What Is Unity?

By Thomas Lambrecht-

In the wake of the September meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward in Berlin, I would like to reflect on the balancing act that the Commission is engaged in as it formulates its proposal for the Council of Bishops and the called 2019 General Conference. Any views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the thinking of the Commission as a whole.

The key to understanding the Commission’s work is the Vision statement that describes what the Commission is trying to accomplish. “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.” Please observe that the phrase “as possible” is repeated three times.

A Missional Purpose

The first thing to note is that the Commission seeks to “maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” Our work has a missional imperative. We acknowledge that different groups can best reach different types of people. Those who respond positively to a progressive expression of United Methodism would probably not respond well to a more traditional expression, and vice versa. Right now, the conflict in our denomination is hindering both progressives and traditionalists from fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Whatever proposal the Commission recommends ought to be aimed at freeing us for Christ-based mission and enhancing the missional potential for all parts of the denomination.

Balancing Differentiation with Unity

The crux of the Commission’s work, however, is found in the word “balance.” We are trying to balance the need for “as much contextual differentiation as possible” related to the “different theological understandings of human sexuality” with “a desire for as much unity as possible.” Contextualization requires space and a loosening of the connection. Unity requires a tightening of the connection. As Bishop Ken Carter put it in a September 21 press release, “We know that members of our denomination want space from each other — because of theological differences from each other and the harm we have done to each other — and at the same time connection — because this is in our DNA.” Where is the balance point between as much space as is needed to accommodate the different theological understandings and as much unity/connection as possible? That is what the Commission needs to discern.

It is important to understand that no proposal from the Commission is going to be the magic wand or ideal solution. We deal with a political reality in terms of coming to an agreement that will satisfy many diverse groups of people, both in the U.S. and in the 60 nations around the world where Methodism is present. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible, not a search for the ideal. Sometimes, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Holding out for the ideal solution (from our perspective) may mean that nothing gets accomplished, and the impasse remains. So the Commission is seeking to balance competing interests to come to a workable solution.

It is a given that our current denominational structure does not achieve this balance. For progressives who want to perform same-sex weddings, there is too much connection that is inhibiting their ability to do ministry as they believe they are called to do it, in that their ministry is prohibited by the general church. At the same time, there is not enough connection in that the rest of the church has not agreed to endorse the progressive vision for ministry with LGBTQ persons.

For conservatives, there is not enough connection in that there is little accountability or adherence to the actions of General Conference defining our parameters of ministry with LGBTQ persons. At the same time, there is too much connection in that the actions of progressives to perform same-sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals cause the community to think all United Methodist churches do so and alienates traditional United Methodists from the denomination.

Redefining Unity

Since the current structure is untenable, what might we move toward? The Commission’s Scope declares, “We should be open to new ways of embodying unity.” It adds, “We will fulfill our directive by considering ‘new forms and structures’ of relationship.” Further, “We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness.”

All of this means that we will need to redefine what “unity” means for United Methodists. We can no longer have unity with one another on the same basis as in the past. To move forward, we will have to reach a new understanding of unity.

First, we must acknowledge that the unity of the church is not at stake here. In the press release, Bishop Carter said, “We are the one Body of Christ with many members, and God uses this diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” With all due respect, United Methodism is not “the one Body of Christ.” That distinction belongs to the whole worldwide Christian Church. United Methodism is only a part of “the one Body of Christ” — a vital and personal part for those of us who call ourselves Wesleyans. In reality, however, that global body has been institutionally divided since the Great Schism of 1054 between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It has been further divided by the thousands of Protestant denominations that have arisen over the past 500 years.

The unity that “the one Body of Christ” is able to have is not institutional, but spiritual. We can acknowledge each other as believers in Jesus Christ and work together in ways that stem from common agreement. By that mutual acknowledgement and respect, along with common efforts in ministry, the worldwide Christian Church can indeed express “diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” Whether The United Methodist Church stays together in one denomination will have minimal impact on the unity of the worldwide Christian Church. That unity can best be preserved in our part of the Body by our treating each other with mutual acknowledgement and respect, while working together in aspects of ministry that stem from common agreement. Perhaps that is a new definition of unity.

Second, we must acknowledge that the unity of The United Methodist Church is broken beyond repair. This is difficult and painful for us to admit. However, we must face the fact that many progressives who want to be able to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals cannot live much longer in a church that prohibits them from doing so. And we must face the fact that many conservatives who believe that same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is contrary to God’s will could not live for long in a church that allowed and even advocated for such. As the prophet Amos put it, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3).

A New Unity

We could reestablish unity in The United Methodist Church on the basis of agreement only by seeing either progressives or evangelicals leave the church in large numbers. The recently formed Uniting Methodists group cherishes the hope that many United Methodists could remain united in a body that gave a “local option.” Under this previously rejected plan, pastors could individually decide whether or not to perform same-sex weddings, but would not be forced to do so. And annual conferences could individually decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals, but would not be forced to do so. Such a scenario would only be acceptable to progressives as a way station en route to eventual full endorsement of homosexuality. And many evangelicals would feel a need to depart once their annual conference or local church moved toward LGBTQ affirmation.

Alternatively, we could reestablish unity by restructuring The United Methodist Church into something looser, where progressives and traditionalists would not have a say over each other’s ministries, and where financial ties would be limited to those common areas of ministry that all agreed upon. This would be the type of redefining “unity” and considering “new forms and structures of relationship” that the Commission’s Scope envisions.

The question comes down to how much space is necessary between progressives and traditionalists. Can they share bishops? Can they be bound by a common set of membership qualifications? Can they support the same list of seminaries? Can they both continue to support all the same general boards and agencies we now have? How do congregations and clergy determine which part of The United Methodist Church they identify with? How do local churches obtain a pastor who is theologically compatible with the congregation’s views on LGBTQ ministry? How do congregations identify or “market” themselves as distinctively progressive or traditionalist or something else? Are we all still part of the same denomination or are we different denominations? How do the central conferences outside the U.S. continue to receive support from The United Methodist Church? With what part of the UM Church (if any) do central conferences identify? And the list of questions goes on.

The balancing act comes in because there is a desire for as much unity and connection as possible among many United Methodists. But the level of connection desired varies from person to person. What is too much connection for one person is not enough connection for another. And the more connection we maintain between progressives and traditionalists, the more traditionalists may decide to withdraw from United Methodism altogether, thus defeating the goal of preserving unity with those congregations and clergy.

These questions and issues will test the Commission, and ultimately the whole United Methodist Church, as we seek to balance differentiation and unity. There will not be a proposal that pleases everyone. Some will want more unity, while others will want more differentiation. All we can hope for is to strike a balance that will satisfy the greatest number of people, while providing a way for those who cannot live with that proposal to exit from the denomination with pension, property, and assets. This approach is the only way to end the conflict that is tearing our church apart and distracting us from our main mission of disciple-making.

Please continue praying for the Commission as we seek out the optimum balancing point.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.

 

Comments

  1. We have unity on paper. It is called the Book of Discipline which is modeled after the greatest unity book of all time, the Holy Bible. If the Commission on a Way Forward proposes a revision of the Book of Discipline to permit same sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in some new unity/separation configuration (??) branch of the church, then who will be assigned the greatest historical task of all times — that being writing a revised Bible so as to conform?

  2. Tom,
    I deeply value your service to the UMC and GN, but this situation, in my opinion, lacks the option of negotiation or compromise. To my admittedly tradition theological position, the following must be conceded/changed to find “middle ground”:
    – ceding to some UM agency the task of “black lining” objectionable scripture
    – determining the tolerance level of each UM congregation for acceptance/rejection of gay clergy
    – rewriting of UMC BOD
    As a traditional UM, brought up in the former E.U.B. church, these types of redefinitions of the UMC would necessitate my breaking fellowship.
    Another interesting point of your article is the stress on the mission of the church. The concept of mission presupposes that, as a church, we have something/someone to recommend to a lost world. I’m afraid that in our current state of upheaval and disunity, we would do well to return to Christ, His word and our own Book of Discipline. Once we understand what Christ wants of us, we can reach out to the world. Presently, the UMC is a confused mess. Most groups lacking Christ at their center are confused messes!

  3. Terry Lowe says:

    It’s hard not to believe that all of this will wind up with the Council of Bishops getting what it already wants–a unity they will see as good. In reality, however, it will actually be nothing more than artificial. I don’t know why we’re so concerned about denominational unity anyway. We haven’t been unified on much of anything since we became “United” (and I do not see the former EUB’s as being primarily responsible for any of the UMC disunity). In typical UM fashion, we will hear the recommendation of the Commission on a Way Forward, probably vote to accept their recommendation, then proceed to go our separate ways because unity is not the primary concern of anyone except institutionalists who see denominational unity essential at any cost. The issue is God’s ultimate truth–not unity. God can get along perfectly well without United Methodism (or any other denomination for that matter) because He will have a people faithful to Him, no matter what, regardless of their denominational connection. That Church is not be divided! In the meantime, as long as we put forward UM “leaders” who bear no evidence of a personal relationship with Christ, and as long as we have some pseudo-sophisticated laity who willingly follow them, should we wonder why, barring a profound movement of God among us–revival, the United Methodist Church will just dissolve one day, possibly without even a whimper.

  4. Have you ever read Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism”? If not I would highly recommend reading it as in many ways he was confronted with a very similar situation. The summary is basically Christianity and Liberalism (modernism) are not the same religion at any point. They have a different root, a different trunk , and different branches. If you want to follow the liberal movement, then it is a free country, but you are not free to call it Christianity, because it isn’t.

    This is not a dispute over something like baptism of the dead that quite frankly, I’m not sure enough information is given to really grasp what is meant. Rather the dispute over human sexuality is a matter of faithfulness to the Bible. Homosexual activity shows up 7 times explicitly and is explicitly condemned in every one of them. Even going past that, there isn’t really even an argument to be made from silence because Jesus addresses the issue of marriage and sexuality within that context (porneia: sexual immorality) that would have absolutely included homosexual activity in the minds of his original hearers. This cannot be squared with the text, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest. Furthermore, to allow this (eisegetical) “interpretation” as legitimate is to legitimize every single heresy because it is an implicit denial that we have a definitive Word from God by which all of our stances and actions will be judged on the last day. How many times do Christ and his apostles warn about false teachers to come? How many of the Epistles are written specifically to counter some false teaching that has sprung up in the church? How dare we excuse blatant error in this lackadaisical manner and leave people’s souls in jeopardy? God help us!

  5. John Cobil says:

    “Those who respond positively to a progressive expression of United Methodism would probably not respond well to a more traditional expression, and vice versa”

    This is the crux of the issue. Throughout history, many faiths have attempted to gain a wider audience by being popular. It has never worked and never will. If “Methodism” is just a feel-good exercise in which anyone who puts their money in the plate can have whatever views they hold validated what’s the point? If the parts of the bible forbidding homosexuality are “interpreted” away what goes next? Aren’t those parts about caring for widows and orphans out of date now that we have such good government programs? Oh, and the parts about tithing really aren’t applicable in today’s economy, either. No one can afford to give 10% of their income away and still have the latest iPhone. Faithfulness to a spouse? Oh, come on, how 19th century. The bible never contemplated the internet and Ashley Madison so we can ignore that part.

    Do you really want to go down that road?

  6. What is Unity?

    Unity is certainly not this (below). This is just another fact of how excruciatingly deep, sad, and tragic our division has become.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/new-group-aims-for-lgbtq-full-inclusion

  7. Rev. J. C. Dorman says:

    It is an indisputable fact that there is no unity in the UMC. Liberals and conservatives are two distinctly different species of animals and are not united within the structure of a divided church. The basic difference is not sexuality: the difference is whether or not we accept the Bible as being the Word of God or just “containing” some of the Word of God. The Scriptures are very clear and unambiguous: sin is sin. Period. It does not matter how much one group or the other “feels” that homosexuality is right or wrong. The defining difference is what the Scriptures have to say about the subject and the Scriptures clearly condemn homosexuality as being sin. “Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes? Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?” (Prov. 6:27-28). Oil and water do not mix any more than liberals and conservatives can be united. The only way forward is amicable separation.

  8. Margaret S. says:

    We have forsaken God. We have been called to holiness of heart and mind. We are to leave all to follow Christ. Where are our men? Why don’t they rise up and defend the most holy Gospel? We are living in very evil times. The hearts of people are growing colder. We study men’s books in our Sunday school classes while we are starving for the pure Word of Scripture. We should be about the study of the Book. You know that special book that is covered with dust. That Book leads us to a conversion to Christ, but we have to read it, eat it up. It will convict us of our terrible sinful condition and cause us to cry out to God to forgive us and save us. Once we are saved we will joyfully want to devour the Words of The Book. We will have a new heart and mind. We become changed. We love Christ now and will obey his commandments. We will not be popular to stand with Jesus and the teachings of That Book but we will be right. We can love people but must not compromise the commandments of the Lord. Unfortunately, wolves have crept into our congregations disguised as sheep and they are occupying seats of enormous power. We need righteousness as found in the Holy Bible then we will have unity. Right now the sheep are being attacked by the wolves that crept in unawares. And, so many sheep are being misled by them and led away from true holiness and perhaps lost for all eternity. There will never be unity until we are one in Christ. The world has come into the United Methodist Church and so many of our values are just like the unbelievers. People are looking for the way back to God and there is only one way and that is through a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says if you love me, keep my commandments. You Holy men of God please stand up and take your rightful place in the Church, we need strong politically incorrect men who will speak up and speak out for righteousness and prayer and study of the Bible. Men who will take a strong stand against abortion and everything the Bible says is unholy we need you to rise up now. Tomorrow will be too late. We need men to speak out and say we will not have unity if we have to compromise the Word of God and his commandments.

    • How many of our elders actually believe in sin anymore and are willing to preach on it. If we ignore sin than we can never say anything that will hurt someones feelings or make someone mad at us! Do we work for an unchanging and all knowing God or do we work for the popular opinions of society. Make your choice!

  9. So are we take our fractured church and redefine unity as the status quo? We are part of a covenant organization and we pledged to uphold the doctrine and discipline of The UMC. That sounds like unity to me. What we lack is leadership willing to support that covenant. Are we now going to have a new covenant where we pledge to support the doctrine and discipline of The UMC except for this part and that part in this region or that region? That is not unity. That is nonsense. And I hold no hope that our leadership could even hold to that.

  10. In middle America–a District Superintendent “preached” (term loosely applied) that in her district there’s only one church that’s ‘growing’–and hundreds are going to be closed…

    …she will likely view her ministry as a universal effort to close these churches—and she will likely consider her ministry successful by how many churches she closes and how many people she upsets

    …after all….these churches pay only a small amount of apportionments…it’s not worth the high and mighty DS’ time to listen to any of them

    …why were ‘certified lay speakers’ trained—there’s no future for a denomination that treats people and churches this way….nor should there be

  11. What is Unity?

    The Commission on a Way Forward has about as much of a chance of coming up with a unity plan to keep the UMC together as coming up with a unity plan for uniting heaven and hell.

    http://www.wlwt.com/article/cincinnati-minister-fights-with-united-methiodist-church-over-gay-marriage/12841787

  12. Mike Peters says:

    Jesus did not teach unity. Matthew 5;17-20, and 6;13, and many more.

    It is time to shake the dust off or feet.

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