Disunity in Christ | Reflections & Notes

Christena Cleveland. Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. IVP Books, 2013. (220 pages)


Reading this book was an exercise in feeling a continuous sense of despairing hope.

First, this book was published in 2013, which means Cleveland has been writing and speaking about this issue for over five years. Along with several other voices that are filling this space, I am personally heartened and glad that these leaders are encouraging faith communities to be deeply thoughtful regarding their work in diversity. However, I am despairing, because the work that still needs to be done, and the hurdles towards accomplishing that work are still quite significant. This reality has been exacerbated by the now cliché “socio-political tone” of our contemporary body politic. And the most recent publication of The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel is yet another example of the great divides that still plague our church. (So much for the disciples of Jesus being “one”: John 17:21; Ephesians 4:5).

But if I take a step back, and soak in the words that Cleveland has given us, I must accept that what she (and others) have done is provide a way forward, through the morass. And it is this that feels so much like The Way of Jesus, that the ministry of Jesus was not to overpower and completely upend the sins of the world through a divine dictatorship, but rather to teach, lead, provoke, and provide wisdom for followers of Jesus to model a different way through it all. I believe Cleveland has done the same in this book. And like the teachings of Jesus become efficacious when we do and obey, so it is with Disunity in Christ. It is our commission now to go and put these things into practice.

Special thanks to Molly Field for the gift of this book


1. Right Christian, Wrong Christian

I’m not saying that differences in the body of Christ are trivial. (18)

…I am not saying that cultural differences within the body of Christ are inconsequential or petty. (19)

…I am not saying that this crazy idea of dropping our labels in search of unity is easy. (19)

I wonder how much Christ’s heart is broken when we denigrate followers of Christ who differ from us. I shudder at the thought of it. (20)

| Further, how much are we losing because of our differences? (20)

Cultural differences in the body of Christ enable different types of people to draw near to the heart of Jesus. (20)

People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. (21)

For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. (21)

Overcoming differences. Working through conflict. Seeing culturally different others as God’s gift to us rather than thorns in the flesh. That’s what this book is about. (22)

[via: So, at first glance, I’m curious how we are going to work through the distinctions of “very different value sets” and “cultural diversity” which is a distinction with a difference. I’m very interested in where Cleveland will take this…]

2. How Divisions Are Killing Us and Why We Should Care

Evangelical Consumerism

If we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion. If we are a body, then we are one that is afflicted with an auto-immune disease. (26)

group polarization. In the absence of diverse influences, homogeneous group members tend to adopt more extreme and narrow-minded thinking as time passes. (27)

If we can uncover the dynamics that divide us (whether ethnic, political, theological or cultural), we can begin to devise a plan for beating them. (27)

The Power of the Familiar

Not only do we look the same, we also think the same. (28)

For both emotional and cognitive reasons, the process of forming and maintaining groups with people who are similar to us is logical, natural and powerful. From an emotional point of view, it makes sense that we prefer to spend time with and worship with people who are familiar to us and similar to us. (28)

[via: I’d be curious to hear Cleveland’s reflection’s on Junger’s Tribe.]

Contrary to popular belief, I do not believe that friends are necessarily the people you like best, they are merely the people who got there frist. – Sir Peter Ustinov

Ultimately, I’m more drawn to the woman who is familiar and am more likely to start a friendship with her. The old wives’ tale is wrong: familiarity breeds liking, not contempt. (29)

Here’s the conundrum for the church: If people who seem familiar are perceived as more likable and people who are completely unfamiliar are perceived as less likable, we’re going to naturally befriend the people who seem familiar. And the people who seem familiar are the ones that we see around us–our neighbors, fellow students at our schools and people in our church. Unfortunately, many Christians live among, study with and worship with people who are pretty much just like them. Consequently, the people who are simply around us happen to be a lot like us, and the people who are different from us are beyond our radar. (29)

What Binds Us Together

Quite simply, we like people who are like us; we are attracted to people who share the same attitudes, values and preferences. (30)

Research shows that sharing an experience with another person–sometimes called “I-sharing”–causes people to feel a profound sense of connection with others, even others who are otherwise dissimilar. Even brief, seemingly inconsequential experiences can help you to connect with others. (30)

The Snowball Effect

…most people don’t see homogeneity as a problem so long as it’s not motivated by explicit prejudice. (33)

…research on group processes show that group separation and prejudice have a bidirectional relationship–that is, prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice. What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other groups, prejudice and hostility. (33)

Together in the Trinity and the Cross

To partake in the sacrificial love of the Trinity is to participate in sacrificial love with all others, not just the ones who are part of my homogenous Christian group. (35)

Because of Christ’s blood, all believers are supposed to be transported into anew household of reconciliation and solidarity.” – Cain Hope Felder

A New Reality: The Household of God

The homogenous, culturally isolated church, denomination or organization is not truly participating in the body of Christ. The broken and fragmented body needs to be healed. We’ve lost sight of our framework, and as a result, we are hurting. (39)

The Benefits of a Diverse Body of Christ

Research shows that diverse groups are better groups–diverse groups come up with more creative and more effective ideas than groups composed of similar people. (39)

[via: see HBR; Cloverpop; Inc.]

Diverse teams are more creative teams because they can benefit from the wide range of opinions, ideas and resources that diversity offers and apply it to a more thorough discussion of the issue at hand. (39)

| Organizational experts also believe that nondiverse groups find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less unique information to the table. (39)

However, there is one important caveat: Leaders hoping to build diverse teams should be aware that in order to fully utilize the wider range of resources and increased learning that diversity offers, each member of the diverse group must be of equal status. (40)

The Trouble with Groupthink

[Gerald] Tritle suggests that elder boards are likely inflicted with groupthink if they are suffering from any of the following symptoms:

  1. They overestimate their invulnerability or high moral stance.
  2. They collectively rationalize the decisions they make.
  3. They demonize or stereotype other groups and their leaders.
  4. They have a culture of uniformity wherein individuals censor themselves and others so that the façade of group unanimity is maintained.
  5. They contain members who take it upon themselves to protect the group leader (usually the pastor) by keeping information–theirs or that of other group members–from that leader. (41)

I wonder how many real world issues we could tackle if we weren’t so busy bickering about the correct way to define a doctrine or which political party is better equipped to solve the crises in our country and beyond. What if we decided that we were going to use our numbers, our expertise and our (potential) unity to solve real problems.? (42)

As a social psychologist and a member of the church, I hope that our conversation on group processes will help (43)

3. Divisions Erected Out of Thin Air

How Categorizing Distorts How We See Each Other

…Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske coined the term cognitive  miser to describe our natural tendency to conserve (44) cognitive resources. (45)

The Cognitive Miser

When Categorizing Helps

…we conserve valuable cognitive resources by categorizing individuals into social groups and relying on information about social group membership to help us interact with an individual and predict his or her behavior. (47)

When Categorizing Hurts

…we typically draw a strong distinction between our ingroup and the outgroup. (49)

The simple act of using us/them distinctions leads us to prefer us over them. (50)

We Are Unique; They Are the Same”

The fancy name for this tendency is the outgroup homogeneity effect. (51)

“I Know What They Think”

What We Think They Think of Us

While perceptions are the way we view our ingroup and outgroup, metaperceptions (in this case) are the way we think the outgroup views our ingroup. … Most importantly, our metaperceptions tend to be overly pessimistic; we tend to believe that what they think of us is far worse than what they actually think. (56)

When Categorizing Taints the Past, Present and Future

For better or for worse, we use the contents of our categories to fill in the holes when we’re asked to recall information. The hazier our recollection, the more we rely on what we think we know about the category in order to make judgments. (59)

We have a tendency to remember what we want to remember, whether it is accurate or not. (60)

From Cognitive Miserliness to Cognitive Generosity

It turns out that the cognitive processes that I described in this chapter are most powerful when they are hidden from view, when they are outside our conscious awareness. (61)

[Reverend Jim Caldwell] calls cognitive generosity. We need to turn off autopilot and take the time to honestly examine our polluted perceptions. (62)

The Power of Unifying Language

…at its root: the us/them distinctions. We need to rid ourselves of us/them distinctions and lead others in ridding themselves of us/them distinctions. We can start to do this by talking about ourselves differently. (62)

4. Beyond Perceptions

How Categorizing Pollutes Our Interactions with Each Other

We Are the Gold Standard”

Basically, the gold standard effect leads us to believe that not only are we different from them, but we are also better than them. (70)

[via: I would call this perhaps “group chauvinism.”]

“Not Listening!”

“[Participants] resisted information purely on the basis that it was derived from a category of person to which they did not belong.” – Dominic Abrams

Overcoming the Gold Standard Effect: Taking a Walk in the Outgroup Member’s Shoes

If we never leave our cultural comfort zones, we will continue to be terrorized by the gold standard effect. (76)

5. Running for Cover

How the Groups We Form Protect Our Identity and Self-Esteem

The Endless Schoolyard

Nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. – T. S. Eliot

First, according to sociometer theory, we use self-esteem to determine the extent to which we are accepted or rejected by others in society. (82)

Second, terror management theory suggests that self-esteem can serve as a buffer against existential anxiety. (82)

Third, high self-esteem is correlated with positive mental health and helps us to cope with everyday stressors like disappointment, performance pressure, overwhelming emotions, and so forth. (82)

Who am I? The better question might, be Who do others think I am? because our self-concept, the part of our self that holds information pertaining to our identity, is extremely susceptible to (82) outside influences. (83)

The Negative Speaks Loudest

Your evaluation of your soul, which is drawn from a world filled with people still terribly confused about the nature of their souls, is probably wrong. – John Eldredge and Brent Curtis

Research on social identity theory has discovered that when it comes to group membership, we do four things to maintain positive self-esteem: (1) We tend to gravitate toward and form groups with similar others; (2) once the group is formed we engage in group-serving biases that defend the group’s positive identity; (3) (85) we try to increase our status by associating with higher-status groups and distancing ourselves from lower-status groups; and (4) if all else fails we literally disparage other groups because in doing so, we elevate our own group. (85)

Balancing Act

…Fritz Heider’s balance theory. According to this theory, humans are motivated to maintain cognitive “balance” within relationships with others. In other words, we are comfortable when we agree with others on important issues, and (86) we experience a palpable cognitive discomfort when we don’t agree. (87)

Social Climbing

Robert Cialdini has conducted research that shows that people “bask in reflected glory” (BIRG) by associating with high-status people. (88)

Dumping Your Group

C.R. Snyder observed that in addition to increasing self-esteem by BIRGing, people also reliably boost and maintain self-esteem by distancing themselves from losers. Snyder coined the term “cutting off reflected failure” (CORFing) to describe this tendency. (89)

Sometimes we followers of Christ are like the high-performing participants on the low-status teams in my experiment. We can’t literally walk away from the “teammates in Christ” that we don’t like or value. So we do the next best thing: we start to identify less and less with them. We stop caring about their needs and struggles. And we stop spending so much time with them in public. Ultimately, we decrease our identification with the church full of the low-status ethnic group, or the not-so-trendy church that is still living in the twentieth (maybe the nineteenth) century, or the socioeconomically disadvantaged church, or the rigid fundamentalist church, or the super liberal church that is sliding uncontrollably down the slippery slope, because to identify with them would make us look bad. We accomplish this by exaggerating our differ-(93)ences with culturally different Christians…and by clinging to our subordinate identities (e.g., identities based on ethnic, denominational, theological or political affiliations) while distancing ourselves from our common identity–our identity as members of the worldwide body of Christ. It’s more important for us to feel good ourselves than to embrace other members of the body of Christ. This is how we compensate. (94)

It’s Like Being Married

Theoretically, married people can’t quit a marriage. In the same way, theoretically, Christians can’t quit the body of Christ. Our commitment to the other members of the body of Christ should trump our desire to CORF when the going gets tough and it would be better for our self-esteem if we just walked away–like when we disagree on an important issue, or when the other group’s heart isn’t in the right place and they hurt us, or when the other group speaks a different language. Our submission to God, irrevocable commitment to each other and interdependence should hold us together when we want to distance ourselves from Christians who fail to live up to our gold standards or who complicate our lives. (95)

What Now?

We need to adopt the belief that to be a follower of Christ means to care deeply about and pursue other followers of Christ, including the ones that we don’t instinctively value or like. We need to adopt the belief that to be a follower of Christ means to allow our identity as members of the body of Christ to trump all other identities. We need to adopt the belief that to be a follower of Christ means to put our (97) commitment to the body of Christ above our own identity and self-esteem needs. … In sum, it’s time for us to change the way we see ourselves. (98)

Redefining What It Means to Be “Us”

…the truth is that identity is constantly morphing, depending on the situation. (98)

6. Waging Identity Wars

How Bias Boosts Our Self-Esteem

Defending Your Group

Sticks and Stones

The unfortunate truth is that the easiest and most effective way to boost your own image is to lower someone else’s. (105)

When our self-esteem is high and intact, we are not likely to put outsiders down. But when we’re suffering (106) an identity crisis, we take cheap shots at other groups in order to feel better about ourselves. (107)

Over the last century, Western moral standards have drifted further away from traditional Christian and biblical standards, Christians are often portrayed as bigoted or dumb in the media, and public education has become increasingly secularized. As a result, many Christians have adopted a defensive stance toward those who pose a threat to their identities, both Christian and otherwise. (108)

[via: First, who says this is true, particularly the first statement. Second, it’s hard to tell whether Cleveland is stating a truth claim or simply stating an observation to support her line of argumentation. Hmmm…]

What Now?

I believe that the metaphor of the body of Christ, which preaches mutual crosscultural interdependence, was de-(110)signed to rescue us from homogeneity and remind us of our truest identity–as diverse people united in Christ. (111)

Who Me? Biased?

Here are some other signs that you may have succumbed to self-esteem and identity-related divisions:

  • You cringe at the thought of praising a particular Christian group.
  • When someone tries to associate you with a particular group, you overreact and go out of your way to clarify that you are not with them.
  • You don’t even want to be exposed to the ideas or ways of a particular group, much less earnestly listen to them.
  • You can’t bring yourself to admit that you are in fact threatened by another group’s success, prominence or influence. (112)

[via: Is this a form of religious “speciation?” Perhaps we should consider how far one needs to drift before it could be reasonably concluded that they’re no longer “in our tribe.”]

Quite simply, we must affirm who we really are as the people of God before we can begin to interact with each other as the people of God. (116)

7. Culture Wars

How Cultural Threat Leads to Hostile Conflict

What Texas Football Can Tell Us About Conflict

Eagles v.s Rattlers

Despite its obvious ethical limitations the Robbers Cave experiment and others like it gave rise to realistic conflict theory, …relationships between groups get ugly when groups find themselves in a realistic conflict–a conflict in which they are competing for scarce resources. (1223)

Group Conflict in the Real World

High Cultural Threat Levels

Mere cultural difference provoked hostility even when ethnic difference did not. Apparently, we don’t like it when culturally different people pollute our sacred culture with their different language and style. (126)

First, cultural threats increase ambiguity, which is unfortunate because we hate ambiguity. Second, cultural threats can confuse us, especially when they are caused by people who are supposed to be members of our group. (126) Third, cultural threats are threatening because we fear negative consequences more than we seek positive outcomes. (127)

Arie Kruglanski…studies a phenomenon called our need for cognitive closure, which is defined by an individual’s “need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity.” (127)

We want to quickly close the door to ambiguity because it threatens who we are. (127)

To acknowledge that other useful metaphors might exist is to risk opening what we have already cognitively closed. (128)

…the black sheep effect. Cultural distinctions are so crucial to maintaining ingroup/outgroup boundaries that group members have a special hatred for other ingroup members who, for the most part, act like normal ingroup members but do not “toe the party line” on one or two important issues. (129)

…promotion-oriented people are eager to find positive things so they can obtain them, while prevention-oriented people are eager to find negative things so they can avoid them. (133)

…trait negativity bias: humans have a tendency to pay more attention to and place more value on negative information than positive information. (134)

In order to stay unified, we need to override our natural tendency to focus on what we perceive to be negative information about other groups and instead stay alert to the positive information that they bring to the table of faith. (135)

| If we’re going to be vigilant about anything, we should be vigilant about the positive things that God is doing through our fellow members. In other words, we need to be promotion oriented. (135)

[via: Is this too “pollyanna?”]

What Now?

8. Blinded by Culture

How Our Culture Clouds Our Judgment

When Realistic Conflict and Cultural Threat Collide

Sometimes what we perceive to be a realistic conflict is in fact a cultural threat. We believe that we are fighting the good fight for an immutable truth, when in fact we are simply waging war against a cultural threat, a different perspective that threatens ours. (139)

Because religion and culture operate in similar ways, many researchers have begun to study religion as culture. (140)

Cultural Idolatry in the Church

In the individualistic culture, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” whereas in collectivistic culture, “the nail that stands out gets pounded down.” (145)

Until we relativize our cultural identities and adopt an inclusive group identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we (147) will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated. (148)

[via: Ay, and here’s the rub I’ve been looking for throughout the entirety of the book up until now. It is here that Cleveland begins to be more forceful in what is actually necessary by particular groups in order for these principles to work, especially when it comes to race relations.]

9. Creating Positive Crosscultural Interactions

The Power of Crosscultural Contact

“See that man over there?”
“Well, I hate him.”
“But you don’t even know him.”
“That’s why I hate him.”

contact theory …The idea is that if group separation causes inaccurate perceptions of other groups, negative emotions and discrimination…then under certain conditions, direct contact between members of different groups will reverse those inaccurate perceptions, negative emotions and discrimination. (153)

Crosscultural contact works its magic by (1) requiring people to see different group members as individuals, rather than nameless, faceless members of a cultural group, and (2) creating a context in which the two different groups are encouraged to form a common identity. (154)

But before we get ahead of ourselves, I should mention that research on contact theory has shown that simple contact between groups does not necessarily improve attitudes toward the form outgroup. In fact, it can potentially produce conflict and hostility. (155)

[via: I’m glad she mentioned this. Very important to consider.]

A Biblical Foundation for Crosscultural Unity

In a multi-ethnic ministry setting, there’s 100% chance that you will be offended by someone or offend someone. – Mark Dymaz

In my experience, the glorious work of reconciliation is equal parts exhilarating and excruciating. (156)

If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work. (156)

Addressing Our Cognitive and Emotional Biases

…four elements are needed for positive crosscultural interaction: (1) working toward a larger goal, (2) creating equal status, (3) engaging in personal interaction and (4) providing leadership.

Working Toward a Larger Goal

Creating Equal Status

[via: Here again, Cleveland posits the principle, that resourced and privileged groups must accommodate less resourced and under represented groups. The challenge of course, is getting the “privileged group” to recognize their privilege.]

Miroslav Volf argues that both reconciliation and justice must go hand in hand; without one, you cannot have the other. Before two groups can enjoy renewed, healthy friendship, past wrongs must be made right through repentance, forgiveness and the return of stolen commodities (such as power, land, status, money). This might be the most difficult element to successfully pull off because it requires that both groups (especially the higher-status group) recognize any power or status differences that exist between them, repent for them and make a unified, concerted effort to erase them in the context of the crosscultural situation and beyond. (166)

| This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. (166)

Peggy McIntosh’s “The Invisible Knapsack.”

Individuals tend to feel like they mater when their experience in (168) an organization is marked by the presence of all the factors in figure 9.1; they tend to feel marginalized when their experiences in an organization is marked by the absence of one or more of the factors. (169)

Identification Feeling that other people will be proud of your accomplishments or saddened by your failures
Attention Feeling that you command the sincere attention or interest of people in the group
Importance Believing that another person cares about what you want, think and do, or is concerned about your fate
Appreciation A feeling of being highly regarded and acknowledged by others
Dependence Feeling integrated in the community such that your behaviors/actions are based on how others depend on you

We dishonor the image of God in diverse people when we require them to assimilate to the dominant culture in our church, organization or event. (170)

| If issues of status, privilege and power are not effectively addressed within the crosscultural situation, existing divisions will deepen and widen. (170)

To put it bluntly, if you’re not willing to do the uncomfortable work of addressing and eradicating power and privilege differences in the church and beyond, you shouldn’t bother with unity and reconciliation. You can’t have the later without the former. (170)

Engaging in personal Interaction


In many ways, the church is a justice desert. (175)

10. The Preeminence of (Identity in) Christ

How Things Can and Should Be

…the primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ. (177)

Why Does a Common Identity Matter?

If members of different groups are induced to conceive of themselves as a single group rather than as two completely separate groups, attitudes toward former outgroup members will become more positive through the cognitive and motivational forces that result from ingroup formation–a consequence that could increase the sense of connectedness across group lines. – Lowell Gaertner, Jack Dovidio

When they become we, we naturally like them a whole lot more. (178)
When they become we, we’re more open to receiving helpful criticism from them. (179)
When they become wewe forgive them more easily and are less likely to expect them to experience collective guilt. (182)
When they become we, our diversity initiatives will finally begin to work. (184)

Here’s the thing. I rarely come across Christian organizations that truly want diversity. Oh, everyone says they want diversity, and some organizations even go through all the pomp and circumstance of launching expensive diversity initiatives from time to time. But really, what many people want is a group of happy minorities who will happily pose for media publications and happily assimilate to the dominant culture without so much as a peep. Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse. (184)

When they become we, we treat each other better. (185)

Should We All Be Colorblind?

…dual identities–identifying with a smaller cultural group within the context of a common group. (188)

The Church as First Family

We Know Who to Follow

Not only is Jesus serious about crossing boundaries to pursue us, but he’s also equally serious about our crossing boundaries to pursue others. He has shown us how to do it. (191)

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