Conformity vs. Unity

At lunch this afternoon, I read an interesting blogpost about the differences between conformity and unity — and where Christians can err when it comes to the two.

I left some stream-of-thought comments at the blog, but I quickly realized it’s a topic that warrants some further thought and some additional theological framing.

Here’s my best stab. I’d welcome yours.

As the author argues (my paraphrase), conformity is primarily about defining oneself and one’s group through negation — that is, we are we who are because we have subtracted X, Y, and Z from what we do and who we are. These groups may also define themselves by what they do, but that positive element usually takes an “us over against you” type of mentality. In short, someone from this group might say, “I’m a good person because I don’t drink, smoke, or chew, and I read my Bible and pray for two hours a day. How about you?”

She gives a very good example, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. This group largely derived its identity from what it did and did not do over against its contemporary culture. It that defined itself by saying, “We are not you because we don’t do _____ and practice ________”

She goes on to correctly notice the parallels between the way the Pharisees defined themselves as a group and the way we tend to do so as Evangelicals. In her words,

For example: “A true Christian will not drink.” “A true Christian will never swear.” “A true Christian doesn’t wear high heels.” “A true Christian is not gay.” “A true Christian will never have premarital sex.” “A true Christian follows everything their Christian leader says.” “A true Christian does not believe in Evolution.” “A true Christian knows AIDS is God’s punishment for sexual deviants.” “And the way we can tell you are a true Christian is that you believe what every other true Christian believes; you say what every other true Christian says.”

Her argument blossoms with the claim,

The Pharisees, who led many astray and placed burdens on people that they were never meant to carry, were about conformity. Christ, from what I can tell, and what I believe, is about unity.

By her definition, unity does not necessarily imply sameness or agreement but rather implies harmony and wholeness. Conformity breaks us apart because conformity is inherently exclusive, i.e., you can only join the club if you do and say as I do. By contrast, unity is inherently inclusive because it does not insist that you do and say as I do.

All in all, I think there are some great points here, and the post has clearly got my own wheels turning. And I’d like to share some of my thoughts, as well as welcome yours.

Here, the terms conformity and unity are primarily employed sociologically, and that in itself isn’t a bad thing. But, I think that we can think about these terms theologically as well, and if we do, we might end up understanding them differently.

If conformity is defined as uncritically submitting to a set of arbitrary beliefs and practices, then let’s chuck it out the windows – I agree wholeheartedly. But what if we think about conformity in terms of sanctification, i.e., in terms of being continually renewed by God’s Spirit and being continually conformed to God’s image. If we frame “conformity” that way, isn’t it a thing to be desired?

And what about the term “unity.” It’s a term that is touted by liberals and conservatives alike, but usually means very different things depending on who you ask. Here, I get the impression the term is employed to describe a radically inclusive unity that would include anyone who names Jesus as their Lord. That’s a pretty amazing picture, I think, and I can only add one other point for clarity. If we are going to propose unity as the goal of the church, then we should be clear about what we mean, and I would suggest something like this. Christians pursue unity when and only when we collectively submit our collective will to the will of Christ. That type of unity allows for diversity – doubt, questions, and (loving) debate among Christians – and is thus inclusive. But it avoids the pitfall of an “anything goes” mentality by binding itself to Christ as the definitive qualifier.

That’s the type of church I desperately want to be a part of. The type that refuses to define itself in “us against them” terms. The type that takes Jesus seriously and is willing to admit that others may disagree and still take Jesus just as seriously. The type of church that puts more emphasis on living into the teachings of Jesus vs. fighting about which political party to embrace.

And maybe one reason why it was so hard for me to find a job is because those churches are few and far between … 😛

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2 thoughts on “Conformity vs. Unity

  1. Your point is nicely argued, and I’m glad to have been able to share ideas with you. I look forward to future posts, future conversations and collectively working toward finding and strengthening “the type [of church] that refuses to define itself in “us against them” terms. The type that takes Jesus seriously and is willing to admit that others may disagree and still take Jesus just as seriously. The type of church that puts more emphasis on living into the teachings of Jesus vs. fighting about which political party to embrace.”

    Amen, brother.

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