Unity and Diversity in the Body of Christ
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I’ve been reading the news a lot over the last 8 months. There has been a lot of talk about diversity. Suddenly, organizations and institutions are asking themselves how diverse they are and looking strategically at how they can grow in this area. Diversity is not a new thing, although it might seem like something that is trendy right now. The Bible has quite a bit to say about diversity and our passage today is a great example of how God’s desire for his people is that they value both diversity and unity. I want to start by giving a definition for diversity. There are a few different definitions out there, but the one I’m going to use is Diversity as the existence of variations of different characteristics in a group of people. I’m using this definition because it can apply to the diversity we see in God. The Trinity is diverse in that, it is One God with Three distinct Persons who have different characteristics. Unity, as described in the Bible, is based on the unity found in the Trinity. It refers to an organism that is inseparable in nature and is bound by the Spirit. The Church is to be a body that personifies both diversity and unity. And, it should come as no surprise to us, that from the time of the Corinthians to the present day, this has been a struggle.
I try not to read the news during times of political change because the word ‘evangelical’ starts getting thrown around. This is a word that has been stolen from the church. If I ask you to imagine what an “evangelical” looks like, maybe someone like Billy Graham comes to mind, someone older, white, wealthy, American, and someone male. In the media, this term is often used to describe a small group of like-minded people when in reality, in the past 100 years, the word “evangelical” has come to describe the most diverse group of people in the history of the world. An evangelical person is simply someone who believes that faith comes by grace alone. There was a time in history when the majority of evangelicals were living in the Western world, but in the last hundred years, Christianity has shifted in that, the Western world is seeing a decline in Christians and much of the growth in Christianity is happening in Africa and Asia and in Latin America. If we’re going by percentages though, a better representation of evangelicals as a group would be someone who is young, poor, female, and living in Asia. If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that the Church no longer belongs to the West.
The shift in missions is another great example of how the Church is changing. Missionaries are no longer centralized in the West and heading out from there, but they are going from east to east and south to north and southeast to West. I remember meeting a man from Nigeria who told me that he was a missionary. When I asked him where he worked as a missionary, I was surprised when he answered, “here in Toronto”. In my mind, missionaries left Canada, they didn’t come to Canada. As migration continues, Christianity continues to spread. The missionary movement we’re seeing is not that of professional Christians going to serve in another country but of every day Christians leaving their countries for a new place and living out the gospel and spreading the gospel as communities of people. An example of this is the Filipino population in Saudi Arabia. It is growing and quite rapidly, and some estimate that there are now 300 Filipino churches there. Korea has 20,000 missionaries living in over 160 countries. Our own Mission partner CBM has a growing ministry to Chinese nationals studying in Germany. And if you look at numbers for church growth in Toronto, we’re seeing the most growth among our Iranian and Chinese populations. This is the global Church; it is diverse and it is growing.
If the Global Church is the most diverse group of people in the world, then are we seeing that reflected in our churches here in the West? I think we’ve made good headway in that we have diverse people in our churches, but diversity is more than just different people in the pews. Evaluating diversity requires us to look at leadership and decision-makers, at influencers and resources. And when we look into it, we will there is still a lot of inequality in the Church. The wealth of the Global Church is concentrated in the West, even though Western Christians make up a small percentage of Christians. Opportunities for theological education, particularly in developing countries, tend to be reserved for men. And so much of the literature that comes out on how to grow a church, how to interpret the Bible, and how to lead is written by one group of people – namely white American men. To use Paul’s terms from our passage, if we look at who is honoured in the evangelical Western world, it’s white male leaders. This is telling of where we are at with diversity. The Church today is culturally very different from the Corinthian church that Paul was writing to, but the issues they were facing are the same ones before us now.
Paul gives us one of the most well-known and effective metaphors for the Church in this passage – the body of Christ. Being a member of the body of Christ is not like being a member of a church. Membership at a church is optional. If you are a disciple of Christ, you don’t have the option of doing it alone. It requires attaching oneself to brothers and sisters in Christ. It requires that we are committed to one another, that we are tied together with the bond of the Spirit. This is not optional; the bond exists and we are to make effort to preserve this bond. It is necessary for the healthy functioning of the church. It is necessary for the coming Kingdom here on earth. This passage is advocating for a communal ethic that overcomes any differences we have.
This text shows us it is possible to celebrate difference because of the radical claims of Christian unity. Human history shows that we are obsessed with differences. We love to categorize and separate. I was reading a book back in the summer that described racial-classifications given to Black and Indigenous people living in America. You had terms like mulatto, quadroon, octaroon or hexadecaroon if you were 1/16th black. Historically, we have the same thing here in Canada with a classification system for Indigenous Peoples. The problem with these systems is that they are based on colonial ideologies that believe in racial superiority. When we focus on differences from a place of what are perceived to be lacking, we end up divided and failing to honour the image of God that exists in each of us.
Paul was concerned about the divisions in the Corinthian Church. Back in chapter one, the believers were putting themselves into categories, based on which leader they followed, either Paul or Apollos, and here in chapter 12, Paul addresses what seems to be tension over racial differences and socio-economic differences. He says in verse 13 “we are all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free”. He then goes on to talk about what it means to be a part of the body. He has three things that help us honour diversity and live in unity.
In the body of Christ, every part is important, just like in our physical bodies, every part is important. There is no room for either an inferiority or superiority complex in the body – all are equally important. This equality is something that Baptists in particular value – the priesthood of all believers, that each member should have a voice and a place at the table. This was a hard transformation that the Corinthian church had to make because they were in a culture of hierarchies. Their religious gatherings before had been a place for respectable Jewish men to gather, and now they are meeting in houses and there are women present and Greeks present and slaves present. And you can look at this gathering and say “how will they ever get over their differences?”. This is a question that we may ask from time to time, how can we ever get over our differences and learn to live together? And the answer comes when we stop seeing our differences as threatening and start seeing them as beautiful and necessary. The Church is a beautiful thing, it is a beautiful reflection of God’s trinitarian diversity. How marvelous that all are welcomed into this family of God.
2) God arranges the body
The other thing that Paul wants the church to know is that God arranges the body. Verse 18 says that God arranged the members of the body, each one as he chose. Just as God chose each believer in the Corinthian church, God has chosen you. God has called you into this body. If you have never been chosen for anything, remember that God chose you. This is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility. God didn’t choose you so you could sit back and enjoy your chosenness. God chose you, so you could live out his glory in your home, in your church, and in your community.
3) We need each other
There are parts of the body that we don’t pay attention to and maybe think are not essential, particularly those parts that are unseen. For example, I rarely think about my spleen. What does it do? Do I really need it? But just because I can’t see what it’s doing, doesn’t mean it’s not contributing to the healthy functioning of my body. Most of us probably take our bodies for granted, until something goes wrong. We don’t start thinking about those unseen parts until they’re not working properly. In the church, we need to be careful that as a body, we don’t take any members for granted. Everyone has a different manifestation of the Spirit. So how does the Spirit want to move through you? God has given his church everything they need to function and to grow, and if we’re not seeing that, then it’s because we’re ignoring the unseen parts of the body. If we’re paying too much attention to one group of people, the body of Christ suffers. If we’re ignoring one group of people, the body of Christ suffers.
By understanding that we are all equal in God’s eyes, by acknowledging that God has called each one of us, and by recognizing our need for each, we honour the diversity that God has given us and we maintain that Holy Spirit unity. There’s a saying that goes “The Ground is level at the foot of the cross”. This is what evangelicals believe; that we can all approach the cross, not because of our goodness or because we deserve it, but because God’s in His grace invites us to come. We need to ask ourselves, who we find easy to honour, and who we find easy to ignore. And then we need to let them know that they are valued.
For those without a title – you are valued.
For those without an income – you are valued.
For those with don’t know the first thing about systematic theology, you are valued.
For those who don’t speak English – you are valued.
For those who have been discriminated against because of your skin colour, gender, or disability – you are valued.
The only President I want to talk about today is Nelson Mandela. In his inaugural speech, he spoke about people feeling inadequate and asking “Who am I”? Maybe we’ve asked ourselves these questions before; who am I to be a leader, who am I to speak, who I am to make decisions in the church? And the answer comes, “who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”
So, children of God, why do we need diversity in the body? Not because it’s trendy, not because it makes us look good. The time has come for Western Christianity to diversify so we can experience the fullness of God. Western Christianity is a faith that, in recent history, has been formed in relative comfort and ease. The faith we see gives us part of the story of the family of God, but it’s not the whole story.
Tuesday evening, I was sitting at my computer and I was captivated by the leader I saw speaking before me. A church in Ottawa has been putting on a series of talks entitled “We are all Treaty People”. The guest speaker on Tuesday was Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come and he described how he came to Christ. His childhood was spent in a residential school where he suffered abuse. But when he became an adult, he started reading the Bible. He realized that Jesus loved him. And his life was changed. He’s from a Cree town in Northern Quebec where a few of us from Blythwood visited back in 2018. While there we heard other stories like his, of people who had suffered hardship under a Church and State that saw difference as a threat to be eliminated. We heard of their love for Christ despite all that they had been through. I often remember their stories when I’m reading the book of Isaiah. There is a verse that says the survivors will go to the nations and they will proclaim my glory. We have many Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who are survivors, and who are proclaiming God’s goodness and love.
Faith Bible Chapel in Misstissini was officially welcomed into the CBOQ a few weeks ago. We are grateful to have them in our Church family. We need to hear more of their stories. We need their knowledge and their passion and their leadership. They are a part of the body that has been less honoured than other parts. We can do better.
We start at the cross. Our unity begins at the foot of the cross. Paul instructs the believers in this unity and it’s based on two things. 1) Christ alone was crucified for them and 2) they were all baptized into Christ. Christ is our source. As we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized in the Family of God. This means that when one suffers, we all suffer. This means that when one rejoices, we all rejoice. Diversity is not a trend, it’s a gift from God. May God forgive us for the ways we have failed to honour this gift. And may His Spirit help us see and honour those who have been ignored as we seek to fully embrace the beauty that exists in the body of Christ.