Unity and Division

December 7, 2017

by Keith Boyette

Can unity of The United Methodist Church be maintained in spite of irreconcilable differences?  Some of the proposals advanced by the Commission on a Way Forward (the “COWF”) seek to respond affirmatively.  But to what end?

The mission statement of the COWF acknowledges, “[M]atters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.” In fact, across the UM Church, there is agreement that our irreconcilable differences around how the church is to relate to practicing LGBTQ+ persons with respect to the teachings of the Christian faith, marriage, and ordination point to much more fundamental disagreements that we have about the nature of salvation, sin and repentance, practical Christianity and holiness of life.  In addition, our differences have revealed conflicting views regarding Scripture’s authority in our lives and the ways in which we interpret and apply it consistent with UM Church doctrine.

We are no longer one church in the doctrine that is proclaimed or in the way in which we seek to live the Christian life practically.  The sooner this is acknowledged, the sooner we can move ahead toward health as members of the universal body of Christ.  The solution is not found in an institutional unity that neglects unity in doctrine, practice, and mission.

We recently observed the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The presenting issue that resulted in Luther making his stand was the practice of selling indulgences.  In a recent blog, Dr. H. O. “Tom” Thomas explores how the presenting issue for Luther led the church to confront deeper issues that went to the roots of the Christian faith (e.g., How are we saved from our slavery to sin and fear of death? How are our sins actually forgiven? What is the role of Scripture as an authoritative word in our lives vis-à-vis the church?), and ultimately resulted in the emergence of different expressions of the Christian faith – Roman Catholic and Protestant.  These issues, among others, were so significant that a substantial portion of the universal church decided that it could no longer walk together.

Now 500 years later, we are confronted with a different presenting issue – the practice of homosexuality and how the church is to relate to issues that arise from that practice.  But there are much deeper issues which reveal that there are at least two very different and, indeed, conflicting understandings of the Christian life being advanced.  Materially different answers are now advanced in the UM Church to core questions regarding core Christian convictions and the daily practice of our faith:

  • What is God’s creative design for human nature, and will that design ultimately be restored?
  • What is authoritative revelation for God’s people?
  • Is biblical truth absolute or relative?
  • Can one part of the church hold that a fundamental institution like marriage is malleable and therefore celebrate same-sex weddings, while another wing of the same church adheres to Scripture and 2,000 years of church teaching, and therefore opposes such unions?

Tom Lambrecht, Vice President of Good News and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, has authored a two-part blog (Part I and Part II) that approaches the issue in a slightly different way.  Tom asks, “Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue?”  Among his points, Tom asserts:

  • The affirmation of same-sex relations calls into question the reliability and authority of Scripture.
  • Redefinition of marriage in a way different from the biblical definition opens the door to additional revisions that are without biblical support.
  • Conflicting understandings of what is right behavior for a disciple of Jesus Christ results in confusion around the fundamental mission of the church to make disciples.

Unity is an important value in the Christian life, but only depending on how we define that value.  Biblically, unity describes our union with one another as we are vitally connected to Christ.  There is no real unity in an institution that has widely divergent and conflicting operative understandings of the Christian life.  Such an entity will lack unity of purpose in fulfilling its essential mission and will inevitably fail in achieving that mission because of the divergent understandings of what that mission means.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association is committed to pursuing a unity of the church that is grounded in a shared understanding of who Jesus is, the mission of the church, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and what is authoritative for the life of such a disciple.  Any other form of unity will not provide a foundation for the fulfillment of the church’s mission.