November 16, 2015

Unity vs. Uniformity In the Church of Jesus Christ

Reading time is about 14 minutes.
A long and careful look a uniformity vs. unity in our churches today.

The Founding of the Church

When Jesus returned to Heaven He left us with Someone even greater. Ten days after Jesus’ departure, the patience of the disciples paid off. The Spirit of God came and filled them! Now I write this so casually, but try thinking about it with the extreme magnitude the situation demands.

Wow, God came not just to live beside us as a man, but to live inside us as…well, God!

The church of Jesus Christ was officially born. The Holy Spirit of God united them. The people began meeting somewhere in their respective geographic regions, calling the local group “the church at [location].” As time went on, the churches in the various geographic areas began having differences in understanding and practice. Since each local group of people were made of unique individuals, the groups inevitably took on different characteristics. The geographic regions were all situated in different cultures, which only compounded the differences in how each local group was living out the teachings of their Founder. As time went on, the written teachings, the Scriptures, remained exactly the same, even after thousands of years.

As the church Founder Jesus Christ said, “I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

However, cultures change, languages change, strategies of Satan change, and people are still born with a sinful nature.

When looking at our churches today a question is often asked something like this: “How does the church today compare to the early church?” or “How did they practice this or that?” I suggest we step back even farther than that. Let’s back up past the founding of the church to the ministry of Jesus and see how this all started.

Jesus had a large following of people, twelve of which were closest to him and especially studied under His teaching. This was very common in those days for a teacher to have a small group of students, or disciples (for example, think Gamaliel, Hillel, Seneca, Shammai, or even John the Baptist, all famous teachers of the time.) These twelve disciples of Jesus all had the same teacher, obviously. They all had the same goal, same understanding, and same reason for living. The things that mattered most to them were exactly the same.

The groups were not merely thrown together and considered unified by just one main teaching, or even by most of the more important ones. No, they were united around their teacher, eager to learn and obey all that was taught and shown to them by the teacher’s life.

The group had unity of Spirit. This in turn allowed for unity of principle, which naturally followed. However, they did not need to have direct uniformity of practice.

Definition of Terms

I used Google’s knowledge bank for some of our definition of terms.

Unity: this is the state of being united or joined as a whole, or the state of forming a complete and pleasing whole, like in an artistic context. Some synonyms would be harmony, accord, cooperation, collaboration, agreement, and consensus. Some antonyms are strife and discord.

Uniformity: this is the quality or state of being uniform, and having an overall sameness, homogeneity, or regularity. Some synonyms are constancy, consistency, conformity, invariability,  regularity, and evenness. Some antonyms are variation are variety.

Unity of the Spirit: this refers to the essential bond we have as Christians through the the work of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ which makes us part of the body of Christ. For a much better and thorough description, I encourage you to read this article by John Piper.

God’s Spirit is a uniting power but He is a diverse one. It is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. I share some verses here that normally are used when talking about spiritual gifts or fruit of the Spirit just to remind us of this. Ironically, I often miss that this is stuff about diversity of application within the unity of the Spirit. How cool! It’s not just about the gift or fruit, but a glimpse at the personality of God!

Take a look: I Corinthians 12:4-6I Corinthians 12: 12-13Galatians 5:16-24

After reading those verses I hope the Holy Spirit is more to real to you. Isn’t it amazing that He is so unifying and yet the unified people are so diverse? I think God is pretty ingenious. God allows variety in how the fruit of the Holy Spirit is lived out. Notice another thing: the fruit of the Spirit is singular, but the works of the flesh are plural. In other words, the fruit of the spirit shows itself in so many different ways that Paul thought of nine words to describe the one unifying thing–this is perhaps the best example of “diversity of practice in unity of Spirit” in the Bible. Meanwhile the works of the flesh are all over the place. What a mess of diversity and disunity of everything! The differences between the Spirit control and fleshly control are radical!

Unity of Doctrine or Principle: this refers to our “mere Christianity,” the core of  Christian beliefs found in the New Testament. It includes a sense of agreement that these are the things a believer should obey and practice.

Uniformity of Practice: this refers to the principles of the New Testament carried out in prescribed or exact same ways generally because of rules established by a local church or denomination. Uniformity takes many forms in our churches, from mode of baptism, type of sister’s head veiling, bans on internet, type of worship, dress codes, etc. It can even dictate our order of service and restrict sharing of testimonies. These things are generally established by the leaders or church council of congregations or by district and denomination conferences. A local group of believers does have the privilege to establish basic guidelines for various activities or appearance that have been taken from Scripture, but I believe anything beyond that is outside of the bounds of what Jesus taught and expects in His church.

Why does this subject matter now?

Uniformity isn’t working, and thank God

I’ve heard all ages of our current generations either asking why or failing to know why we do things we do. Frankly, some of those things have no reasonable answer other than preference. Attempted answers are not satisfying because the answers tend to be incomplete, come from a tradition, or be otherwise man-made. However, I am hearing more good answers, and there most certainly are good answers to be given, but it’s going to take some humility and care to get to the bottom of the struggle and take appropriate action.

There is confusion

As you will see, there is confusion and ambiguity as to what the church of Jesus Christ should look like. There are things we must do that are clear in Scripture, but how should we do them? It is struggle that will never go away because Jesus didn’t give us a list of specifics. He did, however, give us Someone greater, and truly embracing Him in obedience may be the only answer we need to have.

Why Do We Value Uniformity So Much?

The following are myths that need to be examined and debunked:

It feels special

It feels special to be part of a team and to be respected for who we are and what we do. It’s neat to match and do things the same. We were all made to have fellowship, and within that desire we all gravitate to group of people with similar interests as ourselves. Well, sometimes–they say if two girls show up at an event wearing the same outfit they won’t speak to each other, but if two guys happen to wear the same shirt they become best friends for life. 🙂 But in general birds of a feather flock together. It’s a great feeling, a sense of community and belonging. It’s natural, and it looks nice.

The hard stuff is already settled and behind us

Some people are more sensitive to following God directly by his Word and Spirit than by local uniform traditions. Some feel that the tradition was already set in place by those who followed God’s Word and Spirit and it therefore does not need looked at ever again.

I’m afraid we are mistaken. We need to be careful with change (see below), but we also need to be careful with thinking the way our spiritual fathers did something is the best way to do it now.

Traditions and practices naturally developed because our forefathers were living in the Spirit and obeying the principles. Can we say that today?

Previous generations of our church, even as close as last year, may have been living their practice based on their unity, but that was then. What about now? This should be be a continuous flow from the inside to the outside, not the reverse. Unity does not automatically get passed along with the traditions.

Unity doesn’t automatically get passed along with the traditions

It can help bring unity

A difficult part of uniformity is that it can mislead us. Imagine everyone walking around with crutches. Suppose one person in the group had broken their leg and needed to use crutches. Do you think you could discern which person really needed them and who was faking it? I think with a little time it would become obvious.

That’s kind of how we have allowed the church system to work. We tend to think that by providing the crutch and using it, we eventually will break our legs and need to use them. Wait, what? Obviously if you read the last few sentences you are confused–about as confused as someone who is trying to figure out why we think uniformity will bring unity and obedience.

Don’t miss the importance here in the analogy: if in fact every person broke their leg, they then would be compelled to use a crutch to walk. To reverse the scenario is nonsense.

Broken uniformity is often blamed for broken unity, but the exact opposite is true–broken unity caused the broken uniformity.

Controlling the practice usually feels like it is creating unity when in fact it is creating uniformity. Worse than that, it creates disunity. Let’s be careful.

Denominations are inevitable

There tends to be a lot of discussion about the number of church denominations today. Denominations are an attempt at uniformity of practice by unity of principle. However, we all know denominations can have major differences between each individual church. Some churches practice the principles this way, while others practice that way. Amazingly enough, most churches readily admit this but overlook the reality at the local level. Doesn’t it follow that the individuals within a church would also be different? Some individuals practice the principles this way, while others practice that way. The latter seems harder to accept. Denominations aren’t built from the top down. They start with individuals and then families and then churches. I believe a good assessment of the struggle would be this: Denomination>Church>Individual>Jesus vs. Jesus>Individual>Church

In the crutch analogy earlier, imagine someone looking at the group of people on crutches and remarking, “Wow, everyone must have a broken leg.” It would be sort of awkward to explain that some were faking it.

We often expect and require uniformity of doctrines while unconsciously overlooking the fact that unity of spirit and principle may not exist as a prerequisite.

Inversely, when unity of Spirit and principle exist, no one needs to even be thinking about uniformity of practice–but unity will happen unconsciously and naturally.

Actually, a church could appear to have uniformity of practice because they are all consistently near the same level of spiritual maturity in their relationship with Jesus Christ. This would be the case if uniformity was not based on specific rules that they created together but rather by the Spirit of God working in them as they consistently obey and serve Him.

It is a good witness

We assume a consistent modest lifestyle is a clear witness in the community.  Do people see light and know it is real? Do they see the Holy Spirit exemplified as fruit? Do they see life? Do they see Jesus Christ? Seeing is believing, right? People see the conservative lifestyle and respect it. I’m wondering if it just stops at respect though. Would it be better said as “knowing is believing?”

Do people really know you as genuine? Do people know that you have been with Jesus?

It adds longevity to a church (keeps it going strong)

Uniformity does in fact maintain a distinct church group, and some have been around for even hundreds of years. Undoubtedly some of those members are new believers, but I would think most are made of multi-generational families. Growing up in a church can make it hard to leave because of social reasons, and it’s easy to just accept it’s positions and believe them ourselves, at least on the surface.

An argument could be made that our society is anti-christian, but I cannot believe that is any excuse for decreasing church membership and lack of new converts. Look what the early church faced! They were somehow showing by their lives that Jesus was real and living inside them. The Jews were conditioned by over 1,700 years of Judaism and yet by preaching Jesus and Him crucified the converts came in droves! Therefore the argument fails completely, and the answer is revealed.

How to Change “Safely”

A great point to raise now is one that affects every denomination. Hypothetically if every church in the world had a big meeting and decided to drop everything and start over, what would the decisive outcome be? Could there be one? How would we all agree on what principles and doctrine to practice and how to practice them?

Every person in the world would need to fall before God seeking his direction with an open Bible before them. Where else would we start? Then, united in the Spirit, churches would spring up all over the world all over again like they did in the first century.

But not so fast. What I just described would be a complete restart. Why is that necessary again? What went wrong the first time? Won’t they just happen again?

Well, we are humans after all, and we often need to keep coming back to Jesus for renewal. Hmm, maybe the church also needs to do that.

We all tend to hate the idea of change. Change almost makes it on the 7 deadly sins list in some churches, while in others it is a top 10 virtue. The reason we fear change even for a good reason is because our focus wanders from truth, motives often are misguided, and the momentum tends to become unharnessed. Unfortunately 9 out of 10 times the baby gets tossed out with the washwater. Because of this many people fear the “slippery slope,” but I have words of relief for anyone who suffers from this: a “what this will lead to effect” will only happen if you actually leave the unity of the Spirit and principle. So, don’t leave the unity of the Spirit or principle. You may leave the uniformity of the practice, but don’t leave the unity of the Spirit or principle.

People usually either cringe or jump at the idea of tossing out established practices. Leaving uniformity may look like potential freedom, which makes sense since sudden freedom would seem to come when a person finally is freed from something they were forced to do. But leaving uniformity with wrong motives or misunderstanding will not bring freedom, and it won’t bring a lasting emotional experience. Leaving uniformity must come as an organic reaction to unifying around the truth.

The biggest warning when becoming unified around truth is to be sure to actually do so.

That seems nonsensical, and it is, but even with good intentions we soon overemphasize our freedom.  Regardless of how free it feels temporarily, true freedom only comes in Jesus Christ, and it looks nothing like “doing what you want”–its obedience and submission, which is the opposite.

Many times groups of people are misunderstood when they attempt to make or suggest changes to a given practice of uniformity. The motive is the first part to be examined, and far too often the motive is skewed by a defensive reaction, ensuring that the group seeking change is doing it with a negative motive. Change for our own benefit certainly is a potential problem in many instances. Our nature continually wants to create more freedom and lessen our responsibility both to God and to earthly authority. But what about when motives are pure, propelled by a desire to do right?

The course of action may be wrong even with right motive. For example, organizing or teaching in a divisive manner against a rule, practice, or authority can tend to rebellion and slander against the authority. This is a reality that must be carefully considered and avoided.

However, let’s be equally careful to realize that authorities and man-made rules can also tend to cause rebellion and slander. Blaming Satan for stirring up disunity will help justify the authority, but without considering the real cause of disunity the authority will also be blamed by the people for it. At that point Satan will have actually caused disunity because both parties are pointing at one another.

The goal of change is not to destroy traditions or practice, or to somehow make ourselves unified. The goal is to put our focus on Jesus Christ. Change can be a really good thing that brings glory to God.

Us vs. Them: Who’s Got It Right?

Anabaptist churches are failing and lacking for the opposite reasons mainstream churches are failing and lacking. Each has gone to the opposite side, and it would be wise to learn from from each other and embrace the good of each. We wonder how they could miss this or that, while they wonder how we could miss that or this.

Here are the tendencies laid out to see which side wins:

Anabaptists: de-emphasize Spirit and principle

Evangelicals: de-emphasize doctrine

Anabaptists: uniformity will keep the unity

Evangelicals: diversity will keep the unity

Anabaptists: practice the principles but fail to find the Spirit

Evangelicals: find the Spirit but fail to practice the principles

“Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’ “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went. “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went. “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”     -Matthew 21:28-32 (The Message)

Accept or reject–God or us?

An exit poll done on those leaving a church would be very interesting. If a reason for leaving was rebellion, what exactly was rebelled against? I think a lot would say hypocrisy or else disunity. That’s sort of a catch all for anyone wanting to “cop out” of following God–blame other followers. Frankly, if the principles were taught well there is no real case against hypocrisy unless they were not practiced at all. More than likely those leaving a church for “rebellious” reasons did not understand or want to hear the principles taught. If God or principles are abandoned, there is no excuse. Each individual does choose to either accept or reject them.

We usually think rebellion is against God or authority and give it a negative connotation. What if rebellion was positive? Let’s be careful not to be too conceited to think that rebellion is always against God. More than likely it is against the established religion, or against people who claim to know God but are not living like it. Most who leave do not leave God or Christianity, they leave a method of practice. However, some do leave God, and when they do we must remember to carefully ask ourselves if the church was responsible for displaying any wrong image of God and Christianity.

Let’s be careful as churches to consciously encourage one other rather than unconsciously discourage.


The crucial step of change is to be  joined by the Holy Spirit around all the teachings and doctrines of the New Testament. In each location, generation, and culture there will be changes and differences, but the Bible never changes and it always applies to our lives wherever and whenever we are. By study and prayer, we are able to know how to apply the principles in our individual settings in the 21st century.

What happens when the local church of Jesus Christ surrenders control on matters of practice? Some would say that this is a step toward slackness, worldliness, or liberalism. Actually, those who remain in that argument are apparently those who are worried about the principle being passed to the next generation improperly, or, not all. Or perhaps it is a humble recognition of our weak humanity, or simply an excuse. Teaching is hard, but it is crucial.

Our teaching must include passing on reasonable and scriptural backing for a particular doctrine or practice to each generation, making sure the idea behind it is understood and clear even while our culture rapidly changes. Teaching is not someone explaining rules and guidelines, but rather someone going for the heart of the matter teaching us directly from God’s Word how to live our daily lives in love for God and truth and obedience to the Spirit. Teaching is a cross-generational relationship between teacher and student.

Teaching done in love will allow relationships to build within the local body as individuals are drawn to closer relationship with Jesus Christ.

Don’t restrict in fear– compel with power, love, and a sound mind

It’s so tricky for us to maintain balance. On one hand we want to live by the Spirit alone, and on the other hand we fear disunity and dislike the idea of diversity of practice. We try to balance the flesh and the Spirit, and even when we try to live by the Spirit we can’t trust ourselves enough to maintain that. We eventually set rules. The feeling that a church needs to set specific rules is a result of both an awareness of the evil downhill potential and a realization that our own teaching, power, or influence won’t be enough or hasn’t been adequate.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”     -II Timothy 1:7

The Holy Spirit properly understood, accepted, and taught is more powerful, more loving, and makes more logical sense than all of man’s attempts at control and uniformity put together.



Hopefully if you are still awake and reading this that you are not overly confused. The topic of unity versus uniformity is a touchy subject to address. I personally have never heard it talked about other than in private conversation, so this may be very new to you. Obviously this is a very quick overview and there is so much more to add to the discussion and for you to study on your own! Hopefully this challenges and stirs your thinking.

It seems my last post may have been misunderstood, and feedback escalated quickly. Admittedly it could have been clearer, and should have been posted after this one in order for it to have context.

Rest assured that I am not out to get you. Seeing and showing what could be done better inevitably can give oneself a bad rating with an established church. It is very possible to be confused, ask questions, speak truth, think of new ideas, and discuss things while still maintaining respect for the rule, practice, or authority. Thankfully this is exactly what I see happening a lot, and I am encouraged by it! Keep praying, keep smiling, keep showing the world that you have been with Jesus. Put your mind on eternal things and live for the glory of God.

Hello, I'm Nelson Lee Miller.

Thanks for stopping by my website! I enjoy writing and hope these posts can be an encouragement to you. Come along as we learn more about what it means to represent God as we live in His Kingdom.

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