Unity in Diversity
One of the greatest testimonies of the early church in the first century was its “unity in diversity.” It brought people together that were often separate and segregated in the world. — Jews and Gentiles, slaves and masters, males and females. — People could not help but notice how the walls of division that had come to define society seemed to disappear among the followers of Jesus Christ. Paul often acknowledged this unity in his letters.
Galatians 3:27-28 — “And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Colossians 3:11 — “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.”
I doubt we appreciate just how special that kind of unity was in the first century. It was not just rare; it was radical. It was revolutionary. For instance, consider some of the deep-seated divisions that existed back then.
The Greeks. The Greeks divided humanity into two groups. You were either a Greek or a barbarian. They believed that all barbarians were inferior to them in origin and status. This makes the words of Paul in Athens all-the-more powerful. He boldly declared that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
The Jews. The Jews also divided humanity into two groups (three if you count the Samaritans). You were either a Jew or a Gentile. That was not necessarily a bad thing since God had set them apart as His chosen nation. However, over time their distinction from other people led to disdain for other people. Their role in God’s redemptive plan puffed them up and produced prejudice, which was not what God intended when He first made those promises to Abraham.
Jewish men began each day with a prayer thanking God that they were not a Gentile, a woman, or a slave. They viewed Gentiles as “dogs” who were unclean and unrestrained. Devout Jews would not enter the home of a Gentile or interact with them socially; and when returning from Gentile territory, they shook the dust off their sandals and robes as a sign of repudiation. Even Jesus acknowledged this stigma when He said that an unrepentant brother was to be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
The Samaritans. The Samaritans were the result of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles after Assyrian captivity. They accepted only the first 5 books of the Old Testament and worshipped on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. Thus, the Jews considered the Samaritans to be half-breeds cursed by God. A Jewish apocryphal book refers to Samaritans as “stupid people” and there was a saying among the Jews that “it is better to take food from the mouth of a dog than from the hand of a Samaritan.” They even used the term “Samaritan” as an insult or slur (John 8:48). The animosity was so strong that many Jews would go out of their way and detour around Samaria when traveling to avoid interaction with the Samaritans.
Women. Women were treated like second-class citizens in the first century. As noted, Jewish men started each day with a prayer thanking God that he was not a woman. Women did not have any standing in the home and were often regarded as “property” by their husbands. Jewish men did not usually speak to women in public, including their wives, sisters, mothers, or daughters; and women walked 6 paces behind their husbands in the streets. Strict rabbis taught that women were not to be instructed in the Law or to receive an inheritance, and a woman’s testimony was considered suspect in court (i.e., she was an unreliable witness). There was even a segment of the Pharisees known as the “bruised and bleeding” Pharisees because they would close their eyes when women approached and were always running into things.
Hopefully, this gives us a better appreciation for the many divisions that existed in the first century. The walls of separation loomed large and were erected everywhere. Yet our Lord came along and took a sledgehammer to those walls. He did not just climb over them, He plowed through them. For instance, even though Jesus was a devout Jew, He still treated Gentiles with love and compassion. He healed a Roman centurion’s servant and a Canaanite woman’s daughter; and He would often commend Gentiles as a way of rebuking His own people.
The same could be said of how Jesus treated the Samaritans. On one occasion, He went into Samaria and struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman that led to her and many others believing that He was the Messiah; and He ended up lodging with them for two days. Jesus even made a Samaritan the hero of His most popular parable, “The Good Samaritan.”
Jesus was just as loving and compassionate when it came to women. In addition to His encounter with the Samaritan woman noted above, He warmly received a sinful woman who was overcome with guilt during a dinner party at Simon’s house and He was merciful to a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Two of his closest friends were women, Martha and Mary, and women donated monetarily to support His ministry. Many of the Lord’s most notable miracles were done on behalf of women.
Jesus did not let peer pressure or societal stereotypes keep Him from treating all human beings properly. He understood that everyone is “made in the image of God.” This example carried over into the early church, uniting people of all stripes as one. And that unity in diversity became a great testimony to the world!