#3a Diversity in the church of God

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We have a strange relationship with diversity and unity.

Diversity, on the one hand, can peak interest. It is part of the allure of overseas trips and seeing other cultures. So, the tourist pitches up weighed down by a thousand kgs of telescopic lenses and travel maps and exclaims ‘My, my, isn’t that so very interesting. Look at how they [look, dress, eat, act, dance, sing etc etc] . It’s so very different to us.’ It’s interesting, like how X has a vase or rug from [insert some bizarre place] or how, Suzy down the road has started dating that boy who quite obviously isn’t Caucasian. ‘ Oh my, isn’t that interesting?’

Diversity can also simply equal fear of the other, of those people or those things that are different to us. They unnerve us, unsettle us. They make us shudder, have nightmares or fear for our kids, the future of our country even. Xenophobia, racism or a simple lack of generosity can be the result (or are these the starting point?). ‘They’re not me/us – and I don’t like it.’

Unity is likewise a mixed concept.

The inherent danger is the possibility of being united for or under iniquity. Vanhoozer remarks that ‘Everything depends on what unites the community: hatred, prejudice and ideology can be as binding…’[1] A group of bank robbers, or skinheads are united and can perhaps accomplish ‘great’ things. But what unites them (and us) matters. The end time picture of Revelation reminds us that there is unity under the Beast, as there is under the Lamb.

Most times, even when the cause is genuine or good, the bond under which we unite is simply ineffective. ‘Unity in diversity’ has become the catch phrase of troubled countries such as South Africa, and India and of organisations such as the EU. But, coming from one of those countries, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work as well as we’d hope.

God’s good news declares that there is true unity in Jesus Christ. No matter who. Are you a sinner? Yes you are! So come and be under Jesus, united with him and with His people. In Jesus, diversity in unity is possible. And the place where we are to see this is in the Christian church, the gathering of those trusting in Jesus.

What does diversity in unity look like? – what does diversity within the church of God look like? What does it do? How is it used by God?

I want to show you that diversity within the church of God involves at least two things.

  • Space for particularity (and used by God)

and

  • God being on display (and a drawing of people)

Here is the first…

i)                   Space for particularity (and used by God)

Personality, interests, and preferences already diversify us. And they are difficult enough to find unity in. Even if people look the same as me, share the same socio-economic or educational background, why would I want to hang out with them when there are people who are, well… just a lot more like me, exactly like me. The more diverse people become, the harder unity seems to achieve; diversity appears as a threat to unity.

Perhaps why the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) has support is that, with people that are largely uniform together, it feels relationally strong – there is the appearance of unity. Uniformity is confused with unity.  Added to this, the implicit impression given can be that, in order to belong, one must become as the rest of the group. So for instance ‘being Christian’ could equate to being culturally white middleclass. Gunton speaks of the homogenising ‘forces of modernity’ where we all drink Coke and eat McDonalds, and then he remarks regarding the danger:

Wherever we look, the many – particular people with all their differences – are depersonalized by being swallowed up into the one, the mass, where individuality is suppressed in the interests of efficiency, economics and homogeneity.[2]

Here, however, is the contrast offered by a common faith in Christ: this unity is so strong that it creates space for particularities to be. The individuals don’t need to be depersonalised, the differences don’t need to be destroyed. Unity is achieved without totalitarian uniformity. Instead of diversity as a threat to unity, the unity in Jesus is a place where the different individuals can be exactly that in safety and confidence. There is not a suppression of differences but instead a beautiful enjoyment that here, in the body of Christ, different individuals can share in Christ’s sufferings and share in one another.

And there is more than simple and beautiful enjoyment: these differences are often used by God for the good of the body (cf. Eph. 4; 1 Cor. 12). There is a pointed end to diversity.

Firstly, they provide opportunities for love. For instance:

  • The rich are afforded the opportunity to love the poor in practical ways (cf. Gal. 6, 1 John 3; 4).
  • The educated lovingly think about ways to run the bible study, taking into account their uneducated brothers and sisters’ lack of reading skills.[3]

Secondly, there are opportunities to learn from one another.

We know this from when we’re at a party or some gathering and we get chatting to someone different to us: different background or experiences of life. And we come away having learnt something, some outlook, some understanding of how people tick or what shapes people, we learn something and perhaps our own life-outlook is challenged. And if we’re talking elements of diversity that we raised in the first post then, for instance, the poor can teach the/us rich. From the poor we are reminded of the upside down nature of the kingdom (James 2:5); some poorer Christians are godly models of joyfully finding our all in Jesus. And so in interacting, the rich are shown that the materialism which they/we grasp so tightly is in reality little more than canine faeces (cf. Phil 3:8) – yuck! (Chuck it away)

Space for particularities does not necessarily entail distinctions never being separated into their own spaces. So, as we know, Titus 2 has women teaching women – there is good to that! But even this entails diversity: it has older teaching younger. And perhaps then we consider the poverty of relegating the oldies to the early AM prayer book service or having family morning congregation separated from the evening ‘youthy’ service. Are we stealing from ourselves?

Diversity and unity are strange concepts for the world, there is a love/hate relationship with them. In God’s church though, we see that because of the strength of being united in Jesus, there is space for particularity. Diversity is not seen as a threat to unity but is actually used by God for us to love and learn.

In the next post we’ll consider the second aspect of diversity within the church of God, namely that diversity in the church involves God on display (and a drawing of people). We’ll interact further with the HUP too.

Previous in this series:

First post: #1 Introduction, How diverse should the local church be?

Second post: #2 God, Diversity in unity under God (A sort of Biblical theology of diversity within the plans of God)


[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 161.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2003), 15.

[3] cf. Tim Chester, Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-class and Deprived Areas (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), ch. 6.

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