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.
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.)
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?
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.