Unity in diversity by Lucy Olofinjana
Living in London, we see such rich ethnic diversity around us every day. And being part of a multicultural church such as my church Woolwich Central Baptist, I think we experience something of the taste of heaven that was mentioned there – as God’s people come together as one people to worship him.
In one sense it is a shame that we need to have a Racial Justice Sunday in the national church calendar. But part of the reason it exists is because of the sad reality that the Church has itself been guilty of the sin of racism and prejudice. God’s people have not always come together as one, or treated each other as equal, and indeed still now in many ways we fall short of the unity which God intended for his people, and which Jesus prayed for in John 17, just before he was crucified.
In the book Turning the tables on mission my husband Israel Olofinjana has compiled stories of Christians from various nations across Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean who have come to the UK as God’s missionaries to be used by him here. One of these people is Jose Carlos, a Brazilian missionary who lives and ministers with his family in Northern Ireland. For me, the saddest part of their story was not the fact that their car was burnt in an attack outside their house, but that within their local church people who should have been their brothers and sisters in Christ were so hostile and overtly racist. Jose tells the story of how, after setting up an English class, there was the need for a crèche for the children of the mothers in the class. In his own words, Jose recalls how the church volunteers ‘threatened to boycott the crèche if we kept bringing black children to their creche’ and how they locked away the children’s beakers because ‘they did not want to share the beakers with the black children, fearing contamination’.
And this didn’t occur in the 1960s or 70s, but in 2004.
When this story was read at the book’s launch, there was a palpable shock and deep sadness in the audience, and Steve Clifford, our general director at the Evangelical Alliance, led us in a time of heartfelt prayer, repenting for the sin of racism which has too often scarred the UK Church.
And in wider society we still see racism today. From the disproportionate levels of stop and search, to the way immigrants and refugees are talked about and new arrivals are often treated, to the fact that there is still no war memorial to the soldiers from the colonies who fought in the two world wars –.
I could go on.
But Racial Justice Sunday also exists in a positive sense to remind us of the equal value and respect that we are all entitled to, not because of ‘human rights law’, but firstly because we are all God’s children, one under him, and all created in his image.
And this day is a great opportunity to remind us of the Biblical call to unity in diversity – a theme which we find throughout the Bible.
We see God’s creative diversity in Genesis 1, where God created trees ‘according to their kind’ and he made the human race male and female. We see it in the 12 tribes of Israel with their various roles, and with Ruth the Moabite who married into the Jewish people and became an ancestor of Jesus.
And Jesus’ life when he was on earth communicated God’s intention that the family of faith would extend beyond Jews to all peoples on earth. We see this Jesus’ encounters with the Samaritan woman in John 4, the centurion in Matthew 8 and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.
The Great Commission speaks of making disciples of all nations, and at the very birth of the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2 we see unity in diversity.
Here, at the birth of the church, there were people gathered from a wide range of nations, who could suddenly hear each other speaking in their own languages when the Holy Spirit came on them and united God’s people across their national divides.
In an earlier Bible story in the Old Testament – the Tower of Babel – people had been divided and spoke different languages following their human sin and pride in trying to build a tower that reached to heaven. But here in the New Testament we read how the Holy Spirit acted at Pentecost to reverse this division, showing us in a prophetic symbol that we are all now united through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And much of Acts is about Jewish followers such as Peter coming to the realisation that God wanted Gentiles as well as Jews to be part of the Church, and working out how this unity in diversity would look in practice, for example in the distribution of food as we read in Acts 6.
So we can clearly see that the Bible is full of stories of unity in diversity.
The passage that was read earlier, from 1 Corinthians chapter 12, speaks of us, the Church, God’s people, as a body, made up of many parts.
Verse 1 reads: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” And verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
The body is a fantastic image, because it is both a whole – united and complete – but yet is also made up of many different and distinct parts, from the eye to the ear, and the head to the feet.
And that’s the joy of unity – it is not about uniformity.
Real unity is not about all being the same, or thinking or doing things in the same way. But unity is about recognising the positive qualities and the value of others, and respecting and working alongside them.
It is about all being connected to each other, like a family. As verse 26 reads: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured every part rejoices with it.”
It is also about recognising that we need one another. After all – as we are reminded in this familiar Bible passage – where would the body be if it were made up only of ears, or only eyes?
So 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a great picture of the diversity that exists in God’s body, the Church, and yet the unity we are called to as God’s people – “For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
Living out this unity
But unity won’t just happen – it is something we have to live out intentionally.
I don’t know about you, but as someone who goes to a multicultural church, and is married to a Nigerian, I can become complacent and assume that I’ve got it sorted, and I have no problems when it comes to unity in diversity.
But I am challenged when I ponder on certain questions:
• how often do I judge others for doing things differently from the way I do, assuming that I’ve got it right and they must have got it wrong?
• do I talk disrespectfully about styles of church which are different from mine, assuming my church has got it all right?
• outside of the Sunday morning service, do I only really hang around with people who are similar to me? (PLUs as someone described them – People Like Us)
I don’t think it was a mistake that Paul, the writer of this letter, followed 1 Corinthians chapter 12, which focuses on unity in diversity, with chapter 13 which focuses on love.
1 Corinthians 13 contains the famous passage on love which is often read out at weddings, “love is patient, love is kind…” etc.
But the love Paul was talking about here is not in fact the mutual love between a couple, or between family members or friends.
The Greek word Paul used here was agape. And this speaks of sacrificial love – of choosing to love not just those who love us back and treat us well, but those who we find it hard to love, or even to like!
Commentator David Guzik describes this agape love:
“Agape is a love that loves without changing. It is a self-giving love that gives without demanding or expecting repayment. It is love so great that it can be given to the unlovable or unappealing. It is love that loves even when it is rejected. Agape love gives and loves because it wants to; it does not demand or expect repayment from the love given. It gives because it loves; it does not love in order to receive… The word has little to do with emotion; it has much to do with self-denial for the sake of another.”
Let’s translate that to us as the Church.
Love is a choice.
We choose to love and respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we don’t agree on everything. Because respecting each other doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other all the time – but it means we choose to listen and to speak well of each other.
We are called to love that person who sings out loud in praise when we just want it to be quiet and reflective.
We are called to love the person who we can’t understand because they never seem to show the exuberance and joy of the Lord, when we can’t stop expressing our self loudly in praise to God.
We are called to love the person who asks so many questions about God and faith, when we wonder why they can’t just trust that God knows the answers.
We are called to speak well of the church that seems to be mono-cultural, when we could only ever imagine worshipping in a multicultural community.
As 1 Corinthians 13 talks about sacrificial love, it says those familiar words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it goes not boast, it is not proud.”
When we really take those words in, and consider if that is how we are treating our brothers and sisters in Christ, it really gives us food for thought.
I want to focus on just one of those phrases before I close – “Love is not proud”.
Because in order to truly love one another and live in unity, we cannot be constantly judging each other, or assuming that we know best.
If we’re honest, pride is probably the biggest cause of disunity among us.
Pride in our opinions and our way of doing things, which means we don’t respect others who may do things differently.
And too much pride in ourselves, meaning we take things too seriously and aren’t quick to forgive and overlook misunderstandings or unintended offences.
Because if we do make the effort to spend time and build relationships with people who are different from us and who do things differently, we are bound to get offended along the way, and we need to take this lightly.
For example, there have been a few occasions where West African members of my church have pointed out to me that I’ve put on weight recently. Now as an English lady that is probably the worst, most offensive thing you could ever say, even if it is true! And although it did hurt at the time, I had to decide not to take offence and hold a grudge, because I know they did not realise I would be hurt by what they said, and that in their culture it is not meant as an offence, and can even be a compliment!
And when my husband arrived from Nigeria, he had to get used to the reserved British way of doing things, including making appointments to go round to a friends’ house three weeks in advance rather than popping in randomly and knowing that you will be welcome any time!
Why we do it
But the joys of unity in diversity do far outweigh the sacrifices.
And without you saying anything, being unified with people of different backgrounds to you does communicate a truth to the world – that we are all one in Christ.
And in intentionally living out our unity, we are fulfilling what Jesus prayed to God the father for in John 17, just before he was arrested:
I close now with that prayer of Jesus, which is central to all we do as an Evangelical Alliance. From John 17 v 20-23:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.