Unity in diversity: famous last words?

Added about 3 months ago by David Newman

GUEST BLOG: As part of our March focus on unity in diversity David Newman, author of Growing Up into the Children of God, asks how we balance unity with diversity within the Church.Author Photo

We have a phrase “famous last words”. Sometimes it denotes memorable final words that people utter before they die, like my particular favourite attributed to Oscar Wilde – “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”. Or it can refer ironically to words that with hindsight are way off the mark, such as American civil war general John Sedgewick’s  - “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”. More seriously, last words can reveal a lot about a person’s character and priorities.

Did Jesus leave some “famous last words”? Yes many, such as the words spoken from the cross much used in passiontide devotions or the post resurrection commissions to the apostles at the end of the gospels and beginning of Acts with their dynamic call to mission and discipleship. The later chapters of John’s gospel are often titled “the last discourses” as Jesus prepares his disciples for life without him, and these culminate in his final “high priestly” prayer where he reviews his ministry and lays his deepest concerns for the future church before his Father.  

So, what did he pray for? We might imagine that it would be spiritual power, doctrinal purity, holy living, missional effectiveness, or any number of important priorities for the church. While all these get some reference in the prayer, there is one theme that transcends them all and that is unity: “that they may be one….that all of them may be one…that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 18:11,21,23). That takes us by surprise for a whole number of reasons. Unity has hardly been a defining characteristic of the church and today is not widely seen as a top priority. Deep divisions still tear the fabric of the church over matters of doctrine, church order, and lifestyle and differences over human sexuality provoke threats of schism. Furthermore, some fear that the quest for unity will lead to interminable talking rather than action, while others want to champion diversity and fear that a drive for unity will eliminate difference and create pressure to conform. In the light of subsequent church history Jesus’ prayer might seem a glaring example of the more ironic “famous last words”.

This is why the phrase “unity in diversity” is so important. Jesus was not praying for uniformity. Just to reflect on the group of disciples for whom he prayed or the company he often kept reveals a deep commitment to diversity. Uniformity is cheap unity, a counterfeit that just wants fellowship with “people like me”. In our insecurity we become tribal, bolstering our sense of identity with people who will convey that we are okay, we are “normal”, we are right. Diversity becomes vital to keep us humble and honest, allowing different people or perspectives to challenge and shape us and subvert the power plays that easily accompany uniformity. Power gained through the suppression of difference becomes demonic as we are witnessing terribly in Russia and other parts of the world. Lack of diversity in the church may not have such ostensibly catastrophic consequences but still stunts lives and prevents growth into maturity. It is through the diversity of ministries says the apostle Paul that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature (Ephesians 4:11-13).

However, unity in diversity does not mean that anything goes. It is not sentimental or naïvely tolerant of everything. Jesus’ prayer acknowledges the importance of being “sanctified by the truth” and “protected from the evil one”. While Jesus could be scandalously inclusive in the gospels, he does not display a doctrinal or moral relativism. He sets boundaries to diversity. So, for instance, it is worth reflecting on the contrast between when he uses the inclusive “whoever is not against us is for us” with the times when he says the more exclusive “whoever is not with me is against me” (see more in Growing up into the Children of God).

So, as we pursue unity in diversity, the key question becomes how and where do we set the boundaries to diversity? When is a line crossed that threatens the integrity of the faith that we hold? A useful starting point for me has been the formula used by the Puritan Richard Baxter as he searched for a core of doctrine around which all English Christians could unite: “unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity.” Of course, this still requires some agreement of what constitutes essentials, and what incidentals, but it reminds us that there are such categories, and we need to be very honest about why we are attributing first order status to something that might be just legitimate diversity. I understand for instance that there are sincere and even passionately diverse convictions held about same sex relationships. I have been on a journey myself in my understanding of the issue. However, I find it hard to justify making it an essential, first order, fellowship-breaking issue which seems to oversimplify the pastoral and biblical complexities and be more culturally than theologically determined.

Furthermore, the final phrase of the formula “in all things charity” is a further pertinent yardstick both in terms of assessing the health of a particular belief or behaviour (“by their fruits you shall know them” said Jesus) and posing the question: How is charity being expressed in this situation such that I am entering into this other person’s situation with empathy and compassion?

Unity in diversity is clearly no easy option. Ultimately it requires us to be very secure in our own identity such that the different does not threaten us. This is what Jesus specifically addresses in his prayer. “May they be one as we are one he prays I in them and you in me so they may be brought to complete unity”. We are loved, we have a deep identity in God. Unity is a participation in the life of the Trinity, and it is our profound experience of that primary identity that takes us beyond a cheap uniformity, or a casual permissiveness to a radical celebration of reconciled diversity.


David Newman is a former warden of Launde Abbey, the retreat house for the dioceses of Leicester and Peterborough, where he led retreats and conferences, offered spiritual direction and sought to be a prophetic voice in an often anxious church. His book Growing up into the Children of God is being featured as part of our March #ThemeOfTheMonth: Unity in Diversity. You can get your copy here!

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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