In the third volume of his Systematic Theology, Methodist theologian Thomas Oden maintains that despite the diversity of its members, the Church remains united in Christ: “in its own forms in specific times and places, living in particular cultures, the [C]hurch always appears sociologically diverse, yet remains in its essential unity (unita essentialis) when viewed theologically—united in Christ its head, unified in one spirit (Eph 4:4), in the unity of one faith (Eph 4:5), which expresses itself in the unity of love.”
Oden warns, however, of an “idolatrous overvaluation of unity”, which brings about a “uniformity, a tyrannising excess superficially imposed unity”. The Church would do well to heed this warning and prevent its dynamic unity from degenerating into a suffocating demand for sameness.
Paul gave this warning to the elders of the Ephesian church: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock… I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28–30, NASB).
Paul did not say that these false teachers should be countenanced in the name of diversity or for the sake of unity. Rather “they must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach…” (Titus 1:11, NIV).
In the third century, Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, condemned modalism as heresy because it taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the godhead were not distinct persons but different modes of God’s revelation. In the same way, the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) condemned Arianism—which taught that the Son is only a creature, and therefore not co-equal and co-eternal with the Father—as a heresy.
The Church does not countenance some forms of behaviour in the name of diversity and inclusion. Paul repeatedly exhorted Christians to shun the sinful passions of their carnal nature and to yield to the Holy Spirit who resides in them (Colossians 3:1–15).
Excommunication is a form of church discipline that has become extinct in many evangelical churches today. Paul had no difficulties with the excommunication of an unrepentant and defiant sinner, as in the case of the member of the Corinthian church who had committed incest (1 Cor 5). Neither did he have any qualms about excluding from Christian fellowship the schismatic who refused to heed repeated warnings by church leaders (Titus 3:10).
Tertullian, the third century Latin theologian, describes the gravity of excommunication: “For judgment is passed, and it carries great weight, as it must among men certain that God sees them; and it is a notable foretaste of judgment to come, if any man has so sinned to be banished from all share of our prayer, our assembly, and all holy intercourse.”
Genuine Christian unity can grow only in the soil of the truth of the Gospel.
Oden, Thomas. Spirit of Life. Vol. 3, Systematic Theology. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
Tertullian. Apology. Edited by Gerald Henry Randall and Walter Charles Allan Kerr. Translated by T. R. Glover. Loeb Classical Library 250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.