Unity & Diversity
The gospel story is a grand appeal for unity. The story begins with creation coming into being via a triune God, three in one, who calls creation into being through a divine dance of creating, hovering and speaking. The Greek word for this divine dance is perichoresis, which Neil Plantinga describes as ‘each divine person opens to receive and harbour the other; each envelopes and encircles the other in an endless dance and ceaseless exchange of vitality.’ (CPABC conference May 2018). Plantinga goes on to observe that, ‘in the creation narrative each person of the trinity makes room for each other; they show hospitality to one another; they are community.’ Creation is born in and through a profound expression of unity. The gospel story is a grand appeal for unity.
The story begins with creation coming into being via a triune God, three in one, who calls creation into being through a divine dance of creating, hovering and speaking. The Greek word for this divine dance is perichoresis, which Neil Plantinga describes as ‘each divine person opens to receive and harbour the other; each envelopes and encircles the other in an endless dance and ceaseless exchange of vitality.’ (CPABC conference May 2018). Plantinga goes on to observe that, ‘in the creation narrative each person of the trinity makes room for each other; they show hospitality to one another; they are community.’ Creation is born in and through a profound expression of unity.
As the biblical narrative shows, this unity was soon broken by selfishness, pride and envy. The fall of humanity into sin represents a deep shattering of the unity that was woven into the fabric of God’s harmonious created order and since that time humanity has not handled disagreement very well.
Throughout the biblical story we hear a consistent call to unity. Psalms 133:1 reminds us that it is good and pleasant when God’s people dwell together in unity and the New Testament refrains a call to unity (Ephesians 1:10, 4:3; 1 Corinthians 12:12; Philippians 4:1-3) founded upon Jesus’ passionate prayer for unity among his followers in John 17: 21-23. In this prayer Jesus connects the unity of believers to the credibility of witness to the gospel.
The gospel story is also one of diversity. God scatters the people at Babel, forms his chosen people and eventually the gospel message goes forth to new families, tribes, tongues and nations. Unity is challenging to maintain in a small homogeneous group (think of the household of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13), but as the group grows and diversifies it becomes more and more difficult to maintain. From debates over circumcision and the eating of food offered to idols to the reference to Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4 the New Testament shows us that unity was often difficult to achieve, even in the passionate environment of the early church.
Christian Schools embrace differing levels of diversity and in the past decades it seems that many Christian Schools have been joyfully growing in diversity while maintaining unity among their membership. Some have diversified ethnically, some have diversified denominationally, and most have diversified educationally, seeking to offer valid programs for students with varying interests and abilities. Many of our school mission statements indicate a desire to engage, impact or transform the world around us, but if we adopt a posture of retreating into a ‘Christian bubble’ it will make it hard, if not impossible to meet this goal. Larson and Shady state, ‘We simply can’t constructively engage and serve the world beyond the campus if we don’t learn how to navigate religious diversity constructively, balancing religious commitment with hospitality and openness towards others’. (From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World; Marion H Larson and Sara H Shady; IVP academic, 2017 pg. 8)
The history of Protestant churches splitting over and over again since departing from the Roman Catholic Church in the Protestant Reformation is an unintended consequence of that movement. For all of the sincere belief and passionate critique that the reformers held 500 years ago, it is hard to believe that any of them could have foreseen, or supported, the multitude of Christian denominations that exist today. The Christian faith needs a wake-up call to the importance the Bible places on unity. The Reforming Catholic Confession represents one attempt to move away from division towards greater unity https://reformingcatholicconfession.com/
Perhaps Christian schools, more than any other organizations, are in a great place to become bastions of unity among diverse groups of Christians. Schools that are more parochial in nature will each have their own stories of growing in diversity. In schools that are structured as multi-denominational societies I see sensitive topics like baptism, creation and end times theology being discussed respectfully and sensitively. The conversations in my own classroom were enriched when we discussed how classmates from different traditions held differing perspective on a certain topic. Respectful conversations allowed for articulation of one’s own position and caused students to wrestle with these topics, eventually owning their own stance, rather than accepting any spoon-fed answers. As a teacher I celebrated these moments of deep learning. As a Christian I cherished these expressions of unity amidst diversity.
As referenced earlier, even the early church was challenged with maintaining unity in the face of diversity. In Romans 14 – 15 Paul appeals for unity among believers in the face of significant disagreement over topics such as dietary restrictions and observance of ceremonial days. These highly contested issues threatened the unity of the early church and Paul encourages believers to not pass judgement on ‘disputable matters’ but rather to preserve unity in a context of mutual respect.
As we face increasing diversity in our school communities and as we address issues that may cause significant disagreement, may we find ways to dance with each other in openness, hospitality and respect, preserving unity with the bond of peace even when we need to hold some points of disagreement in abeyance as Paul advocates in Romans 14-15.
Nothing less than the credibility of the gospel is at stake!