‘Unity’ and ‘diversity’ can simply be words to us—vague values we hope somebody else puts into practice. Or these words can represent the pain of separation or forced uniformity. They can represent actual people and communities and the everyday struggle for connection. Diversity is natural enough. Pairing it with unity is the hard part, and it seems to me that unity is either hard or it is dangerous.
When unity is obvious and easy, we’re probably pushing some people to the sidelines without knowing it. But when unity takes work, when it isn’t obvious or easy—that’s probably when working for it has the most value. The challenge of unity and diversity is not new. It’s actually the central issue addressed by several of the New Testament letters. At the core of the Apostle Paul’s theology, for instance, is the analogy that likens the church community to the human body. We are differentiated in form and function but we are united by one God revealed in Jesus. The unity we have in Jesus is practiced through our sacraments of solidarity, which are communion and baptism.
Two things stand out to me when I reflect on this biblical theme. One is the appreciation for difference that the analogy to the body represents. Paul could have been more of a Platonist and said that our differences are negative features representing our distance from an ideal. But he didn’t, he said that our differences are God-given gifts that should be appreciated with mutual respect. The other thing that stands out to me is how fundamentally important this is in our own context.
Several contemporary philosophers, not necessarily Christians but serious philosophers, have suggested that Paul’s theology of unity and diversity is a valuable resource for modern people. Many of us are caught between the idea that there are no universal truths or values and the recognition that pursuing justice and human rights demands we make a case for universal truths and values. Paul makes strong universal claims, but he intends them to be always cloaked in a love and non-violence that welcomes difference.
This biblical grappling with unity and diversity suggests that this will be a perpetual challenge for churches. Not even in the ‘golden age’ of the early church was the unity-diversity dialectic easy to navigate. Our Anabaptist history shows this too. It’s hard—no it’s impossible to tell our story without it becoming a litany of one split after another. Anabaptists have often placed such a high value on how we practice our faith that we’ve separated over silly moral issues. This is particularly ironic since one of the motivators for emphasizing a practical faith was to sidestep the theological debates and accompanying coercion that divided other churches. What Anabaptists have failed to do in this regard is to see disunity as a serious problem. There are times in church life when separation is the best way to limit ongoing harm, but there are other times when it’s the option we choose because disunity itself doesn’t appear to represent a problem.
There are several things that make me jealous of other Christian traditions. One of them is the capacity other denominations have for demonstrating their unity beyond the local congregation. In some traditions the bishop is the symbol of unity between congregations. In others it’s a shared creed or a common liturgy. I think one of the reasons many Anabaptist churches have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary as a guide to the scripture we read in worship is that it connects us with so many other churches. I value knowing that on any particular Sunday pastors and priests around the world are working to connect the congregations they serve with the same set of stubborn biblical texts.
More generally, though, I think a weakness of the Anabaptist tradition is that unity beyond the congregation doesn’t mean much to us. How are we connected to other churches around the globe? How are we connected to the church across time? Neither question has a clear answer. The work of pursuing unity in our diversity is one of the most holy things we can do. I think this is true on a congregational level and beyond. In this work there is a fine balance between top-down, formal process and bottom-up, interpersonal connections. Within our own congregation I have been deeply encouraged over the past few years by individuals who are going beyond their place of comfort to engage those with whom they disagree or who are otherwise relegated to the periphery. This work of joining the body together, this work of re-union and re-membering, this is holy work.