Make us one: Church unity and the Trinity

September 14th, 2016

Conversations on the nature of unity, the future of the "united" in "The United Methodist Church," and what our role is in dividing or remaining together are legion, and we should probably be more reluctant to add yet another voice into the cacophony. In a recent open letter to “the United Methodist bishops and commissioner, lay and clergy” in the publication Lifewatch, Paul Stallsworth mourns what he considers as proof that The United Methodist Church lacks a coherent ecclesiology reflected in the ongoing conversations about potential church division. He then proceeds to offer some claims for how a more coherent ecclesiology could be imagined. These claims argue for a particular vision of unity, one which is both increasingly at the center of our ecclesial conversations, and which is also largely unhelpful. 

Looking through our available doctrinal and disciplinary resources,  Stallsworth offers a rough framework for what he feels is a more robust ecclesiology. One claim reads, “God gives unity to The United Methodist Church, and God has given The United Methodist Church the ecclesiological truths to maintain that unity.”

Such a claim imagines unity as something maintained denominationally by a right ordering of truth claims, and yet any such understanding of unity does not appear in the traditional creeds, our liturgy, or our Articles of Religion. What does appear overwhelmingly is a reference to "the Church," driven by our creeds that bring us to confess:

"I believe in the Holy Spirit...I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."

In our quest for self-preservation—or perhaps more problematically, self-justification—we might wish that the above confession could be interchanged with "I believe in one, holy, and apostolic United Methodist Church." But no matter how we might desire that substitution, it is not so.

What we do find is that this credal affirmation offers a richer vision for unity than we could imagine on our own. For instance, as we profess belief in the Holy Spirit we discover that to say the church is "one" is not fundamentally an epistemological claim. Put differently, it is not a claim that comes with right knowledge or the maintenance of some ordered set of beliefs.

Instead, to confess our creed is to receive the gift of the church's witness. To confess the church is "one" leads us also to recognize unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. To confess the church as "one" is a gift from the One who comes to guide us in all truth. We are not one because we say so, but because the Spirit makes us so, and we affirm that unity as we affirm our belief. Unity is therefore primarily a claim of being, not knowing. After all, this is the way the words run: we are one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world—not one in what we know, but one in what we are.

For those whose imaginations are formed by our creeds, themselves formed and condensed through the witness of Scripture, unity becomes a transformative process. Perhaps our current struggle is evidence of our attempts to live inside of that transformative process, and our willingness to split a sign of our impatience and bent toward violence. To be made one is a matter of regular confession and prayerful petition directed toward the Spirit who comes to transform, to perfect, to make us more unified and more holy. To be made one is therefore a matter of time, a work that unfolds in us. 

This process of Spirit's unification is exactly what Scripture teaches us to imagine. In the span of several chapters in the Acts of the Apostles, the church goes from a Jewish sect guarded by the Jewish disciples of the risen Jewish Messiah to a body that includes even the Gentiles—a startling, transforming work that Paul admits appears contrary to God's very nature in Romans 11.

What we might miss in this process of Spirit's unifying work from Acts 10 to Acts 15 is how surprising it is even for those involved. From the beginning where Peter incredulously receives the command to "take and eat," to the Jerusalem Council silenced by Peter's witness, no one seems to expect or anticipate what the Spirit is doing among the Gentiles. And yet in spite of their surprise and through reflecting on what they have seen the Spirit do before, they realize that what is happening must also be the Spirit's work.

Bringing forward this witness from Scripture, we see that unity is not a static ideal but a state of being, one possibility affected by the Spirit. Put differently, unity is a gift. And gifts are not objects to be maintained but treasured, not hoarded or guarded but joyously received. To be made one is the generous gift of the One who makes Three One, a sign of the superfluous, creative love that cannot be bound by our desire to control, understand, or maintain.

All of the rhetoric around "unity" feels more than a little like the serpent's temptation. "Grasp at this, and you will be like God." We affirm that God is one, and yet when we grasp at what God is, we inevitably stumble and fall. We might have thought that lesson learned, and yet here we are again.

We would do well then, to remember Paul's celebration of the surprising grace he sees in Christ, witnessed in his letter to the Philippians. Jesus, who is of one being with God, did not consider his unity with God something to be exploited. Instead, he freely emptied himself to take on our flesh, that our flesh might become one with God.

And maybe Methodists are right to be reluctant toward having a fully formed ecclesiology, choosing instead in our better moments to focus not on what makes us one, but who. Doctrine has never been the source of our unity in the church catholic; instead, it has been a characteristic descriptor of our oneness. Doctrine has been born out of the church’s witness to the oneness and the diversity that we have found in the revelation of the Trinity, and doctrine has then helped us to describe who we are to the world. When wielded as an internal measure of compliance to orthodoxy, doctrine becomes a double-edged sword likely to cut us to ribbons. To erect a vision of unity around a “fully formed ecclesiology” is to miss the boat, returning once again to unity being a matter of right knowing and not right being. Perhaps “fully formed” ecclesiologies are like so many other things we thought we knew about God. Those things all died with Christ on the cross.

If unity is not something to be grasped like a tempting fruit, but something to receive with joy and thanksgiving like a body broken and given, maybe we should be ready to be surprised. Maybe we should continue to confess our faith together anxiously, nervously standing on the balls of our feet, instead of resting on our backsides in our pews and tossing around our arguments for how best to keep ourselves in power. Maybe we should listen again to the witness of Scripture that teaches us to be surprised by how much God wants to make us all one in Christ, and the ends to which Spirit will go to bring us together.

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