How do we connect unity and diversity?
Unity and diversity: How do you connect these two words? Unity in diversity? Unity despite diversity? Unity without diversity?
Ephesians 4:11-16 suggests unity through diversity. In this text, the apostle Paul seems to say that differences are essential to the growth of each person and the whole Christian community.
For a culinary parallel, when one makes a cake, it is not done despite the flour or despite the eggs but rather through or as a result of the combination of different ingredients. The final delicious taste is a result of the integration of all ingredients.
Our human tendency is to create unity by erasing differences. We try to transform the other into our likeness or exclude the presence of the other who is different because that difference calls into question who we are. The resulting uniformity, then, presents only the illusion of unity.
Even God’s own nature shows unity through diversity: one God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). We also see unity through diversity in the human body, in the natural world and in the Bible. The Bible contains 66 different books with different literary genres, written by different authors in different historical contexts. The unity of the Bible is composed through the diversity of each story and is based on what God is doing in human history.
Observing how God creates unity, we are led to understand that true Spirit-given unity requires diversity. Different aspects of an entity do not alter its nature but constitute its true essence.
From the beginning of Christianity, there have been different spiritualities, different ways of understanding and living out our relationship with God. Spirituality does not come in one-size-fits-all. Though there is a common core of spirituality, we find different accents within the New Testament itself. Each accent has its strong points, its “pearls” to offer to the larger Christian body. Yet each also has inherent and potential pitfalls if not held with other spiritualities.
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes a lifestyle of radical obedience to the teaching of Jesus. But focusing on holiness can degenerate into a judgmental legalism that cuts us off from God’s grace and our own humanity.
Luke’s Gospel accentuates working for social justice and reaching out to the marginalized and most vulnerable in society. It underlines that salvation is not just about catapulting a person’s soul into heaven but includes shalom, well-being and reconciliation for all people. This accent, however, can lead to activism and believing that the only criteria of success are visible, measurable results that depend on one’s efforts.
John’s Gospel reflects a contemplative spirituality of direct union with God, in a “loving attention” to this triune God who dwells within us. This form of spirituality reminds us of the importance of silence and solitude in the Christian experience. The risk is an individualistic, disembodied spirituality that neglects engagement with injustice in the world.
The Book of Acts underlines the role of the Holy Spirit in empowering the church for witness and growth. It reminds us of the importance of actively experiencing the power and gifts of the Spirit in the church. The potential danger, though, is that we treat faith as an amusement park, looking for ever more spectacular spiritual attractions and equating spiritual growth with manifestations of power. There may also be a Harry Potter tendency that believes that all we need to do is wave the magic wand of our faith and God will transform our suffering into blessing.
Many of Paul’s writings stress the importance of correct doctrine, the objectivity of revelation and its faithful transmission in “fighting the good fight.” The danger may be seeing oneself as the sole guardian of the faith, ready to raise the sword against those deemed to hold false doctrines. There may be an unwillingness to cooperate with others if there is not total agreement on all doctrinal points.
To build a truly unified community, we need all these different accents. Welcoming the strengths of each form of spirituality keeps the church balanced and checks potential pitfalls inherent in each expression. As a community excludes one or more of these forms, its spirituality becomes impoverished and distances itself from Jesus’ example. We need each other with our different forms of spirituality in order to grow into fuller Christlikeness, into the “measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).
Christ’s bride, the church in her diversity, wears a pearl necklace. Each spirituality is a pearl, nestled among the other pearls. Each has its own shape, color and radiance. Each pearl is different but is united by a single strand to make up the necklace that adorns Christ’s body.
Linda Oyer is a staff member of the Paris Mennonite Center, where she develops and teaches Anabaptist theology, Christian spirituality and spiritual direction. This article was adapted from the closing address of the second international French-speaking conference for Women in Leadership held last April.