the shape of leadership

Uniformity or Unity?

Being of one mind without sacrificing individuality

Chris Colvin on May 3, 2019

What is unity? I don’t mean a dictionary definition of the word, although that may be helpful. As a leader who values unity, what are you looking for?

Jesus valued unity. He prayed that after He ascended, all His followers would be one (John 17:20-21).

Paul asked those he led to be of one mind (Philippians 2:2). It was a hallmark of the Early Church, as Luke tells us that “all the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).

If unity is so important, then we need to make every effort to accomplish it. The problem is not in a lack of desire. I believe we often see disunity because we demand something else: uniformity. Other times, we aren’t really seeing disunity at all; it’s a lack of uniformity clouding our vision. We need to understand what we’re aiming for when we strive for unity in Jesus’ church.

Of One Mind

What does it mean to be of one mind? Take a look at the full text of Philippians 2:2: “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

Paul began his letter to the Philippians by recalling the joy that accompanied his prayers for them (Philippians 1:4). That joy was sparked by their agreement to partner with him (verse 5). In Chapter 2, Paul asked them to complete that same joy.

How would they complete Paul’s joy? He offered the overall imperative, to be like-minded, and then gave three examples of that. The first two — having the same love and being one in spirit — signify different expressions of that like-mindedness. It’s curious that the third is a repeat of the central imperative, to be of one mind. It sounds a bit like double talk: Be like-minded by being like-minded.

The repetition is the key to understanding Paul’s call to unity, however. Remember, the joy was based on the Philippians partnering with him in his ministry — while Paul was in Philippi, after he went abroad, and, finally, as he waited in prison. That ministry was singularly focused on saving the lost. Paul wanted to make sure they all had the same goal in mind, the same one he had.

So, like-mindedness is not about always thinking the same things at the same time. That would have been impossible, given their individual lives and careers. It’s also not about absolute agreement on all matters. That is not the point Paul was making. Paul was asking them to set the same goal in front of them that he had.

In short, being of one mind is about sharing the same positive goal in life. As a church body, what are your goals? Glorifying God should be at the top of that list. But how? If you are to have unity, you need to share a common vision.

So What Is Uniformity?

If unity is having the same goal, doesn’t it require uniformity? It seems that eliminating any differences would create peace and harmony. Do we seek unity through uniformity? Not quite.

Being of one mind is about sharing the same positive goal in life.

Uniformity is taking that idea of one-mindedness to the extreme. Uniformity would require everyone to agree on everything. We would like the same things, vote the same way, root for the same teams, and read the same books.

As attractive as that may seem, it’s not real unity. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to unity. First of all, it eliminates individuality. While extreme independence can erode community, denying individuality has the same effect. Think of the example of gifts within the Church (1 Corinthians 12). If everyone had the same gifts, there would be major gaps within the Church Body.

Secondly, uniformity harms unity by diminishing the power of diversity. When everyone looks the same, sounds the same, and even thinks the same, growth is choked out. The Church becomes an echo chamber where mistakes are overlooked for the sake of a false sense of unity. Don’t point out the flaws; just get along.

But diversity is amazingly helpful to unity. It allows for each person to shift their perspectives as needed. And that causes growth. It can increase your church’s impact by broadening your base. More people will feel at home when they attend.

Beyond that, though, it allows for honesty. When we confuse uniformity for unity, no one feels free to speak out. Differences are seen as bad, so why share them? True unity allows for differences. Criticism is openly accepted. It may not always be helpful or constructive, but when it is, it can help shore up weaknesses by cutting off blind spots.

Differences of opinion can also help generate unity. When it comes to church life, this can be scary. Remember, being like-minded means that you share the same goal. But how you get there is open to debate.

What time your services start, what day of the week is best, how loud the music is, or whether you serve coffee are all secondary to the main cause of your church. Disagreements about those things won’t cost you unity. Instead, it can enhance it by strengthening your strategy through constant reevaluation.

The Real Enemy of Unity

To stand up for unity means we must fight against something. It’s not diversity or differences. And we’re not shutting off criticism. The enemy of unity is disunity. It involves any behavior or actions meant to harm the one-mindedness that a common goal requires.

Disunity can show up in words, like gossiping or bad-mouthing those in charge. Disunity can appear in our actions, deliberate missteps meant to undermine the mission of the church. Disunity can even be negligence, refusing to follow the advice or concerns of those in charge.

Unity is when people of diverse backgrounds, opinions and gifts come together for a common good. We are stronger because we are unique. Uniformity attempts to eliminate that strength. When we have a common goal, we are working together in both word and deed to succeed. Disunity is what gets us off track, not differences.

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