1. A New Distinctiveness
In the New Testament, Paul writes:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
Over the last few weeks, we’ve journeyed with the Hebrews from a protective attitude about maintaining their distinctiveness, through Jesus’s mission to break down barriers and let anyone who gathers close be part of the kingdom.
It’s a beautiful vision, but it gets complicated fast. The Jews have been a relatively homogeneous people, religiously and ethnically. Paul’s statement that we are all “one in Christ Jesus” is a radical statement of diversity. Now people from all different backgrounds are invited to join the club.
This doesn’t mean that Paul considered every practice to be godly. He wrote lots of letters with instructions for moving towards holiness and making changes, but his primary message was that culture had become secondary to advancing the gospel.
A great example is Paul’s correspondence with the church of Rome. The church is quarreling internally about whether or not it’s appropriate to eat food that has likely been sacrificed to idols. Here’s how Paul responds:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Rom. 14:1-4)
Paul is doing something radical here. He’s allowing for different doctrinal positions on a particularly taboo issue.
Eating food sacrificed to idols was akin to worshipping the idol directly. But Paul is focused on the broader mission, and he leaves it up to the believers. His only instructions are to avoid judging each other and to love each other.
The result was an early church that was extremely diverse. Rich, poor, Jew, Gentle, every past background and type of sin that you could imagine, all working together, accepting each other, and loving each other.
2. A New Challenge
Roger Olson in his book The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity provides a framework for coming together as a faith community with this kind of diversity. He distinguishes between three kinds of Christian belief.
The first he calls “dogma.” These are truths that are essential to Christianity itself, like those included in the historical creeds like the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Chalcedonian Creeds.
The next he terms “doctrine.” These are beliefs that are important to a particular tradition or community but are not essential to Christianity itself, like when and how to baptize.
The third category is “opinion.” These are areas where there is no consensus among Christians, for example, what style of worship music is best.
What Olson is pointing to here is that some beliefs are more important for a community than others. If Christians can agree on dogma, on what is truly essential to faith, we can be united even if we disagree about doctrines and opinions.
3. Steps for Getting There
Unity sounds great in theory, but in practice, it is incredibly hard and rare. I want to end with four tips that I believe can help us create the kind of community that Jesus and Paul were pointing towards.
Expect Diversity. Expect people to follow their conscience, to be challenged by scripture, to be changed by it, but not to always come to the same conclusions that you do.
Avoid Judgement. You might be wrong. Even if you aren’t, you are wrong about something important right now and won’t realize it until later. Humility is key.
Love. You need friends who think honestly and differently than you do. If there is a group that you write off, that gives you the creeps, find a way to meaningfully engage with them this week.
Check Your Priorities. If something is taboo for you and it’s not in that center circle, in the essentials of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, reexamine it. Why is it so important to you? You don’t have to let go of it, but don’t let it separate you from others.
The heart of God is to include all who want to draw near to him in the kingdom. Our diversity creates more space for others to draw near to God.
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