1 Corinthians 12:4-13

Unity, Not Conformity

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1 Corinthians 12:4-13

Unity, Not Conformity

Richard Niell Donovan

“I would have made a good evangelist,” said Sally to Linus. “You know that kid who sits behind me at school? I convinced him that my religion is better than his religion.” How’d you do that?” asked Linus. “I hit him with my lunch box.”

Deep inside all of us there is a strong longing to hit each other with our lunch boxes. We hate diversity, and love conformity. In particular, we love conformity to our standards. In other words, we want other people to behave like us, to believe like us, and to be like us.

This is particularly true in the church. After all, we are supposed to be one big happy family. Shouldn’t we all behave the same way, believe the same way, and agree—at least about spiritual matters?

But this kind of thinking goes directly against the grain of the scriptures. In First Corinthians, chapter 12, the Apostle Paul deals with the problem of unity amidst diversity. And he does not say that unity demands conformity. He does not say that all the Christians should look alike.

Paul is speaking to a very active church. There was a lot of vitality in Corinth. There were many people exercising a variety of gifts. One gift, in particular, was causing trouble — the gift of tongues. Some people, then as now, made the speaking of unknown or spiritual languages the criterion for a faithful Christian. They wanted limit the church to tongues-speakers. They wanted conformity.

But what Paul gave them was a lesson in theology. We are the body of Christ, he says. The Holy Spirit made us that through baptism.

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Paul means that yes, indeed, there is unity in the church. We are the body of Christ. That is what the Spirit has already done.

But unity does not equal conformity. Paul says,

“As the body is one, and has many members,
and all the members of the body, being many, are one body;
so also is Christ (12:12).

We are one body. But a body has many parts. Paul will go on to point out that the eye and the ear and the hand all need each other to make the one body. They may not do the same things, but put them all together, and they make a rather nice body.

And so it is, says Paul, with the church. We do not all have the same gifts. We do not all speak in tongues, or prophesy, or teach. The Spirit has given each of us a gift according to God’s wisdom. Put them all together, and you have a church. There can be unity in diversity—in fact, that is exactly how God works.

We need to hear Paul’s word to the Corinthians. We have to worship week by week with Christians who are different from us.

We can’t always find a church where they sing our favorite songs, where the preacher sounds just like the preacher back home, and where everyone practices the same brand of Christianity that we are used to.

We have, here at this church, not only a variety of gifts, but a variety of styles. Other Christians in this congregation might not like the same music that we like. They might not use the same spiritual jargon that we use.

All that makes us vulnerable to Satan’s wiles. How easy it is for him to inject a spirit of competition into this body of Christ.

We are used to competition. We face competition throughout our lives. We learned to compete with brothers and sisters as children. We competed for the best grades in school. We competed in athletics. We compete for the best scores in field exercises. We compete for promotions. Competition, for most of us, is a way of life.

And what is more natural than to carry over competition into our church life? If I don’t like the same music as you, we are in competition. If we don’t use the same words our prayers, we are in competition. If we disagree on doctrine, we are in competition. Soon we become obsessed with who is right.

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But Paul commends to us not competition, but love. And as long as we view the church as one more place where competition reigns, it will never be what the Spirit has called us to be. Competition is cancerous in the body of Christ.

Competition is so ingrained in us that we might wonder if it is possible for us not to carry competition into our Christian lives. And yet, that is precisely what the Spirit is calling us to do.

For if we view the church as just another competitive system, we face two choices. The first, to draw on the image from the comics, is this: We can beat each other into conformity with our lunch boxes. We can fight and scratch and claw until the stronger group wins. And the losers will just hang around, their gifts neglected, their anger burning.

The second outcome, to draw on Paul’s image, is this: We can amputate. Perhaps the body doesn’t really need the nose, or the hands or the ear. Maybe the body should be one big mouth. And everyone else should take their marbles and play elsewhere.

In fact, we might even fall into the trap of deciding for God who belongs in his family. I hear Christians say, “He is a Christian,” or “No, she isn’t a Christian,” as if God had delegated the duty of judgment to them. When a person says, “No, she isn’t a Christian,” I wonder if they aren’t really saying, “She isn’t like me.”

• I am charismatic and she is not, so she isn’t a Christian.
• I am Protestant and she is Catholic, so she isn’t a Christian.
• I use the word ‘just’ a lot in my prayers, and her prayers are very formal, so she isn’t a Christian.”
But neither power-struggles nor church-hopping take seriously the biblical solution, the solution of love.

• Love calls us to give up competing with each other.

• Love calls us to accept our diversity, to know and profit from each other’s gifts.

• Love calls us to talk with each other when we disagree and to listen when we are disagreed with.

• Sometimes it calls us to compromise for the good of the other.

• Sometimes it calls for us to accept a limitation on our gift, so that the other person can exercise his or her gift.Once upon a time, the inhabitants of a small village built a tower. All the groups brought stones from their yards to build it—the town council, the potter’s guild, the teachers, the cooks, the farmers, the seamstresses, and all the others worked hard to build the tower.

But almost as soon as it was done, they started fighting among themselves:

• The town council wanted to use the tower to hold political meetings.

• The potters wanted to use it for guild meetings.

• The farmers wanted to have agricultural forums.

• Some groups wanted artistic and cultural events.

And on and on it went.Finally, all the groups got mad, and stone by stone, they dismantled the tower. And the people took their rocks home. But one old man remained, sitting by the foundation of the decimated tower. Someone passed by and said, “Old man, take your stone and go home.” The old man replied, “From the top of that tower, I could see the ocean.”

We are not here merely to exercise our own gifts. We are here to use those gifts to worship God, to love God, and to serve each other. God called us together, with all our diversity, so that we can see beyond the horizon—so that we can get a glimpse of eternity. Brothers—sisters—let us love one another so that can happen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan