Unity: What’s the point?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

[Note: I wrote this synopsis of the United Methodist Church’s divisions concerning sexuality several years ago. The divisions – and the political machinations taking advantage of the divisions – have become more intense over recent years.

This week a Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is being held in St. Louis. Two basic plans for preserving church unity have been proposed by the Commission on the Way Forward. Another two basic plans have been proposed, one by a very conservative faction, another by a very progressive faction. I write about these basic plans in another blog entry.]

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth; he’d heard that there were factions & division there. The factions aligned behind the names of the evangelists who had come through and helped shape the Christian community back when Christianity itself was still being invented.

When a body is considering just how and why it is together — when a body is having a hard time recollecting what it is that unites them, just about any difference, disagreement, difficulty will do, to highlight the division.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

Back in the 90’s, U.S. senators signed their names to an oath of nonpartisanship, using pens created: for the occasion, every one of them inscribed with the senator’s name, the date, and the words “Untied States of America.” Untied.

Back in 1999, the quarrel was about whether to remove the president from office, or to determine that his actions, while wrong, didn’t justify removal. But actions of the president were not the real issue, so much as they were a pretext for a conflict with its roots elsewhere. As we work to untie the tangled knot created of many issues, will we ourselves become “untied”?

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

In the United Methodist Church, there are quarrels among us as well. And as I type quickly on my computer, I often accidentally hit the same typo that plagued the Parker Pen Company — “Untied Methodist Church”.

The Methodist Church was formed just before World War 2, in a vast re-uniting merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. There were divisions among us. The divisions included the residue of slavery and the Civil War — and the regional mistrust between north and south. At the time, the denomination beyond the United States weren’t considered partners in Christ; they were just the “Mission Field,” nothing more.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

  • This year — and every year since the early 1970’s — one point of division in the church is around the church’s pronouncements and regulations regarding sexual orientation and participation of all people in the life and ministry of the church.
  • I have characterized our denomination’s stance as “strongly divided” on questions of whether in the church, marriagesof same-sex couples should be solemnized, and on whether a person’s sexual orientation should be a consideration when discerning a call to ordained ministry.
  • I have also needed to remind us sometimes that the church is “strongly united” on the need to ensure that in matters of public policy, all basic human and civil rights must be guaranteed regardless of sexual orientation or partnership status. Not “special rights” but certainly not special discriminations.
  • And not only in the society at large, but also in the church, in the official stance of The United Methodist Church, people’s sexual orientation and partnership status are not to be barriers to church membership and full participation – with the exceptions I mentioned: ordination & appointment of pastors (where the church’s official policy since the 70’s has been very much like “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and the blessing of same-sex unions or marriages.
  • This point of division in the church has led to nearly five decades of wrestling, as our emotions and politicking and theology are all pulled into play.
  • On the one hand, some have used it as a wedge issue to rally people to break down the denomination, to withdraw, to withhold apportionments, or to gain power.
  • On the other hand, some are convinced that the church’s current restrictions are unjust and a misunderstanding of the spirit of Christ; responses range from working to change the restrictive rules, to quietly ignoring them, to openly disobeying those rules of the church which they believe to be contrary to the intentions of God, even at the risk of their vocations.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

  • In the United Methodist Church, there are all the polarizations we have in the nation. Liberal / Conservative, Rural / Urban, Generational divisions, Regionalism, Gender divisions, Racial divisions, Economic class divisions. In addition, there are divisions about where authority lies – both in terms of our polity (local, annual conference, denomination-wide?) And in more ultimate terms (do we know God’s will through conscience, strict adherence to scripture, obedience to our bishop or to the Book of Discipline, or the historic creeds of the church?)
  • I see a bit of regionalism in the current divisions of the UMC as well, a bit of the old north/south breach that hasn’t really healed. But the question gets raised over and over in other ways: how do we address a question that pits science and reason and personal experience against the book of Leviticus and Paul’s letters – and other people’s personal experience – regarding sexuality?

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

In a marriage, sometimes a couple will be so painfully aware of their points of difference that they do not recall what drew them to one another in the first place; sometimes they will be so focused on their divisions that they do not see what they’re together for now. Yet what unites them is not gone; it is just harder to express, and harder to see, than what divides them.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

We could work on the divisions, we could emphasize the divisions. We could get ourselves so involved with the divisions, with the tangles, with the points of difference, that we don’t remember what unites us. And that’s a sure path to death — to the death of the marriage, of the union, or of the united church.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

Paul begins by ridiculing division and factionalism: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name? The answer is an unstated “Of course not!”

The point of the Corinthian church’s unity was not that all should be alike, or that all should line up in lockstep behind any pastor, or any party, or any doctrine. The point of the Corinthian church’s unity was the point of our unity: to receive Christ, to be formed by Christ, to live in Christ’s new community with one another, and to embody Christ to the world.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

The point of the United Methodist Church’s unity, the thing that will keep us from coming “untied”, is the same: to receive Christ, to be formed by Christ, to live in Christ’s new community with one another, and to embody Christ to the world.

We do this best when we know one another’s stories, when we rejoice with one another’s joy and hurt with one another’s pain, when we insist on remaining in community with one another through differences, and when we learn that our differences, dealt with in love and commitment, are a strength, and not a flaw.

“I hear there are divisions among you.”

Among. But not Between.

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