One of history’s greatest biologists, Charles Darwin, has written that “the greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification of structure.”1 Wide varieties of plants, insects, and animals are able to thrive if a mixture of conditions are present in any environment. Difference is good for growth.
This general principle in biology— that increased growth requires diversity—emphasizes the importance of avoiding uniformity. Development needs diverse methods, organizations, and arrangements. Only a few organisms can live in a homogeneous environment. Expansion requires heterogeneity.
The apostle Paul must have had something like this in mind when he compared the Church to a living body. The body functions well when comprised of many parts, he said. And each diverse part must contribute to the whole body if the body is to thrive. But a body cannot function if comprised only of elbows and livers. It needs the many.
While the importance of diversity is difficult to overstate, diversity should not be equated with chaos. Multiplicity and confusion are not identical. We are tempted to do this sometimes when we’re overwhelmed with the novelty we encounter. We know that life cannot thrive in utter chaos. And a body will not live long without a head.
We who desire to see a strong and growing Church would be wise to heed these principles from biology and Scripture. Let me be specific:
PRINCIPLE 1—Growth is strongest when structures are diverse
In a world of diverse people with diverse backgrounds and diverse dreams, the Church must risk diverse adventures in ministry. The same old, same old leads down a path of barrenness. If it is to thrive, the Church must be brave enough to venture in many directions simultaneously. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
PRINCIPLE 2—Diverse structures need a shared point of reference
Just as a body needs a head, the Church needs unity. Just as an environment needs some stable conditions, so the Church requires overarching unity. The Church needs a clear point of reference among a variety of voices beckoning for supremacy.
Of course, Christ is the Head of the Church that is functioning well. At their best, Christians are what theologians call “Christocentric.” No book, no leader, no image, or location, no other things—no matter how holy these other things might seem—can rightly replace Christ as central to the Christian and the Christian community. Christ is Lord.
PRINCIPLE 3—The love revealed in Christ is the shared point of reference for the Church
Love is what unifies the diverse expressions of a living and growing Church. Christ reveals this love in His life, message, actions, death, and resurrection. The God who is love is the same God who calls creatures to love. We are to “imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love, in the way that Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Love comes in a million forms. Love takes a thousand shapes. Love cannot be reduced to a one-sizefits- all formula. In fact, love requires diversity.
And, yet, love retains at its core the impulse to promote abundant life. Love seeks to be a blessing, seeks genuine peace, and works for justice among those who need justice most. Our acts of love are proper responses to the God who is love.
Perhaps in addition to the truth that “the greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification of structure,” we should also say that the greatest expressions of love are supported by the greatest diversification of love opportunities. May the Church foster such diverse opportunities!
by Thomas Jay Oord
Prof. of Theology and Philosophy
Northwest Nazarene University