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the tension between unity and uniformity

When many people speak of unity, they are actually referring to uniformity.  This can be true on a team, in a relationship, at church, or in the workforce.

I cut my religious teeth in a fellowship of churches that began as a unity movement.  The idea was simple: let’s drop denominational distinctions and just be Christians.  Unity was to be found in Jesus Christ.  “No creed but Christ” was one of the rallying cries.

After a while, the urge to have uniformity trumped the desire to be united.

What is the difference?

Unity is a relational bond that is generated by the Spirit.  It binds hearts together around a common Lord and a common purpose.  It doesn’t eliminate differences but allows us to navigate them with grace.  Unity that is Spirit-generated and Spirit-driven will lead us to look for mutual interests, but all the while submitting ourselves to a higher cause.

Uniformity, on the other hand, is often generated by an external pressure.  The pressure could come from a peer group, leading one to dress or act a certain way.  The pressure could be denominational — this is how we’ve always done things.  This is the “Baptist way” or “Methodist way” or even “non-denominational way.”  Many times, the external pressure to conform comes from well-intentioned family and friends.  “Why are you Catholic?”  “Because my parents were Catholic.”

Here are a few other differences:

  • Unity is liberating.  Uniformity is limiting.
  • Unity is messy.  Uniformity is managed.
  • Unity is service-oriented.  Uniformity is self-oriented.
  • Unity is attractive.  Uniformity is addictive.

Are there things to be uniform about?  I certainly believe so.  Orthodox Christianity holds to certain historic truths.  There are foundational beliefs that must be uniform.  But, remember, we are talking about beliefs and truths, not necessarily rituals and practices.

There will always be a certain tension between unity and uniformity.  When we allow ourselves to live in the tension, it forces us to be clear about what is important and what is not. That is good.

The next time you begin to feel the tension between unity and uniformity, ask yourself this question: “Why?”  Ask, “Am I more concerned with getting my way or following God’s way?”