Fortress Press

The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels

The Challenge of Diversity

The Witness of Paul and the Gospels

David Rhoads (Author)


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This book is addressed primarily to Christians of various denominations in the United States—to parishes, both laity and clergy, and to students. The book is useful in teaching, preaching, spiritual formation, and mission. Its aim is simply to be a source of Christian renewal at both the personal and the parish levels as together we seek to minister to one another and to the world. It is an invitation to reach beyond our own perspective and to embrace a wider circle of diverse viewpoints as legitimate expressions of the Christian life—both in the New Testament and in the contemporary church—and to be open to learn and grow from them.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • ISBN 9780800629823
  • Format Paperback
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Pages 184
  • Publication Date October 17, 1996


"This book is an excellent introduction to the major ways of being Christian in the New Testament. David Rhoads brings out the richness and diversity of the New Testament in such a way as to help us understand and welcome the richness and diversity in our churches and culture today. The book is both a good introduction to New Testament thought and to ways in which that thought may be meaningful in our own context."
— Joanna Dewey
Episcopal Divinity School

"I love this book! It is an excellent guide for those who wish to draw on the rich resources of Scripture for varieties of mission and ministry in the contemporary world. Students and congregations, clergy and laity, will find that this volume enhances understanding of their own diversity and appreciation for the diversity of others."
— Mark Allan Powell
Trinity Lutheran Seminary


Excerpt from the Introduction

Christianity today manifests a wide variety of beliefs, worship patterns, organizational structures, community formations, spiritualities, ethical lifestyles, and ministries to society. Christians have often viewed this variety as a liability and have grieved the fragmentation of the body of Christ. Sometimes, in an effort to eliminate the diversity, Christians have sought to convert or to marginalize other Christian sisters and brothers. When Christian groups are intolerant of one another and refuse to cooperate with each other, it is indeed a great tragedy. Diversity in itself, however, is not an aberration, nor is it a sign of brokenness. Rather, it is a great strength of the church. Diversity may be the chief reason why the Christian church has thrived through the centuries and adapted in so many parts of the world. In the future, this rich variety in Christianity may be crucial for the survival of the church and for the effectiveness of its mission. Therefore, it is important that Christians celebrate and nurture differences as a source of strength and renewal.

The present diversity in the Christian church reflects a diversity that was there from the beginning. The present multiplicity of Christian groups is not a sign of the fragmentation of the body of Christ (except when we fight with each other). Rather, it is a sign of the rich diversity that was there from the start. In the earliest beginnings of the church, there never was a pristine unity that was somehow subsequently broken. A multiplicity of Christian visions, beliefs, practices and community formations is at the heart of the Christian faith in its origins. The early Christian movement reached out for the very purpose of creating and encompassing incredible diversity within the larger reach of God's reconciling unity. 

Such diversity in the nation and in the church and in our daily lives is often frightening to us, despite our deep longing for the ties that bind us across differences. We are often uncomfortable with ambiguity and difference, preferring to be with "people like ourselves." Unfortunately, our churches themselves often reflect our avoidance of diversity, because they are so frequently made up of people of the same social group. In our daily lives, we relate to people different from ourselves, but often in very limited roles. Many of us do not really know people very well who are different from ourselves in economic level or educational difference or racial identity or language or political allegiance or religious affiliation — unless they are people whom we have to figure out in order to survive! Our fear and avoidance of difference is fueled by the intractable religious and cultural wars throughout the world and the volatile ethnic conflicts that have flared up in our own country. We tend to have limited tolerance for diversity, perhaps because we fear that we may find no common ground with others and that unpleasant and harmful conflicts will be inevitable. We fear disruption or loss or assimilation or erosion of our own religious and cultural particularity.

But what if we faced up to our avoidance and began by honoring differences? What if we dared to take difference rather than conformity as the fundamental starting point for relationships? What if we faced our discomfort with ambiguity and chose to value diversity as the indispensable basis for mutual interdependence together? What if we discovered our unity through the courage to explore our differences? Our instincts may tell us to be cautious. Yet, following our instincts without reflection can be as dangerous as ignoring our instincts. Besides, Jesus proposed that our common salvation involved acting in spite of our instincts, such as loving our enemies or losing our lives for others rather than saving our lives. What if, like the early Christians, we assumed that there is no common ground for unity within human beings themselves and that God alone is the reality who unites us. In this way, we might discover that respecting and embracing differences among all people under God's creation is in fact the path to discovering and embracing the full measure of God's unity. True, we need to be savvy about points of view and beliefs that are destructive and dehumanizing. But we need to do that out of a fundamental commitment to the inherent value of diversity in God's larger embrace — and with a willingness to take risks. 

Thus, attending to the diversity in the Bible can be a rich source of renewal for the church today. Diversity in the Bible is a rich celebration of the complexities of the human condition and of the manifestations of God in our midst. The multiplicity of belief and practice in the New Testament promotes openness and leads us to welcome others who are different and to learn from them. The very diversity in the canon redeems the limitations of each single writing and undercuts the human tendency to claim absolute truth for any one Christian belief system. It stands against intolerance and urges us to depend on each other for a full witness to the truth of God. It is a call to respect and celebrate diversity in the church and in the world as an expression of God's love of diversity in creation. ...

Excerpt from Chapter 1

In order to appreciate anew the diverse manifestations of early Christianity, it might be helpful first to see how we have eclipsed that diversity. For the most part, Christians have tended to level the diversity in the New Testament in three major ways: 1) we have harmonized the diversity by seeing the New Testament as one book in which all the writings agree with each other; 2) we have reduced the New Testament message to the lowest common denominators; and 3) we have leveled out the diversity by taking one part of the New Testament and then reading the whole New Testament through that lens, as if all the writings were saying what that one author says. In what follows, we will look more closely at each of these three ways in which we tend to dissolve the diversity in the New Testament. 

The point is that each denomination and each ethnic group within particular denominations can celebrate their distinctive traditions and still be renewed by the traditions of others and by the diversity in the New Testament. Thus, there is more than one way to be faithful to the biblical materials. Here we are free to make choices without being exclusive and without thinking we have a corner on the truth. To say that we are right is not to say that others are wrong. We are called to make choices in a responsible way, in our relation with God and together with folks around us, about how we will be faithful to the biblical witnesses. At the same time, the experience of biblical traditions other than our own can correct a misinterpretation or imbalance and can broaden and deepen our understanding of the biblical tradition. However, the idea is not to choose one or the other tradition as correct or incorrect but to open ourselves to interpretations that go beyond our own. In the process, we may also come to appreciate contemporary groups that hold other texts and practices to be authoritative. 

Ultimately, reading for renewal means to allow ourselves to be changed, to read with the expectation of being transformed, to read in the hope of being a new people. The biblical writings themselves were penned in order to be vehicles for the power of God, in order to grasp readers, to reorient them, to evoke responses, to create wholeness, to engender action on behalf of others. In a sense, the writings are not fully interpreted until their visions have become incarnate in our lives and in our communities. Ultimately, then, the biblical writings lead not just to interpretation but to action, to changed relationships, and to new communities.

Letter from the Author

The Challenge of Diversity Companion Videotape
Selected Performances of Biblical Texts

by David Rhoads

This video is available from SELECT c/o Trinity Lutheran Seminary, 2199 E. Main Street, Columbus, OH 43209; phone (614) 235-4136. There is also a related seven-week video course for pastors and laity available from SELECT.

Video outline:
  • Introduction to Biblical Selections
  • Paul's Letter to the Galatians (30 minutes)
  • The Gospel of Mark: The Journey to Jerusalem (27 minutes)
  • The Gospel of Matthew: The Sermon on the Mount (21 minutes)
  • The Gospel of Luke: Selections on Wealth and Poverty (14 minutes)
  • The Gospel of John: Five Scenes (14 minutes)
Excerpts from reviews of the video

"David Rhoads dons St. Paul-like robes and adopts characteristics of speech and demeanor which the apostles could well have had as he monologues Galatians and portions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The whole effort is surprisingly effective and might capture viewers who would be quick to shun other video Bible presentations. Prof. Rhoads' introduction of the material and explanation of his hopes for this project are well done. This tape could be of help to individuals and small study groups."
The Living Church

"This unique collection of five dramatic presentations from the New Testament features David Rhoads. Dr. Rhoads . . . has the gift of holding his audiences spellbound as he narrates from memory whole sections of the Bible.
"I am very pleased that his presentations are now available to us via video tape through the SELECT Program. Rhoads serves as a model for those of us who preach and teach the Word, as it is intended to be communicated to us for all ages."
Lutheran Partners

"Rhoads is a master storyteller, and his dramatic performances of scenes from Galatians and of selections from each of the four Gospels will also help groups engage the biblical texts and appreciate the fact that they were meant to be 'heard' (not 'read'!)."
The Presbyterian Outlook

Please contact SELECT for further information about the video.
The information above is a courtesy and not a publication of Augsburg Fortress.


Timely and Constructive…

"The essential point of the Challenge of Diversity is that appreciation of the diversity in scripture and in the early church is a source of renewal in the church today. ... The book's principal strength is its case that church renewal must be grounded in scripture and that diverse perspectives of particular writings must be honored. In this way Rhoads offers a welcome corrective to reductionist tendencies that gloss over theological and relational tensions within and between biblical books. ... Rhoads offers a timely and constructive contribution for engaging the challenge of diversity, and those seeking fruitful discussion on this topic will not be disappointed."

"Written for 'Christians of various denominations in the United States' the book can also be used a first overview on Paul and the Gospels by undergraduate students. ... It is very readable and gives important information about central themes in Pauline theology [and the Gospels.] The book imparts a good impression of the diversity at the beginning of Christianity. Rhoads leads his reader in (some parts of) the world of primitive Christianity without simplifying the matter."
Religious Studies Review

Clear and Accessible…

"Rhoads's style is clear and accessible, and his passion for the renewal of the church comes through on every page. This book will prove stimulating reading for pastors, seminarians and lay persons who are concerned to draw upon the rich resources of the Bible in revitalizing the life and mission of a diverse church in a pluralistic world."
Princeton Seminary Bulletin

"David Rhoads has presented us with a remarkable integration of hermeneutical devices for Bible study and preaching. … Such a resource will incite fresh interest in studying the texts he has selected. I suggest that Rhoads' work provides both a way of putting the Scriptures back into the hands of our congregants and a way of modeling the liveliness that can come from practicing the Scriptures' orality. … Rhoads organizes the Galatians material in a way that will assist the preacher in planning a preaching or teaching series on such difficult Pauline topics as "law," "grace," even "faith." ... The material is engaging and points toward a vanishing point which I found extremely useful—Rhoads ends each chapter with an image of a community that might attempt to embody the interpretations of Jesus' life and ministry distinctly offered by each evangelist."

An Important Contribution…

"Rhoads's study involves good exegesis. He consciously utilizes the method of 'social location' and rigorously focuses on the individual perspective of each author, thus drawing out the diverse views expressed in the New Testament. … Rhoads makes an important contribution to the task of bridging scientific exegesis and pastoral theology. I see this book as one of the initial steps in an increasingly important task of drawing out the religious message of the New Testament precisely through scientific exegesis."
Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"One could read The Challenge of Diversity simply as an introduction to five major New Testament perspectives. But Rhoads has a fuller agenda. He wants church people from differing backgrounds to study the Bible in order to renew their own life and worship and community, and he wants to do this by recognizing and then embracing the diverse sometimes contradictory perspectives they can find in the New Testament. ... This book could be read with greatest profit in an ecumenical study group of adult lay people; they would be in the best position to test the thesis that diversity within the Bible and within the Christian community can be embraced and cherished and finally experienced in reconciliation."
Currents in Theology and Mission

Highly Recommended…

"I highly recommend this book for both lay and minister readers and for personal and group study. My first year seminarians in my introductory Gospels course loved it! It evoked lively discussion, helped us experience the Gospels anew, and deepened our appreciation of the profundity and contemporary relevance of diverse New Testament witnesses. It is a book that can help all of us understand and embrace the diversity that is God's gift to the church and essential to effective mission and ministry."
The Presbyterian Outlook

"Without sidestepping or trivializing difficult issues, Rhoads offers a very readable, non technical introduction to issues of diversity in the New Testament and to approaching different expressions of faith within the contemporary church. I highly recommend this book to pastors, lay leaders and anybody interested in deepening his or her understanding of the biblical authors in relation to one another. Particularly apt for small groups and adult education classes is the Study Guide, which contains suggestions for discussion leaders and questions for further reflection. Even beginning seminarians will find a welcome and reassuring introduction to the subject of this volume."
The Covenant Quarterly

Commendable Clarity and Urgency…

"Through different eyes, the text poses different questions, which Rhoads presents with commendable clarity and urgency. Behind this is an impressive amount of scholarly work. One of the main reasons to commend the book is that Rhoads is clear in his insistence that the biblical texts are misunderstood apart from the cries of the poor, and the call to forego oppression."
Lutheran Partners

"The book is a useful corrective to the homogeneity that sometimes threatens Christian community especially since the dawn of the contemporary ecumenical movement. It helps groups isolate their particularities, and determine those approaches to being Christian in this book and beyond that they find most helpful."

Table of Contents


Introduction: Diversity

Chapter 1. Reading for Diversity
Diversity in the New Testament
Eclipsing the Diversity
Harmonizing the Diversity
Reducing to the Lowest Common Denominators
Looking at the Whole New Testament through One Lens
Accepting the Diversity
Embracing the Diversity
Reading for Diversity
Reading for Renewal
An Explanatory Note on the Use of the Term "Judeans"
Further Reading

Chapter 2. Galatians: Justification by Grace
Background and Purpose
The Two Ways: Justification by Works of Law or Justification by Grace
The Human Condition: Life under Law
The Vision for Human Life: Life in Response to Grace
The Transformation: Grace as the Means to Righteousness
Pauline/Galatians Trajectories
Example of a Pauline Community
Further Reading

Chapter 3. The Gospel of Mark: Courage in the Face of Death
Background and Purpose
The Two Ways: "Saving" One's Life out of Fear or "Losing" One's Life for Others
The Human Condition: The Fearful Saving of Self
The Vision for Human Life: The Courage to Live for Others
The Transformation: New Life, Sight, and Empowerment in the Face of Death
Markan Trajectories
Example of a Markan Community
Further Reading

Chapter 4. The Gospel of Matthew: Righteous Integrity
Background and Purpose
The Two Ways: The Law Interpreted by Pharisees or the Law Interpreted by Jesus
The Human Condition: Blind Hypocrisy
The Vision for Human Life: Righteous Integrity
The Transformation: A Relationship with Jesus of Blessing and Forgiveness
Matthean Trajectories
Example of a Matthean Community
Further Reading

Chapter 5. The Gospel of Luke: Society with Mercy
Background and Purpose
The Two Ways: Society with Mercy or Society without Mercy
The Human Condition: Society without Mercy is Oppression
The Vision for Life: Society with Mercy
The Transformation: Human Repentance, Divine Forgiveness, and the Power of the Spirit
Lukan Trajectories
Example of a Lukan Community
Further Reading

Chapter 6. The Gospel of John: Eternal Life in the Present
Background and Purpose
The Two Ways: Knowing God or Not Knowing God
The Human Condition: Not Knowing God is Death
The Vision for Life: Knowing God is Eternal Life
The Transformation: Union with Jesus Made Possible by his Death and the Presence of the Holy Spirit
Johannine Trajectories
Example of a Johannine Community
Further Reading

Chapter 7. Reading for Renewal
Preserving the Diversity
Avoiding Idolatry
Canonical Respect for Diversity
Reading to Renew Our Own Traditions
Renewal from Another Biblical Model
Renewal Through Encountering Many Models
Renewal Through Relationships with Congregations of Other Traditions
Creating New Models
Commitment to Diversity within Denominational Structures
Diversity in the World

Epilogue: Reflection on Unity
Unity by Agreement
Unity Based on Commonalities
Unity through Appreciation of Differences
Unity as Participation
Unity through a Vision of Inclusion
The Canon as Model
Unity Given by God

Study Guide for the Challenge of Diversity
Some Suggestions for Parish Life
Course Outline
Questions for Discussion: Chapter by Chapter