Unity in Diversity
Synopsis: Unity is not uniformity; it is instead negotiating the essentials and non-essentials in a diverse fellowship. For Paul, one of those essentials was a fellowship where Gentiles are not forced to be Jews and vice versa. How is such unity in diversity expressed in our American society and in our American churches? According to Iris De León-Hartshorn, God’s Spirit is blowing things together that don’t naturally belong together and we now need to figure out how to live together as part of God’s reconciling mission for the world.
Why is finding unity in the church so hard? Our Anabaptist tradition has been especially unable to create any sustained organizational unity. We have splintered and parted ways over so many things throughout our history. And it appears that this will not end anytime soon considering how we are now splintering over same-sex marriage and related issues.
I’m conflicted about our inability to live under a big tent that welcomes and celebrates unity in diversity. Some pastors are reluctant to say anything on current social issues because their churches are so politically divided. Churches are dividing between being progressive and fundamentalist and we join a church that shares our beliefs. Is that good or bad—or perhaps a bit of both?
Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. It’s not about birds of a feather flocking together. From the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, it has been about the Spirit bringing together a diverse group of people. The early church didn’t have the institutional structures to split away from as we do today. It was a more fluid, interpersonal, network of people.
Good relationships in churches need space for differences. It’s like creating healthy space in a good marriage. If we become too enmeshed and controlling, we drive each other crazy and our relationships become toxic. The same is true for a healthy church fellowship. It’s never easy. We keep working at it and trusting that God’s Spirit is guiding and empowering us.
In that respect, it can be okay—even healthy—when different congregations and different church bodies take different stances on a given issue. It’s also good if we don’t try to push everyone into the same mold. This is expressed in the maxim, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty.” That would be much easier if we could all agree on what’s essential and what’s non-essential. Even so, it’s a start and expresses the kind of unity we can work toward.
What’s the essential core of our faith and how do the things we’re fighting about fit into that? The big fight between Paul and Peter at Antioch was precisely over such a matter. For Paul, having Gentiles and Jews eat together was essential to authentic Christian faith. Peter apparently didn’t see it the same way.
Paul was a passionate man who was controversial in his own day. As we see in his letter to the Galatians, he had heated—almost violent—arguments with other leaders in the early Christian movement. He called Peter out to his face over the matter of failing to eat with Gentiles. Later in the letter he says that he wished those who insist that Gentiles need to be circumcised would go castrate themselves (5: 12). He’s not being a polite negotiator.
What’s going on here? The ethnic and religious divide between Jews and Gentiles stretches back through the centuries. It shows itself all over the place in what we now call the Old Testament. It’s part of a deep-seated cultural animosity and sense of superiority that has stained human societies throughout history. In our country, it primarily expresses itself as white nationalism.
I’m presently reading the novel Pachinko, which tells the story of a Korean family that migrated to Japan shortly before WWII. Korea had been a colony of Japan and the Japanese treated Koreans with utter contempt. They thought Koreans were ignorant, lazy, criminal, and dirty. They made them live in slums and refused to hire them for anything other than the most menial labor. Yet ethnically, they weren’t that different. Second-generation Koreans living in Japan, who learned the language and culture, could often pass as Japanese.
All societies have the same problem to a greater or lesser extent. I saw the same thing in the Indian caste system when I lived in India, and in a yet different way in the Philippines. We can easily treat people from different races and cultures as evil and less than human. Paul’s a zealot who adamantly insists that such prejudice cannot be tolerated in the fellowship of those who follow Jesus.
For Paul and the early churches, this was complicated by the Jewish fight for independence from Roman rule. There was an ongoing, underlying insurgency in Palestine that finally broke out in a fierce revolutionary war against Rome in the year 66 CE, about 12 years after Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. The fight about Jews eating with Gentiles was, therefore, more than an internal matter of following Jewish purity laws. For Jewish Christians living in Palestine, to be seen eating with Gentiles could be seen as a possible betrayal of their fellow Jews. It could put them at great personal risk. Perhaps that’s why Peter thought it was better to not eat with Gentiles when Jewish believers from Jerusalem were visiting in Antioch.
For Paul, the church is a fellowship rooted in God’s grace where all ties of family, race, and nation become secondary. It goes beyond “mere agreement about doctrinal matters or in a joint ethnic heritage or in a national bond or in social homogeneity.” These are things we’re naturally attracted to and often still determine the membership of churches in our day. According to biblical scholar Charles Cousar:
The question . . . is whether these particular attractions usurp the function of the gospel as the essential bond of the church and end up as exclusive rather than inclusive ties. Rather than a unity, what tends to develop is a uniformity of perceptions, morals, or styles of life; and those who fail to conform move on or drop out. In contrast . . . the gospel produces a church in which unity exists with amazing diversity. Paul may at times appear to be an extremely stubborn theologian whose dogmatism is uncompromising, and yet ironically the truth he struggles for in the early church is one of diversity and mutuality, where Gentiles are not forced to become Jews and vice versa.
I’m glad Paul was dogmatic because this is one of those essential things. The big challenge is working it out. Let’s first consider it in relation to our American society. We’re one of the most racially diverse countries in the world and we’re becoming more diverse. The Latin words e pluribus unum (out of many one) is part of our American creed. It’s something people love about our country. It make us strong.
Still, we’re far from perfect and many of our major cities remain racially and socio-economically divided. Here in Washington DC, the east side of the Anacostia River is the poor, black part of town. And our president refuses to condemn white nationalists and refers to Hispanic immigrants as murderers and rapists. Such race-baiting has always been an ugly part of American politics. We have lots of work to do on all these fronts.
Another big challenge is racism within our churches. People in our denomination first migrated here as a German and Dutch minorities when we were still thirteen English colonies. We experienced our share of racial prejudice before eventually being absorbed into the white majority. Other denominations, including Catholics, have had similar experiences. That history can make it hard for us to acknowledge how racism works in our churches.
As a denomination, we have been working at diversity and are slowly becoming more diverse. Still most of our churches remain almost exclusively white and too many are ageing and slowly dying. To grow, we need to embrace diversity. One denominational breakthrough is that Glen Guyton, an African American, was recently installed as the new executive director of Mennonite Church USA.
Iris De León-Hartshorn, a Latina who’s the director of transformative peacemaking for our denomination, recently talked about some of this. She’s both excited and cautious. Excited by the gifts that Glen Guyton brings and the recent Journey Forward churchwide renewal process, and cautious because racism is still alive and well.
We often can’t seem to see how it operates in the church. Getting to the bottom of that requires some painful conversations.
Iris says that the Holy Spirt is a wind blowing things together that don’t necessarily belong together. We come together, not because we belong together but because God has brought us together and we now need to figure out how to live together. That was true in the early churches struggling with the divide between Jew and Gentile. It’s still true today. Iris explains:
Finding ways to stick together can be painful but as followers of Christ, that’s what we’re called to do. That’s the work of God’s reconciling mission for the world. It’s hard to work things out if one party leaves the conversation. When we have theological or ideological differences in how we see the church . . . we need to find ways to talk with and trust each other. If we can do that, we can find a way forward.
 Charles Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 41.
 Ibid., 41-42.
 “Q & A with Iris De León-Hartshorn,” Peacebuilder: The Magazine of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (2018-19): 4-5.