The Bible’s Viewpoint
Does Christian Unity Require Uniformity?
RELIGION today seems to be characterized by disunity. Even within the walls of one church, people may have a variety of conflicting beliefs in matters of doctrine and conduct. One writer put it this way: “It’s even difficult to find two people who believe in exactly the same God. These days, it seems, every human being is a theology unto himself.”
In stark contrast with this, the apostle Paul exhorted first-century Christians in Corinth to “speak in agreement” and to “be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) Some today criticize Paul’s admonition. ‘People are different,’ they argue, ‘and it is wrong to insist that all Christians think or act in the same way.’ But was Paul really recommending robotic conformity? Does the Bible allow for personal freedom?
Unity, Not Uniformity
In another of his letters, Paul urged Christians to serve God with their “power of reason.” (Romans 12:1) Certainly, then, he would not have been trying to turn members of the Corinthian congregation into unthinking automatons. But why did he tell them to be “fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought”? Paul gave this counsel because the congregation in Corinth was experiencing a serious problem. Factions had developed, so that some viewed Apollos as their leader while others favored Paul or Peter or held only to Christ. Such disunity was no trivial matter, for it threatened the peace of the congregation.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to “observe the oneness of the spirit in the uniting bond of peace,” just as he later admonished the Christians at Ephesus. (Ephesians 4:3) He was encouraging the brothers to follow Jesus Christ unitedly, not to be split into disunited groups, or sects. In this way they would enjoy a peaceful harmony of purpose. (John 17:22) Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians thus served to readjust their thinking and promote unity, not uniformity.—2 Corinthians 13:9, 11.
Unity is also important in matters of doctrine. Footstep followers of Jesus realize that there is really only “one faith,” just as there is only “one God and Father.” (Ephesians 4:1-6) Hence, Christians make sure that what they believe is in harmony with the truth that God has revealed in his Word about himself and his purposes. They are united in their belief about who God is and what he requires. They also live up to the clear moral standards set out in God’s Word. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) In this way Christians remain united, both doctrinally and morally.
Dealing With Differences
This does not mean, however, that each Christian is told precisely how to think and what to do in all of life’s situations. Most matters involve personal choice. Consider an example. A number of first-century Christians in Corinth had reservations about eating meat that may have come from an idol temple. Some believed strongly that partaking of the meat would constitute an act of false worship, while others felt that where the meat came from was irrelevant. In dealing with this sensitive issue, Paul did not make a rule that would tell Christians what to do. Instead, he acknowledged that people might make different decisions on the matter.*—1 Corinthians 8:4-13.
Today Christians may make decisions that differ from those of other Christians when it comes to matters of employment, health, recreation, or some other area that involves personal choice. Such variety could disturb some. They might wonder if differences in outlook could lead to disputes or divisions in the congregation. However, such an outcome is not inevitable. To illustrate: Music composers have only a limited number of notes to work with, yet the possibilities for making beautiful music are endless. Similarly, Christians make choices that are within the boundaries of godly principles. However, they have a degree of latitude when making certain personal decisions.
How is it possible to preserve Christian unity while maintaining respect for individual choice? The key is love. Love for God moves us to submit willingly to his commandments. (1 John 5:3) Love for fellowman moves us to respect the rights of others to make conscientious decisions in personal matters. (Romans 14:3, 4; Galatians 5:13) Paul set a fine example in this regard when he submitted to the authority of the first-century governing body in a matter involving doctrine. (Matthew 24:45-47; Acts 15:1, 2) At the same time, he encouraged everyone to respect the conscience of fellow Christians in matters that have been left to personal decision.—1 Corinthians 10:25-33.
Clearly, no one should be condemned for making a conscientious decision that does not conflict with Bible principles. (James 4:12) On the other hand, loyal Christians would not insist on their personal rights to the detriment of the consciences of others or at the expense of congregation unity. Nor should they claim freedom of action to do something clearly forbidden by God’s Word. (Romans 15:1; 2 Peter 2:1, 19) Love for God should move us to attune our conscience to God’s thinking. This, in turn, will keep us united with fellow believers.—Hebrews 5:14.
For example, it is possible that some who worshiped idols before becoming Christians could not distinguish between eating the meat and engaging in an act of worship. Another valid concern was that weaker Christians might get the wrong impression and be stumbled.