Seeking Peace Amidst Dissension: How the Church Can be Both Diverse and One

March 18, 2016
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I recently called a moratorium on political discussions in my house. I had noticed that during debates—whether with family, dinner guests, or my political nemesis on TV—the words uttered imparted fear, anger, and negativity. It seems I’m not alone when I confess that, during this political season in particular, I’ve tended to “wallow in the pornography of pessimism”1 rather than lean into the One who offers hope beyond our dissent.

As the divisiveness of our country reaches a fever pitch, people yearn for more. Not more information or more debates. And certainly not more pessimism. But more compassion, more respect. More openness to metanoia. More hope. Can we, as a church, model these values? Can we show those who are desperate and despairing a more life-giving way?

Christians often disagree with one another—bitterly and vehemently. In fact, we tend to be as mired in cultural, political, and religious hostilities as any other demographic in our country. We have bought into the idea that difference is dangerous, that diversity is synonymous with discord. We sense this latent fear not only at work and at home, but in our own churches—across the table during a Bible study or over the microphones at synodical meetings. As Sue Monk Kidd once imagined, we who dissent through a fury of words are like birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls and each other.

But this is not the picture we see in the book of Acts. Diversity is not inherently deleterious. On the contrary, through the redemptive work of the Spirit, difference can be life-giving. God’s affirmation of particularity emerges already with the biblical description of the Spirit, who is variously depicted as vivifying breath, healing wind, living water, purgative fire, wild bird, Lord, Judge, and Comforter. It is this Spirit—imaged in myriad ways—who uses a multiplicity of languages and cultures to convey the unifying message of the Risen Lord.2 It is this Spirit who breaks down barriers of race, gender, age, and social status to unite a Pentecost people and send them out to proclaim Christ’s salvific love. God prizes multiplicity. This is evident in the Spirit’s activity of generating diversity, which bestows upon God’s people a variety of gifts3, making reconciliation possible when used in life-giving ways.

When I search modern history for the Spirit’s diversifying, unifying, and life-giving activity, I think of the ecumenical movement. One of the church’s great achievements in the twentieth century was the boom of ecumenism, the work for Christian unity across denominational boundaries. It was during this time that the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and many other multilateral and bilateral dialogues were born. Today, few Western Christians know about the state of ecumenism in the world. Some may even consider the movement passé. But I think it may be a salient model of how the church can exhibit compassion, reconciliation, and hope as the Spirit opens up new horizons on the journey toward unity.

Over the past few years, I’ve been honored to participate in the national Reformed-Catholic dialogue. Since this consultation commenced over a half-century ago, dialogue partners from various Reformed denominations and the Roman Catholic Church have composed joint statements on such issues as Scripture, baptism, and the Eucharist. The focus of the current dialogue is ecclesiological, addressing the question: To what extent do we recognize one another as “church”? This is a historically fraught question and one that still divides us. Yet, when I listen to my Catholic colleagues describe their yearning for reconciliation and when I hear them say, “There may be an opening here!” I am inspired and hopeful. Their rich liturgies bless me. Their distinctive views sometimes puzzle me. I am both challenged and renewed by our gatherings.

Through such dialogues and cooperation, individuals and church communions are changing. The ecumenical movement itself is changing, too. In its new phase, Christians from the Global North are coming to an understanding that the church is only whole when it actively seeks reconciliation, peace, and partnership with, as well as wisdom from, Christians who have been historically marginalized (such as historic black churches and churches of the Global South). To be sure, the increased cultural and linguistic diversity of these historic ecumenical bodies means that there are some new challenges, but there is also a great, new richness and wisdom. Among communion churches, there is also a palpable hope founded in the knowledge that the Spirit goes with us as the Agent of peace and Christ goes before us, having already made his church one.4

As I consider what it means to be one with other Christians from whom I differ, I am inspired by a document produced by the WCC (World Council of Churches) that identifies the conditions for a fruitful dialogue. I think of these as spiritual values that we might hold before us as we continue to seek unity—in all its many forms—through the Spirit. The Christian should enter into dialogue in a disposition of:

• Respect for others
• A willingness to listen to others and to understand them
• Spiritual openness, a main component of which is waiting on God and offering one’s self to the Holy Spirit
• Readiness for metanoia in the spirit of the Gospel
• A sense of penitence for faults committed against the unity designed by God
• Prayer5

Is there hope for unity among Christians who hold disparate viewpoints, represent myriad cultures, experience God’s Spirit distinctively, and even interpret the Bible differently? I think there is, as long as we commit to listening, openness, compassion, respect, hope, and prayer. The Spirit of diversity and unity goes with us in this endeavor—whether at work, home, or church—empowering us through our gifts and urging us toward the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that we “all may be one.”6

About the Author
  • Monica Schaap Pierce is the Ecumenical Associate for the Reformed Church in America and a Ph.D. candidate and Teaching Fellow in Theology at Fordham University in New York City.

  1. David Brooks, New York Times, Feb. 9, 2016. 

  2. Acts 2:4-11 

  3. Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 

  4. Ephesians 4:4 

  5. World Council of Churches. Statement of the Joint Working Group on Ecumenical Dialogue, 1967; updated May 1, 2000. 

  6. John 17:21 

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