On Christian Unity

“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.

Unity

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.

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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.

24 thoughts on “On Christian Unity

  1. Pingback: David Watson on Unity is a Hot Mess | Eremitic Musings

  2. Thanks for the clarity of this statement, David. The word “unity” has been used far too long in a propagandistic way by those who have run rough shod over everything that should give that word actual content. – Greg Van Dussen

  3. Intriguing contribution with which I both agree and disagree in parts. Thanks for posting.

    How you would answer those who say “‘orthodoxy’ is being misused” by some on the right to treat traditional understanding of homosexuality and our current discrimination in its application towards same-sex marriage? Do you propose that Trinitarian Christian believers who also support LGBTQ inclusion/leadership and same-sex marriage cannot be considered “orthodox?” These are two very serious questions which I hope you’ll answer directly.

    I believe there is so much common ground that unites Methodists around historic creeds and Wesleyan understanding and approach. Orthodoxy should be a uniter. It is a shame when some put too much weight on non-essential teachings so as to divide the Body. It is a shame when some want to police not just what we believe in common but also pass judgement on “what they think you mean when you say you believe it.” I take it as clear evidence of wrong-thinking when non-essentials are raised so as high as to be push people away from the Faith. We should be making disciples of today’s non-believers. We should not be arguing against today’s believers as being “not believers enough”. Discipleship should be about ever more closely following Jesus rather than ever-more believing an ever-growing list of must-accept claims.

    I personally believe we Methodists can and should strive for unity in love, Spirit and faith. And I believe we can do whilst holding diverse and even opposing views on homosexuality. Even within our evangelical and mainline “camps”, there remain diverse and opposing views within each camp. So there is no simple solution of so-called amicable schism on the issues arising related to homosexuality.

    • The teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ on the nature of the human person and the gift of human sexuality is not a “non-essential” about which faithful Christians can agree to disagree.

      “Trinitarian believers (whatever that is) who support LGBTQ inclusion/leadership and same-sex marriage” have already separated themselves from the church. Going to church and saying that one believes certain things does not make that person a christian; being in a coop doesn’t make me a christian; being in a garage doesn’t make me a car.

      Disciples are persons who obey God and Christ whom God sent. Willful, deliberate rebellion against God brings death. If we believe that a person can persist in willful, deliberate sin and remain a disciple, we are deceived. To love another human being is to do everything in our power to seek good for that person. To tell a person that he or she can persist in sinning against God and continue to live in right relationship with Him is to love with the love of the Evil One. “You will not surely die . . . ”

      Jim Lung

    • By what authority do you determine what is essential versus nonessential? All scriptural teaching is essential. It is a deception of the sinful nature to think humans can make such determinations.

      • As United Methodists, the Articles and the Confession of Faith (neither of which can be altered by the General Conference) provides the framework for working out our faith. Both require belief in God who is the maker of all things (Articles), Creator, Sovereign and Preserver of all things visible and invisible (Confession). The first clue we have regarding our creation in God’s image is that the image of God is expressed in sexed bodies: male and female. The church has always and everywhere believed, taught and confessed upon the basis of the word of God that our gift of sexuality is to be expressed either in monogamous marriage of a man and a woman, or by chastity.

        Of course, this is only my opinion (formed, I pray, under the witness of the Spirit). As I’m stranded here on United Methodist Island I have no Pope, and I’m my own resident ethicist.

        Jim Lung

  4. Taking this post at face value I largely agree with you. But there are two significant issues that demonstrate our problem. 1) You name three themes that are important today. I agree with all three. But the third, regarding particular content and particular belief leaves unidentified what those particulars are. In other words, I hope we would all agree that on nonessentials we will “think and let think,” but we may disagree about what those essentials are. 2) I spend some time in “progressive” circles in the UMC and I have to be honest – I haven’t met many of the people you’re referencing. Those who “thumb their nose at the faith of the Church” do exist. They are as representative of the theological left-of-center as the early and then Methodist Oral Roberts was representative of the theological right-of-center.

    The fact of the matter is we won’t be voting at General Conference on whether or not to affirm the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Resurrection. And if we did vote on those it wouldn’t be a 60/40 vote. It would be a 95/5 vote. Maybe not that close. Please submit resolutions that ask us to reaffirm all of these – they will pass easily because the vast majority of us believe in them. What we will be voting on are issues like same-gender marriage. That’s a different kind of issue than the ones you pose. The desire to restore to local pastors the right to marry who they see fit for marriage and to Boards of Ordained Ministry the right to ordain who they believe should be ordained doesn’t equate to declaring Jesus is not Divine. To put it another ways, these are areas where we should be able to think and let think. They do not in any way strike to the root of our faith.

    • Local pastors are authorized to marry those couples whom the church deems eligible to enter into the relationship. Local pastors are not authorized to marry Giraffes.

      The “nonessential” with respect to which you say we can agree to disagree involves the light the revelation of God in Christ has shed in history on the nature of the human person. The Church of Jesus Christ bequeathed the notion of human dignity to the world. Our dignity ultimately rests in our creation in the Image of God and the restoration of that Image through our union in Christ, who IS the Image. The first information the Hebrew Scriptures provide us concerning what it means to be created in God’s image is that we are male and female.

      There is a sense in which the complementarity and polarity of man and woman and the resulting heavenly dance that difference created is one of the ways we can glimpse, however partially, the relationship of absolute love within the persons of the Trinity. It’s com-munion. That’s why Christ is the groom and the Church is the bride.

      Adam and Eve were commanded to be fruitful and multiply. They were not commanded to explore the infinite ways that a man or a woman can achieve orgasm.

      To bless the sexual union of a couple consisting of two males or two females is a total denial of the most important blessing Jesus gave man. It denies the image of God in man; it denies human freedom, and condemns us (frees us?) to pursue our idols unrestrained. It elevates the autonomous individual and his preferred mode of sexual release to an absolute.

      Our freedom consists in our ability to pray that God would give us the desire to surrender to Him and obey Him, and grace to persevere. We are not free to surrender to our desires, whatever their origin, in order to be fulfilled.

      JIm Lung

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