I find myself in two minds about such theological refrains, which flow freely from nearly all denominational headquarters nowadays. I find them encouraging because they voice genuine concerns in meaningful scriptural categories, such as Paul's metaphor of the church as one body consisting of diverse members (1 Cor. 12:12-30). But the excessive reliance on unity-in-diversity-language, indeed the near obsession with it, seems also to conceal an apology for the rampant pluralism and heterodoxy that is sweeping the church.
Such language sometimes leaves me feeling as though I am playing a game of Scrabble in which the object is no longer to spell a word with the various letters in my hand, but rather to gather a hand of disparate letters from which no word could be spelled. Is the object of the game to spell a word, or to celebrate odd letters? What amazed Paul, after all, was not diversity but the mystery that the diverse members formed one body (1 Cor.12:20). The mystery is particularity working toward unity, rather than, as in a prism, a unity being refracted into particularity. We see this mystery described in the prayer group of Acts 13, which was composed of a Cypriot, two persons (probably of color) from North Africa, an aristocrat from the Herodian dynasty, and a Pharisaic Jew. A diverse group of pray-ers, but one prayer. Or, more remarkable yet, the honor roll of 30-plus names at the end of Romans, among which are women, men, slaves, free persons, aristocrats, Jews, Greeks, and Romans. It is a veritable cross-section of the ancient world—wide diversity, yet one church.
How did the early Christians do it? The Book of Acts and the epistles of Paul employ a virtually unknown term that, in my judgment, is a key to understanding the early church's unity in diversity—and to resolving the present challenge of addressing the one hope of salvation in Jesus Christ to all people, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, color, sex, or ideology. The term, in Greek, is homothumadon.
An 'Alien' Unity
This polysyllabic tongue-twister may never be embraced like koinonia or agape, but it is no less important. Homothumadon means "of one accord," or "of one mind and purpose." It occurs only 11 times in the New Testament, and all but one of them (Rom. 15:6) in Acts.
Homothumadon occurs like a signature refrain in Luke's description of the harmony and unanimity of the early church. Immediately after the ascension of Jesus, Luke describes the 11 disciples and family of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room "with one accord" in prayer (Acts 1:14). Shortly thereafter, the growing Christian community was headquartered in the temple, continuing "with one accord" and sharing common meals in homes (Acts 2:46).
After the arrest and release of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin, believers glorified God "with one accord" (Acts 4:24). Again, after mighty works performed through the hands of the apostles, the fledgling Christian community gathered "with one accord" in Solomon's Portico in the temple (Acts 5:12). We are told that people in Samaria listened "with one accord" to the gospel preached by Philip (Acts 8:6) after the death of Stephen. Finally, after the Council of Jerusalem, Luke writes that the early church was "of one accord" in promulgating the decision of the Council to Gentile believers in the Diaspora (Acts 15:25). Both Luke and Paul employ homothumadon in order to designate the exemplary harmony of the early Christian community.
We do not have to read between the lines of the Book of Acts, however, to discover that the early church was as acrimonious as churches in our day. Thus some argue that Luke used homothumadon merely to show what the church should be. But that is a misunderstanding of the term. In secular Greek, homothumadon does not convey the personal sympathy that members of a particular group share. Rather, it specifies a commitment to a specific course of action. The Greek orator Demosthenes appealed to the Athenians to put aside their personal feelings and differences and join homothumadon to defend themselves against an invasion of Philip of Macedon. The unity for which Demosthenes appealed was imposed from without by the invasion of Philip. Homothumadon was thus an extrinsic unity—indeed, in Demosthenes' understanding a compulsory unity—rather than an intrinsic unity.
This subtle distinction is significant. The unity of the early church was not the kind of unity that we find in a country club or a college, for example, where members join because of common interests. Rather, the unity of the church was produced by something from the outside that bound members together. The Reformers were fond of talking of iustificatio extra nos, the alien righteousness that comes from the outside to justify sinners in spite of themselves.
The use of homothumadon by Luke and Paul implies an equal and corresponding concordia extra nos, an alien harmony or consensus that comes from the outside as God's gift from the proclamation of the gospel. Homothumadon is the result of the unmerited grace of God extra nos. Our unity stems solely from the fact that we are sinners forgiven by the unexpected and undeserved grace of Jesus Christ.
A Purposeful Unity
Furthermore, homothumadon is not measured by mass, quantity, or numbers but by conformity to the purpose of God in Christ Jesus. This is made evident by the surprising use of the term in Acts 15.
After the Council of Jerusalem, the early church circulated a letter that instructs contentious churches of all ages, including our own in which the church is deeply divided over human sexuality and the person of Jesus Christ. Luke does not disguise the conflict and bitterness that ensued over the dispute to include uncircumcised Gentiles in the church (Acts 15:2, 7). It was the most crucial issue the church had faced—and probably would ever face. Jewish scholar-author Chaim Potok referred to the Jerusalem Council as "the turning point in the history of Christianity."
The outcome of the Council was the victory of the evangelical faith over an understanding of the gospel that would have made Christianity an addendum to the Jewish synagogue. Christians of Pharisaic persuasion sharply disagreed with the decision of the Council (Acts 15:5). No doubt other groups disagreed as well. It is therefore wholly unexpected for Luke to report the outcome of the dispute as one in which the church was homothumadon (Acts 15:25). Historically and humanly speaking, the outcome of the dispute was most certainly not "of one accord."
Is Luke's use of the term merely disingenuous? No. Luke does not understand homothumadon to include or placate all viewpoints. Rather, homothumadon is like the kind of unity that students with a correct answer share with their instructor—even though many of their classmates may disagree with them at first. In Acts 15, the use of homothumadon means that the unity of the church is one in correspondence and continuity with the proper understanding of God's will—as revealed in Scripture (Amos 9:11; Jer. 12:15, as quoted in Acts 15:16-17) and as corroborated by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). The unity of the church derives from the testimony of Scripture as it is attested to by the Holy Spirit—even if a significant number of believers disagree.
The same understanding is evident in Jesus' high priestly prayer "that they might be one even as we are one" (John 17:11). A remarkable aspect of this oft-quoted prayer is that it occurs in the most polemical of the Gospels. The Gospel of John is unambiguous about the dissension and division in the community to which John writes. At the time, the fledgling Christian church was being forcibly expelled from the Jewish synagogue, and antagonism was stiff. The context of the Gospel of John is uncomfortably familiar: a precarious coexistence has been shattered, resulting in two hostile faith communities. How then can John boldly commend Jesus' prayer for unity within such a tragically divided house? The answer is that the prayer for the unity of believers is not understood as a sociological unity but is based on the gift of God's Word (John 17:14), which alone is God's truth (John 17:17). The unity of the church is not patterned after an ideological movement but after the unity of Jesus and the Father, "that they may be one even as we are one" (John 17:22).
The homothumadon of the Book of Acts, although different in wording, is thus built on the same theological foundation. The concordia of both Acts and John is further echoed by the apostle Paul. In a curious expression in Romans 6:17, Paul says that believers are to be wholeheartedly obedient to the form of teaching to which they were entrusted. The wording at first seems backward: surely it is doctrines that are entrusted to believers rather than believers to doctrines.
Paul's wording is right, however. As we once obeyed sin to death, so we are now to obey righteousness to life (Romans 6:22). The righteousness to which Paul refers here is identified expressly with the "form of teaching" of the gospel in verse 17. Hence, it is not the doctrines of the faith that are entrusted to us, but rather we who are entrusted to the doctrines of the faith. We do not possess the gospel, but the gospel possesses us. It is God's Word of judgment and grace, extrinsic to ourselves, to which we must submit, in order through it to be conformed to the image of his Son.
The Great Intolerance
Karl Barth wrote in his The Epistle to the Romans:
Tolerance is, no doubt, a virtue without which none of us can live, but we must, nevertheless, at least understand that it is, strictly speaking, destructive of fellowship, for it is a gesture by which the divine disturbance is rejected. The One in whom we are veritably united is himself the great intolerance. He willeth to rule, to be victorious, to be—everything. He it is who disturbs every family gathering, every scheme for the reunion of Christendom, every human cooperation. And he disturbs, because he is the Peace that is above every estrangement and cleavage and faction.
God is the great Intolerance who will not allow our differences to cancel or prevail over his Tri-unity—and the consequent unity that he gives to the church. In every age, the church must decide whether it will allow the alien concord of God to transform its life, through Scripture and the Spirit, or whether it will ground its righteousness in its own causes and elevate them above the Peace that disturbs. The disturbing Intolerance of God is his grace. It rescues us from entrenchment in our own image so that we may be transformed to his image.
The unity-in-diversity rhetoric of mainline churches today leaves the impression that the ground of unity is the concept of unity itself. The church, however, cannot attain unity by looking to itself, nor by adapting to changing social norms, nor by diluting or dismantling its theology in hopes of achieving a broader or more generic consensus. The true unity of the church is an alien gift of God from the outside, reflecting both God's nature and governance, "on earth as it is in heaven." The church is indeed diverse, but the goal of the church is not diversity. It is rather unity with God, which is a gift of the Spirit when the church seeks to live in conformity with God's will as revealed in Scripture. The church is most universal when it is most particular in proclaiming the sole, saving efficacy of Jesus Christ and by bearing a clear moral witness, both personally and socially. Only then can the church pray with St. Chrysostom, "Almighty God, you have given us grace that this time with one accord—homothumadon."
James R. Edwards is professor of religion at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He is author of The Divine Intruder: When God Breaks into Your Life (NavPress, 2000).
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A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.In Greek, homothumadon is a compound of two words meaning to "rush along" and "in unison".
James R. Edwards's book, The Divine Intruder: When God Breaks into Your Life, is available on Christianbook.com.
Previous Christianity Today pieces written by Edwards include:
Jesus Wasn't a Pluralist | When I debate defenders of homosexuality, I am often accused of being exclusive in a way that Jesus wasn't. (April 5, 1999)
At the Crossroads | The battle for a denomination's soul. (August 11, 1997)
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