There have been several posts over the last few days speaking to the sometimes false pretenses of unity in The United Methodist Church. Dr. David Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary (friend, mentor, all around nice guy and one of those people), has written a piece on his experiences at the recent West Ohio Annual Conference. Drew MacIntyre, the unofficial chair of the Via Media Methodists, has a piece on the Centrists. Our long time friend Rev. Chad Holtz has written on removing unity as the goal of the UMC. I have written on this before myself.
But, I want to add something else.
In particular, Chad writes, “Throughout scripture the goal is always faithfulness.” This is not completely truth, but it is entirely true. He goes on to write, “Many of us in the United Methodist Church have mistakenly made unity our goal.” He is correct there, but I fear we may differ on the actual problem.
Unity itself is not a bad goal. Indeed, it is a goal we hear of in Scripture, most notably in John 17 and throughout Ephesians (particularly Ephesians 4.1–6). Only when unity within an imagined structure such as a denomination is the goal do we find that our goal seems to vanish. I mean this: denominations were once bound together via confessions, catechisms, and shared doctrines. Once denominations became little more than bureaucratic ensembles of people with “shared” heritages, they became ]]. If our goal is to retain the (tax?) sheltering structure, Chad and others are completely correct. Unity is then a facade if the goal of unity is to preserve the institution. Yet, if the goal of unity is to remain unified in Christ, then this is part of faithfulness and is quote Scripture — and Wesleyan.
Let me call your attention to several sermons by John Wesley.. The first is On the Catholic Spirit. Fr. John notes that there are legitimate barriers against structural (external) unity, but there is a unity that transcends these things:
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike. May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion. Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.
While we may quibble over what these “smaller differences” are (or rather, what is allowed) we have to understand that the underlying unifying force is Christ.
The sermon, Of The Church, is rather important because striving for unity is understood as the message of Ephesians 4.1-6:
Lastly: the true members of the Church of Christ “endeavour,” with all possible diligence, with all care and pains, with unwearied patience, (and all will be little enough) to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace;” to preserve inviolate the same spirit of lowliness and meekness, of longsuffering, mutual forbearance, and love; and all these cemented and knit together by that sacred tie, — the peace of God filling the heart. Thus only can we be and continue living members of that Church which is the body of Christ.
And this is where the actions of anyone playing “dirty pool” (such as the Centrists in West Ohio) becomes a problem. Are the politics played geared to preserving the institution or are they geared to building up the unity of the Spirit? I have said it before, that the goal of the Centrists lacks theological understanding and is gifted with a rather secular agenda. Essentially, they are seeking to do away with the connection in order that they may keep their expected windfall. This is not merely about the hypocrisy of the Left in rather than denouncing the actual “third way” of the Centrists they align with them, but what unity they are striving for.
External or internal.
Many on the left and the right are striving for an internal unity while, frankly, many are seeking only external unity.
Unity of the Spirit, that internal unity, is faithfulness.
What is the “unity of the spirit?”
Again he uses the metaphor of bonding. We have left it behind, and now it comes running back to us. Beautiful was Paul’s bond; beautiful too is this , and the former arises from the latter. Bind yourselves to your brethren. Those thus bound together in love bear everything with ease.… If now you want to make the bond double, your brother must also be bound together with you. Thus he wants us to be bound together with one another, not only to be at peace, not only to be friends, but to be all one, a single soul. Beautiful is this bond. With this bond we bind ourselves together both to one another and to God. This is not a chain that bruises. It does not cramp the hands. It leaves them free, gives them ample room and greater courage. St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 9.4.1–3
If the bond is oppressive, then it is not internal unity. This is similar to what Wesley said:
I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society.
- The bonds proposed by the Centrists are oppressive. They deny affirmation to the progressives and deny traditionalist views to the conservatives. They have idolized the institution more than loved their sister and brother in Christ.
- There are sides to this debate. I wish there wasn’t, but there are. It is time to recognize that — if you have not — and live with that reality.
- Politics is at play. Sometimes it is healthy, but many times it is not. This is where discernment comes in.
- Unity, properly sought, is faithfulness. This is biblical holiness. Unity must be in Christ, not in an imagined community.