How Diverse Can a Church Be and Stay Together?

Paul writes to the Philippian church and encourages them to remain one.  He tells them that he'll have joy in his heart if they are "of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind" (Philippians 2:2).   And then in John's gospel, we find Jesus in the Garden, just prior to his arrest, praying for his disciples, asking that "they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:11).  Ecumenists, like me, find much encouragement in texts such as these.  But what is the nature of this unity?  And where should we expect to find it?   Is it an invisible sort of unity that we don't really experience in life?  Or is it something quite visible?  If the latter does it mean that we will agree on everything, or on just the "essentials"? 

James McGrath has written several posts on the nature of diversity and unity within the early church.   Apparently there is mu, which emerge out of a discussion that apparently is occurring on the biblioblogosphere concerning the unity and diversity within the New Testament.  He has reposted an interesting diagram that he got from someone blogger Daniel Pursiful that is based on the ideas of Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown.

As you can tell from the diagram the early church might not have been quite as "united" as those two texts I quoted at the beginning might like to suggest.  

One of the questions that emerges from research such as this concerns the degree to which we should expect unity in the church today?  And what should that look like.  This is a question that Jim asks and deserves some thought. 

Can we, for instance, expect a church to thrive with a wide variety of theological positions, from left to right?  That is, can a church exist with people who have what we might call a "strict constructionist" view, so that whatever it meant then needs to be imposed on the church today, and people with a looser hermeneutic, one that would allow for women pastors and elders and even full inclusion of gays and lesbians.  Can we live with strong Trinitarians and strong Unitarians in the same congregation?  If we can, then how does this happen?  And if we make peace on doctrinal levels, are we equally able to do so in other realms such as ethnicity or social values? 

I have noticed that many of the most ethnically diverse churches are actually quite conservative theologically, while many theologically progressive churches are rather monochrome.  Why is this?   Is it possible that churches might be more open ethnically or culturally if they anchor their unity in doctrine?


liberal pastor said…
I posted a response to James' question on my blog which essentially notes, in reference at least to your reply, that the liberal church I pastor is mostly but not totally monochrome but is fairly diverse in other ways.

I would say that while we are not doctrinal in the traditional sense of the word there are some "non-negotiables" that function in the manner of doctrine. We do not read the Bible literally, we are glbt friendly, we do not teach or believe that Jesus is the only way, etc.

I wish there more ethnic and racial diversity in my congregation. But would I be willing to 'water down' our liberal doctrine if that is what it takes to be less monochrome? Is that what it takes to be more racially and ethnically diverse?
LP -- this is the question I wrestle with -- to have ethnic diversity or socio-ethnic diversity must there be narrower parameters elsewhere.

On your non-negotiables, what happens if someone comes into the community who, for instance, reads the bible fairly literally or at least takes it pretty much at face value?

In our own congregation, we have some variety from right to left. We'd like more diversity ethnically, but that just hasn't happened.
liberal pastor said…

We have a certain amount of diversity around the issue of how we read the Bible. We have a fair number of folks who have come into our community from more evangelical experiences where it didn't work for them anymore. But they still read the Bible in a more conservative way than I do. What I say frequently in messages is "this is what I believe" and we encourage you to think for yourself. So we have some interesting conversations around this issue. However, our diversity tends to run the other way too with folks who are not Christian but like our community so it has been my experience that there are limits to how conservative or traditional someone might be theologically and feel comfortable in our community.

BTW most of our racial diversity, current and past, is mixed race relationships. Which is another dynamic all together.

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