Is it a rabbit or is it a duck?
The nature of unity and diversity within Christianity has captivated and confused churches, denominations and Christian organisations for centuries. Unity and diversity can sometimes seem like polar opposites, and yet they can co-exist and in the Gospel we find that they do. However, what does the unity/diversity paradox look like in a Christian Church? What does it mean to be united? How diverse should we be and diverse in what?
Navigating the waters of unity and diversity can be trickier than piloting a supertanker up Port Phillip Bay, but it’s made even harder if we ignore the navigation system that is provided for ships to follow. For that reason, we must turn to the Bible and ask what does the Bible teach us about unity and diversity in the Christian Church?
The Bible affirms unity
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s instrument that brings humanity to God. The Gospel isn’t an indefinable feeling or idea; the Gospel is a message that has concrete meaning and significance. The Gospel is God’s good news about Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. At the heart of this message is God’s gracious gift of justification that we receive through faith in Christ.
We discover that through this Gospel of Jesus Christ, God has made two relationships possible: we are united to God (Eph 2:13, 16-18) and we are united to each other (2:14-15, 20). Christian unity begins and continues through faith in this Gospel.
In Ephesians chapter 4 the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of and joy of Christian unity. He is focusing on the local church, but nonetheless, Paul’s theology extends beyond the parameters of the local gathering of believers. We do not establish Christian unity, that work belongs alone to Christ through his shed blood on the cross and by the Spirit of God who unites us firstly to God in Christ, and through him to one another (Eph 2:11-22). Yet Paul insists that we need to work hard at maintaining this unity and growing this unity. Growing unity will be expressed through works of service, love, speaking the truth in love, and Christian maturity (which necessarily includes theological maturity, not diversity). It is interesting to note that this increasing sense of unity grows out of the ministry of the word (4:11).
There is sometimes a false dichotomy introduced between relationship and doctrine as though unity is found by being in relationship with one another, as opposed to doctrine which has the propensity to divide. However, unity is a commitment grounded in common assent to the Gospel; it is both relational and doctrinal (i.e. 1 Tim 4:16). Two ingredients are necessary for authentic unity to grow and mature: love and truth (both are found in and come from Christ). In Ephesians 4 Paul describes this dynamic growth as stemming from the ministry of the word of God. As the word of God rules the Church, her people are equipped for works of service and the outcome is maturity, strengthening, speaking the truth in love, and growth. Interestingly, when truth is absent or hidden, the effect on the church is devastating,
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (4:14).
The Bible affirms diversity
Ephesians ch.2 wonderfully describes the power of the Gospel to break down the barrier between Jew and Gentile; by the shed blood of Christ, the two people become one.
Gospel unity is not uniformity. There is a type of diversity that is to be welcomed and even desired. In the Gospel, God draws together men & women, young and old, people from every race and language, and from different cultures. Such demographic diversity reflects God’s purposes in the world.
Within the local church, there is also a diversity of gifts given by God, and there are many different opportunities to serve the body and to love the local community.
A further reality is that no single church can reach every person from every culture and place. Thus a diversity of churches in different places and with various cultural expressions is natural and laudable.
What about theological diversity? To my knowledge nowhere does the New Testament encourage or endorse a diversity of theological persuasions. There a couple of places that suggest that this may occur (ie the weaker brother in Romans 13) but it is a recognition of a situation rather than being something desired. There are, however, many examples where the Bible condemns theological diversity and proponents of those teachings are spoken of in the most severe manner.
Theological diversity is a reality, but it is not a desirable one and at times it requires churches to respond. I want to make note of the following examples of theological diversity:
i. This is one significant reason for the existence of denominations.
ii. A different standard exists for leaders than for congregation members (cf 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1:5-16; James 3:1). While new Christians have a newly found love for God, it is normal for them to have many questions and lack discernment over many theological matters (cf.1 Timothy 3:6). Leaders, however, are rightly expected to hold deeply to the faith and to be disciplined when they err.
iii. While there are no unimportant doctrines, Christians have historically believed that some doctrines are more central than others. Even in the New Testament, we have a suggestion that certain beliefs are primary. Paul, for example, outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 matters of ‘primary importance’. Christians have historically disagreed over matters like church governance, baptism, Charismatic gifts and eschatology, but over many other matters, any disagreement has been rightly deemed heterodox.
iv. Important to contemporary debates is 1 Timothy 1:8-11:
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers— and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
This passage is relevant to our discussion on unity and diversity for several reasons: sound doctrine is integrally connected to the Gospel, and we learn that sinful acts also contradict sound doctrine. There is no room for redefining sins as good and accepting them as Christians practices. If the Bible teaches that a particular act is sinful and keeps people from God’s Kingdom and is a reason for God to reveal his wrath, then there can be no doubt that to accept diversity of opinion here is to deny unity in the Gospel
Solving the unity/diversity tension
When it comes to applying this tension to actual relationships we should be aware of our own natural preferences, which may be to emphasise unity over diversity or diversity over unity. We all have blind spots, which is why we need to humbly return again and again to God’s word for correction and direction.
True Gospel unity and diversity is stunning; the alternatives shouldn’t be entertained. When God says something “is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God,” we must listen and obey. It is not enough for us to say that we agree with Paul, for if we then proceed to claim unity with someone who denies Paul we become complicit with them against Scripture; we have decided against Scripture that it is right to partner with persons (or groups) that hold views contrary to the Gospel. If the Gospel of Jesus is the thing that unites us and it is rejected, then what is it that unites?
I began with this article with a maritime metaphor and I want to conclude with a building metaphor from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 13:9-11 God speaks of a “flimsy wall” being built and of the builders whitewashing the wall in order to hide its poor construction. When Christians attempt to build an organisation without strong foundations and firm doctrinal convictions we end up with a flimsy wall. We can dress it up with colourful paint and make it look attractive, and we can draw smiley faces around it, but the rain will eventually wash off the paint and the wind will tear it down.
We have established that the Gospel brings both unity and diversity, but both are given parameters by Scripture. The proper beginning point is a clearly articulated and defended exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Diversity of age, culture, race, etc flows out of the singular Gospel. In other words, the unity/diversity paradox that Churches and many Christian organisations face will only be resolved when we believe and practice the unity and diversity that is found in Christ, as explained by the Scriptures.
This is an updated version of an article posted at mentonebaptist.com.au from 2013