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Where is the unity in Christian diversity?

This article is adapted from one originally posted on 24 July 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Unity and Diversity.”

I want to explain the issue of unity and diversity within Christian belief. In other words, should all Christians believe exactly the same things? Or is there room for disagreement? To help explain I will need a solar system, a sumo-wrestler.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a great diversity of opinion in Christendom about certain doctrines. But how much diversity of opinion can be permitted until someone can no longer rightly be called an authentic Christian? What defines authentic Christian belief? A number of years ago I was setting up Thinking Matters, conceived as an inter-church organisation that would encourage and support apologetics in New Zealand. During this process I and a few friends had to wrestle with these serious issues, and are still regularly are confronted with different perspectives and disagreements within our own ranks concerning what correct theology should be. 

We were in need of some clear answers, and by finding them we were equipped to answer many other questions, such why are there so many denominations (such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, etc.), how should we think about them, act towards the people in them, can similar church splits can or should be avoided, and are other churches, such as Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic rightly be called Christians.

The first point to clarify was this: if Christianity is to claim that it is truly true then it must be about something specific. Truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. To include every belief and exclude none is to abandon reason and create a system with no discernible identity that is subject to all manner of flights of fancy. To be all-inclusive is to have an incoherent muddle. Blasé Pascal said “Plurality without unity is chaos; unity without plurality is tyranny.” The first half of this axiom can be expressed in the words; something that is about everything is about nothing in particular. The second half can be expressed also in other words; something that is about only one thing is cruelty.

Secondly, we found there are two ways of thinking about what defines authentic Christian belief: the Bounded-set model and the Centred-set model.

The Bounded-set model describes a set of beliefs defined by a border that regulates what should and should not be believed: all authentically Christian beliefs lie within a boundary. Think of a sumo-wrestling ring that prescribes where you can wrestle: step outside the ring and you’re disqualified. Some people create a ridged list of beliefs where if on any point there is contradiction, no longer can that person truly be called “one of us.” It’s an all-or-nothing brand of dogmatic Christianity; obsessed with patrolling and maintaining the border; known by what they exclude, rather than by what they include.

The model tends to describe the mind-set of the more narrow-minded or sectarian Christians. The prime examples are cult groups, who believe they are members of the “one (and only) true church.” They have a “We can never work with them” attitude. I have found some young-earth creationists think a little like this, where the denial of that particular interpretation seems tantamount to denial of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. It illustrates an adversarial way of describing Christian belief; jealously guarding interior beliefs as equally the same; vigilant about staying within; not impressed by people outside calling themselves Christians; and often over-reacting to those who dare to question the boundary.

The Centred-set model is like a solar system. Here Christians can be authentically Christian if they remain in orbit around a central magnetic core, as the planets do the sun. As long as one shares in common a nucleus of essential beliefs then disagreement on non-essentials can be accommodated. The centre creates a definitive identity for Christianity making it possible to see those who have been knocked out of orbit and circling another gospel. This model is best suited for retaining diversity of belief and makes inter-denominational unity possible.

Thirdly, we needed to answer what beliefs should be considered essential? The answer you find will depend much on your purpose for defining Christian belief. You could be in our situation, trying to draft a Statement of Faith for a church or organisation, or may simply desire to spell out to a child or unbeliever what one must do and believe in order to be saved. The diameter of the wrestling ring or the volume of the sun will be influenced by the particular doctrinal concerns of the tradition-community and the importance ascribed to each doctrine. The larger the area the more difficult it will be to please everyone, but fortunately essential truths to the gospel of salvation have remained largely unchanged in two millennia.

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