Can the Churches of Christ Have Unity in Diversity?

"Diversity" is a word charged with meaning in our world.  It usually provokes strong emotions from both proponents and antagonists.  In the secular world arguments for diversity rest upon two postulates: 1) Racial discrimination in the past necessitates positive inclusion of minority groups in decisions in order to "make up" for past discrimination in organizations 2)  "Studies show how diversity improves academic performance, reduces prejudice, lowers stress and psychological barriers, and has broad positive effects on workforce development." (1) This latter statement is the result of research of the social scientists who filed an amicus brief in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas

So how does this term “diversity” apply in the church setting or perhaps more appropriately in the kingdom setting? It should be clear the bible does not countenance any discrimination based upon race. Galatians 3:28 (NIV) “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”   So, there is no question that diversity in this sense is a fundamental tenet of any grouping of Christians.   In one respect this corresponds to the moral argument for diversity in the secular world.  That is, there is no place for discrimination based on the moral grounds for equality alone.

The second tenet for secular diversity is based on sociological arguments.  In this case both gender and racial diversity are postulated to give better organizational outcomes. Specifically, “racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share, and greater relative profits. Gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits.” (2)   Since there is no question that neither racial nor gender discrimination is permitted in a Christian group, setting aside the question of different roles for the present, it is the positive attributes that people from different backgrounds and different gifts bring that would enhance the service of Christian bodies.   This second tenet is certainly in line with the teaching that Christ gives each Christian “gifts”. (Eph 4:7-8) Each Christian is to be equipped to use these gifts in “works of service.” (Eph 4:12).  This corresponds with Paul’s teaching on the diversity in the body of Christ. Paul explains this in I Cor. 12:12 and continues through 12:27:  “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. “ …… Certainly here he is talking about the diversity among the individual members of the church. 

I wish to explore another meaning for “diversity” in the church.  In what sense can the beliefs and interpretations of scripture be diverse by either members or congregations and still “unity” be maintained?  In particular can the church be unified in diversity?  Is this type of unity biblical?

Let us examine whether individual members can have diverse views and still be “united”.   Closely related to “unity” are the concepts of being “one” and the concept of “fellowship.”  If we are “united” does this make us “one?”   What does it mean to be in “fellowship?”   And, in our discussion, how much “diversity” can we have and still be considered to be “one”, in “unity”, and in “fellowship?”

Perhaps, we should first explore what “unity” means in the biblical setting. The most comprehensive statement of unity is found in Eph 4:1-6

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

A striking portion of this scripture is the call for patience, love, and peace in fostering unity.    This unity is one “of the Spirit.” The Greek term for “unity” used here, ἑνότης, is only found here and in verse 13.  It “means a state of oneness or of being in harmony and accord.” (3).  Of course this brings the question of what being in harmony and accord means.  Whatever it is, it is “of the Spirit”.  Also, it is clear since the Ephesians are to “keep” or maintain this unity.  It is something that already exists, not something they are creating “from scratch”.  It is to be maintained “through the bond of peace.” Within the larger context of Ephesians the letter can be summarized as one of “reconciliation”.  The reconciliation is of Jew to Gentile and of man to God through Christ (Eph 2:14-18). The context is of maintaining unity through peace of Christians with very different backgrounds and ideas—that of Jews and Gentiles.   

These concepts of “bonding” and “peace” are also found in Paul’s writing to Colossi. (Colossians 3:14-15)

14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. “


Here “love” is the bonding ingredient with peace the result. 


The unity of the Spirit in the church is next expressed in Ephesians by the seven ones: 1) one body, Spirit, and hope 2) one Lord, faith, and baptism and 3) one God.  Paul talks extensively about the oneness of the body.  In Christ, there is only one body.  We have only one Spirit.  We have the same hope given by the gospel of Christ.  Before reconciliation we had no hope.  The calling of our hope is the calling of the gospel.  It is the calling of the reconciliation of man to God and to one another in Christ. The triad of the one Lord, faith, and baptism are tied together.   These three are bond together as the “baptismal declaration of faith” in Christ as Lord.  This concept is central. 


Galatians 3:27–29 (NIV)  27” For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. “1 Corinthians 12:13–14 (NIV) 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

It would seem from the above that baptism is one of the unifying forces.  The ending of course is the Oneness of God in all of this. 

We have discussed oneness and unity but not yet fellowship, nor have we discussed either in terms of “diversity”.   The word for “fellowship” is κοινωνία which means “close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, (3).  There can be many types of “fellowship”.   There can be fellowship in ministry (2 Cor. 8:4), the right hand of fellowship in spreading the gospel (Gal. 2:9, Eph 5:11, Phil 1:5), fellowship of the Spirit (Phil 2:1), fellowship in giving and receiving (Phil 4:15), fellowship with affliction (Phil 4:14), and fellowship with sin (Rev 18:4)

We wish to explore the theological basis of fellowship and what this basis means for fellowshipping one another.  Here is what John has to say:

1 John 1:3–7 (NIV) We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

It is the fact of the existence of Christ as Savior in the flesh that John proclaims and this is the theological basis of fellowship of John with other Christians and with the Father. There is another basis given here as well.  One cannot continue to live a life of sin and expect to have fellowship with either Christ or other Christians.  But, this does not mean Christians must be “sinless” in the sense they commit no sin?  The answer is no. Christ’s blood takes care of that.  So, we may conclude that fellowship is extended by John to those that believe in the tenets of the gospel (Christ came in the flesh, died, buried, and was resurrected).  In one sense the remainder of this epistle of John gives the basis for this fellowship and how we can know we have fellowship with him (See 1 John 5).

In order to illuminate how much diversity we can have and still be “unified”, it is instructive to examine some of the practices in congregations depicted in the New Testament.   Let us began with the congregation in Jerusalem.  The first church established on the Day of Pentecost was decidedly a “Jewish” church.  By Jewish is meant not only ethnic origin, but Jewish in its practices.  After its establishment, Peter prompted by the Lord in a vision preached the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts  10).  Gentiles, of course did not observe the Jewish laws and rites.  He was immediately criticized by Jewish brethren for this (Acts 11).  After the stoning of Stephen, persecution scattered some of the Jerusalem converts.  Some of them from Cyprus and Cyrene went to the Gentiles in Antioch.  The Jerusalem church sent Barnabus to Antioch.  He recruited Paul for work together at Antioch and also they proceeded on the first mission trip together.   After some time they returned to Antioch.  Here “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  They also wished them to keep the Law of Moses. “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.”  This prompted the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 where ultimately the elders and apostle at Jerusalem gave the following instruction to their Gentile brothers: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” 

However, it is evident the Jerusalem church continued themselves to observe the law.  Later when Paul returned to Jerusalem in Acts 21 we find the following:

Acts 21:17–26 (NIV)

17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” 26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

I have quoted this extensively to illustrate how diverse the actual practices of the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem and the Gentile congregation were.  The Christians at Jerusalem continued their Jewish rites and customs.  Paul did so as well.  The Gentiles neither did this nor were required to do so.   For the purposes of our discussion, it is clear that the Jews in Jerusalem (which continued their religious rites and traditions as Jews) and the Christians in Antioch were in “fellowship”.    It also seems clear that the Jews above who were “zealous for the law” and believed one had to be circumcised were still in fellowship with the elders and church there even though they still believed Gentiles should do so.  In other words they were baptized believers that had a serious doctrinal error but not “put out” or dis-fellowshiped from the Jerusalem church.  Of course Paul had to continually combat Jewish Christians (teachers) who tried to bind the law on Gentiles for salvation (e. g. the letters to the Galatians and Romans). 

Does this mean that the Jerusalem Christians would have been “comfortable” worshiping with Gentiles in Antioch who did not observe their Jewish rituals?  I doubt it.  Does this mean Gentiles would have been totally at ease going to the Jerusalem worship service? Probably not.  But, lack of comfort is not a reason for not treating the others as “brothers in Christ.”

Let us see what other diverse practices we find in the scriptures with Christians still considering the participants “brothers.”   How diverse were the practices of Christians at Corinth?  First, Paul calls those in the church at Corinth “brothers and sisters” (I Cor. 1:26).   However, it is clear that there will be “brothers and sisters” who have different levels of maturity and thus with different understandings about what is an accepted religious practice (here eating meats sacrificed to idols).   Clearly there was a diversity of human “status” and no admonition to change this unless this enhanced one’s ability as a Christian: I Cor. 7:17-24


17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. ……20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.


Perhaps the greatest statement of the freedom we have in religious practice is Paul’s in I Cor. 9:19-23


19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.



This statement is consistent with what we have observed in Paul’s behavior in Acts.  In addition, Paul speaks of our freedom (even of religious practices) in his letter to Colossae: (Col. 216-23)


Colossians 2:16–23 (NIV)

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.


Clearly, there is a great deal of freedom implied by these verses.   At same time, there is great admonition against imposing certain practices upon others.


The problem is the issues at the center when Paul was writing are not the issues today.  Most discussion is of two central natures: 1) Jewish practices vs. Freedom in Christ and 2) Gentile cultural practices vs. Freedom in Christ.   So, what was central to the limits of diversity then?  Clearly, unity without diversity would be conformity.  But, clearly first century congregations were not uniform in composition or religious practices.   The limits to diversity are sometimes stated as determining the limit of what is “truth” vs. what is “error.” Unfortunately stating the question this way most often leads to disunity, not unity. What is “truth” to one group may be “error” to another depending on how one interprets scripture.  Perhaps, we should examine what issues the apostles would not tolerate within the body.   That is, what are the core theological principles that unite Christians? 


First, it should be clear that the form of what we call the “formal” worship service was not the source of unity.   The Corinthian church and the Jerusalem church members did not have a “liturgy” or set form when they met.  In fact, there is no evidence of a set form worship services are to follow anywhere found in the New Testament.  One can immediately conclude that “worship wars” among us have little basis for conflict.     A set liturgy or set form to conduct a worship service may be “comfortable” and serve to say “we are in the right place” but is not a basis of unity nor should be a basis of disunity.  One place may conclude singing three songs (led by a song leader from the front), having a prayer, serving the Lord’s Suppers, having preaching and always concluding with an invitation song and a final prayer is good practice.   This “good practice” before long become “traditional” with deviations frowned upon.  Then it quickly becomes “sinful” if things are done differently.  Never mind that the first Christians who met in homes would not have had anything like this order (cite the church at Corinth or Jerusalem).


It would seem that the scriptures condemn those that:


 1) Deny the deity of Christ (I John)

2) Practice sin (many lists of vices and sins) as a way of life and

 3) Those that bind practices as a condition of salvation other than the simple gospel (Paul’s many admonitions against binding the Jewish law on Gentiles). 

 The major principles for unity are also three:

1)      We are united through love for one another and peace

2)      We are united by our acceptance of Christ and faith as our Savior through his death, burial, and resurrection and through his Grace the forgiveness of sins

3)      We are united by the unity of the Spirit given by our having  a) one body, Spirit, and hope and  b) one Lord, faith, and baptism and c) one God 

This leaves a lot of room for unity in diversity.


1. How Diversity Trumped Equity—and May Kill Affirmative Action. Color Lines. [Online] Oct 10, 2012. [Cited: Jan 15, 2013.]

2. Herring, Cedric. Does Diversity Pay?: Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity. American Sociological Review. [Online] Dec 2012. [Cited: JaN 15, 2013.]

3. Arndt, W., Danker, F.W, and Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000.


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