Global Perspective - Part 2

Unity in Diversity in Christ

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a community of believers from diverse countries, cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. The church sees its mission as taking the everlasting gospel of Jesus to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev. 14:6). This diversity is a good and necessary thing; indeed, it can be a strength to the body of Christ, just as the diversity of gifts is. However, the expression “unity in diversity,” helpful as it is, does not express enough by itself. A further element is indispensable. If unity is to be achieved among us, the church must authentically experience and demonstrate unity in diversity in Christ.

Consider Paul’s metaphor of the body as he tried to share with the Corinthians the fundamental importance of unity in diversity in Christ (1 Cor. 12). The church, Paul says, is a body made up of diverse elements. Unity among diverse elements comes through the deep sharing of a relationship of mutual responsibility that includes the various members of the body. But when diversity disrupts the unity of the body, it often gives rise to a dangerous condition. For example, disruptive diversity becomes destructive and sinful when one part of the body claims that it will not function if all the other parts do not go along with it. For authentic unity to become a reality, every part of the body must judge its distinctive position and examine its faithfulness to unity in terms of the ministry and mission of Christ.

Paul was aware of the state of affairs in the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, he challenged the believers to overcome dissension and division to present a picture of real unity and interpersonal faithfulness to the world. Although some would have liked to claim Paul’s support for their particular position or faction, the apostle refused to become part of their their impact on what the church can and cannot do. From time to time, I was surrounded by controversies in which certain members from different cultural realities and experiences were opposed to certain practices in worship and sincerely sought change with which they would be more comfortable. They wanted things to be done as they were “back home.”

My experience in that congregation taught me that helping members from diverse cultures and backgrounds to become respectful and trusting of each other had nothing to do with conversion; rather, it was about developing strategies to create cultural harmony and build a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial congregation. We achieved cultural harmony through brainstorming sessions and seminars on managing and leveraging diversity to achieve bottom-line goals and fulfill our mission: unity in diversity in Christ. Our goal: together in solidarity, service, and sacrifice. In our seminars and brainstorming sessions, we focused on race, customs, traditions, stereotypes, gender equality, world views, and national origins. 

The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy were the two sources of divine revelation that provided the framework for our conversations. Through these interactive initiatives, we triumphed over barriers that were preventing the successful implementation of our misor structural definition of unity. Within that definition there is an increasing tendency to interpret diversity as being acceptable only in the light of a unified institutional structure that is one in polity and hierarchy. But a more accurate biblical and theological image of the church is the unity demonstrated in organism rather than in organization. 


When we view the church as an organism, a body or community of believers different in gender, culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc., the question of unity in diversity tends to take on theological and biblical meaning with cultural and sociological implications, rather than the limited institutional implications that often tend to dominate our vision of the church.

We know that as the church moves into the future (and the future is already ahead of schedule), it will have to become more responsive to its broadening environments without sacrificing its essential faith and unity. If the church is seen primarily as an organizational machine, the question of unity in diversity will be threatened or seriously jeopardized. This way of viewing the church will cause us to assume mistakenly that as long as the machine is properly serviced and cared for, it will function in precise and predictable ways no matter who issues the directives, where they originate, or to whom they are directed. We will also tend to expect that when a similar “machine” is reproduced, it will possess the same predictable features and respond in almost identical ways in any part of the world.

Organisms are quite different from machines. To influence an organism, you must look into its personality and take into account the circumstances to which it is exposed. You must reckon with the elements of unpredictability and individuality. You have to be prepared to listen, reason, revise, and develop new strategies for the different environments in which organisms live. If this is done responsibly, the process need not threaten or endanger the essential unity of the body; on the contrary, it will enhance authentic unity. This is consistent not only with the principles of unity in diversity but with the further divine dimension of unity in diversity in Christ, who is the head of the body (Col. 1:18). 

This organism paradigm is legitimate and consistent with the diversity of the New Testament images of the church. While Paul refers to the church as a body or as the body of Christ, John speaks of it as a community. Peter describes it as the people of God and the household of faith. All three apostles apply the description “bride of Christ.” These designations are more consistent with the organism paradigm than with the institutional one.

The New Testament genuinely advocates unity in diversity—unity in core doctrines, in love, and in diversity of forms expressing the variety within the community. This diversity does not threaten the essential unity of the church, nor does it compromise the proclamation of the gospel. For example, valuing diversity with inclusion as a mission strategy need not lead to disruption of the church’s unity in places in which it is appropriate. Rather, it may provide the church an opportunity to correlate possible diversity with necessary unity. It will enrich and strengthen fellowship, deepen spirituality, create new possibilities for mission, and multiply the church’s effort to accomplish its task in the world. Embracing the differences inherent in the diverse races, cultures, and ethnic makeup of the world church will enhance the unity of the church if national, cultural, and racial identities are not made to be definitive over and above the makeup of the whole body as it receives its collective identity in Christ. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body— whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13, NIV).

We must acknowledge that, unlike method, mission does not have a single universal pattern. We need to remind ourselves that diversity of form does not threaten the essential unity of the body. The biblical understanding of diversity allows us to engage every legitimate gift God has placed in His church when it comes to gender, race, language, culture, ethnicity, tribe, and nationality. What really holds us together is not unity through polity but our common confession of “one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This oneness is articulated and set forth in what we consider to be the core beliefs of Adventism. The face of Adventism will change with growth, but our essential core teachings must remain constant. Diversity of form is acceptable and should be respected. The degree of diversity required to fulfill our mission will vary from place to place, from situation to situation. The Holy Spirit has not yet exhausted the structural possibilities and forms of ministries possible in the church. The New Testament does not encourage us to think that something should not be done simply because it is being done for the first time. The apostolic church and the Adventist Church have done things that Jesus did not do. And this thinking by no means applies only to cultural and ethnic diversity; it also applies to age, gender, and race. 

Diversity of form is acceptable and should be respected. The degree of diversity required to fulfill our mission will vary from place to place, from situation to situation.

As I review our global diversities, I am led to conclude that the danger lies not in the decision for or against such issues as cross-cultural, multicultural, and demographic changes; the danger lies in a structural fundamentalism in which unity is derived through polity, as though polity is almost to be equated with absolute truth. My plea is that we not allow structure to distract us or to sabotage our essential oneness in Christ and His mission.

The beauty of the biblical view of unity in diversity in Christ versus unity through polity is the freedom of God to work through His church in fulfilling His mission in the world. He may add a new step in one place while practice continues unchanged elsewhere, for He takes all facts, including sociological and culture ones, into account. 

The crucial question is whether the Church in a particular place and time is willing and bold enough to follow God’s leading. Within the biblical and theological framework of unity in diversity in Christ, the Church must be responsibly open to experimentation and variety or it may fail to follow the promptings of the Spirit Himself.

Historically, within the context of Adventist mission, we have sometimes allowed the church to determine when a particular element in a culture is capable of becoming a suitable expression of the good news and a vehicle for telling the Adventist story. What yesterday was considered objectionable in our missionary endeavor in a given country may today be considered a culturally-appropriate opportunity for the evangelization of the people. 

When I started out in the ministry as a young pastor in the Caribbean, the use of steel drums as musical instruments was prohibited in the churches. They were deemed inappropriate for the praiseful worship of God. Today, some Adventist churches have steel orchestras, and the drums are now legitimate musical instruments for worship. From time to time, they have even been used at our General Conference sessions. For many Adventists, such diversity in musical instruments may not feel safe, but theologically and biblically it is right on the path of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. What is required today of both leaders and laity is to act faithfully and responsibly in seeking to discover how God is at work in a particular culture, time, and place.

Let’s consider another issue that has created barriers to the successful implementation of the Great Commission in certain cultures: women’s ordination. Against the backdrop of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s dynamic understanding of diverse local and cultural realities in a rapidly-changing Church—demographically, ethnically, economically, and culturally—perhaps a decision is needed to reconsider and support North America members in their efforts to do what is best in the interest of God’s mission where they are.

Unity in diversity in Christ will allow that if the Church in North America is ready to ordain women to the gospel ministry, such action should not be perceived as divisive, insubordinate, or threatening to the essential unity of the global Church. North America should not be held back by other regions of the world where it might be perceived as premature and culturally inappropriate to do the same. If the North American Church—with all its racial, cultural, ethnic, and demographic diversity—has found a way to work out some of the issues that confront it in our time, the rest of the Church should not only respect but celebrate the advance and be open to change. We believe that the Spirit leads where it wills. And as Gamaliel succinctly put it, “If this plan or this understanding is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it then. You might even be found opposing God” (Acts 5:38, 39).

The promise of the presence and power of the Spirit must be the force that drives the Church to discover new areas of service and new dimensions of mission that will challenge and enrich its life and witness in the world.

We have to trust that what is true and good in Christ will succeed. Like Peter and Paul, we must trust God to ensure the continuity of unity in diversity even when men and women are unsure of it. We honor God as the originator of unity by expressing unity through the diversity we have and share in Christ. I believe that Christ who is Head and Founder of His Church empowered it with His Holy Spirit, not only to keep its memory keen regarding how He has led in the past, but also to enable and encourage the Church to move confidently and creatively into the future (see Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8). The promise of the presence and power of the Spirit must be the force that drives the Church to discover new areas of service and new dimensions of mission that will challenge and enrich its life and witness in the world. Indeed, the Church, under the power of the Spirit, will learn how to deal not only with new data for new times but also with old data through research and experimentation, guided by the Spirit.

As members of the body of Christ, we must therefore continually examine our presuppositions and assumptions regarding our tenacity in defending and justifying practices and positions based on something other than authentic biblical and theological doctrines. The Church must seek to work realistically with its unity in diversity in every aspect of its life and mission.

General Conference Ministerial Association