“To be one, to be united is a great thing. But to respect the right to be different may be even greater.”
One of my favorite rock bands is U2, and their lead singer, Bono, is credited with the quote above. We talk about unity all the time, especially in the church. It is certainly a core value of our faith. To be “one in Christ Jesus,” whether we are male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile - this is clearly a scriptural priority.
But this quote helps me think about the distinction between “unity” and “uniformity.” And sometimes I fear we consider the terms synonymous. They are not synonyms.
“Uniformity” is a state of being identical within a group, and it implies a kind of isolation from the world by some characteristic that each group member holds in common. “Unity” is when parts are combined to form a whole, and does not presume that any individual part needs to give up what makes it unique in that process. As such, unity remains connected to the larger world.
The sin of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) may not have been building a tower to heaven in order to take God’s place, per the popular interpretation. The sin of Babel may very well have been the people trying to “make a name for ourselves.” In other words, they feared for their future as a uniform and isolated community, as they said themselves, “Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
In response, God diversified and scattered them - exactly the thing they feared happening. In so doing, God restated the creation commandment, to bear fruit, fill the earth, and care for it (Genesis 1:28). And in so doing, God anticipated the commission of Christ, to go into all the world to share the Good News (Mark 16:15).
My prayer is that the church be united in this mission, without insisting upon uniformity to accomplish it. May we be one, and at the same time may we “respect the right to be different” for each one of God’s children.
As such, the church must reflect on our own inclination toward the sin of Babel. Not a tower to God, but a hunger for uniformity. Uniformity is a source of comfort. Uniformity meets expectations. Uniformity swims with the current. Uniformity is easy.
Unity, on the other hand, can get messy. Unity does not require you to check your baggage at the door, it embraces you right along with all the baggage you drag along. Unity does not pander to silly ideas like "agree to disagree." Unity absorbs disagreement and converts it into energy that drives the relationship.
More and more churches are dividing from one another, or maybe leaving one denominational home for another. These divisions, schisms, separations - whatever we call them - always do harm. Pain is inevitable, and it always gets personal. Because it is.
Love does not insist on its own way. And unity is love.
If the United Methodist denomination is going to talk about dividing, or creating parallel jurisdictions, or any of the handful of other ideas floating around the interwebs, we have to first admit to an abject failure. We have failed to be an obedient church. God desires unity; toward uniformity God is ambivalent at best.
In creation, God diversifies and scatters us around the world. At Babel, God reinforces the scattering movement. Through Jesus, God again sends messengers out and into and among. And at Pentecost, the scattering is made even more apparent, as the Holy Spirit empowers diversity among the followers of Jesus.
All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. We exist to be scattered, for God's sake.