I’ve been following the conversations about unity during and since The United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The appeal to unity is powerful and appealing. And it is at one level effective because calling for unity is, well, unifying. I am in favor of unity. I want United Methodism to be unified, desperately. I also have a growing concern that appeals to unity in our current moment are often superficial and act as a kind of opiate to numb us to reality. We should be actively working toward unity. But we should not do so in ways that are vague, distract us from reality, and fail to either bring about meaningful unity or address the reasons we are currently divided. Here are two more specific thoughts I’ve had about unity that I’ve been chewing on since General Conference:
1. It is interesting that the value of unity is often used as a rationale for not enforcing the Discipline. One of the basic purposes of polity is to make unity possible. If you took away the presenting issues related to profound disagreements about human sexuality, I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition. I suspect that the appeal to unity as a rationale for not upholding the Discipline virtually guarantees disunity.
2. I find that appeals to unity are typically vague and lack any concrete precision when they are connected to the deep disagreements we currently have about human sexuality. Consider same sex marriage: A group of United Methodists believes that there can be no such thing as Christian marriage that is composed of two people of the same gender. Another group of United Methodists believes that not only are such marriages possible, but that it is harmful to deny people access to same gender marriages. A third group is frustrated by the inflexibility of these two groups. The appeal to unity most often comes from people in this third group. But I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God. As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like. The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention, this is not going to change.
In moments of crisis, United Methodists often fall back on an appeal to unity. The appeal to unity feels good because we are fighting for the church. The litmus test for the value of an appeal to unity should be this: Does it address the reasons we are divided and offer a concrete solution that can bring about actual unity? Leaders within United Methodism need to consider whether appeals to unity that cannot pass this basic test may actually be doing more harm than good in our current moment.
Carol Hampton said:
Kevin….very good article. I think the word “unity” is highly overused and misunderstood. It is a nice word to use but holds very little real meaning in the context to disagreements …. such as the one the UMC is dealing with right now. I nailed it when you said “The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention nothing is going to change”. I am by no means an expert but I see the Bishops and General Conference finally seeing this can no longer be shuffled aside and the Commission is one last ditch effort to try and find a solution to keep our denomination in tack. I am just not convinced that will happen…but it is too early to tell.
Kevin Watson said:
Cliff Wall said:
Expresses my thoughts to a T yesterday during a conversation with some other clergy. One, who considers himself a moderate who is frustrated with both extremes, said we should even be able to find unity with people who believe things like the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt. He insisted we could all still worship together and would be worshipping the same God. He couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t buy into that. The bottom line is this, we are not really even unified around the FIRST commandment much less the seventh (think here of the 10 commandments as summary statements of the rest of the moral law). We don’t even have unity concerning the FIRST commandment! And how is it that I’m an extremist and someone like that is moderate?
Morgan Guyton said:
I’m not sure what a moderate would argue, but I would say that most of Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians are about seeking unity in the midst of debate over what seem to be irreconcilable differences. I really think that Paul would see us as analogous to the Galatians who wanted circumcision marks to legitimize their identity rather than trusting in the blood of Jesus alone. We want ideological circumcision marks that make us feel sufficiently uncompromised and unworldly.
In my ministry setting, I’m interacting with a lot of students who grew up evangelical and have left the church because of its anti-gay stance. So the question for me is whether being anti-gay is a gospel necessity or a stumbling block? If it’s not a gospel necessity, then is it worth the lost discipleship of thousands of people who leave because of it? It is quite telling that homosexuality is the only thing the Book of Discipline describes as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Doesn’t that indicate a certain level of obsession to you?
Carol Hampton said:
Morgan … Your last two sentences is what I have been asking in this debate.
Why is only one sector of humanity “incompatible”????? I think that is because there is a deep held belief that you sexual orientation/gender identity you can choose or not choose. But we are tolerant of breaking the commandments. The Bible talks a lot more about lying, cheating, stealing and adultery. I just don’t get it. I am not a Bible scholar and can’t argue the finer points of theology
Let me note that St. Paul’s letter to the Romans was about showing that his theology the correct one, without compromise.
Further, St. Paul could find no room with the opposing Party in Galatia, suggesting that they were devil-born and hoped that the knife of circumcision would slip and cut all the way to the bone, if you know what I mean.
In regards to the incompatibility clause, while I find it odd in the BoD, it doesn’t refer to homosexuals, only the acts. Further, the social principles and other things, while not calling certain acts incompatible insists that Christians cannot do them.
Thank-you for writing fully and faithfully.
Well said. Some progressive thinkers today devalue theology and scripture. They emphasize people’s rights to be and do what they want without consideration for shared beliefs or biblical standards (principles based on God’s nature and revelation as well as teachings of Christ and His Church.)
Thankful I'm not UMC said:
I think Morgan has a good point that homosexuality is emphasized in the UMC discipline. As a millennial outside observer, I was curious about the infatuation that sexuality has in the UMC. Is the UMC trying to build a wall or trying to include?
I think the wall won. The Jesus I read in the NT is about love and acceptance. Does the UMC realize that #umcgc made them look like bigots to the secular world? Does the UMC realize that they have taken on the current
American culture of discrimination? Does the UMC realize they are acting like the culture and discriminating in their attitude towards LGBTQ and women’s health? I actually thought the #umc was different and they really believed in the message of Jesus. #umcisanepicfail . #godforgivetheumc
Joseph P. Hester said:
For the past ten years we have heard such words as “unity” and “connection” as keys to institutional Methodism. This call comes from the top, not the pew, as a way of protecting the assets of a large and impersonal denomination. These words also cover the growing diversity within the church that reveals the growing value shifts inside and outside the church. As an organizational tool, the Book of Discipline has outlived its usefulness. When I became lay leader in my church and later chairman of the PPR committee, just reading and understanding the pages in this “rule book” was difficult. Even my pastor had trouble with interpretations and had to call on the District Superintendent for help.
Values diversity is a fact of life, but the moral values outlined in the Sermon on the Mount hold and support. This is the book of discipline that we should care about.
A voice of reason in the midst of chaos.
For those who are concerned about how the Discipline came to have the wording it did, I refer you to these two articles that explain how it WAS NOT a deep died plot to intentionally exclude or belittle a group of people but was the result of our gloriously messy General Conference:
I got distracted by the question of how the wording in the Discipline came to be and did not follow through on what else I wanted to say re this call for unity. What I never hear is a discussion as to how this effort to find unity amidst theological diversity impacts the person in the pew. My personal experience has been that the combination of theological diversity with itinerant pastors is, at best confusing and can even become toxic. I have been a loyal Methodist/United Methodist for over 60 years. The church itself, in the form of three consecutive pastors who were so totally different in their understandings, that started the ball rolling that ultimately left me in a spot of so much confusion and brokenness that my random bits of understanding about God were of absolutely no use. I distanced myself from all things church and started reading Wesley’s sermons and about Wesleyan theology. But that is not where I finally stumbled into a robust theology of a triune God that absolutely blew my mind. I developed an understanding of God that I never thought possible. I am finally in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace. That teaching came from the Heidelberg Catechism, so I am stunned at the amount of understanding that was available to rank and file German Christian in the 1600’s that is not available now. The Heidelberg and three very modern books about it became my lesson in what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity. Basic orthodox Christianity has absolutely nothing in common with modern conservative fundamentalism. Through seedbed.com, I am now back in the Wesleyan/Methodist camp. The biggest problem with The Methodist/United Methodist Church is that it has not had a clear and consistent teaching of any kind and certainly not of basic orthodox Christianity in my lifetime and probably for even longer than that. My relationship with the United Methodist Church is strained/questionable. I view the same gender argument as a distraction form what it really needs to be focusing on. The Bishops should be forming a commission to reclaim the unique message and method that brought Methodism into existence in the first place; it is this unique message and method that enabled her to make a unique contribution to the Christian landscape and justified her existence as a free standing denomination.
Until I stumbled into seedbed.com after the Heidelberg, other than John Wesley, none of my teachers were from the Wesleyan/Methodist camp. My favorite teacher is still a Presbyterian pastor whose approach was so amazingly practical and personal; his book on the Heidelberg, “Body & Soul” left me wishing I had known these teachings a very long time ago. In another book, he absolutely nails–from a Wesleyan perspective–why the UMC is failing in the first place; the words in brackets are my personalization of his statement:
“Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at
helping them know God as people who live with him. It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”]…M. Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”
Carol Hampton said:
Thank you so much for the wonderful post. I have for a long time that if Methodism today was Wesleyan this would be a much different conversation. While there are pockets of Methodist (ie Seedbed) attempting to reclaim our Wesleyan heritage we are a long ways off seeing the revival happen however I do think it is slowing happening. Which makes me think a split is inevitable. I would love to talk to you at length outside of a blog.
Dave Nielsen said:
You’re faulting the call for unity for not choosing sides on the playing field, but that’s exactly the point — the call for unity is the strategy of removing the playing field and putting everyone on the same team, without fear of each other or the outcome.
We need to be able to have neutral discussions about the indications we have of God’s will and how to interpret or prioritize them. Right now, many of us are too far from neutral — we take any possibly opposing idea as a personal attack, as an attack on God, as an attack on people we love. The call for unity is a strategy to restore neutral, meditative, prayerful approaches to the points we all raise. We should all be chasing God’s will, which means we should all be open to the idea that we might be wrong, so that we might be able to change paths to a road that leads us closer to God.
That’s the strategy of unity. It isn’t wishy-washy or indifferent or any of that; it’s a deliberate return to higher principles and rebuilding of a broken foundation. It doesn’t choose a side in this issue, because it isn’t aimed at “winning” this issue. It’s aimed at the higher idea of everyone honestly seeking the closer path to God.
George Duffee-Braun said:
Is the issue about church doctrine or practice? Is the resolution global? Does addressing the specifics of this issue resolve the underlying tension in the church? Is that tension necessarily a bad thing?
Richard Heyduck said:
“I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition.”
The uniting function of polity rises to the top when an institution is large enough to make unity difficult. At the beginning polity is the structure used to shape and direct relations and actions for a group of people. It is the structure that enables the group to achieve their mission. At the beginning its role tracks play for a train, or a road for a car.
Over time (often not a very long time), power differentials rise in prominence. These are normally present from the very beginning, but the dominant commitment to the mission keeps them outside our awareness. The UMC has reached a place where polity has displaced doctrine in shaping our understanding of mission. The age of de jure doctrinal pluralism was accompanied by increasing detail in polity (thus our long, highly detailed BOD). Polity in our setting closely defines power relationships: who decides what (and how), who is entrusted with sacramental power (and not). The amount of power in the system makes things worth fighting for, at the same time the demise of doctrinal unity means that what we fight over looks so marginal to the traditional mission of the church.
Great read. I agree
The three General Rules would be a good place to question the push for unity. Are we doing no harm? Will be able to do good through this call for unity? Will we be able to live out the ordinances of God as we pursue this push for unity?
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