Unity is Difficult, Not Impossible (Part 3)

by Dan Johnson

This is my third post on why keeping our United Methodist Church united is so difficult – but hopefully not impossible. Today I look at the position of those who believe the matter of human sexuality, while vitally important, is not on the same theological level as the teachings of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds and therefore should not be cause for division or separation. Further, deeply committed people, orthodox and Spirit filled, have differing views on this matter, which should give everyone within the Body of Christ pause before deciding they cannot co-exist with their own brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. Uniting Methodists: An Invitation to Live Together in Love Seeking Understanding

Might this area of human sexuality somehow become, rather than a cause for division, an opportunity for greater understanding into our human frailty and need of God’s grace? Few topics bring out greater intensity of feeling and passionate expression of viewpoints than this topic. I’m sure you have noticed this, or you aren’t on Facebook or have been hiding under a rock.

From my experience in my own life, when any reservoir of feeling geysers forth with great intensity, I know that there is something going on that I need to pay closer attention to. God has something important to teach me about myself. Dare I suggest that I’ve often thought that those whose voices are loudest, most passionate, most vociferous, even most mean spirited toward others who hold a different view really are revealing more about themselves and their own insecurities about their own sexuality than they are remotely aware of?

Because I believe this to be true, I follow with the belief that this “point of contention and division” may well be God’s call to our church as an invitation to live together in love seeking understanding with those with whom we disagree. We all are fallen creatures, and if we are advocating passionately for human rights, we need our more traditional brothers and sister in Christ’s Body. If we are advocating passionately for a traditional view, we need the added blessing of humility and kindness that comes with the real possibility that we could be wrong – something I almost never hear, but, from everything we know about the human condition, is far more likely to be true than not.

To commit to stay together in unity is to live into the images/parables Jesus tells about the Church as a field of wheat and weeds and no one (NO ONE) is adequately equipped to determine who should be removed, for to presume to be able to do so would be to presume to be God, and we know that’s not a good thing ever to do.

Waiting, while hard, is, according to Jesus, far more appropriate. And to wait is to live into the spirit of Gamaliel, Paul’s great teacher, who, in the earliest days of the Church, when the Jewish Council was debating whether to banish their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters or not, advocated the view of “Let’s wait and see; let’s let God decide; if this is of God it will flourish; if it is not, it will go away under the weight of its own incorrectness, but let’s not presume to be or play God.” It was wise counsel then, and still is today.

There are those who disparage this view, this call for unity as being akin to the “local option” plan. There are two important truths to remember:

(1) The “local option” plan is being lived every day in every church, indeed in almost every relationship in this way: people live and love and fellowship together with people with whom they disagree on a myriad of topics – every day. My wife and I agree on the essentials of our world view: The Trinitarian God we love and serve, our kids and our Grandkids, too, and a few more, but there are a host of things we see differently. Our local church is no different than your local church – lots of people and even more opinions than people, and yet they/we choose to live together in unity. We do this all the time with people we love and care deeply about.

(2) Some kind of local option is going to happen; it’s inevitable. If you take the position I shared in my first post a couple of days ago that this is about human rights or if you take the second position that this is about submitting to the authority of Scripture, for 90 % of our local churches it is not going to be a black and white decision. I guess it will be for those on the far edges of the issue where everyone in that particular church is in total agreement, but for most churches (and many Sunday School classes) if the decision is made to dis-unite; there will be excruciatingly difficult decisions – to go, to stay, to compromise, to…. Not many churches that I know of are of one mind on much of anything, especially this matter.

Those who hold this third view I’m relating today believe that Jesus’ prayer and teaching in John 17 about the importance of Unity was and is of utmost importance and that to act otherwise is an act of disobedience. They believe it is better and more faithful to humble ourselves and model for our children and our culture the way Jesus called us to, and be salt and light. A fractured country, culture and world do not need a fractured church in lockstep with its dysfunction; it needs a loving church, one that is courageous enough to find a way to stay together.

Clearly it will be a miracle of God if this wonderful old Church stays United. I and many are praying that it will. Many of us have great confidence in Bishop Kenneth Carter and the other two moderators of the Commission on A Way Forward and we know many who are on the commission and know them as devout followers of Jesus, all of which bodes well for the Spirit to have ample opportunity to work, as we lift them and all in prayer.


A Postscript: I’ve heard that the nature of our unity may take a different form than we’ve known. Obviously I’m not sure what that might be, but it may be a large United Methodist Umbrella or maybe “House or Many Mansions” with a room for those who cannot with integrity compromise beliefs that this is a matter of social justice and human rights, and a room for those who hold that the traditional, Biblical view is nonnegotiable, and then another room for middle children like me who have spent their lives learning to hold disparate views together and in tension while trying to keep everyone fairly happy and United. I’m hoping that one is a really big room!

Thanks for your gracious patience, reflections and insights during these recent posts. I have been tempted throughout these musings to quote Warren Buffett’s partner and wise counselor, Charlie Mungor, whom my wise, business minded son put me on to. Many of you will know that Charlie’s pithy bits of wisdom are legion and legionary. Here’s the one I was tempted to use: “I’m right and you’re smart, so sooner or later you’ll see I’m right.” But then I figured that would be unbecoming of one advocating humility of opinion and position.