Unity in diversity in Christ

In a global church the principle of unity in diversity will be helpful and effective when the "in Christ" element is embraced

Walter Douglas, Ph.D., chairs the Department of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a community of believers from diverse countries, cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. The church sees its mission as taking the "everlasting gospel" of Jesus to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev. 7:9). This diversity is a good and necessary thing. Indeed, it can be a strength to the body of Christ, as the diversity of gifts is. However, the well-known expression "unity in diversity," helpful as it is, does not express enough by itself. A further element is indispensable. If unity is to be achieved among us, the church must authentically experience and demonstrate unity in diversity in Christ.

Consider Paul's metaphor of the body as he tried to share with the Corinthians the fundamental importance of unity in diversity in Christ (1 Cor. 12). The church, Paul says, is a body made up of diverse elements. Unity among diverse elements comes through the deep sharing of a relationship of mutual responsibility that includes the various members of the body of Christ. But when diversity disrupts the unity of the body, it often gives rise to a dangerous condition. For example, disruptive diversity becomes destructive and sinful when one part of the body claims that it will not function if all the others do not go along with it. In order for authentic unity to become a reality, every part of the body must judge its distinctive position and examine its faithfulness to unity in terms of the ministry and mission of Christ.

Paul was aware of the state of affairs in the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 he challenged the believers to over come dissension and division in order to present a picture of real unity and interpersonal faithfulness to the world. Although some would have liked to claim Paul's sup port for their particular position or faction, the apostle refused to become part of their bickering and divisions. Instead, he appealed to them in the name of the Lord to be united, because he was aware that the divisions among them were more a matter of nationalism, politics, and culture than of theology. Further, the "party politics" in the church was based not on substantive theological diversity, but more on class and economic status. The diversities within the Corinthian fellowship had become contentious and in compatible with the spirit of Christ. Thus Paul appealed to the "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27) metaphor, finding it helpful in communicating with the Corinthians the concept of unity in diversity in Christ.

Our understanding of the biblical teaching of unity in diversity is tied to our understanding of the nature and function of the church. Traditionally Adventists tend to work with an organizational or structural definition of unity. And within that definition there is an increasing tendency to interpret diversity as being acceptable only in the light of a unified institutional structure that is one in polity and hierarchy. But a more accurate biblical and theological image of the church is the unity demonstrated in organism rather than in organization.

Church as an organism

When we view the church as an organ ism, a body, or a community of believers different in gender, culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc., the question of unity in diversity tends to take on a theological and biblical meaning with cultural and sociological implications rather than the rather limited institutional implications that often tend to dominate our vision of the church.

We know that as the church moves into the future, it will have to be more open to change and become more responsive to its broadening environments without sacrificing its essential faith and unity. If the church is seen more as an organizational machine, the question of unity in diversity will be threatened or seriously jeopardized. This way of viewing the church will cause us to assume mistakenly that as long as the machine is properly serviced and cared for, it will function in precise and predictable ways no matter who issues the directives, where they originate, or to whom they are directed. We will also tend to expect that when a similar "machine" is reproduced, it will own the same predictable features and respond in almost identical ways in any part of the world.

Organisms are quite different from machines. To influence an organism, you must look into its personality and take account of the circumstances to which it is exposed. You must reckon with the elements of unpredictability and individuality. You have to be prepared to listen, reason, revise, and develop new strategies in the light of the different environments in which the organ ism lives. If this is done responsibly, the process need not threaten or endanger the essential unity of the body; on the contrary, it will enhance authentic unity. This is consistent not only with the principles of unity in diversity, but with the further divine dimension of unity in diversity in Christ, who is the head of the body (Col. 1:18).

This organism paradigm is legitimate and consistent with the diversity of the New Testament images of the church. While Paul refers to the church as a body or as the body of Christ, John speaks of it as a community. Peter describes it as the people of God and the household of faith. All three apostles apply the description "bride of Christ." These designations are more consistent with the organism paradigm than the institutional one.

The New Testament genuinely advocates unity in diversity--unity in core doctrines and diversity of forms expressing the variety within the community. This diversity does not threaten the essential unity of the church, nor does it compromise the proclamation of the gospel.

In the light of this the question of women's ordination, for example, need not lead to disruption of the church's unity in places in which it is appropriate. Rather it may provide the church an opportunity to correlate possible diversity with necessary unity. It will enrich and strengthen fellowship, deepen spirituality, create new possibilities for mission, and multiply the church's effort to accomplish its task in the world. Embracing the differences inherent in the diverse races, cultures, and ethnic makeups of the world church will enhance the unity of the church, if national, cultural, and racial identities are not made to be definitive over and above the makeup of the whole body as it receives its collective identity in Christ. "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13, NIV).

The New Testament spirit

The New Testament church consistently demonstrates a pattern of unity in diversity. Yet often enough the diversity within the church became so acute that Paul had to struggle to prevent outright separation. For example, the discussion in Acts 15 surrounding the issue of circumcision demonstrates the sensitivity of both Paul and Peter in allowing the Gentiles to continue to be an integral part of the church without requiring the rite of circumcision. Peter, Paul and the whole delegation at the Jerusalem Council agreed: "Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (verses 10,11, NIV).

Although Paul's roots were Jewish, he did not allow these roots to be an impediment to his missionary work. His definitive principle amid the diversity he constantly en countered was always Christ. He was aware that human thought of every kind is historically, culturally, and sociologically conditioned. And this knowledge helped him look at the Gentiles with insight, hope, love, mercy, and compassion. Paul spoke to the Gentiles about the great revelation that was given to him. This great revelation was not that the Gentiles should be expected to be come Jews in order to benefit from the blessings of God's saving grace, but that every diverse group ultimately belonged to Christ. He consistently established his point by focusing on unity in diversity as it was realized in Christ.

Paul recognized that diversity may include an unnerving array of convictions, but as long as it was not openly divisive, as long as God's acceptance of divergent men and women was recognized and affirmed, the peace and the building of God's household would be sustained. Paul trusted God to ensure the continuity of the body, even when women and men were unsure of it. He called for an open structure, so long as the gospel itself was honored. In his own life and work Paul demonstrated the principle that it was not enough for him or the church to have a message and be convinced by it. The message had to make sense and have meaning for his hearers. People had to comprehend it in terms of the intellectual dis course and social milieu they respected.

Dare we do less? We must acknowledge that ministry does not have a single universal pattern. The message has, but not the method. We need to remind ourselves consistently that diversity of form does not threaten the essential unity of the body. The biblical understanding of diversity allows us to engage every legitimate gift God has placed in His church when it comes to gender, race, language, culture, ethnicity, tribe, and nationality.

The case of Cornelius

Consider one more biblical example, the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10). This remarkable story has insight and guidance that can aid our understanding of the freedom of the Holy Spirit at work within diverse cultures and backgrounds. As Peter told the story of Jesus to Gentile Cornelius and his household, a remarkable thing happened. The Holy Spirit began His work in the listeners (verse 44). This unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a group of Gentiles was surprising and baffling to the Jews who accompanied Peter (verse 45). They were amazed that the Holy Spirit could be available for both Gentiles and Jews. Up to that point it had been a customary belief, indeed, for some a theological conviction, that the Holy Spirit was an ethnic spirit Jewish. Now they were learning, perhaps for the first time, that God has no favorites. His Spirit is not bound by race, culture, gender, or nationality. Even Peter himself was astonished by this freedom and the transcending power of the Holy Spirit as He fell upon the Gentiles. Peter expressed his acknowledgment of this divine activity: "Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have?" (verse 47, Jerusalem).

In his dealing with Cornelius, Peter showed the exemplary courage to change. Later he would lapse into his ethnocentricism and thus force a confrontation with Paul (Gal. 2:7-16). But in this case he demonstrated obedience to the leading of the Spirit. This beautiful story illustrates at least two things that are relevant to our discussion on unity in diversity. In the first place, it demonstrates that the gospel cannot be exclusively identified with any particular culture and that it must be allowed to condition a given culture to be open to the specific work of the Spirit in all cultures. We must acknowledge the truth that God reaches people within their historical and cultural context. Along with this, there may be significant times when aspects of people's culture may, surprisingly to us and counter to our cultural preconceptions, be used by God to build up His kingdom and advance His mission in the world.

Second, the church in a particular diverse context will have to determine when a specific element, idea, or action is capable of becoming a suitable expression of the good news. The church must be vigilant in detecting how God may be leading it to a deeper comprehension of its mission within a particular culture. When God sees in His providence that the time is right, He may guide the church in this or that part of His vineyard by a startling means that may seem inconsistent with what has been considered the "true" or recognized way. The crucial question is whether the church in that particular place and time is willing and bold enough to follow God's leading. Within the biblical and theological framework of unity in diversity in Christ, the church must be responsibly open to experimentation and variety, or it may fail to follow the prompting of the Spirit Himself.

The church and culture

Historically, within the context of Adventist mission we have sometimes allowed the church to determine when a particular element in the culture is capable of becoming a suitable expression of the good news. What yesterday we considered objectionable in our missionary endeavor in a given country may today be considered an opportunity, culturally appropriate for the evangelization of the people. For many Adventists such diversity may not feel safe, but theologically and biblically it is right on the path of the Holy Spirit's guidance. What is required today of both leaders and laity is to act faithfully and responsibly in seeking to discover how God is at work in a particular culture, time, and place.

Again let us take the example of women's ordination. Against the backdrop of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's dynamic understanding of diverse local conditions in various parts of the world field under the guidance of the Spirit, perhaps our world divisions should reconsider and support North America in its effort to do what is best in the interests of God's mission where they are. We have to trust that what is true and good in Christ will succeed. Like Peter and Paul, we have to trust God to ensure the continuity of unity in diversity even when men and women are unsure of it. We honor God as the originator of unity by expressing the unity through the diversity we have and share in Christ.

Unity in diversity versus unity through polity

Conversely, North American Adventists must be careful not to think that African, South American, and Asian Adventists must become or think like them. What really holds us together is not unity through polity, but our common confession of "one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism." This oneness is articulated and set forth in what we consider to be the core beliefs of Adventism.

The New Testament genuinely advocates a unity in core doctrines, while allowing a diversity of forms that will express the variety within the body of Christ and the Christian experience. The degree of diversity required to fulfill our mission will vary from place to place, from situation to situation. The Holy Spirit has not yet exhausted the structural possibilities and forms of minis tries possible in the church. The New Testament does not encourage us to think that something should not be done simply be cause it is being done for the first time. The apostolic church and the Adventist Church have done things that Jesus did not do. And this thinking by no means applies only to the example of women's ordination.

As I review our global diversities, I am led to conclude that our danger lies not in the decision for or against such issues as women's ordination, but in a structural fundamentalism in which unity is derived through polity, as though polity is almost to be equated with absolute truth. My plea is that we not allow structure to distract us or to sabotage our essential oneness in Christ and His mission.

The beauty of the biblical view of unity in diversity in Christ versus unity through polity is the freedom of God to work in His church in fulfilling His mission in the world. He may will a new step in one place while practice continues unchanged elsewhere, for He takes account of all the facts, including sociological and cultural ones.


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Walter Douglas, Ph.D., chairs the Department of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

August 1997

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The case of the overlooked postscript: A footnote on inspiration

A stimulating historical study illuminating the nature of inspiration and revelation

Giving with Joy

Emphasizing the positive opportunities of Christian stewardship

Where is the storehouse?

In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where should tithe he returned: to the local church or the conference/mission? What is biblical?

Journeying through the crisis of loneliness

Causes for loneliness and helpful suggestions for dealing with it in the life of a pastor

Pastor Persecutors

A challenging perspective describing the characteristics and effects of contentious church members and some remedial suggestions for dealing with them.

The pastor after a moral crisis

Is restoration to ministry possible after a pastor's moral lapse?

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)