With their emphasis on physical skill, stamina and mental toughness, elite sports have, paradoxically, turned out to be the great equalisers. A key factor in changing white Australian attitudes on race was the undeniable talent brought to the field by players like Joe Johnson, the first Aboriginal VFL/AFL footballer (Fitzroy, 1904–1906) or Ray Laurie, his counterpart in the NRL, who, during the 1951 NSW Indigenous competition, clocked up 246 points (48 tries, 51 goals). Suddenly struck colourblind, Balmain had to have Laurie and signed him up in 1952. Today, it’s impossible to chart the history of any Aussie or Kiwi football code without mentioning names like Mal Meninga, George Nepia, Gordon Tallis, Gavin Wanganeen, Jonah Lomu and Jonathan Thurston. And, internationally, Venus and Serena Williams have dominated women’s tennis for two decades—dispelling any lingering sense that it is a white person’s game.
Some sports favour certain body types—tall basketballers, small gymnasts, hefty shot-putters, female long-distance swimmers—but others value diversity, with burly backrowers providing the final line of defence, and smaller and more agile players focusing on their running game and damaging the scoreboard.
It’s exciting to see the range of skills, body types and nationalities excelling in sports at the elite level. The Canadians consistently topping ice hockey’s “Big Eight”; East Africans placing first, time after time, in marathons around the world; Latin American teams qualifying for soccer World Cup finals in nearly every tournament. And who doesn’t love those plucky underdogs who give it their all, despite their nation not having had a reputation in their chosen sport—Jamaican bobsledders anyone?
Diversity is important in life, too. We need extroverts to call the meeting to order, to inspire us with their speeches and liven up the party! We need introverts for their heart-wrenching poetry and thoughtful conversation. We need tech types, heavy lifters, creatives, organisers, nurturers and all-rounders. Where would we be without our musicians? Our groundskeepers? Our leaders?
That they may be one
Maybe you’re early in your Christian journey and beginning to wonder if there’s a church community where you could fit in—where you could belong. The good news is that, like the different athletes who excel in different sports, Christians are not called to be clones. Sure, there are churches of different flavours and styles, but don’t get too caught up in trying to find a group of people exactly like you. What’s more important is to find a community where your unique talents and personality are appreciated and needed. This is not just feel-good positive psychology—the valuing of diversity is a basic tenet of Christianity. A quick review . . .
Some of Jesus’ most beautiful recorded words are a prayer. Just hours before His betrayal and arrest, He was worried about His followers—He’d come to call them His friends. He prayed, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).
That they may be one. Jesus’ prayer was for His followers to be united in heart and purpose in the difficult days that lay ahead. But the unity He was seeking should not be mistaken for uniformity—no clones here. Among His closest companions were polar opposites, politically speaking: James, who identified with the extremist Zealot secession movement; and Matthew, a tax-collector and, therefore, a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. Through His years of ministry, Jesus had dealt with each of His followers according to their unique needs and personalities. He gave blustering and outspoken Simon a cutesy nickname, Petros—something like Pebbles would be the equivalent in today’s English. But with Nathanael, who was sometimes timid and unsure, Jesus gave warm affirmation and evidence of His messiahship (see John 1:40–50). He gave certain disciples particular responsibilities and took others aside to share experiences with Him alone.
The unity that Jesus had prayed for blossomed in the years after His resurrection and return to heaven. We read in Acts 4:32 that, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
That’s radical unity! That’s teamwork! If you haven’t already, read through the book of Acts and you’ll see how that first Christian community not only lived sacrificially, but experienced incredible growth as they were challenged to expand their definition of God’s chosen people to encompass people from all nations and backgrounds. Samaritans, Ethiopians, Romans, Greeks, slaves, citizens, women, men—each had their God-given calling. Yes, these early believers were united in purpose, but the diversity that they embraced transformed the Jesus movement from a Jewish breakaway sect into a global phenomenon.
The body of Christ
The apostle Paul was not short on sports metaphors, but he used a different, and particularly vivid, word picture to illustrate unity in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Greece: “And so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
“But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. . . . [T]here should be no division in the body . . . its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:14–18, 25–27).
Paul is talking about two aspects of diversity in the church here. First, the different gifts that each believer is given by God, and, second, the ethnic and social differences among the members: “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” he writes in verse 13.
One body, many parts. Every member empowered by the same divine power and working towards the same gospel cause. But not like some lockstep clone army. No, God’s desire in making each of us different is to see each of us fulfil our unique potential.
Let’s get real
If you know anything about human nature, you will at this point, of course, be thinking, Wait a minute, this sounds awfully pollyannaish—people aren’t all sharing and caring like that. They gossip and criticise, form factions and make enemies.
And you’d be right. All through the New Testament, you’ll see Jesus’ followers struggling with ethnic and religious divisions; church leaders berating members—and even each other—for their discriminatory attitudes and behaviour. Jesus Himself, not long after He prayed for unity, was executed as a result of a plot fomented by His fellow Jews—it doesn’t get less united than that!
But the ideal remains. And the glimpses we get in the New Testament of when unity and diversity kiss leave us wanting more. Suddenly, the world opens and we see possibilities never imagined before. Prior to Christianity, the norm was for each ethnic group or region to jealously guard its own gods. Even the supreme Creator of the Old Testament was viewed as almost exclusively the God of the Jews. So Jesus’ great commission—to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)—launched a revolution that is still with us today, when notions of universal human dignity and rights are widely appreciated, and millions of Christians of all colours and language groups live in every inhabited continent of the world.
Search all you like; you will never find a church full of fully united and perfectly loving people whose commitment to diversity and non-discrimination is absolute. But that’s okay. Because, if such a church existed, would you fit in there? No, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
At its best, a church community is where you can get real; share your joys, questions and struggles. A healthy church is one that recognises its members are not clones, but that each brings his or her personalities, passions, talents and gifts to the body—loud people, quiet people, thoughtful types, creative types, practical types, administrators, counsellors and questioners. A church worth joining takes the Bible seriously, including the parts that go against our human nature and call us to find unity with those different from us, including the poor, the foreigner and the outcast. No congregation is fulfilling this vision perfectly, but there are many seeking new members who are prepared to let God grow them into the unique potential He has planned for each of us.
Are you ready to suit up and enter the field? The Coach has dreams for what you can achieve that no other person on this planet could accomplish. Can you hear Him calling?
Kent Kingston is editor of Signs of the Times. He lives in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region, north of Sydney.