is something the children will say or not, where to live, what kind of work to have, who works inside and who works outside the home, childcare, cars, interior design. But it’s marriage and we’re Christians so we fight it out, sometimes peacefully and laughing, sometimes with broken hearts and tears, always with love, with repentance, with hope, with anticipation of glory.

Why not in the church? What does one flesh look like in the church? What does it mean for two cultures to be willing “to leave father and mother and cling” to one another, bound by a common Savior? What does it mean for me to be uncomfortable with the way a brother worships? What does that look like in marriage? What does it mean for me to give way to an element that is not to my “liking” but in no way unbiblical, not sin? What does it mean for me to have my bedroom organized in a way that isn’t to my preference?

What color will the carpet be, the paint on the walls, the shutters on the front, or the person sitting in the pew beside us? None of these questions can be answered outside of the covenant of marriage, and a willingness to let discomfort displace preferences for unity and purity.

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