The Spirit creates diversity! That is the thrust of Paul’s teaching on the body of Christ. He writes:
Christ is like a single body, which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts. In the same way, all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether slaves or free, have been baptized into the one body by the same Spirit…
(1 Cor 12.12-13)
Certainly the church at Corinth was a pretty mixed-up bunch. There were Jews and Gentiles. Think of the difference that would have involved! Jews and Gentiles then had as much to do with one another then as Jews and Arabs do today. There were also slaves and free people. Again, think of the difference involved. This was not just a class or life-style distinction, this was a distinction between those who had rights and those who had not rights at all.
Paul went on to labour this point of diversity: “The body itself is not made up of only one part, but of many parts” (1 Cor 12.14). Just as in your body and mine we have all kinds of body parts, such as eyes and ears, hands and feet, all with different kinds of functions, so too within the church. Diversity is part of the essence of the church. The church is only the church in so far as variety is present. Paul’s reference to Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, makes it clear that in the first place he has in mind not variety brought about by difference of gifting and personality, but rather variety brought about by culture and social standing.
Here we discover that the church of God by definition is a heterogeneous body. True, we all need to share one common confession of faith – we all need to be able to declare that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor 12.2). But thereafter, the more differences the better.
When I first began as a minister, American church consultants said that if you wanted to see your church grow, you needed to create a homogenous church made up of the same kind of people. They argued, ‘people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers’ (McGavran). That may be true: ‘birds of a feather do flock together’. BUT that is not church. That is a club.
I am excited by the diversity we experience here in Chelmsford. We are a church made up not just of young and old, and of families and singles; but also of all kinds of social and cultural backgrounds. We have people from all over Africa, as also from Asia, the Caribbean, continental Europe, and even Latin America. But this diversity is also challenging. For difference is not always easy to handle. It is easy to misunderstand one another. It is easy too to ignore one another. As a church we need to reach out to one another more. It is not enough to be fellow-worshippers – we need to get to know one another, understand one another, and become become friends of one another.
Indeed, Paul says that we should honour (1 Cor 12.24) those who “seem to be weaker” (1 Cor 12.22): i.e. we need to affirm those who feel of less value than others. In a multi-cultural church where whites are in the majority, it is not always easy belonging to the minority. How do we affirm those who belong to a different culture? Paul seems to suggest that there is a place for positive discrimination. Goodness, what would positive discrimination look like in our church?
Paul goes on to say that we have a duty of care for one another, having “concern for one another” (1 Cor 12.25). In particular he says:
If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer together with if one part of the body is praised, all the other parts share in its happiness. (1 Cor 12.26)
How true that is of the human body: if someone steps on my toe, it’s not just my toe that hurts, but the whole of me hurts; similarly when my back is being massaged, I feel good all over. But what is true of the human body, should be true of the body of Christ: we should be able to sympathize with those in trouble, and share in the joy of those who have been blessed. Yet if we are honest with one another, in our church we are not always good at being there for one another when life is tough. If we are not family, we do not always turn out for a funeral when there has been a death. Nor are we always good at sharing in the happiness of others. If we are not family, we do not always turn out for a funeral, nor do we always turn out for a wedding. But surely we are family – we are all part of the body of Christ. Whether it be a wake or a party, none of us are gatecrashers, for we are all brothers and sisters one to another.
So let’s welcome our diversity – and care for one another!