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Unity and diversity in the church


November 10, 2006
- Robert J. Suderman

Winnipeg, Man. — Difference/diversity is a given in our church.

There are 43 congregations in Mennonite Church Canada that have neither English nor German as their preferred language of worship. In one zone, there are three congregations that among them conduct services in nine different languages every week.

There are age and demographic bulges that appear in virtually every congregation. There are significant vocational differences along with difference in educational levels within and among our congregations. There are differences of size and social location, each generating its own distinctive challenges. There are theological differences often expressed in worship styles, music, and teaching. Difference is with us and within us. Of this, there is no doubt.

And yet, in spite of all this diversity, we are one. I find in our congregations an amazing capacity to live with difference. Difference and diversity do not destroy the unity and the oneness we have with each other. In fact, in so many ways, the differences unite us even more deeply.

How can this be? It is because when we stop to appreciate our differences we become more profoundly aware that there are also things that bring us together, and these things are more important than the differences that are so evident.

Furthermore, the things that bring us together are not things from us. They are gifts of faith, trust, commitment, and grace that come from God. It is profoundly comforting to know that what we long for most is not ours to give, but it is ours to accept.

In my visits to congregations across Canada, I have identified six gifts that unify us in spite of our diversity. Everyone I met in my cross-Canada listening tour is committed to these beliefs:

  • We believe in God and are committed to participate in God’s coming reign as it becomes evident on earth.
  • We believe that Jesus Christ has become the Lord of our lives and we have a profound commitment to learn more about what that means for us.
  • We believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our personal and communal lives. We believe that the Holy Spirit is with us and is teaching us faithfulness.
  • We believe that the Bible is our source of inspiration for our faith and life together. While there are very different ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, I find a common insistence that the Bible is the foundational authority for our life together and for our individual discipleship.
  • We believe in the importance of the church. There is a deep desire to be a People of God and to strengthen the church and make it more of what it was meant to be.
  • We understand God to be a relational God, and we deeply desire to express our faith and witness to God in relationship with each other. We hurt when we bleed and when there is division and we long for health in our spiritual community.

This common ground is very encouraging! The differences among us have created no fissure at all in our common commitment to these foundational components of unity – components not of our making. These truly come from our walk with God and they come from the grace of God that is among us.

This is consistent with what we read in Ephesians. Our task is not to create unity but to “maintain” the unity that comes from God. Ultimately we are not the authors of unity: God is. Our differences will not destroy the unity that God generates in the church. And this is good news.

So why does it “feel” sometimes as though there is disunity? I do not believe it is a lack of common ground. Rather I believe it is a lack of trust.

Some of us don’t trust that the other is taking seriously the same common ground that is so dear to us. When we differ on how we read the Bible for guidance in our lives, for example, we begin to suspect that the other is not reading it at all, or at least is not taking it seriously. When the other understands things differently, we suspect that Jesus is not Lord of his/her life. When the other behaves differently we suspect that the Holy Spirit is not transforming his/her life. When the other prefers different music in church, we suspect that he/she does not want to worship God at all. When the other speaks out, we suspect that he/she does not have the strength, health, and welfare of the church at heart.

In each of these the issue is our ability to trust that the other is committed to the same common ground that I am committed to. When we trust that the other is on the same page, then difference, diversity, and disagreement are very normal, even energizing, and we can live with that quite comfortably. And most of the time we do. When we don’t trust the sincerity and the good intentions of the other, then even the common ground we share seems to get in the way and feels like it is disuniting us.

We need to work more deliberately at generating trust among us. It is my hope that we could all, regardless of what may be our theological training or preference, trust the sincerity of the other. My hope is that we can see God at work in the other as well as in me. My hope is that we can extend the hand of mutual discernment to the other, knowing that the ground we stand on is common ground. If we can do this, then we can converse and act openly, without fear that our deepest yearnings are suspect to the other. It is my prayer that we can move toward such greater trust which will allow us to move toward greater openness and to experience the unity that is already fully present among us. May God bless and help us.