The role of a Christian in the Body of Christ, the kingdom of God, is best described by the biblical analogy that each of us is a part of His body. We live in a culture that praises and values the individual. In this culture, we work alone on our homework. Unlike many other parts of the world, our coming of age ritual centers on leaving the family for college and starting a life of our own. Even in marriage, if an individual is unhappy with the union, that person has the right to separate him or herself.
This individualistic cultural pattern also occurs within our churches. We are rewarded as children by how many memory verses we, on our own, have memorized; we sit with little substantial interaction beyond small talk in the pews; and the holistic church experience, the worship and sermon and sacrament, is entirely open and dependent on the interpretation of the individual according to their place in life and preference.
This individualism is not always bad; in fact, it has been one of the most significant factors in the progressive development of both our culture and our churches. Where would our country be without the self-proclaimed perfectionism of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson’s leadership or today’s examples of Bill Gates or Colin Powel and countless others who have risen up on their own two feet to make a difference in our country? Within individuals is a great God-given power to accomplish anything we, as the expression goes, put out minds to.
People are beautiful. Each person, within his or her entirely unique mind, has worlds to explore. The possibilities of each individual are infinite and continually expansive. It is this view of the individual Christ refers to when He says we are one small piece of a larger body. Each small piece is a person capable of enormous beauty, or accomplishment, or love. Each small piece of the Body is the object of God’s eternal love, and each small piece has his or her specific role within the body.
When I hear talk of diversity in the Church, I can’t help but question whether this diversity ever goes beyond a superficial level. Does diversity for our churches mean there is or should be one male pastor and one female pastor, a good ethnic mix and even a charismatic or two in the congregation? This diversity is actually a grouping of similar people. True diversity comes from the recognition that each person is entirely unique.
Learning to affirm each other’s uniqueness of person will generate enough diversity for any congregation. Putting people into generalized groups and then picking a select few people from each group based on one quality they happen to have is looking at stereotypes and not at individual gifts or personality.
Diversity is the hot word on the market for working toward a more enriched Body of Christ within our churches; after all, every tribe and tongue and nation will someday worship in the kingdom of heaven. But in this process of diversification, we are looking at categories of diversity in groups of people, and this comes at the expense of individual diversity. People are encouraged to fit themselves into an established structure—athletes are encouraged to play sports, musicians to sing, leaders to lead, etc., which are good encouragements, but people are so much more than the structures into which we place them.
We have to embrace people entirely as they are—arrogant, rich, spiteful, homosexual—we have to love them as the amazing and beautiful people they are, trusting in Christ and the Holy Spirit to redeem and sanctify their sinful natures. Ostracizing a person because they don’t fit with our ideas of right and wrong is more than just cutting off the diverse perspectives they could bring to a church; their exclusion is ostracizing them from the ultimate kingdom of God. Understanding individuals in the fullness of their unique personhood instead of their relation to a group of people is one beginning step toward creating a growing and healthy environment for individuals, the fundamental unit of the Body of Christ.
[John Mark Hussey is a 22-year-old English literature and writing student at Wheaton College, where he has been a member of World Christian Fellowship, a student-led worship service with a global emphasis. He grew up in a small town with a family of seven kids in upstate New York.]