“Unity” is a big topic in the UMC these days. People are worried about institutional division, and rightly so. Acts of intentional and public disobedience to the Discipline by those who have taken vows to uphold it have caused many in our denomination to ask whether a unified future is possible. Most mainline Protestant denominations have already split over issues related to homosexuality. As General Conference approaches, the political tension is becoming more palpable.
Good News, and particularly Maxie Dunnam and Rob Renfroe, have been labeled “schismatics” because they were leading the call to consider division of the denomination. As will become clearer below, I think this label is unfair. Similarly, Bill Arnold and I were accused of attempting to split the denomination when we published the “A and W Plan.” In fact, that plan represents nothing more than an attempt to hold United Methodism together within the framework of our common covenant. Before we start labeling people “schismatics,” I think we should give due consideration to what unity in the church actually is.
Diversity and Unity, Frerieke from The Hague, The Netherlands, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Unity in Love
Christians began talking about unity before there was very much of an institution to hold together. Various passages in the New Testament urge these early believers to love one another. Jesus says in John 13:35, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Col 3:14 urges, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” In the New Testament, love among believers is not simply a feeling of affection. It means that the community of faith becomes like a family, and can even supplant the natural family in importance. The loyalty and honor of believers is first and foremost within the family of faith, where believers are brothers and sisters, and God is their Father. Just as in the natural family, there are expectations, norms of behavior, and proper ways of honoring one another. That is in part why it is so serious when there are members of the community who flout the agreed-upon norms of the community. Take the example of the man who is living with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul’s desire to maintain unity within the church in Corinth leads him to identify practices and impose consequences when the communal norms are unrepentantly broken.
Unity in the Spirit
The unity described in the New Testament, however, has to do with more than just love expressed in loyalty and norms of behavior. Unity is rooted in the work of God in Jesus Christ and maintained through the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 1, we are told that God has put all things under Christ’s feet and “has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (22-23). In the next chapter, we are told that we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” Apart from the spiritual presence of Christ, the church cannot subsist as a body. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22). It is not just any spirit that holds the church together, but the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ.
Unity in Faith
Therefore we are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:3-6). It is not just any god who has acted in just any way on our behalf. No, a particular God has acted in a particular way in the midst of human history so that we may be saved from sin and death. God the Father sent Jesus Christ to us for our salvation, and we are bound to Christ and to one another by the work of the Holy Spirit. The very nature of the church is rooted in the scandal of particularity. Unity involves acknowledgement of this particularity and living with the consequences of the scandal.
There are many more passages in the New Testament that come to bear on the way we should understand unity in the church. I quote these to highlight three themes that I think are important for us today: (1) the church is a family of faith bound together in love and loyalty, (2) the church does not exist apart from the eternal work of God the Father in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and (3) there is a particular content to proper Christian belief and proclamation.
Do I want unity in The United Methodist Church? Yes, I do, very much. But I want unity that goes beyond a loose system of government, a pension fund, and a logo. Unity cannot simply be institutional. For Christians, unity as the body of Christ rooted in the Holy Trinity should be more important than anything else. We are bound together in love by the One whose faith we are called to proclaim. Unity involves a certain set of theological claims and the praxis that flows forth from them.
There are many within the UMC and beyond who simply thumb their noses at the faith of the Church, berating “orthodoxy” as if it were to theology what leeches are to medicine. We need to move beyond this antiquated way of thinking, they say. Quit harping on about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. The primitive minds who dreamt up orthodox claims about God and Christian salvation are exceeded in their fatuity only by the fools today who happen to believe they were right.
I have to confess, I’m one of those fools, and there have been many others, much more devout and committed than I, who have dared to hold to the foolishness of Christian proclamation. Many have given their lives for this foolishness, including the first followers of Jesus, including the Christians of the Middle East who are being martyred today. Why would they do this? They know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25).
As we think about the people and practices that are causing disunity in our denomination, it would be well for us to identify what unity actually is, how it is being threatened, and what we are going to do about it. Simply saying we want to “avoid schism” isn’t enough. The only real Christian unity is unity in the Holy Trinity, which means mutual love, mutual accountability, and the proclamation of the faith once delivered to the saints. Institutional commitments themselves cannot serve Christian unity unless they are visible expressions of our unity in God.