Is Affirmative Action Biblical?

I used to see affirmative action as tokenism at best and reverse discrimination at worst—until I studied Acts 6:1-7. There I saw the New Testament church practicing what was, in many ways, a form of affirmative action. Now I see the principle behind affirmative action as a tool to address injustice. Like any tool, it can be used or abused.

I was a victim of a legalistic form of affirmative action in my youth. Back in Malaysia, where I was born and raised, university admissions were based on strict ethnic quotas. The quotas were rigidly enforced—to the point that admission standards were compromised. Many of my Malay high school classmates got into university with lower grades while I, a Chinese student, failed to gain admission with higher grades. That was how I ended up in Canada as an international student back in 1989. It cost my shopkeeper dad dearly to send me to Canada, where, as a foreigner, I paid twice the tuition of a Canadian student.

Recently the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted a goal of filling at least 25 percent of its top-level leadership positions with ethnic minorities in an effort to move the denomination continually toward reflecting the North American demographic. (See Banner news report, April 2011.) There were objections and complaints from people within the denomination who saw this as an affirmative action policy and, hence, as reverse discrimination. Some ethnic minorities in the CRC called this goal tokenism. Because of my past experiences, I would probably have felt the same way, if not for Acts 6.

Apostolic Affirmative Action?

In Acts 6, cultural tensions arose in the early church when “the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1, TNIV). We’re not told why this neglect occurred. But it was more than poor logistics, as that would not have consistently singled out one group over another. Injustice was occurring.

Who were these Hellenistic Jews? They were likely born and raised in foreign countries across the Roman Empire and influenced by Greco-Roman culture—hence, Hellenistic. But because being buried in the land of Israel was considered virtuous, many Hellenistic Jews would relocate there to spend their last days in Israel. Often the men would die first, leaving a disproportionate number of Hellenist widows in Jerusalem. These Hellenists and their widows were, in modern terms, immigrants to Jerusalem, and they formed a cultural subgroup within the Jewish community. So the early Jerusalem church included both native Hebraic and immigrant Hellenist Jews.

Even though these two groups were ethnically Jewish, their cultural backgrounds were different enough in the broader Jerusalem context that they likely worshiped in separate synagogues. Acts 6:9 mentions that Stephen was opposed by those who belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen—Jews who were descended from former Roman slaves. Since synagogues were segregated according to class or groups back then, the apostles could have chosen the practical option of segregating the Hellenist and Hebraic groups.

Instead, the apostles recruited new leaders to supervise the entire food distribution system. Amazingly, the Christian community intentionally chose seven Hellenist men to do this work (v. 5). All seven—from the famous soon-to-be-martyred Stephen to Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch (in other words, a Gentile)—had Greek names, identifying them as belonging to or, at the very least, identifiable with, the offended cultural minority. (See also P.J. Achtemeier, J.B. Green & M.M. Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 254; and Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, IVP, 1993 p. 338.) Doesn’t this look suspiciously like an “affirmative action” program?

Furthermore, these men were given charge not only of distributing food to their Hellenist widows but of distributing food to all the widows—Hellenist and Hebraic. The whole system of food distribution was handed over to the offended minority’s leadership! This wasn’t simply a top-down decision but one that “pleased the whole group” (v. 5). It displayed the majority’s spirit of love and willingness to hand power to the immigrant minority.

This turned out to be a good development. Almost as an understatement, Luke observes that “the word of God spread. The number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7). Even the priests, the guardians of the Jewish religion, were impressed! The apostles’ bold move to address injustice helped spread the gospel and grew the church.

A Case History for Today

So how do we summarize the lesson of Acts 6? In this early case history of cultural tensions between an established majority group and an immigrant minority subgroup within the early church, we see the apostles choosing the path of change. Instead of maintaining the status quo, they chose to integrate the subgroup into the structure of the church. They chose to create a new leadership structure and empower the immigrant subgroup’s ability to exercise their gifts and leadership.

 

The focus is not filling up ethnic numbers but transforming organizational culture.

I believe the good principle behind affirmative action’s all-too-often distorted practices is this: intentional change in the makeup of personnel or leadership is a legitimate means of addressing social injustice in an organization or community. Since there is biblical precedent, we cannot simply dismiss this principle. The CRC’s new policy of diversity in leadership follows the spirit of the New Testament church. But to prevent such policies from distorting into either reverse discrimination or tokenism, I humbly offer the following guidelines:

  • The intention should be to address systemic injustice—removing barriers and changing organizational culture—not to pander to political correctness or lobby groups.
  • The 25 percent goal should not be treated as either a legalistic quota or a rigid cap. Our focus is not filling up ethnic numbers, but transforming organizational culture.
  • The candidates must be unquestionably qualified, just as the seven in Acts 6 were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). We need to discern the Spirit’s leading and calling, even as we act with integrity and open ourselves to thinking “outside the box.”
  • These leaders must be fully empowered to succeed, just as the seven were not simply symbolic tokens but were entrusted with the entire food distribution system. The entire denomination and organizational structure must support their leadership.
  • Suggestions to consider expanding the ethnicity diversity goal to include gender and disability should be taken seriously, in keeping with the spirit of the principle.

I pray that the CRC’s new diversity policy will help the denomination to become a more diverse, growing community, and that it will enhance our ability to participate fully in God’s mission.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

See comments (19)

Comments

Shiao Chong has written an excellent article. I appreciate the biblical basis. It made me rethink the issue. I concluded however, that merely setting a diversity goal of 25% does not address what the ACTS 6 story is telling us. The diversity change was not an indiscriminate one of mere diversity, but it was adressed to meet a specific need. The deacons chosen were Greeks because it was the Greek widows who were being neglected, which was accidental and not intentional by the apostles. The need would not have been met by choosing Egyptian or Roman deacons, since that was not the problem.

The issue is not so much about diversity for its own sake, as it is to meet the needs apparent. We would not argue for diversity of the leadership of GEMS to include a certain number of men, or a certain percentage of the elderly in order to create diversity in leadership. We would not argue that we ought to include in the diversity of leadership a percentage of mongolians, or a percentage of people from bulgaria.

So is it really about changing the culture? We could change the culture quicker if we asked for 75% of leadership to be of asian or african ancestry. or is it about respecting and addressing the needs as was done in the Acts 6 account?

However, I believe that Shaio Chong has the right idea.

Affirmative action suggest discrimination. I am opposed to affirmative action as we know it. Discrimination in the educational system fixed by affirmative action by college admissions. This is a very poor and disingenuous. It's as if we have just discovered some children have been disadvantaged and now we need to fix it thus affirmative action. My focus is on the University of Michigan where affirmative action is in full swing. I have written them and suggested that if they were really honest about helping the poorer educated along they would be more honest starting at K-12 20 miles east of their school. Affirmative action relieves a bad conscience, so far it has not improved much of anything, the school system 20 miles east of Detroit continues to product people in need of affirmative action.
Setting affirmative action aside, let's consider diversity. Diversity, the term shouldn't exist in the Christian church, we are all one in Christ. There is no female, no male, no Jew, no Greek, no race. Gal. 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. We should not be lining up "we have 3 women, 4 men, 2 Asians, 3 African Americans, 4 Serbian Americans, then asking where are the Dutch going to come into the mix.
We are all Christians, we have no diversity, we are all one body.

If - and it is a substantive "if" - those guidelines are followed, I would concur. In the present context of the U.S. in general and the CRC in particular, the likelihood of them being followed is near zero.

Secondly, if our goal is to move towards what MLK, Jr. described in his 1963 speech, we cannot be constantly basing our decisions on skin color. Affirmative Action in practice has also fostered a rather grotesque focus on racial stereotypes and blood lines in the pursuit of racially divided spoils.

In 1964, it may well have been necessary. In 2012 it is rarely necessary and its continuance fosters division and disharmony.

This is enlightening article. It shows that God's kingdom is more important than us. If this is well managed and not used for tokenism and political correctness, I see CRCNA family growing in all communities.This kind of thinking can only be accpted by those whose lives are clothed with humility, whose earnest cry is God's kingdom in all our communities not their personal gain.May our heavenly Father bless your efforts to display that He is indeed God for all people.

Acts 6 is good politics and good psychology, NOT affirmative Action.

When the City Of Seattle began to promote on the basis of AA several previously white people turned into something else.

Excelent article with good theological reasoning.

The author indicates he "was a victim of a legalistic form of affirmative action in [his] youth." The fact is that most implementations of that which we nebulously refer to as 'affirmative action' is a "legalistic form" that makes little to no sense.

I'm with those who suggest Acts 6 does NOT represent a form of what is commonly referred to these days as "affirmative action." If you want to view Acts 6 as "affirmative action," you can certainly do that, but all you've really done is a bit of language manipulation.

Also, I note this article's statement suggesting that the denomination's "affirmative action" goal is set in order to: "to move the denomination continually toward reflecting the North American demographic." I'm not at all sure why we would want to seek to do that (even if we could meaningfully choose from many different ways to define "the North American demographic"). The CRCNA has historically intended to be a confessional church. Why can't we just ignore skin color (race) and cultural inheritance (ethnicity) and be as good a confessional church as we can. Who knows, doing that may (or may not) produce a demographic that reflects that of North America, but why should we care?

I think it is a much better approach to do what we should do ("be faithful") than to argue about what it make 'look like' to "be successful" and then try to 'look like that'.

The author indicates he "was a victim of a legalistic form of affirmative action in [his] youth." The fact is that most implementations of that which we nebulously refer to as 'affirmative action' is a "legalistic form" that makes little to no sense.

I'm with those who suggest Acts 6 does NOT represent a form of what is commonly referred to these days as "affirmative action." If you want to view Acts 6 as "affirmative action," you can certainly do that, but all you've really done is a bit of language manipulation.

Also, I note this article's statement suggesting that the denomination's "affirmative action" goal is set in order to: "to move the denomination continually toward reflecting the North American demographic." I'm not at all sure why we would want to seek to do that (even if we could meaningfully choose from many different ways to define "the North American demographic"). The CRCNA has historically intended to be a confessional church. Why can't we just ignore skin color (race) and cultural inheritance (ethnicity) and be as good a confessional church as we can. Who knows, doing that may (or may not) produce a demographic that reflects that of North America, but why should we care?

I think it is a much better approach to do what we should do ("be faithful") than to argue about what it make 'look like' to "be successful" and then try to 'look like that'.

Well said, Doug.

Thank you Doug, Confessional for sure the CRCNA is. Also apostolic Christian, thus there is as I said before no female, no male, no Jew, No Greek. Confessional, Biblical, led by the Holy Spirit, "Gal. 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." What is there about Scripture we don't understand? What is there about Scripture we are willing to neglect?

Ken, be careful not to take certain verses and passages out of context. Gal 3:28 means something a bit different than what you are implying. Obviously there were Greeks; that's why the deacons chosen were mostly Greeks. And there obviously were still males and females; they had not all become transgendered. There were still slaves and servants, who were encouraged to serve well. On the other hand, they are all equally valued by God, including children, infants, the lame, the elderly, the bed-ridden. And they are all united in Christ in serving God.

But I agree with you that an official affirmative action is the wrong course of action.

Doug, in my opinion you are taking the two common and easy routes that many white males choose to take when it comes to dealing with the difficult issue of race. First you throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater.” Because societal initiatives and experiments such as "Affirmative Action" are often poorly designed, misguided, and ultimately do more harm than good it is easy to dismiss the author’s point simply because he labeled the CRC diversity initiative as Affirmative Action.

Second, you use the often quoted and offensive comment “Why can't we just ignore skin color (race) and cultural inheritance (ethnicity)” For me, a upper middle class white male, to simply ignore the race and ethnicity of my brothers and sisters of color denies so much about their heritage, their story, their joys, and most important their hardships.

I believe in your attempt to explain away the author’s point that Affirmative Action is Biblical, you miss the point entirely. To me the point of the article, and I believe the Acts 6 passage is that when dealing with issues of race and ethnicity, we are to be very thoughtful and intentional in our actions. We are not to attract and chose leaders for our denomination (or our churches for that matter) simply because of their race and ethnicity. Our leaders need to be well qualified, as the author clearly points out. However, we do need to be incredibly intentional in choosing leaders that reflect our community, whether that be the community in which our churches are located, or in the case of our denomination, in which our “community” is the entire world…a world in which whites make up less than 10% of the population.

Last, I want to answer your question, “Who knows, doing that [ignoring race and skin color] may (or may not) produce a demographic that reflects that of North America, but why should we care?” We should care because God cares, because Jesus cares, and because Jesus set us the ultimate example in his intentional multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-gender relationships. This is the same Jesus that calls us to take up our cross and follow him.

David, I do have a question for you. You seem to imply that our denominational leadership should reflect northamerican demographics? Do you think then that the Korean churches should incorporate about 80% non-Koreans in their church leadership? Wouldn't you rather suggest a reflection of the church membership, rather than the northamerican demographics?

John, you asked a good question.
As an Asian, though not Korean, I would say that the ethnic churches in North America, including our Korean CRCs, need to start taking this journey of becoming inter-cultural communities too.
There are a number of layers of issues here with the ethnic immigrant churches, that they have to face sooner than later and face it honestly:

1. At what point have they become ethnic enclaves/clubs rather than missional churches?

2. Can mission/outreach to Koreans still not be done under/within or in partnership, at least, with existing non-Korean CRCs? Do we actually need a full-blown independent church of its own in order to minister to Koreans in the community? What about the model of a Korean ministry within an established multicultural CRC in that community?

3. What are their hopes and plans for the 2nd, 3rd generation Koreans? Do we simply perpetuate the Korean CRCs when the next generations are fluent in English and totally integrated in mainstream life?

I am frustrated that the ethnic churches within the CRC, and ethnic churches in North America in general, are not dealing with these questions. But time will force them to deal with it as the next generations of those churches will either leave the ethnic enclaves or bring up those questions themselves.

But the biggest question of all, is the model of ethnic segregated congregations biblical? And that is the big elephant in the room that ethnic churches have chosen to ignore. Because I am convinced that biblically, ethnic specific churches cannot be justified. It has always been justified according to church growth evangelism techniques, not on biblical grounds.

When we look at the New Testament church, the evidence clearly points that the NT churches always chose to be multi-cultural - Hellenists, Hebraics, Gentiles - even though the option of being segregated was there since many Jewish synagogues were segregated. But they have always chosen the option of being multicultural even though it caused plenty of problems and questions. As in this case here in Acts 6.

Dear Chong:
Somewhat late: here's my (soon to be) two nickels' worth.
As usual, you bring a fresh view to the discussion of affirmative action. I really appreciate that. And there is absolutely no question in my mind that we are together in our desire that the make-up of our churches reflect something of the great multitude of Revelation 7.
But whether the 'lesson' of Acts 6 applies to the matters proposed in the "Report of the Diversity in Leadership Planning Group" is still a large question for me.
Acts 6, in a very few words, defines the injustice : certain widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. I have looked in vain in the Report for a definition of to-day's injustice, systemic or otherwise, that has to be corrected. Similarly the Report shows no data to substantiate the goals of 25% or 35%. Not even an overview of the demographics of the CRC. Sadly, the Report repeatedly and mostly refers to color and race, virtually in the same breath. A reflection of an ingrained American situation? Not mentioned are the many major cultures and races that have come to North America's shores, generally absent from our congregations. Just think of the Anglo Saxons, the Italians, Germans, Russians, Punjabi's, etc., etc.. MULTI ethnicity (emphasis added) is not really on the table.
Would it not be simpler and more appropriate if we started from the bottom up instead of top-down? Think for example of the strides we have made in getting rid of a good part of the male domination in our churches in the past. Women are now visible everywhere, with some nudging, but without quotas!
As well, I do not think we have to set a figure of at least 15% for representation of persons with disabilities either.
It has been stated somewhere that if we satisfy ourselves with numbers, that is all we can hope to change, but if we can change people's hearts, we change the church itself.
Again, I know we probably agree on that, brother! And yes, the thrust of your article does nudge the church along. Thank you

Hi Hank,
Thanks for your nickels, though I am sure they are worth more than that! :)
You are right - we are very much in agreement on lots of things - especially for change of hearts and not simply change itself. However, I do believe that it's a both-and scenario, not either-or. We are far more complex creatures that changing hearts require more than simply changing our ideas or our theology or even our sentiments. We are also shaped by our habits, our systems - systemic routines and patterns - and our surroundings or environment, both communal and physical, in ways that we are not always aware of. Thus, for me, we need some top down structural pushes to change as well. We also need create systems change, culture change, organizational change that supports the heart change we aim for.
Both the advances of women's and people of color's equality in society have been helped along by policy and legal changes as well as ideological changes. That includes the strides for women in the CRC.

As for the Report on Diversity - they actually need better communication there. Part of the problem is that it is, I think, originally a report to the Board of Trustees rather than a report to the public. There are a number of background stuff and history stuff that are assumed and not really communicated to the public, in my humble opinion.

I know that there were previous reports and similar proposals in the past decades to the BOT concerning diversity make-up in leadership ranks that dates back at least to the '90s. And I believe the 25% number was suggested way back then already as reflecting the percentage of people of color in North America at that time - yes, there were studies and research stats consulted back then.

If you look at God's Diverse and Unified Family - the CRC's Synod 1996 study committee report published by CRC publications - p. 5 it states: "At the writing of this report, the total number of ethnic-minority members [in the CRC] is estimated at 15,000 persons, or 5 percent of the denomination's 30,000 members (compared to national averages between 20 percent and 25 percent) in approximately 150 ethnic-minority or multiethnic congregations. This 5 percent includes 7,000 members in the fifty or more Korean congregations and an estimated 8,000 members in predominantly African-American, Chinese, Hispanic, Native American, Southeast Asian, and multiethnic congregations."

You can see that the 25 percent number is the demographic of the national (I'm assuming USA here) average for ethnic-minorities.

One of the recommendations from this report was to mandate the Board of Trustees to: "serve Synod 1998 with advice and recommendations for ensuring the equitable representation and meaningful participation of ethnic-minority persons in leadership and other roles of influence with the classes and synod, the Board of Trustees, denominational agencies, and other ministries of the CRCNA."

I believe there were reports to the BOT that built on this study report and its recommendations back in the '90s and that is, I believe, where the 25% number came from. The latest Report on Diversity assumed all these and kept the 25%, rather than making it higher to reflect the demographic of today. That makes it look a little more arbitrary without the background.

Again, though, I hope the 25% is a goal, and not a legalistic quota. But it's a number to measure by. And I do think it should include all forms of diversity and ethnicity as you mentioned.

@ David Allen

Your response to my post makes for a lot to reply to, but I'll take just the one point you make. You say that "Jesus set us the ultimate example in his intentional multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-gender relationships."

And just how did Jesus do that in terms of leadership (as the CRCNA is now doing with its leadership)? If I'm not mistaken, his disciples did not reflect the community of the world around him, but rather were rather disproportional in terms of culture, ethnicity and gender. Certainly, there was a variety of occupations and personalities, but culture, ethnicity and gender?

You say I missed the point. I don't think I did. I simply disagree with the point, thinking it is misguided and counterproductive. I cut my teeth rather deeply on the affirmative action question back in 1976 (it was by first year law school topic for the entire year), and have dealt with it in real life since (32 years of law practice). My theoretical and practical experiences have convinced me that if we simply judge people by the "content of their character" instead of squabbling over who should have what advantages because of the "color of their skin," -- whether out of evil or so-called benign motivation -- all of God's children would be much better off, not to mention society as a whole.

@ David Allen (again)

Sorry, but I just have to reply to another point you make. You say:

"However, we do need to be incredibly
intentional in choosing leaders that
reflect our community, whether that
be the community in which our churches
are located, or in the case of our
denomination, in which our “community”
is the entire world…a world in which
whites make up less than 10% of the
population."

In my mind, you miss my point as evidenced by your characterization (above) of the world community solely in skin color terms. I honestly don't know how to view your perspective as other than, literally, racist. Why pick on skin color? Why not height? Why not weight? Why not length of second toe compared to the first? Or, more importantly, why not worldview, or foundational faith commitment, or even "content of character"? Why define the world only by skin color when talking about being "incredibly intentional in choosing leaders"?

I truly don't get why we want to count our community members (local or world or anything in between)by skin color. I do, however, understand that our doing that simply perpetuates more of doing that because when WE focus on skin color, OTHERS focus on skin color too.

@ David Allen (again)

Sorry, but I just have to reply to another point you make. You say:

"However, we do need to be incredibly
intentional in choosing leaders that
reflect our community, whether that
be the community in which our churches
are located, or in the case of our
denomination, in which our “community”
is the entire world…a world in which
whites make up less than 10% of the
population."

In my mind, you miss my point as evidenced by your characterization (above) of the world community solely in skin color terms. I honestly don't know how to view your perspective as other than, literally, racist. Why pick on skin color? Why not height? Why not weight? Why not length of second toe compared to the first? Or, more importantly, why not worldview, or foundational faith commitment, or even "content of character"? Why define the world only by skin color when talking about being "incredibly intentional in choosing leaders"?

I truly don't get why we want to count our community members (local or world or anything in between)by skin color. I do, however, understand that our doing that simply perpetuates more of doing that because when WE focus on skin color, OTHERS focus on skin color too.

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