The Right Kind of Diversity
February 6, 2012
Last October, I reflected on the question “How Much Diversity Can a Church Handle?” I return to the topic, in response to a comment made in a Fellowship of Presbyterians document released last week.
In the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) communiqué dated January 19 (during the Orlando conference), the value of life-giving diversity was lifted up:
“Just as earthly ecosystems draw richness from the right kind of diversity, ECO is committed to unleashing the ministry gifts of women, men, young leaders, and every ethnicity. ECO’s name also draws from the Greek term oikos, meaning ‘household,’ used in the Bible to reference the network of relationships that nurture an individual.”
“The right kind of diversity” is an intriguing phrase, to which I bring another Kiwi image: One of the highlights of our two-week trip to the North Island of New Zealand was a full-day’s excursion to Kapiti Island, off the southwestern coast. Kapiti is a marine reserve, a safe habitat for New Zealand’s unique bird population. Some species are found only here and nowhere else in the world. Hiking up the mountain through temperate rain forest, we were greeted at every turn with the cacophony of sounds—tweets, flutes, twitters, and even deep organ pipes—in happy confusion. Some birds like the kaka will steal your lunch on its way to your mouth; others like the kiwi are reclusive and nocturnal. The diversity on this island is breathtaking.
Everything is in balance, and every effort is made to keep it that way. But there’s one thing you won’t find on this island: mammals. The rat population, introduced centuries ago by mistake, was finally eradicated in the last fifteen years or so. Three stoats were found and removed from the island in 2011. With these natural predators absent the habitat, endangered birds are again able to reproduce in safety. The right kind of diversity affords health, wellbeing, trust, and freedom to those for whom the habitat was created.
In the Gospel of John (chapter 10), Jesus likens the community of believers to a herd of sheep that need the vigilant protection of a shepherd to keep thieves and wolves out of the pen. It is not helpful, in the name of diversity, to introduce wolves into a sheep-pen; rather, the shepherd is charged with guarding the gate and securing a safe environment for the sheep. “Diversity” can go only so far, and then it becomes dangerous.
And so it is with the church: the ecosystem of a healthy church stays in balance as long as predators are prevented from invading the population. Leadership of a healthy church keeps a vigilant eye on the portals and gates into its fellowship, for the purpose of securing safety and health for those who belong with its boundaries. The Apostle Paul used this image while explaining what had to happen in the Corinthian church to bring it back into balance: “Expel the immoral brother” (1 Cor 5:9-13). He was saying this: If among you Christian believers are found the immoral or idolatrous (not to mention the greedy or swindling), they must be removed from the fellowship for the good (the safety and health) of the whole. It was a wise pastor who told me decades ago, “You do not sacrifice the spiritual wellbeing of an entire Bible study group to keep a [disruptive] person loose among them.”
Presbyterians historically have used the “due process” of church discipline to remove the immoral brother or sister from fellowship, so that the sheep will not be stolen away spiritually or led into dangerous theological territory. As discipline has faltered in the last few decades, ideas and movements dangerous to Presbyterians’ wellbeing have been let loose. The balance within a fragile population of saints has been upset by the introduction of heresy, doctrinal error, and bad behavior. The ECO, as far as I can tell, is seeking to establish a sanctuary where the right kind of diversity can be installed and perpetuated without the threat of spiritual thieves to decimate its population. This is completely consistent with the gospel, with Christ’s concerns for his people, and with church history. It is, of course, countercultural, but then, that should be a good sign that the ECO is on the right track.