In the New Testament, the Church is described as one body with gifted members.  The gifts are intended to build up and bring unity to the body of Christ (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12).  Two “forces” are implied in this description.  A “togetherness” force promotes connectedness and implies [or states] requirements for belonging.  The 10 Commandments and Leviticus explicitly outlined the relational requirements for the new nation of Israel. In contract, an “individuality” force promotes “differentness” or distinctives between individuals and sub-groups, the fullest expression of which may challenge rules for belonging.  Jesus’ actions regularly challenged the Jewish requirements for who was “in” the family of God (e.g., Mt 12, Mark 2; Lk 5:29-39).  Togetherness creates group identity.  Individuality promotes personal identity.  Togetherness requires conformity to “rules” and “roles” for membership. Individuality demands flexibility for personal expression. If togetherness is too restrictive, it becomes “glued/stuck togetherness” and expressions of individuality are restricted because differentness is intolerable.  You have  boundaries without freedom.  If individuality takes over, essentials of the faith may be set aside in favor of cultural norms.  Now you have freedom without boundaries.  When the church body feels anxious or conflict arises, the togetherness force is more active as groups protectively “circle their wagons.”  However, without the boundaries of togetherness, “each person does what is right in his/her eyes” (e.g., Judges).   

 Church leaders face the challenge of helping congregations find a healthy balance and flow between these two naturally occurring forces. How can an understanding of the relationship between togetherness and individuality help you during times of tension and congregational stress? 

Thrive in Five  

In his book Creating a Healthier Church, Ronald W. Richardson (pg. 64-65) recommends the following: 

  1.  Be aware of your comfort with differentness.  Leading people who are “like us” [togetherness] is easier than leading those who are different.  How comfortable are you with differences in your congregation?  How, or in what ways, have you demonstrated this comfort?  Who are you most different from in your church and how do you deal with this difference? 
  2. Stay connected and emotional available. During times of relationship anxiety, you tend to employ self-protective strategies.  One of these strategies is to withdraw from the other person.  While there are circumstances when distance is a wise choice, withdrawing robs you of opportunities to build trust by staying present and accessible.  How well have you managed to stay connected with those with whom you also differed?
  3. Avoid taking differences personally.  Differences and conflict are a normal part of relationships.  When others act in ways you don’t expect, one tendency is to experience the change in your relationship as a personal offense.  An alternative approach is to become curious about what may have prompted the change, and seek to understand instead of blame.  How often is blame activated when someone acts in ways that you didn’t expect and didn’t like?  Do you tend to blame the other or yourself?  How can you nurture a non-judgmental attitude of curiosity instead?
  4. Look inward first.  A normal reaction to difference is to focus on the other person’s actions, words, and attitudes because people tend to assume the change is all about the other person.  An alternative approach is to reflect on how you have acted toward this other person, and to consider how your actions may contribute to the uncomfortable relationship interactions (Lk 6:4).  How aware are you of how your actions affect others?
  5. Consider how your congregation handles differences.  Many of the New Testament letter are concerned with how the young church reacted to differences.  At times Paul advocated for acceptance of differences (e.g., Rom 14 & 15) while at other times he argued for reinforcement of boundaries (e.g., Col 2:6-23; 2 Tim 4:3).  How does your church draw boundaries and decide who belongs to “us” and who does not belong?  



Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation, Guilford Press. Section I: Family Theory. 

Peter Steinke, How Your 21st Century Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (2021), Rowman & Littlefield.  Chapter 6:  Do not go gently into that glob of blue and Chapter 10: Believing and Belonging. 

Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church (1996). Fortress Press, Chapter 4: Being One among Many.

Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Johanna Chacon Rugh
Curator of content: Carla Working