What is the Basis for Church Unity?
This is part 2 of a seven part blog series on a recent proposal put forth by leading United Methodists entitled, A Way Forward. The underlying assumption of the proposal, A Way Forward, seems to imply that the cause of the church’s dis-unity is a fight over homosexuality and, therefore the key to church unity is to “agree to disagree” about this issue. But, have the endorsers of this document misdiagnosed the nature of the church’s unity?
The second sentence in the document says “The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide us.” Later, the document declares that most of our churches “stand to lose members if the UMC divides into two churches over homosexuality.” The point is driven home repeatedly by using the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ 20 times in a short three and a half page statement. However, it is important to remember that agreement about homosexuality is neither the basis of, nor the source of, church unity. This issue is, at best, the fruit of a deep problem, but it is not the root and should not be regarded as such.
The church is unified by the glorious gospel under the headship of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ. No legislation can produce the power of that unity. Our problems run far deeper than the current debate over homosexuality. In fact, if the “crisis” over homosexuality were to disappear tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the nature or gravity of the crisis which is engulfing the UMC. One of the key statements in the document which I heartily agree with is the statement that a break away Methodist denomination which is formed solely around opposition to homosexual behavior would be a disaster. On this point, Hamilton and I agree. However, the reverse is also true. A UMC which is conceptualized as unified because we come to an agreement on how to handle this particular issue is a faulty notion of unity.
I would suggest that while the document tries to capture some larger themes of the church and a few Wesleyan distinctives, the thrust of the document, and certainly the whole of the actual proposal which is put on the table is focused on one issue: homosexuality.
Why are we being asked to believe in a quick legislative “single issue” fix for a problem and crisis which has taken fifty years to come to full fruit? The reason is because we have lost sight of some of the larger issues which are upon us and the real basis for our unity as the church of Jesus Christ. Our difficulties are far graver, much deeper, and more difficult to address than the single issue which is raised in The Way Forward. I will briefly mention just three examples of the “deeper issues” we face.
First, we have experienced a slow decline in our confidence in the authority of Scripture. This has been well documented across most mainline denominations, and the UMC has not been immune to this. We simply do not have the respect and holy reverence for God’s Word that we once did. We are a long, long way from Wesley’s famous cry that he was homo unius libri – a man of One Book! How does this apply to sexuality? Our increasing orientation towards contemporary cultural attitudes, rather than a biblically formed world-view, has resulted in a gradual acceptance of the culture’s definition of marriage: a social arrangement for personal fulfillment. The whole biblical, theological vision for marriage has been lost. We are a long way from a solid Christian understanding of marriage as reflecting the image of God, mirroring the Trinity, characterized by reproducibility, self-donation and mutual submission, and providing a window into the mystery of Christ and the church. All of this was lost long before homosexuality emerged as an issue in the church. The focus on one issue also obscures the larger scriptural assessment of sexual brokenness which includes adultery, fornication, the avalanche of pornography, human trafficking, the commodification of women and sexuality in sales and marketing, and so forth. Again, these deep issues were being laid at the doorstep of a largely silent church long before homosexuality became an issue. So, homosexuality is merely one presenting problem, not the root problem.
Second, the loss of biblical authority has also had a big influence on theological education and the kinds of courses which men and women take as they prepare for the ministry. A thorough “core” grounding in biblical studies, theology, and church history has been supplanted by endless specialized courses which have inadvertently created a rise in “specialized” knowledge, but a decline in basic grounding in the deep truths of Christianity which unite all Christians of all ages. We must recover a distinctly Christian consciousness. One of the clear signs of our times is how muddled the gospel message has become in our churches.
Third, there is a narrow denominational parochialism which seems to blind leaders to the grand faith of the church of Jesus Christ through the ages and around the world. The greatest hope of The Way Forward seems to be the institutional survival of a particular denomination called United Methodist. The document longs for a kind of structural unity at all, without a proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. He doesn’t need me or anyone else to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church – as with any church – comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.
Tomorrow’s blog will focus on the post-modern perspective of the proposal.