W. Winston Elliott, Ph.D.
“The marvelous mosaic” is how McGavran (1980:59) describes the ethnic structure of our cultural environment. He likes the way the pieces fit together to create a beautiful picture and sees no problem with the church reproducing the same pattern in its internal structure. Most Westerners, believing that our individual differences are God given, consider it beautiful when the church provides for the development of individualism. But cultural differences are too closely associated with ethnocentricism and racism, so Westerners believe that it is wrong for the church to structure itself in a way that allows for cultural distinctions.
The ecological perspective makes us aware of the need to relate the structure of a system to the larger system in which it functions. Research on growth has provided conclusive proof that churches grow faster when they are firmly rooted into the culture in which they find themselves and reflect its patterns. Critics of this structure see it as a pragmatic response, which violates ethical principles taught in Scripture. They see the vast cultural mosaic existing in the world as the result of the curse described in Gen. 11. Frequently quoted is the Scripture, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Therefore, they say that the task of the church is to model a structure that eliminates the lines that divide us into different groups on the basis of language, ethnicity, tribal identities, classes, economic groupings, cultures, and people distinctions. Only in this way can we become one in Christ.
Do the different pieces into which human society has been divided represent a shattering of a whole that is a curse needing to be overcome by the church? Or is it diversity in church structures, (1) based upon a something beautiful created by God? Is cultural diversity and the HU principle which supports that diversity in church structures, (1) based upon a pragmatic approach which is opposed in Scripture, (2) supported by Scripture, or (3) allowable because the Word of God is neutral on the subject and therefore permits us to structure the church in its most efficient form?
Cultural Pluralism and Babel
The major statement concerning the homogeneous unit principle is set forth in Wagner’s book, Our Kind of People (1979a). Wagner (1979a:lll) argues that cultural pluralism has a Biblical base for acceptance and identifies Genesis 10 and 11 as the locus classicus for a theological base. Conn (1983:87-88) argues against Wagner’s position on the basis of a different interpretation of these chapters. Both Wagner and Conn accept the position that the multiplicity of nations as set forth in Genesis 10 represents a condition which followed chronologically the Tower of Babel event described in Genesis 11 (Conn 1983:90, Wagner 1979a:112). Thus they accept the position on this passage as stated by Boer (1961:138):
At Babel the goiim (the nations) came into being, the goiim in their religious alienation from God, in all their earthly power and achievement, and in all their ultimate moral and spiritual powerlessness.
Boer reflects the position taken in most current commentaries that the material in Gen. 10 comes from one document and the material in chapter 11 from another document. (The Interpreter’s Bible [1952:1,560] considers Gen. 10 a revision of J-l and J-2 by P and conflated by R-P, so that it is basically P; Genesis 11 is J-l.) Conservative scholars, who do not accept the Graf-Whelhousen hypothesis in its totality, generally take the position that this theory has applicability to this passage. They see the present order of the text as confusing. Even if Moses is accepted as the author, they do not see him as having made an effort to reconcile the two distinct documents. Instead he left them in an order that confuses rather than illuminates the information presented, since the division of the world into goyim, which is described in Genesis 10, resulted from the events in Genesis ll.
Conn (1983:90) defines the “dispersion movement” of Genesis 11 as a “curse.” He interprets Genesis 10 as having “a forward thrust linking the nations to the curse of Babel.” He further states that, “Genesis 11 and the confusion of tongues provide the reason for God’s division of the nations.” Let’s examine the assumption that the structure of society into “ethne” (goyim) as set forth in Genesis 10 originated with and is based upon the events described in Genesis 11. It assumes that: (1) nations did not exist as such prior to the Babel event; (2) these ethne distinctions, which brought about the formation of the goyim (nations), are based upon language differentiation; (3) the world spoke only one language prior to the Babel event; (4) as a result of the confusion of language, people were no longer able to communicate using the language they had spoken all their life; (5) instead, they immediately began speaking a language they had not learned as a child; and (6) God’s activity in Genesis 11 is a curse.
Judgment and Curse
First of all, let’s consider the question of whether or not the division of the world into ethnic subdivisions is described in the Bible as a curse. The term” curse” is not used in Genesis 11. But, as C. Westerman (1978), points out, “blessing” and “curse” are very important concepts in the biblical theology being set forth early in this foundational portion of the Bible. Satan is cursed in Gen. 3: 14, and the ground is cursed in Gen. 3: 17. Cain is placed under a curse in Gen. 4:11, and Noah pronounced a curse upon Canaan in Gen. 9:25. But at no point does it ever explicitly say that a curse is placed upon the nations. The Bible does specifically set forth in Gen. 18:18,22:18, and 26:4, God’s intention to bless the nations through Abraham and his seed. This intent is given a prominent place in the foundational covenant that is basic to God’s relationship with His people. Those who see the nations originating as the result of a curse need to provide exegetical support rather than accepting uncritically the documentary hypothesis.
On the other hand, in Genesis 9, prior to the listing of the nations, the Bible presents the covenant with Noah and his sons. That covenant speaks of a blessing provided Noah and his sons in which God tells them to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 9:1). Again in 9:7, God tells them to “be fruitful, increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” However, the blessing given in this covenant is never considered as having any relationship to the development of the ethnic structure of our world composed of clans, tribes, peoples and nations.
Chapter 10 opens with the statement, “This is the account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.” Next is the listing of the descendants of these three sons who constitute the ethnic groupings of the world. It is only reasonable to ask those who consider the ethnic divisions a curse to explain why we should ignore the possibility that this listing might be designed to show the result of the blessings of fruitfulness coming out of the blessings provided by the covenant with Noah. If these people are associated with a curse, clear Biblical evidence should be provided to disassociate it from the blessing of the covenant.
Genesis 11 and the Nations
What is the relationship with the listing of nations in Gen. 10 and the subject of Genesis 11? The heading in the NN for chapter 11 is the Tower of Babel. The assumption is that there is a direct link between the Babel event and the identification of the ethnic divisions set forth in chapter 10.
The Babel event was an act of judgment. To see the results of that judgment as a curse upon the groups listed in the previous chapter needs to be identified as a theological assumption. How strong is the defense of that assumption? Does the text provide clear defense for that position?
Nations and Peoples
It is clear that chapter 10 of Genesis talks about the ethnic distinctions existing in the world. The word “nations” (Greek ethne or Hebrew goyim) is used six times in Genesis 10. Is it the topic of discussion in Genesis 11? The word “nations” (ethne or goyim) is not used is Genesis 11. The subject appears to change from “nations” to “people” (Hebrew am or Greek laos), when the topic switched to Babel and the unity of the whole world. In Gen.11:6, the Lord is quoted as saying, “Behold, they are one people.” We are expected to assume that unity as an am rules out the possibility of the ethne (goyim) distinctions described in the previous chapter.
Language and Ethnic Distinctions
The assumption that the unity of Gen. 11 rules out the ethnic divisions described in the previous chapter is based upon a related assumption that since the whole world spoke the same language (Gen. 11:1,6,9), the ethne distinctions identified in Genesis 10 could not exist. Does the text require us to conclude that if the whole world used the same language, the people speaking that language could not have the ethnic differences described earlier? Clearly Genesis 10 points out that each goy had its own distinct language, but in Genesis 11 the whole world spoke the same language.
Conn (1983:90) uses the common expression, “confusion of tongues,” to identify the action of God in Gen. 11:9. Ignored is the fact that the Hebrew word for language used in Genesis 11 is “sopheth” which means “lip.” The Hebrew word for language in Genesis 10 is “lashon,” meaning “tongue.” We must assume that when the Bible states that God confused their “lip”, it resulted in the different “tongues” spoken of in Genesis 10. We must further assume that no significance can be attached to the fact that in Genesis 11, the only word used for language is “lip.” Nor is it important that the text consistently repeats this term four times in Gen. 11, but never uses the word “lip” in Gen. 10. Instead, the author limits himself to the use of the Hebrew word for “tongue” (lashon) where it is used three times in a direct association with the term goyim.
It is difficult to find evidence that Conn and the other critics of the homogeneous unit principle have developed their position as the result of any serious exegetical work in Genesis 10 and 11. Instead, they seem to have accepted a series of assumptions directly associated with the documentary hypothesis rather than examining the passage on the basis of a high view of Scripture.
Conn (1983:84-85) states that, “One cannot expect him [McGavran], therefore, to develop his theories out of a more formal attention to abstract biblical exegesis.” McGavran never claimed to be a Biblical scholar trained in the conservative Protestant tradition. Since he was committed to the implementation of applied theory, I have no problem excusing him for not working out all the fine points desired by those who identify themselves with the conservative theological position.
It is difficult, however, to accept a critic who talks about “the demonic side of homogeneity” (Conn 1983:88) without providing exegetical justification for what appears to be a significant number of theological assumptions.
It is my opinion that Genesis 10-12 is not an easy passage to understand. Definitions provided by scholars for the major terms introduced in this passage are full of contradictions and uncertainties. The state of confusion on this passage and on the terms introduced point to the need for a different approach that examines this passage with an avoidance of polarization or dogmatic assumptions.
Paul informs us that the gospel proclaimed to Abraham included the message, “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal. 3:8). Matthew stresses that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:14). A proper interpretation of terms such as “gospel of the kingdom /I and “nations/” as related to Gen. 12/ need to be studied in light of the context of Gen. 10 and 11 where these terms are introduced with insight into their meanings by the context.
The need, as I see it, is for different positions to be set forth and evaluated by those of us who recognize the significance of Biblical terms such as ethne, nation, people, tribe and kingdom which are introduced in Gen. 10-12. Since few people start with a keen interest in Gen. 10 and 11, I recognize that a problem exists with becoming too technical, but it is important that the biblical base of cultural structures be considered.
Kingdoms, Peoples, Nations
Three important concepts are used extensively in the Bible to describe the structure of our cultural system. The most important concept, in my opinion, is not “ethne” but “kingdom.” Theological studies during this century have given greater attention to the kingdom of God. Kirk (1982:318) says, “Some think it is the most important idea of the whole Bible.” It stands in contrast to the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of this age, or the kingdoms of this world.
Another important term used in Scripture to define cultural structures is “people.” In the Old Testament economy, God called out Israel to be his people; the church is the New Testament people of God. The third Biblical term is the one McGavran and his disciples consider foundational to a proper Biblical understanding of our mission. The word, “ta ethne” is used in Mt. 28:19, where the Great Commission, as given there, states that the central task of the church is to disciple ta ethne. The two English words used to translate this Greek term are “nations” and “gentiles.” Since we usually think of a modem nation state when we use the word “nation,” church growth people have endeavored to get people comfortable using the Greek word. It is easy to see an association between “ta ethne” and our word “ethnic” and in that way provide a better base for correctly defining the term. Anthropologists use a similar term, “ethnology” as a designation for the study of cultures.
W. Winston Elliott, Ph.D.
Bethany International University