The American Melting Pot vs The Body of Christ: Multiplicity in the American Church
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.
Scripture clearly demonstrates the church’s call to unity. In the American paradigm, however, this call to unity can easily be conceived as a false dichotomy: unity versus diversity.
But, this conception ignores the truth of scripture: harmony is not uniformity. The singular mission of the church can, and should, be expressed through diverse forms of worship.
An innate tension exists between the American ideal and the Christian calling, and it’s expressed clearly in the prevailing metaphors of each: The Body of Christ described in the New Testament and the infamous Melting Pot of America
Metaphors are perhaps the most powerful literary devices within our arsenal. They have the unique power of connecting us to the transcendent by rooting us in the temporal. They define the way we conceive the inconceivable.
When speaking of the Kingdom of God, the most transcendent and potentially ethereal concept, Paul uses the most personal, and concrete, and tangible illustration possible: he compares it to a body. He describes parts of the body serving different functions with the same end. Each distinct but harmonious.
In contrast, the prevailing American metaphor is that of a melting pot. Different cultures, and peoples, and experiences converging upon each other until they compose one homogenous and indistinguishable substance.
There is a clear tension between the two ideas. The Kingdom of God, and it’s expressions on earth, is made up of arms and legs, eyes and ears. It’s more of a machine than a soup.
“If all saints experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the songs of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note.”
- C.S Lewis
The early Christian movement deeply understood this need for multiplicity. It thrived and expanded with a unique ability to fuse with diverse cultures and peoples without losing its core. It was established upon the paradox of unity amongst diversity. Dr. Wayne A. Meeks, in a book published by Yale University Press, explores this concept, “Here was a most concrete reminder of what it meant to belong to the ekklesia (roughly translated as ‘church’) of God, that one could welcome one as a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ in Laodicea, Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome.” The goal was not to eradicate cultural differences, but to unite them in harmony..
Unity, not homogeneity. The metaphor of the Body of Christ demonstrates that significant differences are not an obstacle to be overcome—or to be “melted together”—but a deliberate feature of design.
C.S Lewis caught a glimpse of how this vision of harmonious diversity might manifest in its final reality. The communion of saints, he argues, bursts with the vibrancy of diverse characters: “If all saints experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the songs of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note.”
In this metaphor, there is a teleology guiding the song— a structure of rhythm and pitch— but nearly infinite room for a multiplicity of expressions. Instead of slowly condensing into homogeneity, the song of the Church bursts outward. The great expansiveness of God and the diversity of humanity, made in His image, necessitate such a response.
Lewis writes: “Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different.”
In order to remain vibrant and alive in an increasingly pluralistic age, the Church in America needs to make room for diversity of worship— for different expressions of the same Imago Dei.
A large church in Midtown packs out an amphitheater, as colorful lights and loud music course through the walls. A Kenyan congregation in South Brooklyn dawns traditional garbs, bursting with color and pattern, and sings praises accompanied by tribal drums. A liturgical congregation on the Upper East Side sits quietly as the priest recites lectionary readings over the sound of creaking floors and fussing children.
All of this is harmony, and it billows up from a single city. Imagine the symphony of an entire nation, and an entire globe, if we would only seek to listen.