Finding Unity in Diversity

How Christians can build our lives on God’s truth—even when we disagree

By Fred Miller
Finding Unity in Diversity
Sculpture by Brian Menkis

Imagine you are a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus living somewhere in Asia. You just led your Gentile neighbor to a loving faith in Jesus. Everyone in your community is filled with joy! Then, the next week, your neighbor gives birth to a baby boy—and things get complicated.

You see, God made it clear in Genesis 17:10 that every Jewish male child should be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant. If a child didn’t get circumcised, he was cut off from the community. For 2,000 years, your people have faithfully followed this command. It has been a core belief and practice. But now Jesus the Messiah has come, and as a result the Church must figure out what Old Testament commands still apply—and what to do about your neighbor’s son!

One day, Church leaders call a meeting to resolve this issue. Must Gentiles who trust in Jesus be circumcised? The council debates this question for many hours and eventually concludes no, because “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

The challenge of “doing theology”

Not everyone agreed with the decision of this council. Not everyone was comfortable with changing the practice of a 2,000-year-old scriptural command. And some probably continued to circumcise their children. Yet the council’s decision about non-circumcision eventually became a universal belief of the Early Church, and all were expected to affirm it.

This story illustrates a key task of the Church: to reflect on the Word to determine how God is speaking (interpretation), and to set standards for how we live out that truth today (application).

As Christians, we face the primary challenge of knowing how to hold fast to core beliefs while allowing freedom on non-core matters.

A further necessary task is to consider levels of importance to the biblical truths revealed in Scripture. The New Testament church also recognized this reality. In Romans 18, Paul refers to “disputable matters,” concluding that “everyone needs to be fully convinced in their own mind” and that those of different minds ought to “accept one another.” Today, we understand these passages to mean that Christians are free to conclude different things (on certain matters) if our hearts are devoted to God. In other words, some biblical truths must translate into “core” beliefs and practices—and others should not.

As Christians, we face the primary challenge of knowing how to hold fast to core beliefs while allowing freedom on non-core matters. Too often we hold all beliefs as core beliefs, and we do so in dogmatic ways that build walls between earnest, faithful followers of Jesus. When we act in such ways, we allow little room to question, to explore, and even to hold differing views with grace.

Denominations face this challenge on multiple fronts. How do we “do theology” corporately? In other words, how do we both defend our beliefs and yet free present and future generations to challenge (on biblical grounds) some of those beliefs? And how do we do this without seeing the challenging individuals as disloyal? After all, every denomination—including the BIC—has changed some beliefs over the years. This process of discernment and change must be understood as a healthy part of the Church’s process, just as the Early Church debated—and ultimately changed—their beliefs as well.

Dogma, doctrine, and differences

So how do we distinguish between core beliefs and practices and non-core matters? Theologians have suggested various approaches. One option is to sort beliefs and practices into three categories: dogma, doctrine, and differences.

“Dogma” refers to those beliefs and practices that are determined to be essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are embraced by all Christians (BIC and others). These core beliefs and practices unite us because they are rooted in the life, teaching, person, and work of Jesus. Examples of dogma would be believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus, and that God calls us to follow Jesus in repentance and obedience through an inner transformation by the Holy Spirit.

“Doctrine” refers to those beliefs and practices that are considered important but not essential to our faith. These are usually taught by the leaders of a church or denomination as important distinctives that set the church or denomination apart from others. Doctrines could change over time, but would likely change very slowly. There may be degrees of freedom for individuals in a local church to question or disagree about these matters, but the beliefs held by leaders and the majority should be respected as such. Examples for the BIC would include a commitment to pursue peace with all people including enemies and an affirmation of women in church leadership roles.

This sculpture offers an artistic representation of Fred Miller’s three categories of belief—dogma, doctrine, and differences—by utilizing different materials symbolic of each category.
The twigs: Organic and loosely woven, the uppermost part of the sculpture symbolizes “differences.” Just as the twigs stretch and point in multiple directions though tied together with knotted twine, so too do non-core ideas about Christian faith move freely in multiple directions, as honest Christians explore different ways of thinking about the same topic.
The wood: A sturdy wooden framework forms the center section of the sculpture, symbolizing “doctrine.” Though somewhat malleable, the wood nevertheless gives structure to the sculpture, extending from the firm foundation. In much the same way, doctrine—though it could change over time—grows out of our dogma and provides stability and unity within a given church or denomination.
The concrete: Cast concrete forms the solid base of the sculpture, symbolizing “dogma.” Just as the wood and twigs rest upon the concrete, so too do our differences and our doctrines rest upon the foundational dogma of our Christian faith. Without this base, everything else would collapse.

“Differences” refer to those beliefs and practices about which we agree to accept diversity. Here we hold differences loosely, and we actively encourage discussion and debate on such matters. Differences do not define us, nor are they officially taught, even though some beliefs and practices in this category may represent a majority viewpoint. Some people may even hold these views quite strongly and believe opposing views are unbiblical; yet we agree we can still “be BIC” and disagree. Examples of differences might include whether Christians should drink alcohol, how exactly God created the Earth, and what the Bible teaches about the last days.

In reality, the BIC have never formally (to my knowledge) employed these three categories, although we have probably done so informally. Because of this, what some might define as doctrine, others might see as differences, and vice versa. For these reasons, we need to exercise both clarity and charity as we seek to build our lives on God’s truth.

This approach argues for a fairly large BIC “tent”—a tent that holds many people with a multiplicity of views. The approach also gives pastors and leaders some freedom in their individual understanding of Scripture and the Spirit’s voice. But this individual freedom must, of course, be balanced by our commitment to community. We must continue to interpret the Bible together, requiring everyone to be accountable informally to the wisdom of the gathered church. In accepting this approach, we allow members of our community to hold minority views, but at the same time we require that minority to listen to and honor the conclusion of the majority. And, of course, the majority must remain open to the prophetic voice of the minority as well. We must allow for both unity and diversity in proper measure.

Making unity and diversity work

In practice, making unity and diversity work is often a process—a somewhat cumbersome and messy process. It involves discussions and debates, fears and concerns. It requires open Bibles that invite myriad interpretative results. And it necessitates grace and patience. At one time we may view a particular issue as doctrine and require unity; some time later, that same issue may be put into the differences category, and we will welcome diversity on the matter.

Our BIC history is helpful in this regard. For many years, we saw plain clothing as a doctrine issue. Leaders and members were expected to dress in a distinctive way that set them apart from their non-Christian neighbors. Today, dress has moved from the domain of doctrine to differences. Though God’s word does not change, majority discernments about God’s word can and do change over time.

The present reality is also instructive. Our BIC membership covenant requires members to “consent to instruction in Bible doctrine,” though not necessarily to agree with BIC understandings. Individuals must listen and evaluate for themselves but still respect and honor the denominational position if they personally disagree. In other words, the category of doctrine is already at play in our church today.

To me, making unity and diversity work means acknowledging first and foremost our focus on Jesus as revealed to us in the Scriptures. We look to His teaching, His life example, His cross, His resurrection and ascension, His commissioning of his apostles, and His sending of the Spirit. Our starting place is with him. We seek to gain insights about what Jesus considers dogma, doctrine, and difference. This doesn’t resolve all our disagreements, but we can at least follow the model of the Early Church and freely debate them—with humility, grace, and patience.

Living out unity and diversity

Speaking personally, I value a family of believers that allows me to ask biblical questions without being labeled disloyal. I value the historical voices of the past as well as today’s new voices. I value the diversity of BIC voices and I value the diversity of non-BIC voices. I value the stability of our 10 Core Values and I value debates over non-core values.

I feel this way, in part, because of my own experiences. When I began my current pastorate, our church had a policy that women could not serve on the church board unless qualified men were unavailable. Yet our denomination affirmed full participation of women in the life of the local congregation. My personal view aligned with the denomination. Ultimately, after many years of teaching and dialogue, we voted to change our policy and conform to denominational policy. And I’m very grateful that we weren’t “kicked out” during our years of nonconformity!

My point is that the BIC was patient with us and allowed us freedom on a matter that was clearly against BIC practice. This was, in my mind, a doctrine issue (not dogma) that took some people many years to be persuaded by BIC teaching. Some remain unconvinced—and that’s okay. Yet we still welcome them into fellowship and encourage them to consider the wisdom of the gathered church.

Embracing a messy process

Truth be told, most of us would like to resist this messy process. But is there really any other way that honors God? Surely we cannot freeze all our beliefs in time and say we have achieved perfection. Surely we cannot muzzle all dissenting voices and assume the majority is always best or right. Yet just as surely we cannot follow every minority voice, investigate every alternative view, or assume that a few lone voices are the primary way God speaks to us.

In other words, we must embrace both unity and diversity. We must value the past without idolizing it, and we must value the future without accepting every new idea that develops. It’s not the easiest path to take, but it’s a path that seeks to honor Scripture, listen to the Spirit, dialog as a community, and acknowledge—as this magazine’s title reminds us—that we “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Ultimately, we can rest in the confidence that God is pleased with our hearts. We may not get all our interpretations and applications right here on Earth, but we can offer God a pure heart, a humble spirit, and a loving attitude toward one another along the way. And that, we know, will please him.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Fred Miller

Fred Miller is senior pastor of Cumberland Valley BIC (Dillsburg, Pa.). He encourages believers to live authentic lives centered on God in his book You & God: An Invitation to Radical Living (Evangel, 2006).


katie schindell Posted on December 27, 2014

Thank you for this Fred. I have often struggled with understanding these very things -- you help to make things more clear.

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