It is one of the fallacies of modernity that to be united we all need to be the same.
Unity is not uniformity. Before this is a human or social truth, it is a theological truth.
If we want to see how we can be a Baptist community that maintains unity, we need first of all to begin with the nature of God and God’s will for all creation.
Why do we differ? We differ because God has made us different.
From the beginning of all time, God made many different creatures and, along with them, made human beings different as well. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
This fundamental insight draws attention to our likeness to God, and that’s crucial to our understanding of diversity.
Difference is not alien to God; on the contrary, this verse tells us that our diversity is part of what it means for us (together) to be in God’s image. Difference is part of who we are because difference is part of who God is.
The biblical, Christian doctrine of God includes the idea of God as a community (a Tri-unity), in which there is difference without division.
Father, Son and Spirit live in loving unity, belonging to one another in a mystical relationship – and this life of God as community is given to all creation as the example and inspiration of how we might live.
That promise and possibility, though, is only possible through God: It is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as we come together as humans, Christians, Baptists, we bring all that diversity that God has created and celebrates.
Some are black and others of us are pinkies. We are male and female, old and young; some love to sing and dance in praise to the Lord, and others of us sit tight in our seats and hope no one will ask us to clap our hands.
We are all sorts, but all of us read the New Testament affirmation that we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
That verse says, however, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and therein lies an interesting puzzle.
Does this mean that our Christian identity does away with our differences, and thus with our identity? I think not.
It is not as if God wills to “flatten out” our differences so that we all end up “coffee colored” as that song from the 1970s suggested.
God does not want to negate who we are, but rather wants to unite who we are in a community of rich diversity, with differences that do not divide.
The clear indication of this is found in a proper reading of the story of Pentecost. On that day, there is a reversal of the story of Babel, when different languages meant that people could no longer understand each other.
At Pentecost, the great crowd of witnesses all hear in their own languages. It is not that the Spirit negates their distinctive identities, but rather the Spirit gathers them all into a community where they are all able to hear, to believe, to respond in praise.
Their differences no longer divide, but instead are gathered into a new community of all nations. Baptists, however, find it hard to practice the way of Pentecost.
When we come together, we find it hard to allow differences to be expressed for fear that they will divide.
First, it is part of the genius of the Baptist way of church that it is always local.
We do not have a strong vision of the “universal” church. We think locally.
That is a strength. It shows a commitment to live out our faith in practical, local mission. But that same strength can lead to narrowness and a lack of vision for God’s work in the whole world.
In a sense, we need the Spirit’s bi-focal vision, local and universal. And when we come together, we need to see how the Spirit is holding all this diversity in one wonderful body, the church.
Similarly, because our Baptist way of being church calls for us to be obedient and faithful, here and now, we are also tempted to think of the church as only existing in the present.
Too easily we lose the vision of all that God has done in the past, the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and also of the future and those who are yet to come.
These dynamics can also narrow our vision and make us unwilling to see and embrace those of different experience and custom.
The greatest difficulty, however, is with our temptation to think that we own the church.
Our Baptist way of being the church stresses the importance of being members. Each of us is called into the church; we are baptized into the church and equipped with a gift for the church.
But that can too easily mean that we think we create the church and we own the church. We are the church, but we don’t own the church. It is fundamentally the body of Christ.
It is his. It is the people of God, the creation of the Spirit. We don’t make it, own it or control it.
Therefore, when we come together in all our differences and each of us with a gift, an identity, a story, a need, an opinion, all these things are secondary to our identity in Christ.
We must, therefore, come together with a prayer on our lips and in our hearts and our heads: “Living God, community in whom differences do not divide, by the grace of your Spirit enable us, too, to be such a community, and in this way bring honor to Jesus our Lord and bear witness to your gift and will for all the world.”
If we prayed something like this, for each other as well as for ourselves, we just might find that unity that allows us to differ, to the glory of God.
Frank Rees is principal and professor of systematic theology at Whitley College in Melbourne, Australia. A version of this article first appeared in the October-December 2016 edition of Baptist World magazine, a publication of the Baptist World Alliance. It is used with permission.
A Baptist pastor in Melbourne, Australia, and an associate professor in the University of Divinity.