How Much Diversity Can a Church Handle?

October 13, 2011

A comment was made in the PCUSA Middle Governing Bodies Commission meeting last Saturday that stirred some thought and reaction. Expressing opposition to the creation of non-geographic presbyteries, one commissioner tweeted on #mgbcomm, “Diversity isn’t a problem, it’s an asset.” Just today, another comment from within my presbytery was passed along: Don’t expect support for forming a new “like-minded” presbytery. We need diverse voices around the table, and we can’t abide by conservatives going off into their own little corner where there won’t be any disagreement.


Time to review some basics:

1.  The word diairesis is translated “diversity” only in the KJV; in modern translations it is rendered “different kinds” (NIV), “varieties” (NRSV) and points to specific differentiation. The word poikilos is translated “various” in the sense of unspecific variation, divers, motley, or “many colored.” My readers can correct me, but I sense that this word might be the inspiration for rainbow stoles. The word eteron is an adjective translated “different” or “another.” This is the term used in the negative sense by Paul to reference “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6) and a “different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3).

2. Diairesis appears in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6:

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;  6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. [NRSV]

3. Diversity of gifts, varieties of service and activities are indeed good and necessary for the Body of Christ to function. Paul offers several lists of spiritual gifts: 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12 for example. God has given these gifts, and they foster unity in the Body when submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:12).

4. Diversity of gifts is not to be confused with “a different gospel” or “a different doctrine.” Put another way, gifts diversity is not the same thing as doctrinal diversity. A diversity of gifts fosters the building up of the Body; a diversity of doctrines fosters dissention, partisan and contentious quarreling, disunity.

5. Paul urged agreement in doctrine and teaching, as evidenced particularly in Galatians and 1 Timothy. For example, 1 Timothy 1:3-7.

3I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, 4 and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. 5 But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. 6 Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.

The problem before the church is not a diversity of gifts, but the wide variations in doctrine that abound. Some of these are mutually exclusive of each other, resulting in dissention. Evangelicals are looking for a way out of the unnecessary and repetitive debates around issues that, it would appear, cannot be resolved to a point of mutual forbearance or even tolerance. They see no point in participating in what is not dialogue but dissention, what is not constructive but deconstructive, and what is not progressive theology but regressive departures from orthodoxy. The worldviews, God-views, and biblical perspectives of these polar opposites are not going to convince each other to change their minds. 

If the mission and witness of the church is to be true and faithful, we have got to get our act together and come to agreement, be of one mind, and proclaim the same gospel. The present state of things cannot be maintained. So the question haunts us: what are the options for dealing with this unsustainable situation, for the sake of our mission to the world?


11 Responses to “How Much Diversity Can a Church Handle?”

  1. Ed Pettus Says:

    Well said! Thanks. We have lumped everything into the bucket of diversity as if diversity itself was the gospel .

  2. L. Lee Says:

    Does the differing doctrines limit the work of the Holy Spirit to pour out the gifts we need to do God’s work, God’s way for this generation? Is it possible that the church, by allowing differing doctrines and promoting a lack of truth or repentance of sin, is stiffling the Holy Spirit’s work?
    Would the Holy Spirit be more effective in a group of like minded people? The question begs to be asked, why do the progressives want diversity of opposing views when they do not like or respect the conservative, evangelical orthodox doctrines? Could it be so they can bring validity to all doctrine even that which is opposed to reformed, historic, orthodox views. Could it be that the life, and materiail resources, come from the growing evangelical churches which will be lost if they move out? How long can we live with false unity, false peace, and false purity which may be impeding the work of the Holy Spirit? Come Holy Spirit and lead us.

    • revmary Says:

      Friend, you ask an excellent question which goes to something I’ve been saying for a long time: our theology of the Holy Spirit is in peril. In answer, I say—unlike a former PCUSA Moderator who posited that “dissention in the church is a sign that the Holy Spirit is still at work”—dissention and differing gospels indicate the Holy Spirit is not the one governing the process; it is the evil one, the father of lies seeking to destroy the Church. The Holy Spirit helps the church find its peace, unity, and purity through submission to the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism . . .
      I’m with you! Maranatha!

  3. Dan Clark Says:

    Well, diversity is here to stay! Take one loo at nature. Would anyone want to say, “Heh, too many kinds of roses. Red only.” No, of course no one wants to limit the number or variety of roses. That would be a loss. So why limit the diversity of thought and idea as well as diversity on any other human level? Is that not also God’s gift and “asset”? Those who oppose diversity are often afraid of its challenge. Those who oppose diversity often fear their own limited and parochia thinking might be proven wrong and they be required to change. How can one oppose diverstiy and yet embrace the life of Jesus which was diversity writ large–tax collectors, prostitutes, conservatives,evangelicals, liberals, tree huggers, etc.? This diversity phobia has hurt the evangelical message and until it can itself of its pschosis, its message will always be far less than it could be.

    • Jim Conner Says:

      Dan, your comment misses the point of the article, diversity in gifts and cultures is not something we are debating in the PCUSA. What you are conflating and what the author is separating by way of exegesis of the words themselves and the contextual form of the text, is that diversity in theology is specifically not mentioned. Rather diversity of theology is something Paul admonished against.
      Ministering with people from India your arguments and preferences stated above have more in common with Hindu thought than Christian thought.

  4. Viola Larson Says:

    Dan, the people Jesus met, cared about and loved were diverse, but his message was always the same. Still is. Believe in Me, repent, you are forgiven-go and sin no more.

    And he always called his disciples to himself, not to a different Jesus. Read the “I Ams” of John.

    You ask “So why limit the diversity of thought and idea as well as diversity on any other human level? ” Because while we are finite and changing God is not-and therefore we hold onto his unchanging truths. They belong to God not to us.

  5. Jim Berkley Says:


    You wrote: “Those who oppose diversity are often afraid of its challenge. Those who oppose diversity often fear their own limited and parochia thinking might be proven wrong and they be required to change.”

    What a patronizing, insulting posting!

    The easiest path of least resistance for any fearful soul right now would be to to prance along after a sinful culture. People who are afraid would believe like you, not like those who take a courageous, fearless stand for God’s immutable truth against the tide of present disobedience.

    Jim Berkley
    Roslyn, WA

  6. Jim Caraher Says:

    What a brilliant, insightful essay which draws the proper contrast between diversity of gifts and diversity of doctrine. Fortunately large numbers of Presybyterians are finally getting their wits about them and recognizing that this “diversity is a gift not a problem” nonsense is leading straight to eventual extinction. The PCUSA can’t possibly be effective while extolling diversity of doctrine for two reasons which should be obvious to everyone along the theological spectrum: (1) too much time is diverted from mission to bickering with each other; (2) when the PCUSA does attempt to address the larger culture its message is so garbled and contradictory as to be incoherent.

  7. John judson Says:

    What I find fascinating about this discussion is that there is no real mention about what constitutes theological diversity..or separates progressive theology from orthodox theology. It is so easy to say, I am orthodox, you are progressive, so we need to agree (on my terms). The church has always had theological disagreements (the nature of Christ, the issue of female leadership, the work of the Holy Spirit, the use and presence of certain spiritual gifts to name but a few). We as Presbyterians have, at least in theory been open to diversity of theological concepts (councils do ere, the concept of scrupling, multiple confessions, the refusal to create an official list of “essential tenets” and the fact we are to be always reforming under the Word of God show that willingness to be open). The mission of the church (proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior and working for the transformation of the world as we work with God in building the Kingdom) can and is being done by churches both conservative and progressive. This does not require strict adherence to a single set of doctrines. Our willingness to debate theological issues is what allowed us to ordain women, divorced persons, integrate Southern churches and engage in social action as well as evangelism. A church that requires a single interpretation of all doctrines forever is a church that is at risk of making those doctrines idols and thus possibly failing to hear the Holy Spirit at work. I believe we need to tread lightly in this direction.

    • Jim Conner Says:

      thank you for and excellent summation of why presbyterians find a strength in theological diversity. That strength however can only be an operative blessing in the confines of orthodoxy. The same ‘openness’ to diversity becomes a curse when it blesses what God condemns. Even from your list I do not see all of those changes as a blessing because of the constant abuses and license that mark the PCUSA today. With in orthodoxy-Divorce would be a good example, I have served with talented leaders who have had a divorce, which they acknowledge as sin. I have also worked with liberal and conservative pastors who are on their fifth and sixth marriages. If we choose to prayerfully consider the cause of a divorce and the attempts at faithfulness and reconciliation then there are times to work with this reality. But how many times. Just saying these things are O.K. now and that we have come a long way covers over the other sins we are blessing in pursuit of being open instead of being faithful to God. I am liberal enough to say 1 divorce might not disqualify a person but after that a person is demonstrating a pattern that will only be exacerbated by the pressures of ordained ministry. I long to be part of a covenantal community that seeks to be faithful to God instead of bragging about its open-mindedness.

  8. Jay Weemhoff II Says:

    What a pointed conversation piece with comments that truly and clearly show the divide in both the spiritual and intellectual foundations of the PCUSA. The thought that hit me the hardest was at the very end.

    “So the question haunts us: what are the options for dealing with this unsustainable situation, for the sake of our mission to the world?”

    What appears to be happening is that the mission to the world sought by the denomination falls upon it own sword when ever and where ever it is presented. The Jesus offered withers quickly when it is sown on hard ground with no foundation of rich truths to anchor those young roots. The sinner is living in a world of relativity, why would they want their faith and salvation to be built on the same tottering framework being offered by the denomination?

    All I can say is look at the fruit that is coming from these unsustainable situations. A quickly shrinking denomination with a withered missions program does not speak volumes about a God who clearly says he will bless righteousness and send his people into fields ripe for harvest. Sorry it appears all the intellectual arguments for diversity have created the opposite of what was intended by their authors. Oh well back to the seminaries maybe they can find a way to justify and sugarcoat a doctrine of diminishing returns.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s