Unity in the Church: Sacred or Scandalous?
The Peace of the Lord,
Resident Bishop, Florida Conference
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church
“Unity in the Church: Sacred or Scandalous?”
By Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst
January 2, 2019
Many sermons spoken, speeches shared, and articles written over the last several months by United Methodists have included the little, five-letter word: “unity.” Sometimes unity is upheld as the very key to our future as a denomination. Sometimes it is claimed to be an obstacle to holiness or morality. We have heard “this plan” or “that plan” for our way forward will lead us to whatever true unity is, even though the plans seem very different from each other. Unity seems sometimes to be based on a uniformity of “our church moral standards,” sometimes on “covenantal agreement,” and sometimes on “denominational label.” Listening and reading all these words must leave many United Methodists confused about unity, what that little word means, and how we should be considering it as we look toward our future. Will unity lead us to be a more sacred church or into certain scandal? What IS unity for The United Methodist Church?
We may need to stop and think about what the word actually means. And, in particular, maybe we need to stop and think about what it means for The United Methodist Church as we head toward General Conference 2019. For the vast center of our denomination, who may be struggling with what the right thing to do in February will be, maybe we need to take a step back and think about what “unity” is, or is not, calling us to do. I would like to offer some foundational principles upon which all sides in our denominational debate likely agree, and to which all discussions would do well to uphold.
Principle One: Unity is Biblical
First, Scripture teaches us unity is important. Psalm 133 says that where kindred are living in unity is where God’s blessing will be found. Jesus prayed for it in the garden before his arrest, asking God to grant it to those who will follow his way, so that the world may believe (John 17:20-23). And, Paul, when writing to the churches in Ephesus (Ephesians 4:1-6), challenged Jesus’ followers to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.1 Clearly, a theme of unity among believers is something that runs through our holy Scriptures, and to which followers of Christ are called. We might even call unity Sacramental, meaning it is claimed as a means of grace through which we are most closely connected to God through Jesus Christ.
Principle Two: Unity is Wesleyan
Second, we know our denominational founder, John Wesley, had definite ideas about how to personally enliven the Christian calling to unity.2 Wesley believed unity was a matter of the heart, as compared to “opinion,” which he believed was a matter of individual, theological reasoning. Wesley believed we should do our very best to stay in unity, even if we had different opinions. In fact, in A Further Appeal to Men [sic] of Reason and Religion (Part III, Works of Wesley, 11:321) he offered these powerful words:
“Only see that your heart be right toward God; and you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ; that you love your neighbor, and walk as your master walked; I desire no more. I am sick of opinions, I am weary to bear them. My Soul hates this frothy food. Give me solid and substantial religion. Give me an humble, gentle lover of God and man [sic]; a man of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy; a man laying himself out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love. Let my soul be with these Christians wheresoever they are, and whatever opinion they are of.”
Undoubtedly, John Wesley wanted the Methodists to place emphasis on loving God and others, not on differences of opinion. The best-known example of this comes from his sermon number 39, entitled “On Catholic Spirit,” in which he wrote: “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.”3 Wesley would rather the Methodists align themselves with persons of different opinion, as long as they could tell by their fruits they were in love with God and their neighbor. So now, in addition to claiming unity as a Sacramental, grace-filled gift to be received and lived out, we can add it is a matter of the heart, not of our theological opinions.
Principle Three: Unity is Denominationally Foundational
Third, we know, from the very establishment of The United Methodist Church, the living out of this kind of unity has been held as essential for our denominational community. In our foundational documents, unity among ourselves and unity among different expressions of Christianity is claimed as vital. For example, the Preamble to The United Methodist Constitution says: “The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world."4 Our “Basic Christian Affirmations” include these words: “We are initiated and incorporated into this community of faith by baptism, receiving the promise of the Spirit that re-created and transforms us.”5 And, in our carefully-discerned list of the disciplines for which we should look when we are choosing our bishops, we find these words: “The role of the bishops is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation, and unity within the Church – The United Methodist Church and the church universal.”6
Unity was undoubtedly a part of Methodist theology when our faith communion was formed. It was central to much of what we believed a church is. And, it remains foundational to who we claim to be as The United Methodist Church.
Principle Four: Unity is Missional
When we put all these pieces of information together, we can say unity is a scriptural, sacramental gift received at baptism, because of our initiation into Christ’s Church. It is enlivened through our hearts for the sake of our witness of Jesus Christ. It is not based on opinion, and not to have it is dangerous for Christ’s community. Instead it allows us to learn from each other and grow in faith with each other. We expect to be led into it, and we know we are called to live it ourselves, even when we may disagree with others. All this leads us to our fourth principle, namely that unity is core to our mission together. Unity allows us to fulfill our purpose as the continuing witness of Christ in this world. It helps us fulfill our mission.
The parable of the Prodigal Son may be one of the best scriptural passages to explain what biblical unity is and the importance it holds in our personal and community mission.7 In the biblical story the younger son behaves poorly. He does things his father probably would not have agreed with if he had stayed at home. So, the younger son leaves home. He uses up all his resources and returns with the anticipation of a much lesser position. But, despite all this, the father refuses to walk away from his son. In spite of his son’s divergent belief and behavior, the father runs to his son when he sees him walking on the road. He doesn’t wait for words of contrition; instead the Father stops what he is doing and rushes to his son, not knowing whether the behavior has changed, simply out of a deep and abiding love for his son. The older son watches and questions, and in the process, he is taught what holy love and unity is like through the actions of the father toward the younger son. And, the community celebrates.
Bishop Kenneth Carter uses this same parable to talk about relationships within The United Methodist Church today. He writes:
“If the church is to know the fruit of the spirit that is joy, we will know that we include in our fellowship younger and older siblings, both prodigals and those who have never left – and that God loves them equally! And this is the free and infinite grace of God!.”8
These are applicable principles for The United Methodist Church. When we live in unity we refuse to walk away from the other, no matter the other’s behavior or beliefs. In that way, unity is foundational to our living as Christians. It is, in fact, how our love comes to resemble that of God the Father. Unity is a sign of turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, accepting the stranger and running toward the one who has caused us pain. Just as God will never push us away, even if our behaviors take us away from living as the much of the rest of the community lives, unity calls United Methodists to take this same stance with each other. It is clearly the more difficult path to choose, but it is the path that leads to true righteousness and holy love.
In the United Methodist baptismal covenant service, we welcome new persons as they “are initiated into Christ’s holy church.” After the questions, the thanksgiving, and the administration of the water, the whole congregation welcomes their new sibling with these words of celebration and covenant:
“Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.”9
For United Methodists unity is a gift given to us when we become a part of this diverse, global family of Christians. The gift comes from God’s Spirit, and it comes from the promise of our local congregation. The gift of unity is not based upon our behavior. Neither are we unified based on a homogeneity of belief. Unity is, as Paragraph 105 of our Doctrinal Standards says, “not an option; it is a gift to be received and expressed.”10
So, as we listen to all the sermons, and statements, and as we read all the articles being offered within our faith family these days, I invite you to remember what Scripture, our founder, and our Disciplinary theology teaches us about unity. Any dichotomy between unity and right relationship with God is a false dichotomy. They are not opposed to each other; in fact, unity is core to having right relationships. Being in unity IS being in right relationship. Unity is not scandalous; it is sacred.
The bottom line is living out the gift of unity we have been given is what United Methodists do in order to honor our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is core to our mission and our theology. United Methodists do not equate unity with behavior. We equate it with grace, and love, and our sacred calling. May it be so as we move together toward General Conference 2019.
1 See also: Acts 2:1-2, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:18; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 1:9-10; Ephesians 2:13-14, Titus 3:8-9, Hebrews 10:23-25; 1 John 1:5-7; 1 John 4:15-17, 21, etc.
2 In addition to the writings mentioned in this section, see also: Sermon 38: “A Caution against Bigotry,” (Works of Wesley, 2:72); “The Principles of a Methodist,” (Works of Wesley, 9:49); Journal October 29, 1745 (Works of Wesley, 20:98); etc.
3 Sermon 39:“Catholic Spirit,” (Works of Wesley,” 2:86)
4 Book of Discipline, 2016, Part I, “The Constitution: Preamble,” p. 25.
5 Ibid, “Our Doctrinal Heritage: Basic Christian Affirmations,” Paragraph 102, pp. 49-50.
6 Ibid, “The Superintendency: Section II: Offices of Bishop and District Superintendent,” Paragraph 403.3, p324.
7 Luke 15:11-32.
8 Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. Embracing the Wideness, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018, p.25.
9 The United Methodist Hymnal, Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989, p. 37.
10 Book of Discipline 2016, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task: Ecumenical Commitment,” Paragraph 105, p. 90.
Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga
Director of Communications - Council of Bishops