Is Unity Worth It?
October 1, 2017
by Paul Brown
Disagreeing is part of being human. Just ask any parent. Sooner or later, every child will switch from asking “Why?” to declaring, “That’s not fair!” From kids arguing with their parents to senators wrangling in the halls of Congress, we know that people can look at the same thing, hear the same words – and still come away with two completely different understandings. Because churches are also full of people, they are not immune to squabbles over everything from the end times to the carpet color.
The United Methodist Church prides itself on being a global, democratic denomination of nearly 13 million members. On a recent trip to Austria, the congregation I visited reflects the present reality of United Methodism – a vibrant mix of native born Europeans and immigrants from every corner of the world. But this diversity has also left the church teetering on the edge of schism. Unable to agree on ethics surrounding human sexuality and weary from decades of debate, General Conference authorized a Commission on a Way Forward to explore whether the people called Methodists can stay “United.” Can we agree to disagree? Or should we refuse to compromise and go our separate ways? Beneath these conversations is the nagging question:
Is unity worth it?
The search for unity is not some idealistic effort to sit around and sing Kumbaya or settle for the lowest common denominator. After all, disagreeing is part of being human, and there will always be room for what John Wesley called different “opinions” or interpretations in the church. Ask any pastor and they will tell you that the members of their congregation represent a wide variety of theological and political views. Holding on to unity within that diversity can be incredibly difficult, but it is worth it – not for its own sake, but because it is at the heart of our gospel. After all, why should anyone take our message seriously if we refuse to practice what we preach?
Shortly before his death on the cross, Jesus prayed “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). The apostle Paul described the church as the body of Christ – the continuation of Jesus’s ministry in the world – “for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Just as Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his life, death, and resurrection, now he has “entrusted the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But how can we United Methodists preach with integrity about Jesus’s reconciling work on the cross while refusing to be reconciled to each other? By allowing pride to take priority over love, our church risks compromising its witness. As Paul wrote to the Christians in the ancient city of Corinth, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Given the deep and sincere disagreements in our church, some have concluded that staying together in one denomination is an impossible goal. The best anyone can hope for, they say, is a kind of invisible unity with perhaps a shared pension plan and disaster relief. But the God we worship is not some invisible life force. No, our God embraced the messiness of human existence, becoming the visible Body of Christ for us and for our salvation. In the same way, every time we baptize and break bread together, we are reminded of our calling to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world today. Instead of giving up on each other, we must humble ourselves, living in obedience to the prayer of our Lord Jesus and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Our shared Wesleyan heritage teaches that the Spirit is at work in us as individuals, leading us on the journey of salvation toward wholehearted love of God and others. In the same way, the Spirit is nudging the United Methodist Church, inviting us to become a community of reconciliation and love that embodies God’s intentions for the whole world. If we allow our disagreement to harden into division, then we are no different from the rest of the world. But what if, instead, we listened to the words of Jesus’s prayer? What if we responded to the open invitation of the Spirit? Only then can we be a part of a United Methodist Church that could truly transform the world until “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).
Rev. Paul Brown is the pastor of Central UMC in Canton, NC.