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July 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 3 · pp. 20–28 

Can We Have Diversity with Unity? Unity and Diversity in the Body of Christ

David Ewert

As Jesus faced the cross his fervent prayer for his followers was that “they may be one” John 17:22). And at the birth of the church, God’s love was poured out by the Holy Spirit, creating a unity of heart and mind among the early believers that led them to share deeply in each other’s joys and sorrows. Since, however, these new converts came from different backgrounds, the social and linguistic divisions between the Hebraists and Hellenists very early threatened to disturb the koinonia of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 6). Fortunately, the apostles found a way to overcome this threat to the unity of the infant Christian community.

An even greater threat to the unity of the church was the influx of Gentile converts as a result of the mission activity of Paul and other evangelists in the Hellenistic world. Although both Jewish and Gentile Christians had the same Spirit, their backgrounds were so diverse that tensions were inevitable. At a conference in Jerusalem, they were able to agree on a modus vivendi: the Jews would not demand circumcision of the Gentile converts, and the Gentiles would respect Jewish scruples (Acts 15:29).

A high respect for the individual believer, however, did not mean that every member of the church could believe as he or she wished, or live as they liked. There were basic doctrines to which every believer subscribed. The creedal formula in Ephesians 4:4-6 would illustrate this: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. . . .” If one did not adhere to what Paul called “truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2), one could not properly call oneself a Christian. If one did not adhere to “the pattern of sound teaching,” but “swerved from the truth,” one forfeited the right to membership in Christ’s body. {21}

In deportment, also, the apostles expected members of the church to adhere to a core of ethical principles. Several times Paul reminded his readers, “this is the way we do it in all the churches.” His lists of virtues and vices were designed to create a unity in the ethical practices of the members of the church.

This basic unity in faith and practice, however, did not do away with individual differences or squelch independent thought. Nor did the local assemblies of believers all look alike in every respect. Moreover, the picture of the church at the end of the Apostolic Age is in some respects different from the church in Jerusalem in its infancy. F. F. Bruce writes

The New Testament bears ample witness to the centrifugal tendencies in apostolic Christianity: we have only to think of the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians, between legalists and libertarians, between the rank and file who were content with the “simple gospel” and the spiritual elite who preferred what they imagined to be more advanced teaching. But it bears ample witness also to the centripetal forces which kept churches and Christians together, and the greatest of these was love. (p. 162 in In God’s Community)

Also, following the Apostolic Age, the church was often wracked by doctrinal dissension. Sometimes subversive movements, at other times renewal movements, threatened to divide the established church. And after the persecutions ceased, the church was divided on the matter of dealing with those who had compromised their faith under pressure.

With the development of the papacy quite a different kind of unity was imposed on the church, although the Greek East and the Latin West split apart—a division that remains to this day. During the Middle Ages dissent was frowned upon and frequently suppressed rather harshly. Yet with the Reformers of the sixteenth century the unity of the Western Church was shattered, and we have the beginning of what we know today as denominations. Often in fierce conflict with each other, the various church bodies (some of them national churches) hammered out their theology. Since then the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Anglicans, the Baptists and others have gone more or less independent paths (often splitting into smaller sub-groups). Anabaptists, too, have had their divisions.

What shall we do in the face of all these differences in the Body of Christ-differences in doctrine, in ethics, in worship, in church order, in denominational structure, in mission? Like it or not, we will have to live with these differences for the time being. Perhaps “denominations” are not the greatest scandal of Christianity, but “denominationalism” surely is: it is that blindness which prevents us from seeing the grace of God at {22} work in other denominations, that arrogance which holds that one’s own church is God’s favorite, that exclusiveness which doubts whether Christians in other denominations are truly “born again.” As long as we have to live side by side with other church bodies, we should find ways and means of demonstrating our unity with all those who have put their trust in the Christ we seek to follow. Instead of fighting each other, we should demonstrate the love of Christ to all those who hope to be saved by the grace of God just as we do.

All of us, however, have to decide which church we want to identify with in doctrine, practice, and mission. As a rule, loyalty to one’s own denomination makes a person strong enough to transcend denominationalism and to appreciate what God is doing in other branches of Christianity. To know wherein and why we differ from other church bodies, to know our “distinctives,” does not by itself fuel denominational pride. Rather it makes us free to share these insights with others.


In coming closer to home, we discover that the question of unity is often more acute within one’s own denomination. And since we belong to the North American Conference of Mennonite Brethren, the unity of these churches concerns us most at the moment.

Time was when our membership in North America was ethically European in background and German in language; we had the same history. Through acculturation and through our mission efforts that has changed. Today we have French-speaking churches in Quebec and Spanish-speaking churches in southern and western USA. Our “Confession of Faith” has been translated into both of these languages, for it is a common faith that unites us, not language or culture.

If we are to have unity in our General Conference, then mission workers and pastors must inform those seeking membership about our faith. Our “Confession of Faith” begins with the affirmation that the Scriptures are our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Since, however, the Scriptures have been understood differently on some points by other denominations, our “Confession of Faith” represents our understanding of the basic teachings of the Bible. It is normative insofar as it represents accurately what the Bible teaches, and is subject to revision if we should receive new light on one or the other article. Until that happens, Mennonite Brethren (if they have integrity) are obliged to hold to our “Confession of Faith.” If there are articles in our “Confession” that a person cannot accept, then he or she should find a church with whose teachings he (she) can fully agree. {23}

Pastors who come from other denominations to serve Mennonite Brethren congregations, and even pastors who have grown up in MB churches, should make sure before they accept leadership positions that they are in full agreement with our “Confession of Faith.” Pastors who agree to some articles of our “Confession of Faith” but reject others, such as our peace position, do serious damage to the unity of our Conference. Our “Confession” is not so narrow as not to allow for latitude in many areas of the life of the church. But in fundamental issues, we must insist on unity.

We allow for much diversity in Christian experience. Some claim they have had a “second” work of grace after conversion; others do not. Some have the gift of tongues; others do not. Our “Confession” leaves such matters open. For that reason the Conference from time to time accepts resolutions on such issues. We allow for great diversity in the way a local church orders its activities. However, when a church becomes “presbyterian” (rule by elders) rather than “congregational,” then we have a departure from our Mennonite Brethren understanding of the church, and that makes for disunity. There have always been different views on the millennium among Mennonite Brethren, and our “Confession” allows for differences (in fact, it does not mention the millennium); but if anyone should question the Lord’s return to take his church home to glory and to judge those who have rejected the Gospel, then we are in violation of our “Confession” (indeed, that would be heresy and would call for the discipline of the Church).

As Mennonite Brethren we practice baptism by immersion; but we recognize the validity of other forms of believer’s baptism. We do not, however, recognize paedobaptism since we understand it to be unscriptural. All our churches observe the Lord’s Supper; but when or how or by whom administered are matters left to local preference. All the Mennonite Brethren churches teach the Word of God. But whether this is done only on Sunday mornings or also on week nights, or even whether a church has a Sunday School, is a matter that the local church must decide.

If, however, a local MB church ordained a woman to the ministry, it would be in violation of the unity of the church, since according to our present policy that is not to be done. Also, we do not at present ordain those to the pastoral ministry who have gone through the tragedy of divorce after they came to the faith. However, the local church is free in the manner in which it deals with the restoration of divorced and/or remarried persons to membership in the church.

The examples I have chosen are designed simply to illustrate that there can be great diversity in a denomination without destroying unity in basic matters of faith and practice. True unity, however, is nurtured {24} by deeper springs than common creeds and confessions. Only the Spirit of God can unite people in a bond of love so that they can accept one another in spite of differences in personality, in experience, in points of view, in likes and dislikes. In fact, it is precisely when love is lacking that brothers demand the same shibbloleths of each other. In the presence of true friends one can spill out the grain with the chaff, knowing that they will blow the chaff away and keep only the grain. But where there is no friendship one has to watch carefully what one says, for, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, people at times look for an opportunity to catch us in our words.

So often when dissension breaks out in a denomination more is involved than questions of doctrine and ethics. Frequently there are personal animosities which are being worked out under the more respectable facade of doctrinal disagreement. One is reminded of Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria who excluded the famous theologian Origen from spiritual office. He thought he had a case against Origen, but historians tell us it was because Demetrius could not endure the popularity of Origen. But one would not have to reach for the third century for illustrations of this kind.


Paul exhorts his Ephesian readers to be forbearing with one another in love, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3). For members of a local congregation to live in harmony one with another calls for more than human resources. A common faith unites the brothers and sisters of a church into one family. And where people are close to each other (as in marriage, for example) the potential for hurt is also greater. Where the members remain distant from each other, and see each other only in their Sunday best, the potential for conflict is minimized—but then there will be little koinonia.

In a believers’ church one assumes that all members have been born again and have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Also, one assumes unanimity in basic doctrines and a common core of Christian ethics. However, there is always sufficient diversity in every congregation to provide the occasion for disunity.

In some churches the barriers of ethnicity have not yet been overcome. Unity does not demand that we seek to erase our ethnic backgrounds but that we accept both ours and the next person’s as well. After all, God made “from one man . . . every nation of men” (Acts 18:26 NIV). Since America’s population is made up largely of immigrants, one senses at times that those who have lived here longer, even when of the same race, presume to stand a step higher than those who have immigrated somewhat later. One might think of the tensions between the “Kanadier” and the “Russlaender” in Canada in the later {25} twenties. They were, in fact, all “Russlaender,” only some had been in Canada twenty-five years longer than the new immigrants. Nor were the immigrants after World War II always accepted as heartily as they might have been.

But, race and history aside, we can think of other occasions for dissension. There have been endless quarrels over ethical issues: the kind of work that is permissible on the Lord’s day, whether church members should be allowed to attend the movies or to participate in certain sports, the perennial concern about the deportment of women (dress, hair, make-up), and today the problems of social drinking, and a host of other questions. The fact is that not all members of the church think alike on such issues.

To have unity, then, the church must agree (and here membership in a Conference of churches helps) on a basic core of Christian ethics and must deal with new issues when they come up. If the majority agree that a certain practice should be avoided by the church, it would be unwise for a member to act contrary to the wishes of the congregation; indeed, this may call for discipline. There will, however, always be questions to which a clear answer cannot be given from the Scriptures. In that case a church may agree to allow for diversity and members must be encouraged to accept one another even though there are different points of view. A current example might be the payment of taxes of which a portion is used for military purposes.

Tension can arise when some members refuse to carry their share of responsibility in the work of the church. Those who are always ready to serve must learn to be patient with those who tend to lag behind. However, when a church member consistently refuses to make any contribution to the work of the church, there must be exhortation and correction.

Church members will never fully agree on what the church’s priorities ought to be. Some want all of the budget to go for mission; others want it to go for Christian education. Some have only one concern and that is to win others; others see the need for Christian nurture and teaching. And then there is the great variety of divine gifts which some find hard to accept. We cannot all do the same things. Moreover, when members lose perspective on what it means to serve Christ in the church, petty jealousies may arise. This can easily happen when certain members are always elected to certain positions and others are not.

Nor do members always agree on how the work of the church ought to be done. The format of the worship services, the hymnody and music, the style of preaching, whether the church ought to be divided into Bible study groups or not, the social involvement of the members in {26} the social needs of the community, the organizational structures of the church, and many other aspects of church life hold potential for disunity.

However, not only the work of the church but the daily life-style of the members can become an occasion for bickering. There are cleavages between the rich and the poor, the professional and the non-professional, the highly-educated and those with only elementary education. Some members, moreover, seem to have no compunctions about living rather lavishly; others have a conscience that restricts them in their spending.

One could go on endlessly enumerating occasions for disunity in our local congregations today. We can never expect uniformity in matters that do not belong to the essence of the Christian life, and we have to mature to the point where we can embrace as brothers and sisters also those who see things differently.

Where a member of the church rejects a biblical teaching, or where a member violates an ethical teaching of the Scriptures, he or she must be admonished and even disciplined. Where, however, the Bible does not speak directly to a question that divides believers, and we cannot come to a consensus, we must have the grace to accept one another “as Christ has accepted [us]” (Rom. 15:8).


When a denomination establishes schools, it does so with the express purpose of educating its young people in “the faith of the fathers” and equipping them for service in the kingdom of God. When non-Mennonite Brethren attend our schools they must expect to be exposed to the Mennonite Brethren understanding of the Scriptures. It would be bad educational policy if faculty members at our schools were out of joint with our “Confession of Faith” and had a critical or cynical attitude towards the church to which they belong, which they serve, and by which they are supported. A school must be in full agreement with the denomination’s position on doctrine and ethics if it is to merit the confidence of the constituency, if parents are to send their children to it, and if donors are to support the school financially.

That does not mean, however, that the faculty members are forced into a straight-jacket so that they cannot question and probe and search. A school cannot give leadership if it is expected merely to endorse the status quo of the denomination. Nor does it mean that specialists, who do not belong to the Mennonite Brethren Church, may not be called upon to teach in subjects where Christian doctrine plays no part, such as chemistry, mathematics, or piano; or even that one becomes so restrictive that men and women of God from other traditions are not welcome {27} to share their insights with students of Mennonite Brethren schools. We can learn much from others.

While there must be unity among the faculty members in all basic doctrines and ethical questions, there should be ample room for diversity—diversity not only in gifts, educational background, experience, but also in understanding and point of view. On more than one occasion I have been asked by students to debate a fellow faculty member on some theological issue. This can be an educational experience for students and also an opportunity to model a unity of spirit in spite of diversity. Students are often quick to see diversity among faculty members and love to quote another professor when they disagree with what is being said in class. In such cases (and it is an old trick!) unity is seen in that one speaks respectfully of the view of one’s colleague. (Of course one must never take a student’s quotation of another professor too seriously, for students can also misquote!) As long as all faculty members know Jesus Christ personally and confess the Scriptures as their supreme authority, they should be free to search and to probe. Students should always sense the impression that the famous New Testament scholar, Adolf Schlatter, made on his students. It was said of him that he stood “under the Word.”

Let me conclude with an autobiographical note. I grew up in a congregation (Coaldale, Alberta) which exhibited great diversity. Most of the members were immigrants from the Soviet Union in the twenties. However, those from the Kuban often disagreed with those from the Molotschnaja, and those from Sagradovka with those from the Crimea. But they had a common center in Christ, and no one thought of leaving because he did not like the way things were done in the church.

Also, the church had about a dozen preachers who took their turn in the proclamation of the Word. They differed greatly in style, in gifts, in education, and even in their views. They were often poles apart on such questions as the millennium; but no one accused them of heresy, for they all held the basic tenets of the faith. It was simply assumed that finite human beings, devout though they might be, would not always read the Scriptures in precisely the same way.

Later, when I joined the faculty of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, I found among the teachers the same kind of diversity that I was used to from my home church and from the schools I had attended. This made for interesting discussions at faculty meetings or during coffee-breaks. I do not recall that a person’s commitment to Christ and to his Word was ever questioned simply because some aspects of the Scriptures were understood differently. To my knowledge, no faculty members during the first twenty-five years of the college’s history were ever examined on their theology before being appointed. Since they had all come through the ranks of the Mennonite Brethren Church, it {28} was simply assumed that they shared this Church’s position on all essential theological and ethical issues. I realize that today our faculty members have been exposed to so many doctrinal and ethical points of view in the various schools which they have attended that this cannot always be taken for granted. However, when faculty members agree with all the articles of our “Confession of Faith,” they should not be suspected of heretical views when a new idea is expressed or questions are raised about some practice which has become firmly established in the church.

What we have tried to say could perhaps be wrapped up by the adage, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

David Ewert is Professor of New Testament at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and writes out of extensive teaching and preaching experience among Mennonite Brethren in North America and abroad.

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