Donald McGavran offers the homogeneous unit principle (HUP) as a description of how many people in a given group accept the gospel. He writes, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”[1] This principle has been helpful to missionaries and church planters in thinking about how Christianity might spread quickly among a population in a given area. Properly understood, this principle is descriptive rather than prescriptive. McGavran never indicates that the HUP is the only way that Christianity spreads. He also rejects that the HUP is an end in itself. He explicitly states that this principle does not mean churches would be permanently divided by these boundaries.[2] In fact, they cannot be permanently divided racially, linguistically, or by class.

The explicit limitations of the HUP accepted by missiologists have not prevented the alt-right movement from attempting to usurp the truths behind the HUP for their own evil purposes. As news that the Southern Baptist Convention  was possibly going to be taking a resolution under consideration denouncing the alt-right movement and any form of “race nationalism,” the twittersphere is abuzz with posts that appear to ring true to the HUP.[3] Many in the alt-right attempt to appropriate biblical terms, and they make great effort to appear within the bounds of historical Christian orthodoxy. However, leaders of the alt-right such as Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer seek to uphold and affirm a “white identity” and call for the establishment of a white “ethno-state.” In response to the resolution before the SBC, one post indicated sarcastically that “the Bible is clear … that God hates the idea of tribes and nations.” The point of the post was to suggest that the form of white nationalism expressed by the alt-right movement is condoned and even affirmed by the Bible and by God. This post and others similar to it are attempting to hijack the biblical notion of tribes and nations for their own racist and political agenda. For Christians, identity in Christ is the only supreme identity. Any supreme identity based on race, nationality, social status or anything else is idolatry.

Nationhood in the Bible is a complex concept. The concept of modern nation-states did not come into existence until at least the seventeenth century. When the Bible refers to nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, it is not meant exclusively in a geopolitical sense. However, the biblical concept of nationhood was also not exclusively ethnic. The Greek and Hebrew terms for “nations” are inherently complicated in both the Old and New Testaments. So simply inferring that the biblical terms “nations” and “tribes” refers to the same concepts as alt-right racists is simply false. The terms do not in any way condone an indefinite division of people of different ethnicities.

The alt-right attempts to hijack biblical terms for their own purposes is unfortunately nothing new in history. Bruno Gutmann was a German anthropologist and missionary in the early twentieth century. In the course of his ministry, he made observations and drew conclusions that are very close to those of McGavran. Describing his missiological principle, he drew upon German terms such as Blut und Broden (“land and soil”) and Volksverband (“folk commonwealth”). These terms were intended to describe anthropological principles for the purpose of the advance of the gospel to all ethnic groups, all nations, all tribes, all peoples, all colors and races. The National Socialists of Germany ripped these terms out of their missiological context and hijacked them for their own racist agenda. “For the Nazis the word ‘blood’ alluded to their identification of ‘nation’ with ‘pure race (descent)’, and ‘soil’ implied their claim that the stronger race or nation, the Herrenvolk, had a right to the soil possessed by any inferior race….”[4] The alt-right movement has taken the biblical terms “nation” and “tribe” to refer to a pure race. The Bible does not use these terms in this way. In fact, the writers of both the Old and New Testaments had some strong words to say about such division.

First, the common origin of humanity in Genesis 1–2 and Genesis 9–11 leaves no room for racism in any form. If all people descend from Adam and are subsequently created in the imago dei, then all people are worthy of respect, honor, dignity, even brotherhood and sisterhood as fellow human beings. Additionally, Genesis 10–11 informs us that despite different ethnicities, languages, and geographies, all humanity has a further common ancestor in Noah. Yes, different ethnicities and languages exist, but those differences are significantly outweighed by our similarities as God’s creation for His glory.

Second, criticism of division upon racial lines in the New Testament is clear. Jesus says in perhaps the most famous verse in all the Bible, John 3:16, that God loves “the world,” and for that reason, He gave His only Son. “The world” clearly includes people of different colors, ethnicities, languages, and geographies. Additionally, Jesus commanded His followers to love one another just as Jesus had loved them (John 13:34). Even if one would argue that Jesus’s command only applies to other Christians, Jesus closed this loophole when He said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt 7:12a). Jesus leaves no room for the racism and the visceral hatred exhibited by the alt-right.

The Apostle Paul spends a considerable amount of time addressing issues of racism and ethnic division within the church. The church in Antioch that sent him out as a missionary was a multi-ethnic body of believers in an ethnically divided city. Regardless of whether there was one multi-ethnic church or several homogeneous churches in Antioch, at the very least Paul had no problem with fellowshipping with people of different racial and social backgrounds. Paul states explicitly what the gospel means for racism: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph 2:13–16). Paul rejects the explicit division of the races for which the alt-right movement calls. Instead, Paul calls for those divisions to be torn down. The church must actively break down these divisions. It cannot be done passively or believed that the divisions will gradually break down on their own in time. They will not. Many of the walls built by the Romans still stand. Unfortunately, so do the racial divisions that Paul denounced.

James, Jesus’s half-brother, spends a good portion of his letter to scattered believers rebuking them for various divisions within their churches. James writes, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (Jas 2:1). James condemns all sorts of division in the church based on social and economic differences. James leaves no room for the type of ethnocentric Social Darwinism demonstrated by the alt-right. Other examples may be offered throughout the New Testament such as Philip going to the black Ethiopian official in Acts 8. Peter challenged the ethnocentrism of some in the Jerusalem Church by crossing ethnic, social, and cultural barriers by going into the home of Cornelius and baptizing this Roman centurion and the members of his household. Paul rebuked Peter when Peter slipped back into attitudes of racial superiority (Gal 2:11–14). That same rebuke must be leveled by the American Church today against those who espouse racial superiority. Racism simply cannot stand under the weight of evidence in the Bible. Its presence in the church and in society must be firmly, forcefully, and unequivocally rebuked and condemned.

McGavran and missiologists find the HUP helpful in thinking about how the gospel might spread within a given people group. At the same time, the HUP is not an end in itself. The gospel must spread beyond ethnic, racial, linguistic, social, and economic boundaries. The Great Commission demands that this be done. In fact, if this did not happen in the past, there would not even be any white Christians.

 

 

[1] Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd ed. Revised and Edited by C. Peter Wagner, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 163.

[2] McGavran, The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1955), 37.

[3] The SBC approved Resolution 10 on June 14, 2017. The final text can be read here.

[4] J. C. Winter, Bruno Gutmann: 1876–1966: A German Approach to Social Anthropology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 39.