By Paul Lawler
“When is unity at all cost too costly?” This question is not intended as an endorsement for dividing The United Methodist Church. However, in the following, I want to at least make the argument that separation is not always the improper thing to do. I write this after hearing many colleagues from every theological stripe say, “I am not for dividing the denomination.” This is often said with a sense of sacredness, as if it would be a grave sin to consider otherwise.
What if our sense of sacredness is misdirected? What if we have made a “sacred cow” out of preserving an institution? What if, in our effort to avoid division, we are blinding ourselves to that which would ultimately be sacred for everyone?
Think on these words from A. W. Tozer (pardon the masculine pronouns):
“If good men were all for union and bad men for division, or vice versa, that would simplify things for us. Or if it could be shown that God always unites and the devil always divides it would be easy to find our way around in this confused and confusing world. But that is not how things are. Light and darkness are incompatible; to try to have both in the same place at once is to try the impossible and end by having neither one nor the other, but dimness rather, and obscurity.
Truth is slain to provide a feast to celebrate the marriage of heaven and hell, and all to support a concept of unity which has no basis in the Word of God. When confused sheep start over a cliff the individual sheep can save himself only by separating from the flock. Perfect unity at such a time can only mean total destruction for all. Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar. Maybe what we need today is not more union but some wise and courageous division.”
At the 2016 General Conference, legislation was about to hit the floor to officially divide the denomination. Before this legislation took on inevitable momentum, a commission was proposed to find a way forward for the church. That moment birthed what we now know as The Commission on a Way Forward.
When persons in prominent places of leadership publically make statements declaring, “We are better together,” I fear that often empty claim glosses over a blaring reality: We are not united. We are divided. That’s why the commission was formed.
There are many things one could point to that are flawed in our present narrative. One of those things is the notion that formally dividing the church is somehow tragic. At this juncture, we should at least consider the possibility that the greater tragedy would be to continue as enablers of our present plight. What got us here will not be what takes us out of here.
Our division is our disease. Division forces systems to become insular (forsaking mission in order to give great attention to ongoing division). Division drains precious resources (in the tens of millions). Division drains us of precious time (irreplaceable). Division binds us to the continual forty-year ground hog day of wasted energy. Our present predicament is costly (in excess of $5 million when combining the COWF meetings and the special General Conference). In short, “unity at all cost” is a cruel taskmaster.
Contrary to what some voices say, unity at all cost is not virtuous. Unity at all cost, in fact, is damaging. As we throw away time and energy and resources, we throw away our present and our future. As vast amounts of energy are expended for a unity that quite possibly is untenable, we passengers fail to notice how the ship keeps sinking lower in the water.
As we consider the future, Come, let us reason together:
1. Unity at all cost is not centered in the testimony of Jesus. While Jesus prayed for the unity of the church in John 17, he was not praying for the enabling of a false peace. If Jesus had been willing to enable a false peace, He would never have made statements like these:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34 (NASB)
“For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Matthew 10:35-36 (NIV)
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Mark 3:24 (NASB)
2. Unity at all cost is not centered in the testimony of Scripture. The Apostle Paul did not enable a “unity at all cost.” He instructs a New Testament church to dismiss a man from its midst for a time because he is violating God’s standards for human sexuality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Paul also instructs the church to confront people in it who are divisive. The standard he establishes is, if one is going to behave in a manner that constantly divides the church, then that person needs to be separated from the church. Paul does not enable a “unity at all costs.”
3. Unity at all cost is not centered in our tradition. In 1740, John Wesley separated the Calvinist from the Methodist movement. He did not embrace “unity at all cost.” While Wesley and George Whitfield debated and yet loved one another as members of the body of Christ, they separated. Neither of them embraced “unity at all cost.”
4. Unity at all cost is not centered in Christian history. Martin Luther did not hold to “unity at all cost.” If Luther had taken the position of “unity at all cost,” there would have been no Reformation. And later Wesley recognized it was necessary for Methodists in America to part ways from the Anglican Church.
We are not necessarily lacking virtue if we empower portions of the UM Church to go their separate ways. We may, in fact, be demonstrating the highest of virtues in light of our present plight. As Tozer reminds us, “Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar. Maybe what we need today is not more union but some wise and courageous division.”
While separations are painful, they can also catalyze people to move into a greater day.
The Rev. Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC in Birmingham, Alabama and president of the North Alabama Wesleyan Covenant Association. He is also the founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center.