The church that I serve is made up of a diverse group of people. On Sunday morning, Democrats and Republicans greet one another at the door. Creationists and theistic evolutionists worship side-by-side. People who believe in exclusive salvation serve in the nursery with people who believe in inclusive salvation. Those who support marriage equality drink coffee with those who hold to traditional marriage. Pacifists attend discipleship classes alongside veterans.
Recently, another pastor asked me, “How did all those different people end up in the same church?”
The question surprised me because if there is any group that should be equipped to deal with diversity in culture, social issues, politics and theology, it should be the church. There’s no better example of this than the early church.
The world that the church first took shape in was a world full of diversity. Political diversity . . . politics were tense with Roman rule, Greek citizens and Jewish practices. Cultural diversity . . . Greeks, Egyptians and Romans were melding together in cities and towns. Economic diversity . . . wealthy merchants, traders and politicians lived amongst poor, illiterate servants and slaves. Theological diversity . . . Jewish-Christians holding on to rules of circumcision, food preparation and proper worship mingling with new Greek and Roman believers.
This early church was diverse. In diversity, divisions arose. Time after time, we find the Apostle Paul dealing with these divisions. The letters to the church of Corinth are no different. In 1 Corinthians alone, Paul addresses division amongst
- people who are fighting over baptism,
- educated people who are lording it over uneducated people,
- people who are arguing about which leader to support,
- people who are debating the importance of the physical body over the soul,
- people who are arguing over whether or not it is better to be married or single,
- people who are debating if the uncircumcised are as good as the circumcised,
- people arguing over the proper food to eat,
- people who are arguing over proper worship,
- people who disagree about the resurrection of the dead,
- people arguing about what women should or should not wear on their heads, and
- people who are debating the correct way to take communion.
This is the first century church. Statements like, “You can’t be a true follower of Jesus if you aren’t circumcised,” “You can’t come to worship if you don’t cover your head,” and “You can’t fellowship with us if you don’t support Apollos,” were probably thrown around like grenades.
Truth be told, it doesn’t sound dramatically different from the twenty-first church. I’ve heard twenty-first Christians say things like, “You can’t be a Democrat and a Christian,” “You can’t support marriage equality and be a follower of Jesus,” and “You can’t hold to the truth of the Bible and also believe in theistic evolution.” We throw these statements around like . . . grenades. We attempt to wound and alienate another because she or he believes or behaves differently.
It is true that we live in the midst of diverse and changing time. Political diversity. Cultural diversity. Economic diversity. Theological diversity. Because diversity is all around us “out there,” it is probably natural that people tend to look for same-ness inside the church.
Paul reminded the fledgling church in the first century that what united them wasn’t their same-ness in background, belief and behavior. Rather, individuals were “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 4:28) and individually members of Christ’s one body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Their main identity wasn’t Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Their main identity . . . the identity that united them together was found in Jesus Christ.
Our main identity isn’t in the labels of Republican, marriage equality supporter, creationist, pacifist or others. Our main identity is found in Jesus Christ.
The church in Paul’s day and the church in ours is one but many.
Truth be told, we are better witness to the world when we aren’t all the same in background, belief and behavior and yet we still live into the call to love God and love others together as the church. When our neighbors, co-workers and friends see that we can worship God together and serve others in Jesus’ name together even though we are diverse in belief and behavior, they begin to hope there is a place for them in this big diverse group called church.
So . . . I challenge myself when I meet someone who says, “I’m a Christian,” whose background isn’t the same as mine and who doesn’t believe and behave like I do, to remind myself that we belong to one another because of Jesus. We share a common identity – our main identity – because of Jesus. We can greet together, worship together, drink coffee together, serve in the nursery together, attend discipleship classes together and go out and bless our world together because of . . . Jesus.