Introductory note: Diversity can analyzed in at least three spheres—behavior (action and lifestyle), belief (what we hold to be true), and belonging (social cohesiveness). This post focuses on the third category—the social aspects of unity—though the other two are lurking between the lines as well. All three areas relate to spiritual gifts, so I’ve included diversity of gifts in this consideration as well.
Which is true: “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposites attract”? Reality defies a simple answer. Social psychologists tell us it depends on a number of factors, including the level of relation one is considering (e.g., friends, romantic partners, clubs, etc.) and the type of characteristic under consideration (e.g., male-female [different gender = opposite] in heterosexual couples [both heterosexual = same]). While both forces are a social reality, it’s the flocking together of similar people that has been on my mind lately.
Social sorting is normal and natural. We develop bonds with people who share our interests, whether the commonality is professional, religious, political or recreational. Often multiple factors influence who we connect with (e.g., people in my faith community who have children the same age as mine, or people in my office who share my political views and are the same gender as me).
I do this. You do this. We all do this in some way.
Unity in Uniformity
This selection process is not entirely beneficial. We can easily cut out of our lives nearly everyone whose differentness makes us uncomfortable. We may only reach out to people of the same age, race, and socio-economic level. We may only make friends with people in our own denomination or religion. We may un-follow or un-friend everyone on Facebook who posts quotes for that other political party. This is the comfortable route. This is the least unsettling-path. This is also the best way to lose a broad perspective on life and the world.
Unity in Diversity
In my understanding, social diversity is a central feature of the kingdom of God. Jesus worked to break down the dividing walls of age, race, ethnicity, gender, social status, economic level, and all of the other major divisions.
Jesus welcomed the young children who the disciples tried to push away.
Jesus taught women (not just men) and had them travel with him.
Jesus called the rich tax collector and the poor fishermen to follow him.
Jesus sent his followers to every corner of the globe.
Jesus prayed that this diverse group would be unified (John 17:11-23).
Paul understood this social revolution and highlighted its significance for the church. We should not jump too quickly over the emotional content of these lists:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11, NIV)
Paul also spoke to the need for people with various gifts to be unified in one body (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4).
John wrote of the diverse group of humanity gathered in the age to come.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9; see also 5:9)
Ellen White, an early leader in the Seventh-day Adventist church, spoke much of unity in diversity.
From the endless variety of plants and flowers, we may learn an important lesson. All blossoms are not the same in form or color. Some possess healing virtues. Some are always fragrant. There are professing Christians who think it their duty to make every Christian like themselves. This is man’s plan, not the plan of God. In the church of God there is room for characters as varied as are the flowers in a garden. In His spiritual garden there are many varieties of flowers.—Letter 95, 1902 (Evangelism, p. 99)
It is the Lord’s plan that there shall be unity in diversity. There is no man who can be a criterion for all other men. Our varied trusts are proportioned to our varied capabilities…. Each worker is to give his fellow workers the respect that he wishes to have shown to himself.—Lt 111, 1903. (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 423)
Unity in diversity is God’s plan. Among the followers of Christ there is to be the blending of diverse elements, one adapted to the other, and each to do its special work for God. Every individual has his place in the filling up of one great plan bearing the stamp of Christ’s image…—Lt 78, 1894 (2 Mind, Character & Personality, p. 800)
I believe God’s call for the church is to be an inclusive, diverse body. I believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to overcome the forces that push us away from each other. I believe the church is to be a community that shows the world how people of different ages, income brackets, races, genders, political orientations, and other factors can live in harmony with love and respect.
I want to stand in that diverse group (Rev. 7:9), and I want the church to be a foretaste of that day now. May we live up to that high calling, and may I do my part by asking God to open my heart, mind and home.
When have I experienced unexpected hospitality and inclusiveness? How did this make me feel, and how did it affect my own approach to others?
What social division is most obvious in my life? That is, what is the characteristic that most of my friends have in common? What are the benefits and problems with this social situation?
What steps might I take to move beyond this barrier (in #2)? What changes in attitudes, words and actions might I need in order to reach out to people who are different in this way?
What social divisions has my congregation overcome? What divisions persist? What factors contribute to this division, and how might God move through me to change this?
In a world polarized by political dissent, how can Christians demonstrate better communication both within the church and in the broader society?
All religions and denominations have boundaries relating to belief, behavior and belonging. This is how one is distinguished from another. What are the positive and negative aspects of these boundaries? What purposes do these serve, and when or how might they become a problem? How do we decide where to draw these boundaries, and how do we decide how absolute or porous these various barriers should be?
How might these themes be applied to relations between Christian denominations or between Christians and those with other religions or worldviews?