Unity in Diversity in the Local Church

The horror of what was about to happen had begun to affect Jesus. The supper was over and he was about to walk across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. In these traumatic circumstances, he poured out his heart to his Father, 

His main and often repeated request for his disciples was that they may be united. He asked the Father ‘that they may be one as we are one’ (John 17:11, 21-22); that they may ‘be brought to complete unity’ (John 17:23).

The context and intensity of this prayer shows what a high priority unity in the Church is to Jesus. And often we miss the impact of his words by thinking immediately of ecumenical unity. After all, John 17 is a favourite reading for united services.

But there is an even greater priority, for unity, like charity, begins at home.

The local church must ask itself whether it experiences the depth of unity Jesus prayed for. Is it enjoying ‘complete unity’- a unity like the unity in the Trinity. Majoring on ecumenical unity can often obscure a lack of unity at home.

But is it possible for an ordinary local church to enjoy such unity? We want to affirm that it is.

The previous rector warned us that Hawkwell was a divided church, and we discovered that he was right, in fact, the bitterness and rebellion which was manifest when we first arrived seemed much more than one might normally expect of a typical church. Anything could spark it off.

Eventually, we became tired of speaking about it and almost tired of praying about it. The battleground was inside the church, and this seriously weakened our ability to evangelise.

So it was the people outside the church who suffered most from our division.


By contrast, God eventually gave us a remarkable level of unity. Visitors commented on it and we were continually thankful to God for it. So how was that achieved?

The most important answer is that the Holy Spirit did it in answer to prayer. But he used means.

Unity certainly hasn’t come through the constant ‘gazing into one another’s eyes’ beloved of some charismatics. Such an intense, inward-looking ‘unity’ is neither biblical nor successful.

No, Jesus prayed that the church would be united so that the world may believe, in other words, his aim was an outward-looking unity. He also prayed: ‘Sanctify them by the truth: your word is truth’ (John 17:17).

We came to understand that the unity the Lord wants is a united commitment to doing the Word of God in the power of the Spirit so as to be effective in evangelism.

Hold on though, isn’t that what all ‘Bible-believing’ Christians do? The simple answer is ‘no’.

James warned that it was possible to deceive ourselves by simply hearing and not doing the Word. And, sadly, experience teaches that there is a good deal of such deception going on in ‘Bible-believing’, evangelical circles.

In fact, to take practical steps to encourage people to do the Word can lead to accusations of ‘legalism’or ‘elitism’. But we’ve always lived dangerously, so we’ve taken such steps!

First, we wrote down and agreed a short summary of biblical teaching about the church. We call it the vision.

Then we invited the whole congregation (and subsequently all new members) to do a 20-session, home-produced commitment course which expounds the vision.

Towards the end of the course, each member is invited to make a heart-felt commitment to do everything possible to fulfil biblical teaching. It is a corporate commitment to make the church more conformed to scripture. 

The effect was dramatic and we shared the principles and materials with many churches in this country and elsewhere. The response was very encouraging.

We are saved from dead orthodoxy by emphasising the work of the Holy Spirit and the need for relaxed, caring relationships. And because unity is based on doing the Word in the power of the Spirit, we have also been preserved from inward-looking attitudes. Effectiveness in evangelism has increased with the enjoyment of unity.


However, unity is not uniformity. The Holy Spirit is creative and there is great variety in his work. Man is the author of drab uniformity. The exciting thing is that there are different personalities and different gifts amongst the membership of the Body of Christ.

When the Holy Spirit is allowed freedom, he replaces the monochrome, which typifies many churches, with all the colours of the spectrum. His work achieves unity in diversity.

But again, he uses means. The one-man-ministry syndrome can be so powerful that it hinders the work of the Spirit. Hawkwell had been known for some years as a ‘charismatic’ church when an important question dawned on us. Why was it that, much as we had taught about the gifts of the Spirit, we had not enabled members to know what their gifts were and to use them?

After all, ‘charismatic’ doesn’t really mean singing modern worship songs. It is about gifts.

Charismatic renewal has a deeply theological and intensely practical message for the Church. Negatively, it is saying that one-man-ministry is one of the most damaging errors. And the clergy/laity distinction is equally bad.

The New Testament tells us that Christ gave to the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to enable God’s people to fulfil their ministries (Eph. 4:11-16), Nor can we bring ourselves to accept that little piece of ‘liberal’ theology that the gifts – including apostles and prophets – died out with the Apostles. Put simply, our reasons are that such thinking is not true to scripture, to history or to experience.

There are apostles today: pioneers, church builders or rebuilders. There are prophets who bring clarity, vision and perspective to the Church.

Everyone would agree that there are evangelists, pastors and teachers. And all of these five (some would link pastor and teacher) leading ministries are essential, if the Body of Christ is to function property, according to the NT

That is why Christ gave them to the Church. Do we know better?

Yet as we visit many churches and talk to hundreds of clergy, we see the results of ignoring this teaching.

The local church may be led by a minister with pastoral gifts, so the church lacks vision and evangelistic impact. Or he may have evangelistic gifts, which means the teaching ministry is weak. If he is ‘prophetic’, the flock may not be properly pastored. If he is a teacher, the church may, again, lack vision, and so on. Without the church-building gift of the apostle, the church will be hindered in its growth and in the “streamlining’ necessary for a dynamic missionary organism.

We see this often: square pegs in round holes creating stress and frustration around them. We see good men who haven’t the foggiest notion where they’re going in the church. Or they may know where they’d like to be, but not how to get there.

When will we evangelicals take the whole of scripture seriously, and stop making the same excuses the liberals make for not facing up to its implications? We need leadership teams in local churches who will ensure that all the leadership gifts (wherever they come from) will minister to our congregations,

But how do we discern gifts and ministries, not only for leaders, but for the whole body of Christ? Our approach at Hawkwell was simple. When we have got to know someone – in a housegroup or leaders’ group – we plan to discern their gifts. Teaching on the gifts is made available to the group, as are guidelines to the discerning process.

In brief, the individual has an extended time of private prayer about the matter, and group members spend time praying about the gifts of the person concerned. Then they all come together and the group shares its prayerful discernment first, before the individual shares his or hers.

This has proved effective and has made the individual feel affirmed in an existing or new ministry and other gifts. The results are conveyed to the elders, and individuals are enabled to use their gifts as much as possible.

The Lord wants a Church which is united in fellowship and diverse in ministry. You can’t have one without the other!

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction