Celebrating diversity

Celebrating diversity
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

"We celebrate the diversity of our common life, affirming our different histories, styles of worship, and forms of service."

Any church that emphasizes both unity and freedom had better be prepared to celebrate diversity. Disciples have been unusual in our insistence that Christians can express their oneness in Christ without a formal teaching authority, standardized worship, or hierarchical decision-making structures — which means that appreciation for unity with diversity is one of our defining characteristics.

At least in theory. In practice, Disciples have not always valued the diversity of our own church family, let alone the wider ecumenical community. When we recount our history, we have not always paid sufficient attention to the contributions of African American Disciples or Hispanic Disciples or Pacific/Asian Disciples. Our general assemblies showcase the variety of Disciples worship, but it isn't clear that this has much impact on the worship in most of our congregations. And appreciation for theological diversity is even more elusive. When it comes to this mark of our identity, we still have a lot of work to do.

There are two more points I want to make about diversity in a church that values unity. First, in human society people often live in pretty homogenous groups, politics being the art of bringing these different groups together for some common purpose. And this, of course, means that we go our own ways once our interests no longer coincide. Scripture, by contrast, starts with the vision of God's one creation, which is filled with a wondrous variety of creatures (Gen 1), and of Christ's one body, which is made up of very different members (1 Cor 12). And this means that, even though we are as unlike as an eye and a hand, we cannot say, "I have no need of you."

Seen in biblical perspective, our task in not to unite those who are diverse. It is to celebrate the amazing diversity of our given unity as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ.

Why is this unity-in-diversity so important? Because, as Paul suggests, our different gifts, shaped by our different backgrounds, contribute to the common good (1 Cor 12). The most unecumenical statement in all of scripture is surely that attributed to the church at Laodicea: "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing" (Rev 3). Caucasian Disciples need Asian Disciples (and vice versa), contemporary worship fans need traditional worship advocates (and vice versa), social activist types need contemplative types (and vice versa), liberal Disciples need conservative Disciples (and vice versa) if the body is to be built up in love.

Of course, there are different types of diversity. Some diversities (e.g., race) are God-given and always to be celebrated — which is why the question of whether sexual orientation is a God-given diversity is now so central in the church. Some (e.g., culture) stand under judgment of the gospel but are generally to be affirmed. Others (e.g., theological perspective) must always be tested in the dialogue of the whole community. A church that values racial diversity, for example, must reject any theology that affirms any kind of racial exclusion.

The problem, I fear, is that we say we are part of one another but, in truth, we live more in parallel than in intersecting realities. Thus, we are too seldom enriched by the gifts God has granted to our sisters and brothers who see the gospel through other eyes.

Second, because each congregation is truly the church, each congregation is called to embrace unity-in-diversity as part of its own identity. Needless to say, not every congregation can be as racially or ethnically diverse as we would want. In some cases, differences of language keep us from worshiping fully together. But every congregation can celebrate diversities of age or physical and mental ability or gender or (I believe) sexual orientation. And every congregation can bring diverse theological perspectives into genuine conversation. No congregation should revel in being a collection of "our kind of people."

After all, the unity of those who are alike is hardly a distinctive witness. The world is filled with like-minded clubs and same-colored neighborhoods. The church serves as a sign of God's purposes when it lives as a community of those who are not the same.

This is the eleventh in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21s Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.