Melissa and I have been married for sixteen, happy years. We didn’t think about it in these terms back then, but ours is a multi-cultural family. Most marriages struggle to overcome the challenges of bringing together two people of the opposite gender (a task that is difficult enough), but in our case, I’m Brazilian, she’s French-Canadian, and our two children are American-born, French-Canadian Brazilians. We speak four languages in our home, and we come from very different cultural and familial backgrounds. We often have different preferences in regard to food, music, recreational activities, and much more.
Though we would have it no other way, this has presented a number of challenges in our marriage, from punctuality (what time we show up for appointments), how we relate to rules (spirit vs letter of the law), table manners (I burp, she licks her fingers at meals), to how we celebrate holidays. And this is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. I won’t overwhelm you with all of the details, but suffice it to say, we have had a lot to work through. Our marriage has remained strong and weathered various storms and endured our various differences because, prior to our relationship, we both found our primary identities in Jesus and his mission to bless others. But it still requires effort, compromise, and most importantly, daily extending God’s grace to one another in order for this to work.
Paul had a similar challenge. He planted several multi-ethnic communities of Jesus-followers in various parts of the Roman Empire. These were made up of Jews and Greeks, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, slave and free, etc. Paul believed this could work. In fact, he was convinced that unity with this level of diversity among people would be the greatest evidence to the onlooking world that Jesus was truly the Son of God. He believed in the power of the Holy Spirit not only to transform individual believers, but to destroy all superficial and culturally imposed barriers (skin color, gender, age, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, etc.) that separate people. The characteristics that make people different are not destroyed, but the division that often results is what is canceled.
Paul saw diversity among God’s people, not as a liability (though it could be), but as an asset (if people live in the Spirit). Just as the body is enriched by its various parts, so the people of God are closer representations of him with the richness that each person brings, with their various gifts, passions, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences. The body is more effective for service because every member is different, not the same (1 Cor 12:12-25).
So here are some keys for this work: (1) Rather than resent, appreciate the differences you see in other people; (2) Be willing to compromise your preferences for the sake of unity; (3) Empathize with the struggles of others, even if they don’t line up with your experience; (4) Maintain a humble view of your own culture and background; (5) Differentiate between moral issues and cultural preferences.
These five practical pointers to unity in diversity are based on Paul’s description of love found in 1 Corinthians 13, which incidentally is given in the context of his exposition on unity in diversity (1 Cor 12:4-7). Among other things, Paul wrote, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears [puts up with] all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).