Toward a Biblical Theology of Unity, Diversity, and Community
Letter of Introduction
Recently one of our professors asked students what experience here at Dallas Theological Seminary surprised them the most. Expecting them to answer with generic observations about seminary life, the prof was impressed when one student said, “As I learned biblical anthropology and the ramifications of humanity’s creation in the image of God, I began to change both in how I think about and how I treat others.” This statement implies two things. First, it implies that there are competing and differing theologies—those biblical and those not. Christians strive for a theology based on who God is and what He has revealed through His inspired and inerrant Word (2 Tim 3:16). Yet it also implies another reality: theology is something we do, not just something we believe. Theology is not simply a conviction of fact, but also that of action. It should be belief in motion. And today, a critical debate concerns such discussions about anthropology.
Our triune God’s clear statement about humanity’s inherent dignity (Gen. 1:26–27) does indeed have enormous ramifications for how we treat one another. Yet we who seek to follow biblical precepts have often fallen far short of God’s blueprint for how we, as members united in the same body, are to interact—we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves or as Christ has loved us (Mark 12:31; John 13:34).
God’s people today, like those in the church of Galatia, have consistently struggled to celebrate our unique, God-given differences of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender (Gal. 3:28, 5:26). Instead, we have constructed systems and engaged in practices, both consciously and unconsciously, that have prioritized some people over others. So rather than being known for our love, Christians have failed to love on such a scale that we’ve at times made headlines.
Our own institution recognizes that we have injured fellow believers through discrimination—both intentionally and unintentionally through actions and silence. We publicly repent and will continue to do so. We acknowledge our brokenness and state our continued quest to grow as God would have us grow. Yet we also know that healing does not come through a one-time or even once-a-year acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Rather, we are actively seeking ways to listen to those we have wronged, acknowledge our faults, learn from the past, and incorporate policies and practices that are not only absent of injury but that contribute to human flourishing. Why? Because a good biblical theology requires such action.
One of our vehicles for doing so was the creation of two ad hoc committees: one to craft Dallas Theological Seminary’s Unity, Diversity, and Community Statement and another to pray for that committee throughout the process. These committees were intentionally diverse in their make-up. And the document they crafted arose from the need for a clear response to tensions in our society in general and specifically in the body of Christ, including within the walls of our own institution. As Christ-followers we long to reflect His beauty both within our own campuses, and without.
During the past nine months as we have been working on this document, scores of women and men across the country have come forward with stories of abuse. Many used the hashtag #MeToo, which owes its orgins to activist Tarana Burke’s work in raising awareness of sexual abuse and offering support to young women and girls. Sadly, a #ChurchToo hashtag followed, and with it multiple stories of sexual abuse and sexism within the Body of Christ. And there are many other hashtags which highlight stories of racial discrimination as well as other forms of abuse and harassment, even among the Christian community. Such movements have revealed many hidden secrets and have exposed unimaginable pain. We cry with those who hurt.
We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, all forms of abuse, discrimination, and harassment, including any Christian’s abuse of power.
We are complementary by design; thus, we need each other with our beautiful differences. As an institution committed to training Christians to more effectively minister and in view of the incredible possibilities for ministry in the body of Christ, we affirm for every student, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, nationality or socioeconomic status, the opportunity to be trained at the highest levels of graduate theological education.
At Dallas Theological Seminary, we seek to clarify our commitment to biblical teaching. We believe that all humans individually bear God’s image. But the full range of image-bearing requires male and female partnering together, whether in marriage, the marketplace, or in ministry. This includes the sex-specific responsibilities assigned by God in the Scripture in order to accomplish our mission of filling the earth with His worshipers.
DTS intends to foster a learning community in which men and women from all ethnicities and cultures prepare for a wide array of ministries. In this community, DTS affirms the value of learning alongside each other and from each other in mutual respect for one another. This means DTS offers equally to women and men the same full range of educational experiences, including formal study in courses such as Bible, theology, and Biblical languages; skills development in areas such as evangelism, disciple-making, counseling, teaching, and preaching; and engagement in all facets of educational experiences offered on the DTS campus and through strategic partnerships. This broad range of learning experiences is designed to prepare students for ministry that is guided by Scripture and fit to each person’s respective gifts, skills, calling, and responsibilities.
The following is Dallas Theological Seminary’s statement on diversity—a statement that is both biblically and theologically rooted. We plan to implement this statement on unity and diversity not only in word, but in deed, with our faculty, staff, and students as well as increase the training provided to them. It is our prayer that as a result, people will know we are Christians by our love.
I. Preamble: Scope and Purpose
This document contains a biblical-theological statement intended to express the theological message of the Bible as it relates to unity and diversity in community. This statement attempts to explain the Bible in its own terms and categories rather than to translate biblical categories into systematic or dogmatic ones. As such, this document does not directly address the numerous contemporary issues to which its biblical-theological principles rightly apply. Nevertheless, this statement forms the biblical foundation for evaluating and addressing past, present, and future issues related to unity, diversity, and community.
Although God desires that his estranged creatures be reconciled to him (2 Cor 5:20), he also has designs on the entire cosmos— “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10). Yet neither of these concerns, the Godward and the cosmological, is the focus of this biblical-theological statement. The concern here is singular and tightly circumscribed: unity among or between human beings as they live and function within various communities (e.g., Eph 2:14–22). Thus, the focal point is horizontal unity—that which exists or alternatively that which is absent among or between the members of a given community.
The biblical concept of “unity” or “unitedness,” does not simply mean the absence of hostility (Eph 2:14–18). Rather, it refers to a harmony of spirit and attitude and a deep and enduring sense of belonging marked by love for one another (Rom 12:3–11; Phil 2:1–5). It includes peace and solidarity, freedom from conflict, dissension, division, and strife (Rom 14:1–15:13; 2 Tim 2:24) and incorporates mutual concern, care, and acceptance (Eph 4:16, 32). It is predicated on love and creates a singleness of purpose that combines individual members into an integrated whole (Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 12:4–30).
Diversity is the condition or state of being diverse (different). It denotes variety. It is the opposite of uniformity or sameness, not unity. The converse of unity is disunity, rather than diversity.
Diversity is praiseworthy when it displays God’s glorious and creative design, when it reveals complementary responsibilities and roles, and when it manifests a cohesive division of labor (1 Cor 12). When it manifests itself as division and distrust that destroy unity and singleness of purpose, it is regrettable (Rom 14). Diversity for the sake of diversity runs a perilous risk. It is not a self-authenticating virtue. Ethnic, social, cultural distinctions are irrelevant in determining whether one is member of God’s people (Gal 3:28). There is a fundamental unity among all those who are united to Christ. Yet, such equality as members of God’s family does not erase all social distinctions.
Still further, as an expression of independence, self-promotion, and limitless freedom, diversity often draws divine ire. Diversity has divinely-circumscribed limits, and it is not necessarily to be extolled simply for its own sake. Diversity that originates in God’s creation and plan is wholesome and good. Diversity, as a human invention, is often an imposter—a destructive rogue who distorts God-ordained variety. Thus, the Bible allows for a distinction between legitimate, divinely prescribed diversity on the one hand and illegitimate, divinely proscribed differences that exists because of sin (Heb 13:9; 1 John 2:19).
The biblical-theological concept of “community” is the alloy of unity and diversity. Whereas a single, unique object can be described as “one,” and whereas a number of disparate things or people can be regarded as “various,” a diversity of individuals held together in unity by a common bond may be regarded as authentic “community.” (Rom 15:5–7; Eph 4:1–6, 15–16) Radical unity (uniformity) destroys diversity. Radical diversity (extreme individuality) destroys unity. True community combines both unity and diversity in harmony (Rom 12:3–5; 1 Cor 1:10; 1 Cor 12:27).
TRUE DIVERSITY + TRUE UNITY = TRUE COMMUNITY
II. The Biblical Narrative of Union, Disunity, Conflict, Reconciliation, and Reunion
God created the first humans in a condition of true community and in fellowship with God himself. The entrance of sin into human existence resulted in the very opposite of community—disunity and conflict in relationships between individuals and groups as well as between God and humanity. This disunity is dramatically illustrated in the distortion of the relationship between Adam and Eve (Gen 3:16) and in Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Gen 4:1–8).
In the midst of this fallen condition of disunity and conflict, God has been working out his promise to bring reconciliation between himself and humanity and between individuals and groups. The goal of this aspect of the plan of redemption is to re-establish the peace, harmony, and unity that humankind was meant to experience and enjoy. The decisive event in the re-establishment of this unity was the reconciling sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who reconciles both heaven and earth (Col 1:16–20; 1 Tim 2:5) and hostile factions of humanity to one another (Eph 2:11–22).
Though authentic, the imperfect and partial reconciliation between diverse individuals and people anticipates God’s final eschatological renewal (Rom 8:18–25; Heb 2:8). Thus, God is moving history toward his eschatological goal, which includes the full and final restoration of peace, harmony, and unity—reunion of humanity with God. In the meantime, as humans, we should embrace and encourage, as much as possible, God’s vision of that future (Eph 4; Rom 15:1–7).
The real culprit in this saga of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is sin—the destructive power that foments disunity and conflict (Rom 8:9). As long as humanity is so enslaved, disunity and chaos will reign. No education, no wealth, no social action, no political change, and no technological advancement will be able to restore true community as long as sin continues to reign.
Only as individuals and groups embrace Christ in faith and experience transformation by the Spirit will they find liberation from the tyrannical rule of sin and make progress toward genuine community. Although in many ways commendable, humanity’s best efforts, as an expression of common grace, are of limited scope and duration. Complete and final unity in diversity will be achieved only by God alone through the redemptive work of Christ. In the interim, the church must play a special role in modeling and extending God-honoring unity (1 Cor 12:25–27; Phil 2:1–16; 1 Pet 4:8–11). Just as sin is the culprit, Jesus Christ is the all-sufficient solution to the disunity and chaos that plagues humanity and the world.
III. Biblical-Theological Affirmations and Denials on Unity, Diversity, and Community
- We affirm that God has woven diversity into the fabric of creation itself. Variety, harmony, and synergy are the elements of his original beautiful creation (Gen 1–2). Thus, diversity was divinely instituted as a reflection of God’s own design and intention for the cosmos (1 Cor 15:39–41).
We deny that uniformity, discord, or conflict were intended in God’s perfect will for creation or that development and diversity are necessarily the result of sin and corruption.
- We affirm that God fashioned humanity according to his image and likeness as a model for true community, with both unity and diversity (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–2). Humanity’s corporate reflection of the image of God (Imago Dei)is multifaceted and best realized in true community.
We deny that the Imago Dei can be fully realized in a single individual or ideal race, culture, or community as the sole paradigm and standard for the Imago Dei.
- We affirm that the Imago Dei includes the essential unity of a single, common human race “in Adam.” All people in every place and time, despite obvious or subtle differences, are equal in humanity, participating equally in the Imago Dei (Gen 9:6; Job 31:13–15; Prov 22:2; Acts 10:28; 17:26; Rom 2:9–11; 1 Cor 15:47–49; Gal 3:26–29; Eph 6:8–9; Jas 3:9).
We deny that the Bible’s clear teaching on the essential unity of humanity can legitimately co-exist with any form of racism or ethnocentrism. Thus, no race, ethnicity, or nationality is innately superior or inferior to another in status and inherent value.
- We affirm that the Imago Dei involves relational unity—diversity of male and female, which implies complementarity in community (Gen 1:26–27; 2:18, 21–24; 1 Cor 11:8–12). Humanity was created “male and female,” and together they were to exercise dominion in unity of purpose (Gen 1:26–28; Ps 8:5–8; 115:16; 1 Cor 11:11–12).
We deny that either the male or female is innately superior or inferior to the other in status and inherent value, thus ruling out sexism and exploitation in attitudes and actions.
- We affirm that the Imago Dei involves functional unity, the shared mission to fill and subdue the world. This demonstrates a clear distinction between humanity and animal life (Gen 1:30; 2:19–20; 9:1–3) as well as anticipates ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity (Gen 1:28; 4:2, 17–26; 9:1; Acts 17:26). Had unfallen humans obeyed God’s command, the result would still have been natural adaptations resulting in racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity (Gen 9:1, 7; 10:1–5; 11:1–8). God-ordained unity in diversity is itself a blessing to humanity and most conducive to human flourishing, both for the individual and the community. Humanity is purposely adorned with diversity by the grand design of God himself.
We deny that such racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity is a happenstance of misfortune or a corrupt effect of a cursed creation. Such diversity is neither an accident nor a punishment.
- We affirm that the Imago Dei anticipates eschatological unity—a new community “in Christ” and under his rule, which will ultimately fulfill God’s original purpose that “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev 7:9) would serve God and glorify him in their diversity (Ps 102:22; Dan 7:14; Rev 7:9–10). This eschatological unity is foreshadowed, in a real but imperfect sense, in biblically-grounded ecclesiological unity.
We deny that such eschatological unity can be achieved fully apart from the coming of the eschatological kingdom and transforming grace of God.
- We affirm that God is the author and enabler of a diversity of gifts and abilities (Exod 31:3–5; 35:35; 1 Cor 12:4–11) that actuate and accentuate both diversity and unity within a society or community. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, physical, emotional, and cognitive variety among humankind, and this variety reflects God’s design and intention (1 Pet 4:9–10).
We deny that individuality necessarily leads to unhealthy individualism or destructive disunity.
- We affirm that God’s revelation of His will and character determines the bases for unity and the limits of diversity which, when heeded, result in greater unity, peace, fruitfulness, and order (1 Cor 12:15–29; 14:33; Eph 4:3–6; 5:17–6:9). True community as unity in diversity must be fortified with truth, justice, faith, hope, and love (Rom 14:1–15:13; 1 Cor 13). Failure to adhere to God’s revealed bases for unity and limits of diversity has resulted in human tragedy. Illegitimate diversity without truth and love leads to distrust, fear, hatred, violence, and warfare.
We deny that a biblical affirmation of unity in diversity necessarily implies the endorsement of any form of diversity that is contrary to God’s revealed standards and norms.
- We affirm that in the present state of defection and depravity, divinely established limits of unity and diversity have been and are being transgressed individually and corporately. Manifold corruptions include forced uniformity, exploitation, and oppression, tolerated and celebrated deviancy, tribalism and nationalism/imperialism, conflict and brutality, ethnocentrism and racism, bigotry and prejudice, and materialism.
We deny that God’s intention for unity and diversity leaves any room for social injustice, moral relativism, segregation, sectarianism, warmongering, sexism, ageism, or other forms of injustice, whether individual or institutional.
- We affirm that human remedies for the problems caused by disunity and conflict have often resulted in coerced conformity and uniformity, which muffles diversity, stifles creativity, and hampers meaningful growth and true unity (Gen 11:1–4; 1 Cor 12:21–22).
We deny that God’s intention of unity and diversity can be accomplished through radical forms of utopian ideological or political philosophies such as fascism, communism, totalitarianism, exceptionalism, or forms of socialism or nationalism that require blind obedience to human authority and ideology as the basis of unity.
- We affirm that just as legitimate, God-intended diversity should be embraced, honored, and celebrated, as it contributes to the health of true community, so also illegitimate diversity, which is the effect of the fall, should be grieved, rejected, and overcome by redemptive and transforming grace. Illegitimate diversity that transgresses or defies biblical limits is the result of moral defection, which must be challenged and changed (Jer 3:12; Matt 4:17; Rom 12:2; Eph 2:1–10). On the other hand, some differences result from the present world’s subjection to corruption (John 9:1–12; Rom 8:21) and must be cared for in community.
We deny that legitimate diversity should be grieved, rejected, and overcome and that illegitimate diversity should be embraced, honored, and celebrated, all the while recognizing its negative consequences for families, churches, communities, and societies.
- We affirm that as the God-ordained locus for redemptive and transformational community, the church is intended to display God’s original and eschatological design of unity in diversity. The church is to be a community that does not ignore diversity, but embraces and celebrates God-intended diversity to the praise and glory of God (Ps 34:3; 102:22; 133:1).
We deny that unity and diversity in the church precludes differentiation in gifting, roles, and responsibilities necessary for the efficient and effective functioning of the community (1 Cor 12:27–31; Eph 4:11–12), which order should promote, not stifle, growth in unity (Eph 4:13–16).
- We affirm that in the midst of the present age of human depravity, the community of the redeemed must set as its ideal the divinely established bases and limits of unity and diversity (1 Cor 12:13). Thus, cultural, ethnic, social, and racial diversity is intended by God for authentic community (1 Cor 12:13, 24; Gal 3:28). The people of God should pursue a redemptive trajectory and goal, ever seeking to exemplify these ideals despite imperfection and failure.
We deny that race, social status, or economic prowess should be privileged within the church—and further deny that the pursuit of unity and diversity, peace and reconciliation, are ideals to be deferred until the eschaton while the church passively eschews its calling to be salt and light to a fallen world (Matt 5:13–16; 1 Cor 12:25–26).
- We affirm that,as the unique community of the redeemed today, the church should maintain a posture of reconciliation with those of deviant ideologies, worldviews, and moralities (1 Cor 6:9–11; 2 Cor 5:20), calling all—without exception—to the grace of forgiveness and the mercy of repentance, encouraging all to conform to the unity and diversity as established by God and bounded by his revealed will (Rom 12:2).
We deny that the church is called to posture itself in judgment, hatred, or socio-political warfare against unbelievers who foolishly and defiantly embrace deviant diversity (1 Cor 5:12–13).
- We affirm that in the future restoration of creation, the divinely established bases and limits of unity and diversity will be reestablished in perfection (Isa 11:1–16). This ultimate future order of idyllic harmony and peace serves as a vision of hope intended to be not merely informative but also transformative (2 Pet 3:13–14).
We deny that this eschatological ideal is to serve as a model for establishing present human societies and governments in such a way that they realize the kingdom of God on earth apart from the eschatological transformation of creation.
- We affirm that in light of the future restoration, the community of the redeemed must simultaneously keep in view the original creative order as well as the future redemptive goal in which the diversity of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” stand before the throne (Rev 7:9), united in submission to him as one Lord God, and one day experiencing perfect community with one another on the basis of perfect communion with him.
We deny that future glory will erase rich human diversity and result in a bland uniformity, the notion of which often reflects non-Christian views of the eschaton rather than a Christian view of unity and diversity in harmonious community.
“We” refers to the members of the “Unity in Community” committee. Although these affirmation and denials are presented as direct, even blunt, doctrinal statements, they are nonetheless intended to represent the theology of the Bible.
At its foundation, the “Image of God” can be defined as “that which distinguishes human beings from the rest of God’s creatures” (Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. [Wheaton: Crossway, 2001], 96). Definitions of the Imago Dei in contemporary evangelical theology typically distinguish between the “functional view,” the “relational view,” and the “structural or substantive view” (ibid., 96–97). With a growing number of evangelical biblical and theological scholars, we have adopted an “eclectic model,” which considers “the image to be people themselves in the totality of their being and activities” (Gregg R. Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016], 107). This model incorporates the functional, relational, and structural/substantive views and regards Christ as the ultimate standard of the “Image of God.”
Acknowledging that in a fallen world marred by sin and corruption, anomalies exist that tend to challenge the binary categories of “male and female,” this affirmation and denial is intended to address appropriate (biblically congruent) male-female relationships in God-ordained community.