Book Review: Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

It’s a busy travel season for me, so I read Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, over a period of several months and mostly on airplanes, where I suspect my frantic underlining and audible “amens” may have made a few of my seatmates uncomfortable. 

My engagement with this book unfolded in a telling series of responses: 

About a third of the way through I concluded, “those Calvinists really need to read this.” 

Then, about two-thirds of the way through, I was like, “Oh crap. I really need to read this.” 


Disunity in Christ is that convicting, that informative, and that good. 

As a sociologist, Cleveland is able to apply the latest research on social psychology and communication to unpack the ways that common social dynamics affect they way Christians relate to one another.   

For example, group polarization. Group polarization happens when, in the absence of diverse influences, homogenous group members tend to adopt more extreme and narrow-minded thinking as time passes. 

Example: CPAC

And then there’s outgroup homogeneity. Outgroup homogeneity is the tendency to think that all of the people who are not like us are the same. 

Example: What I just did there with CPAC. 


Though Disunity in Christ is packed with information, Cleveland’s writings style is lively, conversational, practical, and often quite humorous. (You will love how her deadpan wit surprises you in unexpected places, even in informational charts and graphs!) Cleveland draws from all sorts of sources— from Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement, to college football, to multiple scientific studies and surveys, many of which are quite colorful and fascinating.  A quick glance at her sources reveals just how well-read and smart the author is, though her prose is not for a moment stilted or heavy-handed. Best of all, when explaining common blind spots in communication, Cleveland often includes herself in critiques, citing specific examples of how she’s made the same mistakes. 

The book includes some super-practical advice for both church leaders and laypeople. Cleveland even shares the self-affirmation exercises she used to help her listen with an open heart and mind to a sermon from a pastor whose views on gender she generally found troublesome. 
And just when you think this is just a nice book with some nice suggestions for Christian unity, Cleveland comes along and drops a truth bomb reminding you of the importance of the topic at hand: 

  • “What if there were no ‘them’ in the body of Christ?” (p. 63) 
  • “This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist. In receiving Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, we, in a sense, receive all those whom Christ received by suffering.” (p. 36) 
  • “The work of reconciliation is often excruciating because it is the work of the cross.” (p. 156)

It was scary…convicting, really …how often I saw myself in Cleveland’s analysis. The chapter entitled “Waging Identity Wars” forced me to confront some of the reasons why I can be cruel and dismissive toward conservative evangelicals (“…when we’re suffering an identity crisis, we take cheap shots at other groups in order to feel better about ourselves”) and how to move forward (“…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.”) 

But perhaps the most important chapter was the one on cross-cultural interactions, particularly Cleveland’s perspective on the importance of confronting power differentials, which she wisely inserts near the end of the book, after she has long gained the respect and trust of the reader. 

“This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials” she writes. “For some reasons, high status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people. Even more troubling, I’ve found that many white male pastors and seminary students have an even harder time admitting that these privilege and power issues exist in the church and are even perpetuated by the church.” (p. 166) 

My only critique is that Cleveland didn’t spend more time on this particular topic, which I believe is a pressing one in the Church today. Maybe she'll devote her next book to it. 

Disunity in Christ is an excellent read for all Christians, but especially church leaders who are serious about engaging in healthier dialog with Christians of other traditions, perspectives, and cultures and working toward reconciliation.  I recommend buying two copies: one for yourself and one for your pastor. 

Best of all, something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more from Christena Cleveland in the years to come…and that makes me really, really hopeful. 

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