By James P. Chaisson, Ed.D.
After his resurrection, as he was preparing to leave this earth and ascend to the right hand of the Father, Jesus told his followers, and by extension the church universal, to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:19-20). Because the mission of the Church is to go and transform this world with the gospel message (Gal 3:26-29), Christian leaders must understand how to effectively interact with and lead people from a variety of cultural, ethnic, and socio-political backgrounds. After all, the world is becoming ever more interconnected with people from various backgrounds interacting daily.
The Scriptures provide many helpful examples of godly leaders from whom we can and should learn. There is, however, one biblical character who stands out from all the rest, the apostle Paul. Paul is one of the most notable and influential examples of a multicultural leader, who not only led the early church in powerful ways but was also foundational in bringing the gospel to many far-reaching cities of the Roman Empire.
Paul’s Bicultural Background
The Bible is certainly full of great, powerful, and godly men and women who might serve as examples for the modern church leader. What, then, would be the justification for stating that the apostle Paul is one of the most appropriate biblical figures to use as a model for multicultural leadership? In short, it has to do with Paul’s unique life and upbringing. The apostle’s uniqueness begins to be seen when one takes note of the fact that Paul was bicultural. That is, one who has the “ability to live comfortably in two differing cultural perspectives, crossing freely from one to the other as occasion merits.”1
Paul was ethnically a Jew and a descendant from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5). Being born into the nation of Israel meant that he was positioned to be trained from birth in the culture and customs of the Hebrews, with their language, divinely given scriptures, and their unique status as the people of Yahweh (Rom 9:4).
This birth afforded him certain privileges and opportunities. For one, he was able to learn the Hebrew scriptures as well as to be trained in the ways of the Pharisees (Acts 23:6).2 In addition to being a Hebrew and a Pharisee, he was also educated at the feet of the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who was a “Pharisaic member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem”.3
Beyond the fact that Paul was a Jew and raised in the customs and religion of Judaism he was also a Roman citizen. Paul was born in the city of Tarsus and was therefore born a Roman citizen (Acts 21:39; 22:25; 23:27). To be a Roman citizen was considered a supreme honor and came with certain privileges. For example, a Roman citizen was to be spared and considered exempt from shameful and degrading punishments such as scourging and crucifixion.4
The city of Tarsus was a place of great education as well as a meeting place of East and West.5 His birth in Tarsus likely contributed to his education being exposed to the wider Greco-Roman culture and to at least some of its literature (Acts 17:28).6
While the apostle Paul had a unique background, it is important to go beyond that background and to survey an example of his leadership style.
One important aspect of leading in a cross-cultural setting has to do with flexibility and adaptability. Paul clearly understood these concepts and was able to navigate the vast chasms that separated people from different cultural backgrounds. For example, Paul demonstrates his flexibility when it comes to certain cultural matters in 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 saying, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved”. Being sensitive to interact with individuals in a way in which they will be more likely to respond to the gospel and not be unduly offended was his primary goal (1 Cor 8:1–13). When disputes and arguments arose in the church over cultural issues, Paul stated that he was free but would use his freedom to serve others in order to win as many as possible to the gospel (1 Cor 9:19–22).
Paul understood that there are things that, while culturally important to those who hold them, were not things that came into direct opposition to the gospel.
While it is true that Paul was more than willing to be culturally flexible when it came to nonessential issues (1 Corinthians 10:25) he was vehemently opposed to anyone attempting to sideline or overthrow the gospel by including cultural customs or rituals that were diametrically opposed to the gospel. In Galatians 1 Paul makes it clear that to turn from and to compromise the gospel is not something he was willing to tolerate, and he calls the Galatians to repent (Gal 1:6-10).7 Paul rejects the necessity of circumcision as a part of salvation. And in this, he shows his inflexibility to issues that transcend culture (Gal 1:6–10; Col 2:16–23).
This does not mean, however, that a Christian leader should confront such cultural norms from a demeaning stance. Rather, the Christian leader should take the opportunity to address issues, such as lying or deception, and use it as an opportunity to teach more fully what it means to be a follower of Christ (2 Tim 2:24–26), while at the same time standing firm on issues directly related to the gospel such as Jesus being the only means of salvation.
While it is unlikely that church leaders will have the same background and live in a similar situation as Paul, they can learn from him and implement certain behaviors that will help them to lead a diverse church membership more effectively.
Paul distinguished between those behaviors, practices, and beliefs which were merely cultural and those things which were in direct opposition to the gospel of Christ. Christian leaders today ought to embrace Paul’s cultural flexibility when it comes to issues that are not related to the centrality of the gospel. For example, the types of foods one eats or the style of one’s worship service (i.e., contemporary versus traditional hymns). One might have a personal preference as to what types of food they like or worship style that appeals to them, but in and of themselves, they are not core gospel issues. While the concept of modest dress is biblical, there is nothing that mandates a certain style of clothing. There are plenty of modest types of clothing that are appropriate for the Christian. Demanding that all men wear a shirt and tie is a cultural practice that might isolate and even offend those with a different cultural background. Even how different cultures greet one another are examples of things that are likely to be merely cultural and demand a flexible attitude from church leadership.
More could be examined, but I hope that this blog article will encourage Christian leaders to examine the apostle Paul and his leadership style and grow in their ability to lead multicultural Churches more effectively. To that end, I have included a few resources on biblical leadership which are available through Faithlife.
Further Study Resources
- Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter
- Mobile Ed: LD121 Introducing Transformational Leadership (9 hour course) by Mark McCloskey; Logos Mobile Education
- Multicultural Ministry Handbook: Connecting Creatively to a Diverse World by David Andersen; Margarita R. Cabellon
- A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership by Andrew D. Clarke
- Template for Leadership: The Biblical Perspective by William Chauke
Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.
Chilton, B. “Gamaliel,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Ed. D. N. Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Fung, Ronald Y. K. The Epistle to the Galatians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.
Gasque, W. W. “Tarsus.” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. D. N. Freedman (Ed.). New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Moreau, A. Scott, Harold Netland, and Charles van Engen. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Baker Books; A. Scott Moreau, 2000.
Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.
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- A. S. Moreau, H. Netland, & C. Van Engen, in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Baker Books, 2000), 131.
- N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 4. Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013): 80-90.
- B. Chilton, “Gamaliel,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 904.
- G. H. Trever, “Citizenship,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev., ed. G. W. Bromiley, (Eerdmans, 1979–1988): 705.
- W. W. Gasque, “Tarsus.” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 334.
- F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988): 338-339.
- Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988): 43.