by Chris Ritter
“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” -Jesus’ prayer in John 17:31
Jesus desires unity for his church. The unity for which he prayed is spiritual, organic, and ablaze with evangelistic love. Its purpose is to make a compelling, winsome witness to the world about him and his Gospel. Genuine Christian unity points to the dynamic harmony of God in Trinity and defies capture by any organizational flowchart or corporate structure. It is a matter of the heart before it translates itself into visible expressions.
The Church has always fallen short of the aspirations of Jesus’ priestly prayer. Even saints like Paul and Barnabas could not always get along and pursued the mission separately for a time. Perhaps we will always be clumsily pressing toward the mark until Christ comes in final victory over our inherent human infatuation with alternative lordships. The conflicted connectedness we have today in the United Methodist Church is a sign we are getting it wrong. Even worse than achieving partial unity is attaining a unity that is counterfeit, or even harmful. Yes, unity can do harm. Here are three examples.
“Unity!” cries the Leech
Leeches love unity. They have a sucker on both ends, each equipped with three blades that make uniting with a host possible. When swimming in a lake, it is always a good idea to check yourself when you get out of the water. There might be some thirsty hangers on. It would be uncharitable to call any brother or sisters in Christ a leech, yet Jesus warned that there would be false prophets, whom he named in his Sermon on the Mount as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Appearing to be members of the flock, they are only there for their own appetites. We are to recognize them by the fruits of their actions. Are they bleeding the church or building it up? The later epistles are overwhelmingly concerned with exposing false teachers and encouraging the faithful to be wary of them. The implication is that leeches hope not to be recognized as a threat. They very much want the relationship to continue. It is up to the host body to recognize them as a threat and take appropriate action. Before I assign the role of leech to a group in the church with whom I disagree, I need to search my own heart about how I take from the body instead of contributing to it.
“Unity!”… or Else
Another harmful type of unity comes in the form of oppressive authority. Unlike the leech, the Task-Master does not mind being noticed. He/she talks relentlessly about the need for everyone to do their part. As we celebrated the 4th of July earlier this month in the U.S., we collectively recognize that authority, while ordained by God, can sometimes do such great harm that separating action is warranted. (If you have not listened to King George’s songs in the Broadway hit Alexander Hamilton, you will want to do so). In our Protestant tradition, we acknowledge that oppressive power can also be at work in the church. (Ask Martin Luther.) In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Luther’s namesake said that freedom is seldom volunteered by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed. Some LGBTQI folks feel that they are demanding justice from a church that has failed to fully include them. Some Traditionalists in dissenting annual conferences feel that the morally bankrupt Sexual Revolution is being foisted upon them in violation of both their scripture-formed consciences and church covenant. Either way, there is coercion as the exercise of power is involved. Coercion begets harm.
Cancer Requires Unity
I hear 1 Corinthians 12 often quoted in our church these days. In the body of Christ, all parts of the body need one another. Differences are to be celebrated. The eye needs the hand, the nose needs the ear, etc. This is true as long as all parts of the body have continued to serve the head. A carcinoma occurs when the DNA of otherwise healthy tissue is altered. The modified cells no longer fulfill their intended function but live only to multiply themselves. Leeches can detach and live to hunt another day. Cancer cannot exist without the healthy tissue that feeds it, even as it seeks to replace this tissue. It not only desires continued unity of the body, it must have it. Forced to choose, I would rather have a parasite than cancer. Malignancy can become intertwined in multiple systems, making it notoriously difficult to treat. Surgery is invasive and there is always the risk that perhaps some of the deadly cells will linger. Chemotherapy harms all the tissues in hope that the cancer will be harmed the most. Perhaps the best definition of cancer is: cells that promote themselves at the expense of the whole. The result is great harm. In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out a process for dealing with a sinning church member who refuses to change. If repentance is not evidenced, the church is to consider them the way they would a Gentile or a tax collector: a target for evangelism rather than a part of the community. To be sure, the sinning member would rather things continue on without confrontation. Failure to separate, however, would degrade the health of the whole. Paul, likewise, advised the church at Corinth to expel a member caught in sexual sin… for the sake of both the church and the soul of the transgressor (1 Cor. 5)
There are other examples of harmful unity that could be cited. Imagine a serial adulterer that, once caught, suggests continued unity with their spouse based on openness rather than exclusivity… an open marriage. It falls upon the spouse to name the harm to themselves, their spouse, and the sanctity of the covenant itself. Continued unity under those parameters would create multiple layers of harm.
HEALTHY CHRISTIAN UNITY
The Christian heart cries out for unity (even if most of us want to achieve unity by everyone changing to do things our way.) None of us believe in unity at any price. If we did, we would immediately disband the UMC and join another Christian body. Unity thrives in an environment of trust and is deeper than institutional alignment. Our institutions should be an expression of our unity rather than merely the enforcers of it. Having pointed out forms of unity that produce harm, let me close with some brief descriptions of healthy unity.
Unity of the Flock
In a recent trip to Bethlehem, I noticed a shepherdess watching over her sheep. A shepherd desires unity so that the flock can be protected and receive care. Sheep can do little to protect each other. They need the care of the Shepherd. You can tell how committed a sheep is to unity based on their proximity to the Shepherd, not to the other sheep. The unity of the flock is measured not only in how they stick together but in how they follow their leader. Sheep will become closer to each other as they move toward the Shepherd.
Unity of the Team
Coaches desire unity so that the entire team can accomplish its collective goal. They remind the players there is no “I” in team. When there is a personal sacrifice, we are simply “taking one for the team” so that we can accomplish something together that is more important than personal achievement. This sacrifice is offered willingly. If the coach is the only one talking about the power of teamwork, the team is weak. A team member’s commitment to unity is demonstrated in their personal investment in the shared goal.
Unity in Mission
At our recent North Central Jurisdictional Conference, we spent 90 minutes in small-group conversation about unity. Someone made the following comment which I found helpful. I paraphrase: “If unity is to be found in the church, it will be found on the mission field. It will not be found sitting in a circle and talking to one another about our differences. It will be found as we go out together, shoulder to shoulder, to fulfill our mission.” Let us remember why Jesus wanted us unified: That the world may know. Christian unity is not about us, or even for us. It is about a world that needs Jesus.
In the Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson becomes so obsessed with the bridge he helped to build that he completely loses focus on the larger war being waged. My recent trips to General and jurisdiction conferences have underscored for me what an impressive institution the UMC is. However, those most invested in the institution may be most blind to the ways in which what we have built has become a stumbling block to the ultimate goal of unity: Compelling, evangelistic Christian mission.
I continue to be an advocate for a new type of connectionalism in the United Methodist Church. Are we not expending too much energy on maintaining the trappings of institutional organizational unity? We are distracted from our assigned focus and harm is being done. Let’s have the courage to admit what is no longer working and dream together about what is next. I am not for schism. I am for new ways of relating to one another as a church. Since we are never, ever going to agree on human sexuality due to our different approaches to Holy Writ, perhaps we should release one another to connect with like-minded United Methodists and do some ministries apart, so that the conserved energy can be focused on what we can continue to do together willingly. We already compartmentalize ourselves into jurisdictions based on divisions acknowledged in the 1939 union. These current partitions are simply not helpful in addressing our divisions today.
I am praying for the Commission being formed by the Council of Bishops. I hope they take into consideration the Jurisdictional Solutions, the Love Alike Plan, and all other ways that have potential to end the harm being done by counterfeit expressions of unity. Unity is, after all, merely a means to an end desired by Jesus: That the world would know that he is the one sent by God. The best unity is the unity we don’t have to think about. We will have achieved it when we are all so busy convincing the world about Jesus that we don’t have time to read any more long blog posts about church unity.