On Church Unity . . . and Disunity
The United Methodist Church, as an international denomination, is sadly but clearly fracturing. Denominational conflicts have been flaring and growing all of my life—about race, about whether or not divorced people can serve as pastors, about whether women may preach, and now about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. But the Special General Conference in February was a watershed moment in that history of conflict. The bishops of the Church had proposed a unity plan that would have acknowledged and allowed diversity of conviction and practice about marrying and ordaining LGBTQ persons—every annual conference, congregation, clergy person, and member could have followed their own conscience. But General Conference narrowly adopted a different plan, one focused on enforcing rules, removing leaders who break rules, and encouraging those who disagree with the rules to leave. In my estimation this is not a plan for unity, but for uniformity and purity.
Even in the New Testament, of course, there is ample evidence of church conflict and disunity: the Corinthian church experienced quarrels and factions, 1 John addresses a church split, and Acts reports a dispute between Paul and Barnabas so great they parted ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way; it is not God’s will for it to be that way. Scripture insists that church unity is not something we create. It is a fact, something Jesus prayed for and the Holy Spirit has given us. In John 17 Jesus repeatedly prayed that all of his people might “be one.” Ephesians 4 says, “4There 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.”
Through nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have witnessed two things threaten the unity of the church. But neither one needs to do so.
The first is unkind talk, seeking to get one’s own way, gossip, and the like. When we speak harshly to others in the church, when we insist on our own way, when we constantly complain, it causes those who are new to our congregation to think, “If this is how they treat one another in this church, I’m leaving.” And it causes those new to the Christian faith to think, “If this is how Christians treat one another, I don’t want to be one.” We participate in the unity of the church by speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), by not insisting on our own way (1 Corinthians 13:5), and by following Colossians 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” The answer to this threat to unity is easy to figure out, even if it’s not always easy to practice.
The other threat to unity is more complicated--disagreement about important beliefs and practices. It is not easy to live in unity with people we believe are in serious error. Shouldn’t we separate ourselves from people who are simply wrong? Actually, I believe we should not. Unity is broken not by the fact of diversity and disagreement; unity is broken by encouraging those who disagree with us to leave and by kicking out those whose consciences are different from our own. Christian unity is ultimately a unity of love, not of doctrine. John Wesley wrote, “For how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love?” In other words, it’s more important to love people than to be right. Again Wesley wrote: “Condemn no man for not thinking as you think. . . Let everyman use his own judgment, since everyman must give an account of himself to God.” And finally, he pleaded, “If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.” I have strong convictions about fully including LGBTQ persons in all ministries of the church. And I will worship, pray and serve with anyone who will worship, pray and serve with me. I will not try to make people agree with me, or act like me, in order to take their hand in Christian love. My experience tells me that the people of Bethel International Church will do the same. I hope and pray the United Methodist Church will yet find a way to do that too.