The Limits of Legitimate Diversity in the Church

When people ask me about my thesis topic, I usually just say I’m working on the question of unity and diversity in the church.   I think a non-specialist can make some sense of that, whereas “the theology of ecclesial charisms” is a bit obscure.

But even the question of “diversity” in the church is more complicated than it first appears.   In the past few decades it has become standard practice in ecumenical circles to state that diversity is essential for true unity.  This is certainly true.   But it begs the question, “What kind of diversity are we talking about?”  Does all diversity contribute to unity?  Of course not.  There must be some limits to the kind of diversity that is acceptable, as well as the degree of diversity that will be tolerated.    While there is general agreement that unity requires diversity, there is little agreement among the churches as to what constitutes legitimate diversity.

Part of the issue is simply naming the different kinds of diversity that already exist in the church.  I’ve come up with a list of six categories.  These are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, with many of the categories impacting on one another:

1. Doctrinal diversity.  For many people, this is the first kind of diversity that comes to mind.  How much diversity of doctrinal formulation is acceptable? Can we distinguish “essential” doctrine from “secondary doctrine?  On what basis?   This involves  important questions about the nature of human knowledge and language.  To borrow the categories from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: if you have a “propositionalist” understanding of doctrine, you will approach questions of doctrinal disagreement from a very different perspective from those who operate from “experiential-expressivist” presuppositions.

2. Ethical/moral diversity.  This is becoming a hot-button issue between the churches, as debates continue regarding human sexuality.  Are there ethical issues on which diversity in the church is unacceptable? Are diverse views regarding moral and social issues a secondary consideration in comparison to doctrinal diversity, or are they of equal significance? To put the question more directly, are moral issues church-dividing?

3. Cultural / historical diversity. Some differences between churches are based on context.   People in different cultural or historical contexts will, to a greater or lesser degree, proclaim the Christian faith in different ways.  How much cultural variation in doctrine, worship, polity, and morality is acceptable?  A related question: is it acceptable for churches to be formed on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic status? (Here we might consider H. Richard Niebuhr’s demonstration of how denominations simply mirror social divisions in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, and compare his argument with the “homogenous units” approach of the church growth movement).

4. Denominational/confessional diversity.  Are denominations an acceptable form of diversity? I think most protestants simply assume they are, but theologically this is a very debatable issue.  Under this category we must consider a) the “institutional” separation of Christians in different organizational structures and the challenges this creates for recognizing one another’s ministries, sacraments, etc., and b) the various “identities” that emerge from the distinct denominational histories.  Are these a threat to unity or do they contribute to it? In short, what is the proper place of denominational distinctives?

5. Liturgical diversity. Do we need standards / rubrics for worship?  The major Christian traditions have very different perspectives on this question.  Again, some simply assume that diverse worship practices are normal, while others feel that common worship ought to be something which unites all Christians.  Historically, this has been a very significant question, and has led to some schisms (i.e., the Puritan objection to Anglican forms of worship).

6. Missional diversity. Can different Christian groups have “distinctive missions” or distinctive vocations, or are we all supposed to have the same mission? On what basis and in what situations can such diversity be justified? As examples, we might think of Salvation Army ministry to the marginalized, or Mennonite peace advocacy, etc.   At first glance, it seems fine to simply affirm that Mennonites are a “peace church,” and therefore they should pursue their mission as peacemakers.  But Mennonites don’t believe in peacemaking because it’s a Mennonite distinctive: they believe in it because they believe it is part of the Christian gospel, and so they think all Christians are called to be peacemakers.  Still, might there be other vocations which are specific to a certain part of the church?

In relation to all of the above, there are multiple questions which need to be asked, such as:  Are our differences mutually exclusive, or potentially complementary?  Are the historical reasons for separation between churches still significant, or should we try to forget about them in an attempt to appreciate one another’s distinctive contributions? Do diverse groups need to apologize to one another and repent for past divisions?  Once they have apologized, does the apology turn church-dividing issues into healthy diversities?  To what extent can the diversity of the New Testament canon provide insight into these issues?

I’m throwing all these questions out there as a way of suggesting that it’s not enough to simply say, “Diversity is essential for unity.” If we stop with the simple affirmation of “diversity” in general, we will end up giving legitimacy to all of our differences – as if all diversity was good in and of itself.   While it’s true that unity requires diversity, that truth should lead us to a much bigger set of conversations, involving all the issues above, and probably many more.  If we want unity as well as diversity, we’ve got to tackle the tough question of the limits of legitimate diversity.


4 Responses to “The Limits of Legitimate Diversity in the Church”

  1. November 10, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    You had me at “When people ask me about my thesis topic”! There should be a whole professional development seminar on explaining your research to people without sound crazy or boring. This was a great post. I really liked it and found it illuminating!

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