Unity in a Diverse Body of Christ

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For several years, the students in a local campus ministry had me give seminars at their fall retreat. I think I ended up giving four or five different ones over as many years. Since I don't have a lot of time to post much this week, I thought I'd post my notes for one of these seminars. I've been wanting to put those notes online for a while now anyway. This was a talk on how to deal with the tension between the unity and diversity among Christians, designed primarily for an audience of Christian college students. The seminar was on October 19, 2002, about a year before I started a blog. I have left everything as it is in my notes, except one typo fix and one brief note toward the end about a section that appears to me missing (but probably never existed).

Four issues about unity and diversity will haunt us as we look through this:

A. Differences in belief in practice
B. Differences in ability or gifting
C. Differences of race, ethnicity, or other cultural issues
D. Different campus groups or local churches

What does unity look like when people disagree about the Bible’s teachings and how we should live? How does it work with different strengths and weaknesses? How can we seek unity across social barriers or cultural walls? What do we do on campus with different Christian groups, and what about local churches?

The first thing is to look to God’s word. We can see some things in the process and come back to anything else after looking at some passages. I have some thoughts on these below, but we might leave some things for a discussion time.

John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed for our unity, our oneness in him. What does this mean? If this prayer is fulfilled in every way, what would that look like?

1. Why unity? So the world would know the Father’s love for us and that Jesus was sent into the world (v.23).
2. How does unity do this? Sharing in and reflecting God’s glory unites us. The world sees him in us because he unites us (v.22). We’re in Jesus; he’s in us (v.21; also John 15 – “dwell in me, and I’ll dwell in you”). Jesus wants the Father’s love in us and himself in us (v.26). He wants the world to see the Father’s love (v.24) in Christ’s glory in us as we live in unity.
3. This is why unity among those who believe in Jesus is crucial. It shows the world who he is and what he does among people. (See Ephesians below.)

Ephesians 2:11-22

1. This passage is about a kind of unity among Christians – God’s bringing together people from his original chosen people, Israel, with people outside that community, those who didn’t have any relationship with God. Israel had “covenants of the promise” (v.12), agreements with God by which he’d bless them while they had certain obligations. We’re now in the new covenant, with the walls between Jewish people and Gentiles broken down.
2. A new people created from some old covenant people of God and some people in no covenant with God involves a new covenant, a citizenship more important than any earthly citizenship, looking to the restoration of all things and fulfillment of what we’ve only seen seeds of now. Together we have peace, like the Hebrew shalom, which is more than just getting along but rather wholeness and perfect relatedness within ourselves, with other people, and with God. This is restoration of everything lost at the fall in Genesis 3. We’re brought near to God. We’re one new humanity, we’re together a temple (God’s dwelling), a household that forms our true home.
3. We belong to an unseen reality. We’re citizens of a heavenly kingdom, active in the world now through citizens now here. It’s real now but will one day fully invade and overcome the fallen world that will pass away. Individually and as a group, we represent its reality to the world, as God restores people in relationships with him and each other (II Cor 5:11-21).
4. The consequences are astounding for cultural, ethnic, or racial issues. There aren’t different racial, ethnic, or cultural parts of the household of God. We are one people. Former divisions are done away with. If the fundamental division set up by God between his people Israel and other groups is ended, how can divisions within those Gentile nations have any ultimate meaning?

Ephesians 4:1-16

1. Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (v.3). Unity is grounded in what God has called us to –one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, through all, and in all (vv.4-5). This happens through humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. That’s what unity is.
2. However, there’s a different note – we have different gifts divided up among us by Christ. People have different abilities, to do different things. There’s a similar list in Romans 12:4-8 (and more in I Corinthians 12).
3. The Ephesians 4 and Romans 12 lists have more public and more hidden ways to serve, both everyday actions that require making the most of every opportunity and formal responsibilities. This is one, united body, but part of that unity is in its diversity of members with different abilities and strengths to contribute, to balance out other people’s weaknesses and needs.
4. The end of the Ephesians passage has a result – maturity, an image of the body growing in Christ, growing together as its parts hold it together.

I Corinthians 12

1. The same God works in different ways in different people (vv.4-6). Different gifts are listed. See also Romans 12:4-8 and Eph 4:11-13.
2. The body metaphor reappears in more detail. The body is a unit, but it has many parts that all work together for the good of the whole body (v.12)
3. Whereas Ephesians discusses just Jews and Gentiles being brought together into one, here we also have slaves and free, covering different social backgrounds (v.13). (Galatians 3:28 includes male or female in this also.)
4. In vv.14-21, all body parts are essential, no one dispensable. God has placed parts where he wants them. Why should he made everyone alike? His wisdom and love guide where we are and how we fit in to the body.
5. Weaker parts or parts that seem less honorable are if anything more important to God (vv.21-24). Throughout the Bible, God chooses the weak rather than the glorious, the less prominent rather than the honored.
6. If one part suffers, all suffer, and if one rejoices, all rejoice. We’re one, and our oneness is shown in our delight and sorrow shared with each other.
7. “Do all ______?” No gift can be expected. God divides gifts among people. There’s no room for pride, since all we have is from God (I Cor 4:6-7).
8. Paul then introduces the more excellent way – love – in chapter 13.

I Corinthians 13

1. The key to unity is love. God calls us to the love he had for us – love totally undeserved. We don’t love because people are lovable but exactly because they’re not. On our own, we’re unlovable, yet God who is love (I John 4:7) loved us. “We love because he first loved us.” (I John 4:19)
2. Visible manifestations of God’s power, incredible faith, giving sacrificially, even sacrificing your live can all be done without the key – love. We would do well to reflect long and hard on each characteristic of love in this chapter and think of our relationships with other believers in light of these.
3. Also look at Ephesians 4, I John 4, and John 13 in light of this.

Now we can look more at some of the trouble cases:

A. Differences of belief and practice

1. I Corinthians 1-4 is an important text against these sorts of divisions.
2. I Corinthians 5 shows Paul causing division with someone grossly sinning and being proud of it. The person won’t respond to those who lovingly seek restoration, and Paul expels the person. This should be a last resort. (See Matt 19:15-21 but note the following parable about forgiveness.)
3. Paul has harsh words in Galatians for those teaching a different gospel, something besides the good news of Jesus Christ passed down by apostles (and in our scriptures). Yet he rejoices in Philippians when people preach the true gospel to spite him! This is the love that unites believers.
4. Romans 14-15 and I Corinthians 8 and 10 deal with differences of opinion that don’t defy the gospel. Even if you’re right (Paul calls this group the strong), it may be worth sacrificing around those who disagree (the weak), if it will keep them from doing what they think is wrong. He won’t eat certain things in their company, though there’s nothing wrong with it.
5. Know the gospel in all its wonder. When someone disagrees with its fundamental claims, they aren’t part of the body of Christ. Those who accept the gospel may disagree with you, and there’s room for discussion to see which things are correct and which hold up to scripture, but there’s no room for dividing because of these issues. A group designed to have people who think or worship in the same way as each other misses the whole point of unity. That’s not something Paul would have allowed a division over.

[Note: For some reason my notes contain no section B on different giftings; perhaps I thought I'd already said enough about that.]

C. Differences of race, ethnicity, or other cultural issues

1. God created us diverse. Lots of elements of different cultures are worth understanding, enjoying, affirming, and keeping.
2. Every culture is infected with the sin that infects all creation. All creation groans for its removal (Rom 8:22), and it starts in the united body of Christ. We should learn to recognize the ungodly aspects of our own culture as we learn to recognize the strengths in other cultures.
3. The combining results in the diverse people God has called to himself and set apart, across time and language barriers, around the world. We limit our understanding of Christianity if we focus on those around us in space and time. We’re brothers and sisters of people 300 or 1400 years ago as much as of those here now. Take advantage of all the different nearby members of the body rather than just those of like interests, worship preferences, cultural background, or historical connections.
4. This doesn’t mean incorporating minority groups into a majority, which removes their distinctiveness. It doesn’t mean focusing on minority groups, which makes isolates them from others. It means being one body with diverse parts, with all the diverse parts essential. Then all the parts can learn and overcome weaknesses by interacting with others.

D. Different campus groups, different churches

1. People meet in different groups. They did this in the early church, for practical reasons like room size and location. There’s nothing wrong with this unless it’s division for the bad reasons above.
2. Unity with people in other groups is a unity of how we relate to each other in love, not a unity of physically being together when we gather.
3. Similar issues apply to different churches as to different campus groups.
4. I encourage you to be involved in a local church, not just a campus group. A single age group is not a good cause for division, and you miss out on those who have walked with God for 50 years and the wonderful contact with families modeling the kind of life most of you will have.


Nice summary and application. The point of contention in the whole thing for some will be "Know the gospel in all its wonder. When someone disagrees with its fundamental claims, they aren’t part of the body of Christ."

Many will claim that such a list of "fundamental claims" cannot be justified. They will demand that you show them some such claim from Scripture, specifically, though a large part of these dissenters deny the final authority of Scripture in the first place! The Campbellites claim that a mere verbal assent to Jesus Christ as Savior is sufficient - provided, of course, it is accompanied by faith, but that faith cannot be measured in any way except the verbal assent!

A challenge with 1 Cor 5 is that the person is expelled, but not described as an unbeliever. They bear the name of brother, yet are described as an evil person for their actions.

My question, since I stand with you on a vast array of theological issues, is this: do we have the right to call someone a non-Christian who claims they are? I'm actually uncertain in this.

do we have the right to call someone a non-Christian who claims they are

The most obvious way to read that sentence grammatically is to supply "a non-Christian" at the end, but I'm not sure why you'd think that question is uncertain. Maybe you mean it in the way that it would be if you supply "a Christian" at the end. I would say that I have a right to say of an atheist who claims to be a Christian that they're not a Christian. I would say that other cases are less clear. Our knowledge of a case isn't always very sure, even when our knowledge of the relevant principles is sure. We still need to apply them, and that may not always be easy or even possible.

I think there are some clear claims that the NT treats as fundamental. Confessing Christ as Lord is one. Those who merely say that Jesus is savior do not thereby confess him as Lord if they also deny what it means for him to be Lord.

Doesn't Paul imply that the expelled believer is to be treated as an unbeliever? He doesn't say the person really is an unbeliever, but it sounds as if he's saying that the person is to be treated the way outsiders to the church are treated: "removed from among you", "deliver this man to Satan", then more generally of anyone bearing the name brother who is immoral: "not to associate with", "not even to eat with such a one", and "purge the evil person from among you". [all quotes from ESV]

My grammar is typically sharper than that...I did mean one who claims to be a Christian.

Is there a literary basis for the meaning of "confessing" that you are using here? While we certainly can apply communication to our actions, do we have evidence that leads us to believe that "confession" is most likely to mean a body of actions? It seems that the passages requiring that we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord are fairly restrictive in the scope of what confession means in those contexts.

Furthermore, I agree that the expelled believer is to be treated as an unbeliever. Yet, especially when we consider the fellow who Paul recommends expulsion for in 1 Corinthians 5 and then (seemingly) his reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 2, there seems to be some support that these who were cast out are allowed to return, not because they became converted 'for real', but because they were repentant and abandoned their ungodly lifestyle.

Of course, we cannot dispute that any who preach any other Gospel but that which the apostles preached are cursed. How then do we decide what is worth division? We speak not of those who are ignorant, but those who resist. I would suggest perhaps the early church's word of faith, a precursor to the Apostles Creed, with possibly the clarifications of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. I think that other areas that are important that are not specifically included in these (such as the propitiatory and expiatory sacrifice of Christ in our place and for us) need not be included, not because they aren't fundamental, too, but because an absence of them would be also accompanied by absences of the creed (denial of the bodily resurrection or virgin birth, for example, which indicate His Lordship).

Sorry for the length. It has been on my mind for some time.

The only mentions I'm aware of that restrict confession to the mouth also add believing in your heart. That makes me think that confession involves more than that, at least implicitly, when there's no need to add believing in your heart.

Yes, the return of that particular person shows, at least prima facie, that he was genuine all along, provided that his return lasts to the end.

I'm not certain at all what I think the content of faith must include propositionally for genuine salvation. It's clear that it involves trust in a person, but how many of the truths about that person are required? It's clear that it involves a stronger commitment than mere propositional belief, because the demons have that, but mere commitment without any sense of what you're committing to doesn't amount to any commitment. I will insist that we're not saved by faith in some particular theory of the atonement or theological position. It's not faith in some theological truth that saves us. It's faith in Christ. It's trust in him.

I think that trust can be present in someone whose theology is unbiblical, particularly if they can't trace out the implications of the unbiblical elements of their views. But I'm not at a point now where I can delimit where all those lines are going to be drawn.

You're right that the focus on false teaching is mostly a condemnation of those teaching the false things, and I'm open to the idea that their victims are genuinely saved despite following false teachings (at least in certain particular cases), but at the same time the point of the condemnation of false teaching is that it leads people astray. Several places in the NT seem to justify the harsh treatment of false teachers on the ground that false teaching leads people not just astray in terms of propositional truth but leads them away from following the only one whereby they may be saved, and thus it keeps them from salvation.

Thank for taking the time to delineate all of that. It's pretty much where I am, but I struggle as I see people who teach unbiblical doctrine, and am told I can say they are wrong, but cannot say that they are unregenerate.

I recognize that it is not my place to judge eternally - but "You brood of vipers!" does seem to be rather direct temporal declaration. I also recognize the vast gap between believing a list of propositional truths and following Christ, yet I do believe that one can not follow Christ without agreeing to those propositions when they are demonstrated from Scripture, tradition and reason.

I suppose I'll have to stick with "Every indication I see leads me to believe you are in all likelihood probably not a servant of Christ."

"You brood of vipers" was also uttered by Jesus. Whatever sense in which it's appropriate to imitate Jesus, I don't think it's appropriate to imitate his self-understanding about his knowledge of people's hearts (and of where they would end up in the future, for that matter).

I also recognize the vast gap between believing a list of propositional truths and following Christ, yet I do believe that one can not follow Christ without agreeing to those propositions when they are demonstrated from Scripture, tradition and reason.

I'm completely with you on that, but the question here isn't whether there are propositions that are necessary. It's which ones are necessary.

Actually I was thinking of John the Baptist, but the point is taken. Which are necessary? There's the rub...

John the Baptist was still a prophet, delivering messages from God.

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole - four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months - I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away - but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 - 17].

Peace be With You

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