In various passages, the New Testament clearly speaks of a diversity of spiritual gifts within the body of Christ (e.g., Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11, 27-31; Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Pet. 4:7-11). Diversity is also a buzzword in contemporary American society. How do the New Testament and contemporary American concepts of diversity compare and contrast?
First, it should be noted that the two concepts are talking about two different things. To oversimplify things, the New Testament concept deals with what people do, while the contemporary American concept deals with who people are. In the New Testament, spiritual gifts are divine abilities to accomplish a given task for the common good, such as preaching, teaching, administration, and generosity. In contemporary America, by contrast, diversity usually has to do with one’s race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.
Second, while diversity as such is a qualified good in the New Testament, it is considered an unqualified good in contemporary American society. What do I mean by a qualified good? I mean simply that in the New Testament, diversity is good up to a point.
Diversity of spiritual gifts is good, because each gift contributes in some way toward the body of Christ. In the same way, diversity of race or ethnic backgrounds in the church is good, according to Ephesians 2:11-22, because it demonstrates the power of Jesus Christ to effect peace between different people groups. Diversity of opinion on matters of Christian freedom is good, according to Romans 14:5-8, because Christians can agree to disagree about, for example, what they eat and drink. But it is only a qualified good, because exercising Christian freedom without love causes harm to weaker brothers and sisters. Christian freedom, in other words, is about personal rights qualified by responsibilities to other people.
The contemporary American concept of diversity does not include these qualifications. One has the unqualified right not to be discriminated against because of one’s race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and sexual orientation. Now, I think we can all admit that this concept of diversity based on equal rights is a compelling one with numerous benefits. Indeed, to a certain extent, it is the fulfillment of the Golden Rule. If we do not want to be discriminated against, we should not discriminate against others.
But this leads to my third point, which is the problematic nature of the contemporary American concept of diversity from a Christian point of view. Let me give you an example. Religious organizations—such as churches, faith-based charities, and parachurch ministries—must think and act in ways that are consistent with their creeds. Further, they must hire employees who think and act in ways that are consistent with their creeds. If a church hires a pastor, for example, it should be able to determine whether his beliefs are orthodox and his behavior consistent with biblical teaching. (The same is true of a synagogue hiring a rabbi and a mosque hiring an imam, or an atheist advocacy organization hiring a leader.) The problem is that since the contemporary American concept of diversity is rights-based, there can be a tension between what the church must do and rights based on diversity. For example, if an evangelical church fires a pastor who has come out of the closet, has it violated his rights to be protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? Many lawyers believe so. The First Amendment, which enumerates the right of the free expression of religion, seems to conflict with the rights flowing from diversity.
What this illustrates, it seems to me, is that for the Christian, diversity has its limits. The Bible on numerous occasion calls on believers to strive for unity in doctrine (e.g., Phil. 1:27) and the community (e.g., Phil. 2:1-4). Diversity of opinion on core doctrinal matters is never considered a good; rather, it is considered heresy (e.g., Gal. 1:6-9). Similarly, far from allowing diversity of sexual practice, Paul clearly delineated acceptable and unacceptable sexual practices within the Christian community (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1-5 and 6:15-20).
For Christians, then, unity and diversity are both good, as long as they are properly understood and practiced. It is not clear to me that these common sense qualifications are also true of the contemporary American concept of diversity.