uick free association exercise: If I say the word “diversity,” what comes to mind? Multi-culturalism? Gender equality? Pluralism? Social Justice?
I would guess that you probably didn’t say “theology,” at least not right off the bat. But in the Christian community, is there a way of thinking about diversity that is not merely a matter of inclusivity and tolerance, but about the nature and mission of the Church as it gives witness to the character of the Kingdom of God?
In his noteworthy book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, N.T. Wright uses two metaphors to talk about the Church: the river and the tree. Wright says both are necessary to understand the nature of diversity in the Church. First, Wright says the Church is like a river with a multitude of tributaries. Each tributary starts at a different lake or spring, but all of the tributaries flow together into one river. He puts it this way:
The image of the river reminds us forcibly that, though the church consists by definition of people from the widest possible variety of backgrounds . . . they belong to one another and are meant to be part of the same powerful flow, going now in the same single direction. Diversity gives way to unity.
We know this, don’t we? The Church is to be a community that welcomes people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Diversity as the Biblical Norm
At the founding of the Church on the day of Pentecost, people were gathered together from all over the known world. The Spirit of God was poured out upon them. On that first day of the Church, they were made one in Christ. They even began selling their property and belongings in orde r to provide for those in the community who were in need (Acts 2:43–46).
Later, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the issue of the great social chasm that historically separated Jews and Gentiles. He wrote that Christ, on the cross, bridged the chasm. Christ bridged the gulf that separated us from God, as well as the separation between different social groups of people in the Church. It is almost as though he was shouting when he said that Jesus “is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14, NASB). We hear these words echoing down through the ages: The walls that separated us have come down in Christ Jesus!
In Colossians 3:11 (NASB), Paul says that in the Church there is to be “no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all and in all.” In Galatians 3:28, Paul adds “male and female” to the list. We are not called to be a homogeneous group. We put our signs out front that proclaim “everyone is welcome,” and most of the time we really mean it. The Church is to be a community in which people gather together who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Latino, women and men, children and aged. Some of these have spotless histories, while others have served years in prison. The Church is to be a people of every conceivable background, transformed by grace, gathered together by the Spirit, and made one in Christ Jesus. The Christian community is to be characterized by a certain radical equality, for we are all sinners saved by grace. We have the same Lord. We have submitted to the same baptism, in which we died to our old ways of living in order to be raised again in Christ and welcomed into His Church.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul further described our unity as something that resembles the human body. We are the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul said that in order for the Body to function as God intends, we must learn to depend on one another. The hands and feet and eyes and ears are all interdependent, an organic whole.
We are not just a gathering of individual believers. We are a new, interdependent, organic social reality called the Church. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As we become part of the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit changes us, teaching us to love one another, to lift each other up, and to care for those in need. We are like streams flowing into a mighty river. We are one in Christ Jesus!
Jesus as the Seed for Diversity
The second metaphor N.T. Wright uses to describe diversity of the Church is that of a tree. An oak tree begins as a single acorn planted in the ground. It has the potential of growing into a mighty oak with branches that spread out like an overarching canopy. Wright put it this way:
The single seed, Jesus himself, has been sown in the dark earth and has produced an amazing plant. Branches have set off in all directions . . . . Looking at the eager, outstretched branches, you’d hardly know they were all from the same stem. But they are. Unity generates diversity.
When Church leaders of the fourth century described the Church in the Nicene Creed, they said it was “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
It would certainly be helpful to think about what each of those dimensions adds to our understanding of the Church. But here, I would simply talk about the Church as catholic. This does not necessarily mean Roman Catholic. Rather, it means that the Church is united as the different congregations are connected to one another. Wherever the Church is, the Church is fully present in that place. At the same time, the Church anywhere is part of the Church everywhere. The Church that began like an acorn seed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost has become a mighty oak as it has branched out around the world.
This next point is pretty important. Wherever the Church takes root, it reflects the cultural expressions of that environment. It embodies the character of the Kingdom of God and is part of the Church of Jesus Christ in ways that are distinct to the particular culture where it is located. If the Church is overtaken by the culture, the result is syncretism. If the Church does not become fully incarnated in the context, it risks colonialism.
The “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” Church of Jesus Christ in Mozambique is distinctly culturally African with music, food, language, and history that is particular to Mozambique. It also distinctly embodies the character of the Kingdom and remains interconnected and interdependent with the Church of Jesus Christ everywhere.
As the Church branches out across the world, it is necessarily culturally diverse, yet it remains one body, the Body of Christ. In the Church there is unity in our diversity.
Gathering at the Table of Christ
There may be no greater example of all of this than in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We are the gathered Church. We come from many different places, but at the Table, we are made one. The bread is composed of various grains of the fields. The cup is composed of grapes from many vineyards. The grains and grapes are harvested from those many different places and brought together and baked into one loaf and squeezed into one cup! Likewise, we, with all of our diversity, are made one by the Spirit. And in this unity there is no distinction, for the walls have come down in Christ Jesus!
At the Communion table we also become, by the Spirit, the Body of Christ, participating in God’s redemptive mission of love for the world. And having been gathered together at the Table, we are now sent out to love and live as the Body of Christ. Everywhere we go out from being the gathered Church, branching out across many neighborhoods, or even across continents in diverse cultural contexts, we go in different directions, and in different cultural expressions, but always as the one Body of Christ.
The Church is diverse like many streams that become, by the Spirit, one great river of unity and love. The Church is also diverse like an oak tree that begins as an acorn and by the Spirit grows into a mighty oak of righteousness with branches that extend out around the world, and yet remain part of the one tree.
Thanks be to God!