One Church, Many Contexts

The unity of the church is grounded in one God (Deut 6), which is affirmed by Jesus (Mark 12) and in the teachings of the apostles in Ephesians 4 (one Lord, one faith, one baptism). This unity is a gift of God (1 Cor 12) and is never a human achievement, right, or claim. The practical expression of unity is the love of God and neighbor (which is also the practical expression of holiness).

Our complacency with division indicates a lack of love and is a barrier to the mission of the gospel in the midst of unbelief. I pray we hear Jesus saying in John 17: that they will be one, so that the world will believe. Thus unity needs to be visible in our congregations and in our structures.

It is true we are connected with each other in the one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. In The United Methodist Church, we have a term for this: the connection. It expresses our unity, our oneness. In The UMC, we might identify the instruments of our unity as the itineracy of preachers, the superintendency (which includes bishops), and Christian conferencing.

We are one. This unity is contested in our behaviors and in our rhetoric. Some are exhausted from the ties that have bound us and are ready for separation. Some are newer to life and ministry in our denomination and are eager remain united. Some have counted the cost of division, in terms of weakened witness and mission. And some have experienced the cost of ongoing conflict and seek new forms of church.

"Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Pre-order here:

The presenting issue for this impasse is human sexuality, but many acknowledge that the divisions are much deeper. And in the United States, they are not unrelated to the political fault lines that shape our everyday lives.

The One Church Plan, the plan most strongly affirmed by the Council of Bishops in their May 2018 meeting, places a great value on context. It recognizes that while we are a global church, we are not monolithic. It is very difficult to do ministry in exactly the same way in Monrovia, Liberia; Miami, Florida; Montgomery, Alabama; Washington, DC; Manila, Philippines; Los Angeles, California; and Berlin, Germany. These are sharply different missional contexts.

And so the One Church Plan allows for contextualization. It removes the 1972 language related to human sexuality, but it allows local churches to continue traditionalist values in their own wedding policies, clergy profiles, and covenants with bishops and boards of ordained ministry to determine whom they will ordain. It does not require votes in local churches that would divide members from one another. It would honor conscience and religious liberty, and yet it would provide a spiritual home, in many local United Methodist churches, for LGBTQ persons who are already living and serving among us.

A reductionistic critique of the One Church Plan asserts that it is a “local option,” and this phrase is used in a negative way. I would claim, in contrast, that vital missional churches understand and live into their contexts. The United Methodist Church already allows central conferences to adapt their Books of Discipline and allows clergy and local churches in the United States a remarkable spectrum of freedoms and “options”: from supporting non-United Methodist missionaries and seminaries, to adapting baptismal, communion, and membership liturgies, to minimizing the “United Methodist” name and logo.

Why do we allow for such profound contextualization? It does preserve our unity, but more deeply it helps us to be apostolic. We focus on the calling to share the grace of Jesus Christ where we are, in the most effective and fruitful way possible!

The One Church Plan was and is deeply shaped by the mission, vision, and scope of the Commission on a Way Forward, which was authorized by the 2016 General Conference. These words in particular are crucial:

[We] will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. (“Mission, Vision and Scope,” Commission on a Way Forward)

These words could shape our life together in every local church. We want to see as much witness as possible, under the cross and flame; we want as much contextual differentiation as possible, on four continents, in urban and rural settings, in many languages and cultures; and we want to experience as much unity as possible. This unity is the work we have to do together in the months and years to come. And yet it is the call and cost of discipleship, as we bear with each other in love (Eph 4:2) for the sake of the good news that is for all people.

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