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Diversity in the church: Bug or feature?

In my work, we recently updated our website. And I don’t mean just the look of the site, but also the functionality of the whole thing. The “backend” of our site doesn’t work the way it used to. We have had to learn new processes to build pages, post stories, upload images and just about everything else.  

Bug or feature is a question grows out of the computer industry. Photo by Christina Morillo via Pexels.
“Bug or feature?”is a question that grows out of the computer industry. Photo by Christina Morillo via Pexels.

Because of this, things sometimes happen that we don’t expect. When that occurs, one of us will wonder aloud, “Is it supposed to do that?” Or, “I don’t know what I did to make that happen!” 

Even if you have never worked on the backend of a website, I’m guessing you know this feeling. Things happen — good and bad — and we’re not sure if it was supposed to happen, or if it’s something that needs to be fixed. 

Extending the computer metaphor, I’ve heard people describe the dilemma this way, “Is that a bug or a feature?” Is that something that needs to be fixed? Or is it the way the system is designed, and I just hadn’t noticed it before?

Theological diversity

In his dealings with the Corinthians (and the Romans), Paul seems to be answering this question about the diversity in the church. I don’t think either of these churches would have worded it this way, but their question seems to be, “Why are we so different?”

Certainly the body isn’t one part but many.

1 Corinthians 12:14

If we all follow the same Jesus, and are filled with the same Holy Spirit, why don’t we agree on just about everything? How can there be so many differences in how we approach our faith — both the ways we think about it and the ways we live it out? 

My guess is what they really asked was something like, “Could you settle this for us please? Should we believe in this way, or that way? Should we do this or that? Which way is right?” 

Paul’s answer in chapter 12 is a metaphor that illustrates that diversity — the very differences among believers — is not a bug. It is a feature of the system called the church. 

It’s interesting that Paul winds up here. Through the first 11 chapters, he’s giving answers. He talks about what’s right and what’s wrong. He is emphatic about unity, “Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups,” he writes. “Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10).

Interconnected

For Paul, however, unity doesn’t mean sameness. It means oneness, commitment to Christ crucified and one another. 

Paul’s extended imagery is a statement about interconnectedness. How all the members of the church are dependent upon all the other members. If we were all ears, how would we see? If we were all eyes, how would we hear? 

The differences are a feature and not a bug. They don’t need to be “resolved” into a uniformity. They are to be celebrated as a wonder of God, and God’s love for each one of us. 

A level of comfort

When I read these verses about the body, I typically think about our different talents. The preachers should preach, the singers join the choir, the accountants serve on the finance committee, and so on. That kind of diversity is comfortable. 

But scripture here may be pointing us to an even broader diversity — a diversity of thought and practice of our faith — unified by the Holy Spirit.

“[N]o one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit,” he writes (1:3). Then Paul goes here: “A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit” (1:7-9). 

Maybe having people who push the boundaries of our belief is a feature and not a bug. LIkewise, having those who help keep us grounded in our historic understandings, is also a feature and not a bug. Maybe disagreeing theologically isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed, but a feature of the church we need to celebrate.

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