In Christ, Unity is Not Uniformity - Damon J. Gray
The Twilight Zone
As a youth, one of my favorite television programs was The Twilight Zone, a programming concept created and hosted by Rod Serling. It was an exceptionally well-written anthology series that ran from 1959 to 1964.
The stories told were designed to toy with the viewers’ minds through use of psychological manipulation, suspense, strange science fiction, and cheesy 1950s horror. Every episode ended with a bizarre and unexpected plot twist that often left the viewer feeling a little unsettled.
Fifty years later, TV Guide still ranks The Twilight Zone in the top five best television series of all time.1
In 1964, the fifth and final season for The Twilight Zone the program featured an episode titled “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” depicting a futuristic society that has slowed aging, eradicated disease, and eliminated ugliness. Every member of the community is healthy, young, and beautiful.
The depicted society has achieved this amazing feat by having every young adult undergo “The Transformation” as they reach age nineteen. To eliminate ugliness, each adolescent is allowed to select their future appearance from one of a dozen models, the likeness of which they will bear for the remainder of their lives – everything from hair color and style, right down to the shoelaces. This uniformity necessitates an identity plate to be sewn into the breast of each uniform. Otherwise, one does not know if they are speaking to Suzi or Francine.
The central figure in the story, Marilyn Cuberle, does not wish to undergo the transformation, having been raised by her father to be a free thinker. The tension in the storyline is fueled by Marilyn’s quite reasonable objections to the transformation, and the pressure from society to abandon her radical views and conform to the communal pattern.
Not surprisingly, Marilyn succumbs to the pressure, undergoes the transformation and, with the accompanying mental upgrades, she is programmed to be thrilled with the results. Admiring herself in the mirror, with her identical best friend standing in the background, Marilyn gushes like a schoolgirl, “The nicest part, Val, is I look just like you!”
A Twilight Zone Church
Such homogeneity in the body of Christ results in a monotonous sameness, giving the appearance that Christians are being spit out of a spiritual duplicator. We look the same, think the same, act the same. We use the same phraseology and wear the same clothing. We become Christian Clones, and with the accompanying mental upgrades, we are thrilled with the results.
One of my instructors in seminary had an interesting habit of starting classes each day in exactly the same way. Having placed his materials on the desk and podium at the front of the classroom, this gentleman would begin speaking to the class, and as he did so, he would unbutton the sleeves of his shirt and neatly roll them up, thus turning his long-sleeve shirt into a short-sleeve shirt.
What was interesting about this daily ritual is that he rolled his sleeves by tucking the cuff under the sleeve rather than rolling it outwardly, over the sleeve. Never before had I seen a man roll his sleeves in this way.
Seminary students at this university were expected to speak occasionally in daily chapel. This exercise was good practice for those who were less comfortable standing before a crowd.
On one occasion, a gentleman from the class just ahead of my own was scheduled to speak to the chapel audience. I can still picture him making his way up to the podium, beginning his address, and rolling his cuffs underneath his shirtsleeves just as our instructor did every time he taught.
We have a cultural cliché that says, “Like father, like son,” and in this case, we might modify that a bit to say, “Like teacher, like student.” Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”2
The apostle Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,”3 and that is often presented as a call for uniformity in the body of Christ. It is critical, however, to place that call from Paul into its context, because it is then that we see Paul addressing issues of doing all for the glory of God, not giving offense, pleasing others, and living selflessly, that others may come to a point of salvation. Paul is not calling all of us to roll our cuffs underneath rather than over the top.
It can be tempting to emulate members of the body that we admire. Inasmuch as these men and women are manifesting the attitudes, teachings, and behaviors of Christ, such emulation is not a bad thing, so long as we are vigilant about not investing our time and energies into following church leaders rather than following Christ.
Challenges within the body arise when ambitious men and women latch on to verses about imitation,4 and couple them with other verses on submission and obedience,5 resulting in a spiritual discipleship pyramid in which some man or woman higher up in the pyramid exerts tremendous power and pressure onto the lives of their disciples, demanding that they conform to an arbitrary standard of Christian living.
I have witnessed the abuse and destruction that results from such authoritarian church leadership. This is not the model presented by Jesus. Submission in the body of Christ is never portrayed biblically as leading us to a homogenous rank and file of identical tin soldiers.
The night prior to Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion, he prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”6
Jesus’ call to oneness presents us with a unique challenge, because we have seen in previous blog postings that when Jesus speaks of being one with the Father, he speaks of being one essence, one thing. Were that to come to fruition in our lifetime, we would have one shepherd and one flock following that shepherd. Yet, even in that oneness, we have a tri-unity: uniquely the Father, uniquely the Son, and uniquely the Holy Spirit, yet one.
This unity is that spoken of by the apostle Paul when he speaks of one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all,7 so that we are one body in Christ Jesus, while many members of that one body.
Jesus was praying for what was to come in the very near future, knowing that various disciples would flock to the body from a multiplicity of backgrounds. Very early in the infant church we see dissentions arising between the Hellenists8 and the Hebraists,9 because the Hellenistic widows were being neglected in daily distributions.10
Over time, despite the one Spirit that infused the body of believers, the diversity of their backgrounds resulted in a predictable rise in dissonance between the cultural groups. Tensions rose to the point that the church leadership called a special conference in Jerusalem11 to put the issues to rest and restore harmony in the body of Christ.
The unity for which Jesus prayed was not without purpose:
. . . that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. – John 17:21, ESV
The more unified the body of believers, the more convincing is our message, and the more likely the world is to believe. Jesus died praying for our unity, and we, at times, appear willing to fight to the death to defend our discordant doctrinal positions.
Of all the illustrative means Jesus could have chosen to exemplify the oneness he prayed for, he chose the mysterious intimacy of himself and the Father: “I in them, and you in me, that they may be completely one.”12
The unity amid diversity in the body of Christ is mystical beyond my ability to comprehend. We maintain individuality while being consumed in Christ’s body, a single entity with many members, an entity that is more than the sum of those parts with Jesus in me, and me in you, and you in them, and they in us. It boggles the mind.
I cannot believe that the unity for which Christ prayed is a unity in which we wear identical uniforms while rigidly goose-stepping to the same Christian drumbeat. Rather it is a unity wherein we obliterate dividing walls that separate us and prohibit genuine, intimate relationships. As Christ is in you, and Christ is in me, that makes us one, and I can love and fellowship with you on that basis alone.
The New Testament bears ample witness to the centrifugal tendencies in apostolic Christianity: we have only to think of the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians, between legalists and libertarians, between the rank and file who were content with the ‘simple gospel’ and the spiritual elite who preferred what they imagined to be more advanced teaching. But it bears ample witness also to the centripetal forces which kept churches and Christians together, and the greatest of these was love.13
1. Fretts, B., & Roush, M, (December 23, 2013). TV Guide Magazine’s 60 Best Series of All Time. Retrieved 3/28/2016 from http://www.tvguide.com/news/tv-guide-magazine-60-best-series-1074962/
2. Luke 6:40, ESV
3. 1 Corinthians 11:1, ESV
4. 1st Corinthians 11:1, Ephesians 5:1, 1st Thessalonians 1:6
5. 1st Corinthians 16:16, Hebrews 13:17, 1st Peter 5:5
6. John 17:11b, ESV
7. Ephesians 4:4-6
8. The Hellenists were Christian converts from the Greek society.
9. The Hebraists were Christian converts from the Hebrew religion and culture.
10. Acts 6:1
11. Acts 15:1-35
12. John 17:23
13. Bruce, F.F., (1978). Lessons from the Early Church. In D. J. Ellis & W. W. Gasque (Eds.), In God’s Community. (153-168). Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers.