I’ve written often in defense of unity – and am typing this as something of a final resort. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, not about Methodism, but about all sorts of things, and I want to share those reflections - on some things I worry we've missed. For starters, the indefatigable, conservative and brilliant scholar Peter Leithart has a book that came out in October about Christian unity called The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church. His manifesto, urging the creation of a single worldwide church, exposes the absurdity of our splintered efforts for Jesus, the consumerist inclinations of our people and leaders, the laughable Americanism of so much of our religious practice, and more.
Most importantly, he begins his book about the unity of the Church by explaining quite clearly that this unity is God’s will. Jesus prayed for it. Jesus clearly wants unity. When we divide, we grieve the heart of Jesus. And let’s be clear: one day, we will be one. “The Father loves the Son and will give him what he asks… The Father will give the Son a unified church, and the Son will unify the church by his Spirit. This is what the church will be.”
This reality, that while we argue and reckon with ways to split up, Jesus is praying for us to be one: this moves me, and should be the starting point of any talk about possible division. Jesus is praying for something else. So why would we attempt anything that would violate the heart of Jesus’ own prayer for us?
In this blog I want to explore other things I’ve read, and reflect on compelling reasons we have not to split up. I will look at (1) our witness to the world, (2) the fact that we haven’t yet gone through what a couple should go through before they divorce, (3) the embarrassing truth that we haven’t fully acknowledged why we in fact disagree, (4) why in Christ’s Body, we need even people who are dreadfully wrong, and (5) that simple question of whether what we are splitting up over is central enough to our faith to warrant a divide. Stay with me through all five, if you will.
(1) Witness to the world. Recently I reread an astonishing, short but impactful book by Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual godfather of modern evangelicalism: The Mark of the Christian. As Christians, we wear or display many symbols. Schaeffer notes that when Jesus was about to leave earth, “He made clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.’” Interestingly, he says “it is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.” He calls this “the final apologetic.”
Expanding on Jesus’ thought that “by this shall all men know you are my disciples,” he claims something that should make us shudder: “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.” Amazing: we are not to judge one another; but God gives the world the right to judge us.
The world’s verdict is often, and quite rightly, negative. Schaeffer observes how Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.” We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”
Of course, we say, we love those guys. But do we? And if we split, will the world say, as even the critics of the Christians of the early centuries couldn’t help but notice, “See how they love!” No, the world will say They are just like the rest of us – and therefore they have nothing to offer us we don’t already have.
Love isn’t winning and then showing the loser how he was wrong. Ephraim Radner, in his brilliant, theologically profound A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, joins two moments in our history. Assessing various struggles the church somehow survived during the Middle Ages, he says “What they achieve is not so much agreement as an act that allows members to be joined to the figure of Christ.” Perhaps the goal isn’t agreement but allowing all of us to be joined to Christ?
Radner continues by reminding us that when the church was most intimately joined to Christ, when the church most assuredly was one, “it was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him. The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing. This was always a part of their unity.” Such inept, broken people managed to succeed as God’s laborers, not so much because they were right and proved others wrong. Tertullian noted how foes of Christianity had to admit, “See how they love.”
(2) Marital counseling. God says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet God (through Moses) permits it, although Jesus clarifies that this is “because your hearts are hard” (Matthew 19:8). If a couple comes to a pastor and says We’ve fought for years, it’s irreconcilable, we’re divorcing, the pastor is bound to ask Have you gone through counseling? A time of unscrambling feelings and motivations, hearing what’s gone unheard, exposing underlying wounds and fears, devising new strategies for understanding and living together: counseling may or may not rescue a marriage, but you don’t end the marriage without doing the work.
Our denomination is pondering a divorce, but we’ve not undergone the intensive work of figuring out why we’re where we are, and what’s in the heart of those other people. As Atticus Finch famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I am shellshocked when I ask proponents of one side or the other on homosexuality if they have had any long conversations with someone who disagrees – not the hurling invective at one another pseudo-conversations, but asking, listening, empathizing, the kinds of conversations Jesus had with people.
David Wilcox, the clever singer-songwriter, does this funny and hopeful piece about a couple about to split up. The man says “Sometimes we’re arguing and it’s taking her forever to see she’s wrong.” But then an alternative approach presents itself: instead of making his own case, and dismantling hers, he – for the sake of the love – makes her case for her as best he’s able, and she makes her case for him. As he puts it, “Instead of getting an attorney, be the other person’s attorney.” Understanding and peace happen.
I lean progressive on homosexuality, or at least I acknowledge and embrace our disagreement. But I have on several occasions tried to help the anti-gay side make their best possible case – which is what progressives would really want after all, right? No one on the right, to my knowledge, has utilized the shrewdest, wisest, most compelling case against homosexuality – that offered by Ephraim Radner in his genius of a book, A Time to Keep: Theology,Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. And the left would be wise to turn to Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People.
And then there’s this. In counseling, I ask divided couples to list positives about the other person, which they are surprised to learn they actually can do. In a letter John Wesley wrote to dozens of clergy in 1764, in his final effort to bring unity to splintering evangelicals, challenged them all to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each others; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”
Oneness of mind is always being joined to and enacting the humility of Jesus. We are to “count others as better than yourselves… looking not to your own interests” (Philippians 2:3). These are the “consistent postures” of church people toward one another, and we are to be this way not at a distance, but up close, in personal engagement. Can we divorce without having gone through the real, arduous labor of striving for reconciliation with real people?
(3) Why we really disagree. I love what Frances Kissling said when interviewed by Krista Tippett recently: “The pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.” I think we United Methodists fight for a solution or vote on whether we agree or not – but we really have never done very much to understand each other, which only happens over time and with much curiosity, hospitality, genuine questions and empathetic listening.
We think it’s Scripture people versus Experience people, or Orthodox people versus Progressive people. But there is so much out there now about why we are divided on politics, moral issues, public opinion and so much more. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, demonstrates how our political leanings are deeply implanted intuitions, gut emotional dispositions we came by mostly in early childhood. We have our allegedly rational, factual, logical arguments. But they are “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly.” Our arguments, the cases we build and expect others to yield to, are no more than the proverbial tail wagged by the intuitive dog. These deep emotional preferences are fossilized in us, rendering us incapable of hearing arguments from another side. This happens to both conservatives and progressives in all political matters. Could the same thing happen when Methodists try to talk about homosexuality? Does the Bible, or reason, or tradition or experience really drive us? Or is there something more subliminal we are hardly aware of?
Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (and this lovely podcast about why we disagree – and why people vote against their own morals and preferences!) Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (which documents rapid demographic changes that create nostalgia, fear or delight – and how our basic posture toward these shifts spills over into moral and religious areas), and J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy have explained why many people in our culture grieve cultural change of all sorts, and feel resentful by the new and different who seem to gain preference. Might the church mirror this same kind of fearful wariness of what is different and unknown? And then there are the largely urban people who giddily embrace anything that is new; but while much that is new is lovely, not everything new is of God. Christians are by nature conservative; we hold to what is old and time-tested; so are we clinging to the core of our faith or are we, like so many in our culture, yearning for a nostalgic world that seems to be slipping away?
Christena Cleveland, in her terrific Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart, shows how sociology understands that we clump together with people who think like we do, only reinforcing our viewpoints. But what we wind up buttressing isn’t holiness, morality or God, but our own insecurities. Only with “cognitive generosity,” only by expanding our circle of friends, can we test our own thoughts, discover where we are biased more than insightful, and make peace in God’s church.
So we are divided. But doesn’t our division mimic the very divisions in our society that would be there if Jesus and the Bible had never come to be? If we were holy, wouldn’t we split (if we just had to split) along very different lines from the fracture lines along which secular society is splitting? Isn’t this a sorry admission – and yet the beginning of a turn to life, healing and hope?
We are not divided primarily for theological reasons, although we’d like to think we are, and wish we were. A few fascinating studies assessed people’s high or low view of Scripture, and then compared this with whether they were opposed to homosexuality or accepting of it. The survey expected those with a high view of Scripture would be opposed, while those with a low view would be accepting. But it turned out there was no measurable difference. Many with a high view do oppose homosexuality, but others are accepting; and plenty of people with low views of Scripture either oppose or condone homosexuality (which isn’t surprising at all).
Humbly realizing these things, we can resonate happily to Ephraim Radner’s reminder that division happens when we forget that we all are sinners, and that the church itself is “sinner,” plagued by “the insistence that only others fail in their duties and squander their gifts.” No one is right and holy; and we are most bedeviled by our unacknowledged and unintentional sins, our blind spots precisely where we think we see clearly. And yet we broken people have hope. Jesus kept Judas as close as possible instead of banishing him. The unity he insisted on paradoxically achieved his own betrayal and sacrifice for the sins of all of them.
(4) What the Body needs. The psychiatrist Scott Peck once asked a woman why she stayed in a difficult marriage. She replied, “For the friction.” A lovely answer: friction is hard, and sparks fly; but friction smooths rough edges, and polishes. Church friction, if we can stay with it, might help us mirror God’s love to a cynical world.
We have a God-given, theological need for each other. Slogans like “Stronger together!” are easy. But have we examined why we in fact need one another? Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his lovely Does Jesus Know Us – Do We Know Him?, assuming we are eager for the fullest possible understanding of God, says, “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him. For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth. No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.”
If we split, we will forsake voices we need to hear to know the fullness of Christ. I love what Peter Leithart, in his book about unity, predicts: in the unified church he believes God is calling us toward, “there will be not fewer but more theological battles – which are good, not to be avoided or definitively resolved.” Through history, the Church has been blessed by theological controversy. The debate has pressed us to answer newer and harder questions, and so in turn we are compelled to dig deeper and understand more than we would if everyone had always said Amen.
In thinking toward unity, Ephraim Radner invites us to think about “solidarity” movements and how they work: “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.” We join hands for the sake of confronting a common threat; we stand with others because God calls us to stand with them, even as they differ from us.
And then Radner shrewdly asks, “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say? How did he contribute? When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind? They led him to Pilate’s bar, and e never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.” Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him. So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.” It is in this way, Jesus’ way, that we need each other.
(5) The Center of our Faith. I have said many times that there are conceivable reasons why Christians should by all means separate, and quickly and definitively. If a General Conference declared Jesus was only a man, and wasn’t raised from the dead, if United Methodism adopted salvation by works instead of grace, if we determined never to baptize or eat and drink at the Lord’s table, I would exit, and encourage you to come with me. Through history, Christians have sadly but quite rightly divided when the absolute core of the faith is in peril.
But is human sexuality in this category? My friend Talbot Davis posted a blog in October in Ministry Matters entitled “The Top 5 Hills I’ll Die On.” His picks? The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus; Jesus alone, not Jesus among; authority and inspiration of the Scriptures; the reality of heaven and hell; the historic, global Christian understanding of sexuality. In the words of the old standardized test question: which one doesn’t fit?
It is the sexuality stance that does not fit. Human sexuality is enormously important – obviously, which is why we’re talking about it now. Holiness, understanding that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, being pure and consecrating our sexual selves to God: these are incumbent upon all Christians. But is it a central pillar? Is it, to use Wesley’s language, an “essential”?
To review: in 1770, at the death of George Whitefield (sermon 53), Wesley famous said, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints’; and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!” His fundamental guidance was, “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.”
Our cardinal doctrines are about God, about Christ, and not about us. The foundational bedrock of our faith are those things we believe about God, and are essential to salvation. Who the triune God is, the confession of God as Creator, Jesus as God incarnate, his crucifixion and resurrection for the redemption of the world, the Holy Spirit dawning on and thus creating the church. Our doctrines of justification and sanctification, our need for and the assurance of divine mercy, the authority of the Scriptures, the centrality of faith in God.
The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and the General Rules, our constitutionally protected doctrinal standards, do not mention sexuality. Billy Abraham and David Watson, in their excellent Key United Methodist Beliefs, spend 150 pages exploring Key United Methodist Beliefs – and homosexuality, or sexuality period, is not mentioned. Again, this does not mean sexuality is unimportant. It is hugely important, a focal point, especially in our pleasure-fixated boundary-less culture. But it is not a sine qua non. We are not saved because we think rightly about sexual orientation, or because we behave in pure and holy ways with our bodies and minds.
We might also look to Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” in which he memorably said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” Methodists have applied this to all manner of nonsense. Wesley himself was talking about worship – which is something we do, not something about God – and goes on to explain why we should expect “variety of practice.” When he cuts to the chase on what we must agree upon, it’s all about God: “Do you believe His being and His perfections? His eternity, wisdom, power, justice, mercy and truth? That He governs to His own glory? Have you a supernatural conviction of the things of God? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?” All that he lists on the human side are these: “Do you love God, do you magnify the Lord and rejoice in him? Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you do good to all men?” Only after these assertions and queries does he offer “If it be so, give me thy hand.” This is the basis upon which we can stay hand in hand today.
Here’s how I was trained as a United Methodist: Tom Langford explained that “Wesleyan theology, as it advanced beyond Wesley, has exhibited characteristic qualities of his thought more than it has adhered to distinctive doctrines.” What we have is a vital tradition, with an inclusive, living history: “The Wesleyan tradition is most true to its character when it is open and responsive to both its past and its future… New interpretation for a new generation may be an act of faithfulness to be viewed positively.” Langford spoke of “center and circumference,” and that our “creative center” is the grace of Jesus Christ – and it is a creative center.
At General Conference in 2012, I spoke on the floor urging us to acknowledge that we disagree on the matter of homosexuality. I pointed to Acts 15, when the church could not get on the same page regarding what to do with the private parts of the human body: to circumcise or not? For the sake of the mission, they stuck with Christ and embraced dual ways of reaching different people for Christ.My friend Bill Arnold of Asbury seminary wrote a brilliant, extensive exploration of Acts 15’s role in this debate, raising serious questions about whether it can be used in this way. I learned much, and have altered my thinking, which is as it should be in the Body of Christ. Bill and I, who think differently, are very much beloved by Jesus, Christians in good standing, and still duly ordained United Methodists. We agree on the essentials.
An appeal: this unintended consequence of the resurrection, the warring couple that is the United Methodist Church find themselves in the counselor’s office. We are thinking divorce is the only way to live on. But the counselor asks if we’ve done the work, if we’ve understood our own private selves and why we’re the way we are, if we’ve tried to get deeply inside the other person, if we’ve made their case, if you remember how much you and the kids really need one another – and what were you splitting up over in the first place? Something big or who cooks dinner or gets to hang the pictures?
The homework we would be assigned would be hard, long-term, regular, daily labor. How foolish are we, to think we can meet every four years for a few days, with translation through headphones, and engage in anything but superficial debate (even if you dare to call it “holy conferencing,” which isn’t just a misnomer, but an impossibility in such a setting)? The church where I worship (and work) has debated the issue of homosexuality – but over many months and years, in countless one on one conversations and classroom discussions, with much prayer and a real determination to stick together – which is what we have done. We love each other and don’t wish to divorce; and we are focused on the real essentials of our faith, the goodness of God in creation and in Christ Jesus, salvation by grace through faith, and the hope of the Spirit’s redemption of us and all of creation.
The way to unity is what God requires of us, even if we aren’t bound and determined to have unity. Ephraim Radner put it so wisely: “To live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully. To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away to and for the sake of his enemies.”
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