There is an inherent tension in the church between unity and uniqueness. This tension reveals the church’s greatest strengths and its greatest challenges. We’ll explore both in turn before examining those strengths and challenges. But at the outset let’s glance ahead and recognize that both truths are to be embraced as we do church.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples shortly before His arrest asked, in part, for unity. “I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.” (John 17:23a, NASB95) Early in Acts, there are indications of unity such as “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:14, NASB95) This unity is marked by love for one another.
Unity contains thoughts of sameness, mutuality of honor and acceptance, and the passion of everyone pulling in the same direction. There is agreement with one another in unity and humility when disagreements bubble to the top.
Humans strive after unity in many ventures. This manmade unity is different than that of the church as it is built on performance and not on love. In manmade unity, the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual to the point of sacrificing members to maintain its power. The way of Christian unity is not the worlds way towards unity.
Christian unity is based on the love of Christ and love of one another. It’s more like family unity than that found in armies, businesses, social clubs, and political parties. That difference leads us to the second side of our equation of tension, the uniqueness’s found within the church.
Within the church are people. Each one a unique blend of character, experiences, abilities, gifts, and hang-ups. Paul likens these differences to the parts of a body. “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.” (1 Corinthians 12:14–15, NASB95) Each person brings value to the whole in some way, some more obvious than others.
Most churches recognize some degree of variation among its members. But the real question is scope – how broad of a spectrum of differences does God expect. For some churches the acceptable scope is limited to variations within a type, everyone is expected to be a foot of different shapes and sizes. But if an ear shows up, watch out. I hope you get the picture. This narrowing of scope creates a pseudo-unity. We feel unity because we’re alike, but it misses the mark.
By standard measures, a broadly scoped church doesn’t feel unified, but it can be. It all comes down to what we do with the differences. Are they accepted simply as a mark of how broad-minded we are? Are they ignored and boiled down to a sub-set of agreement? Or are they accepted and integrated into the church body as a whole?
Let’s make this personal for a moment. I have a friend at the Vineyard Church Peoria who is my polar opposite in many respects. I could go down the list of personality, temperament, giftings, and political leanings to find that in each one we are vastly different. So, I can ignore and in someway discard all the differences and center on the one point of commonality – our love of Jesus – and go on with life. All the while feeling kind of superior and big-hearted. Or we can embrace the differences between us and use them to see things beyond our view and grow in ways impossible on our own.
This often means accepting more than one answer and diving headfirst into the pool of reality. Sometimes it means compromise and finding ways forward that incorporates multiple viewpoints. Often it means allowing love to cover a multitude of perceived offenses and sin. But inside of that is a humble unity which doesn’t require alikeness but welcomes our differences.
But there is one piece missing. You see, diversity for diversity sake isn’t the answer. In all of this, there is one common center – Jesus Christ. We are unified in our love of Jesus. Everything flowing towards and from that common center. This Christ-centered unity with diversity is what separates churches from social clubs, service organizations, and gatherings of friends. As Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, NASB95)