Following other gods: Unity as a penultimate value

March 10th, 2016

"You shall have no other gods before unity." — Exodus 20:3 (paraphrased)

Dr. Steve Harper argued recently that the basic issue in the United Methodist Church is whether or not we desire to split up or stay together. Note his insistence that theological conviction is incidental; his focus is not the content of our division(s) but rather the will to unity:

Whatever the will is, a theological position can be found to justify it. History shows that the Church is always able to find theological language to do what it wants to do.

The Church has been able to hold together deep disagreements throughout its history — because it wanted to. At the same time, separations have happened when the will to stay together was lost. In both cases, theological language attended the decision and the resulting ecclesial systems which emerged. [...]

If the delegates at General Conference believe unity is a higher value than schism, then we can anticipate some plan for remaining together. If not, we will see some plan for separation. In either case, theological language will be used to justify the ideological and institutional manifestation. But however it is worded, the preference for unity or schism will reflect the deeper and final influence of will.

I respect Dr. Harper's academic pedigree and standing within the church. That said, he's completely wrong.

We are not faced with a choice between the desire for unity or for schism.

The true issue is a conflict between covenant fidelity and celebrated infidelity.

To be clear: I highly value church unity within the UMC and with other denominations — not out of some "let's-all-get-along" sentimentality or institutional commitment — but out of a doctrinal commitment to the integrity of the Body of Christ as a community of saints across time and space. As someone who has called on both sides for unity over and over again, I desperately wanted to like Dr. Harper's reflection here. His For the Sake of the Bride was an articulate call for unity that concluded with a somewhat disappointing solution. None of the careful attention to the beauty and purpose of the church is evident in this latest piece.

In the Old Testament, when God sees his people frequently bowing down to idols and worshipping foreign deities (and thus breaking the covenant), he does not claim that they have misunderstood the covenant or have a different view of fidelity. When Israel goes astray, God calls them adulterers. In the KJV translation of Judges 2:17, God's anger burns because his people "went a whoring after other gods."

It is unequivocally not the case that there was one party to that covenant relationship who wanted to maintain the relationship and another who wanted to end it. One party had made choices that dishonored and damaged covenant, and God simply affirmed that these choices had affected their relationship negatively.

Similarly, the current impasse does not present us with a simple choice between unity and schism. Rather, we are forced to consider the nature of our unity. A community can maintain significant difference if there is agreement, say, on core values, a common vision, or at least a way of adjudicating differences.

Because United Methodist identity is so fungible, varying greatly from context to context and preacher to preacher, common values and beliefs are difficult. A Methodist in one part of the Connection sounds like a Southern Baptist here, or preaches like a UCC pastor there. Thus is the difficulty of common beliefs and mission.

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that despite our differences, United Methodists agree on a representative, democratic process for ordering the church and considering changes. I may not agree with the General Conference when it votes down a set-apart bishop to provide needed leadership, or with the Judicial Council when it strikes down the last shards of success at Tampa — heck, I'm not even convinced itinerancy is still a good idea — but I have agreed to abide by a host of aspects of the UMC with which I disagree.

This consensus on process is no longer present, and, moreover, a revolt against it is actively supported by Boards of Ordained Ministry, District Superintendents, and Bishops across the US. The only people who seem to have a problem with open covenant-breaking are derided as schismatics and fundamentalists when they suggest something should be done about such actions.

And yet, Dr. Harper has the audacity to suggest that what faces us is a simple choice between "unity and schism," as if all is well in the state of Denmark. It is not.

To put it another way: I worship the God whom Jesus called Father, who begat the Son and sent the Spirit.

The name of that God is the Holy Trinity, not "unity." Unity is a penultimate value; it is surely a beautiful virtue — nay, a call and command of Jesus himself — but it is not itself the God I serve. The unity which the New Testament asks from us is centered on the common foundation of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. (Eph. 4:5) God-blessed unity is not in pensions or property, but in the way of salvation inaugurated by Christ, proclaimed by the apostles, and handed down to us by our Mothers and Fathers in faith.

Unity of the sort Dr. Harper suggests calls us to give up on the family estate which is ours by right and settle for a rickety dog house. But surely our inheritance as Wesleyan Christians is a treasure infinitely more valuable than the fool's gold of institutional confederacy.

Unity is not the God I worship. The God I worship sent the Son to give himself up "for the sake of the Bride," the Body of Christ. In response, the Bride is asked nothing but a faithful hand in marriage.

But United Methodists have been chasing after lesser deities. We are a stiff-necked people, and we are in danger of trading the God of the Bible and the Tradition for an idol called unity. Under the present conditions of de facto schism and episcopally-blessed chaos, any unity achieved can only be a pyrrhic victory. But that need not be our destiny.

As Wesleyans, we believe that God is always calling us back to return to the royal road and take up again the journey toward holiness. This is true for individual disciples, and the whole Body. God always welcomes us back to the narrow road of faithfulness. Thus, should we decide to pursue our first love once more with abandon, we will not only have our priorities straight, we will have unity around what really matters.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: Chase after unity and you get neither unity nor the God who desires it. Chase after God, pursue God's work in God's way, and you'll have unity thrown in for free. 

Drew blogs at Plowshares into Swords and co-hosts the WesleyCast.

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