Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Church Unity: United Methodist or Untied Methodist?

I've been wanting to tackle this topic, but didn't quite know how until one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, held a synchroblog on Church unity. Her Rally to Restore Unity urges us to "take it down a notch for Jesus."

This project began partially as a result of the recent firestorm over Rob Bell's new book and John Piper's flippant response, a three-word tweet.  But it is also a response to the current climate of vitriolic and mean-spirited rhetoric among Christians, especially on the Internet. In the midst of knee-jerk reactions made possible by Facebook, Twitter, and user-friendly blog platforms, she encourages us to stop and think before we post, comment, or tweet.

Rachel is also encouraging us to stop and think before we jump into decades-old or even centuries-old debates: predestination, premillenialism, evolution, women in ministry, abortion, homosexuality.

In seminary, these debates played out in miniature form in the classroom and writ large over entire school years. During one of many section discussions, I heard a fellow student jokingly call our denomination the "Untied Methodists."

These days, especially with voting on General Conference delegates coming up, I have begun to wonder if we United Methodists are truly united. Hanging around LakeSide at Youth Annual Conference and Annual Conference for years, I heard plenty of heated discussions. Lately, though, I have really listened to my fellow churchgoers and have been disturbed by the "us" and "them" talk. It scares me that we fear and dread talking to fellow United Methodists who think differently than we do, and we even go out of our way to avoid these conversations.

Though we theme our conferences "One Body," we are factioned along ideological lines, hermeneutical commitments, and social positions. At conference, we play out our old ecclesiological disputes in terms of biblical interpretation and homosexuality. In marriage, couples often say that they have the same fight over and over again. The same thing is happening to us. Though we think we are fighting over the primacy of Scripture, it is really about the tension in our relationships with one another. Thank goodness we lay ground rules to help us behave civilly even if we cannot be kind in heated moments.

We gather, we worship, we fight, and we go home. Outside of conference, we still tiptoe around women in ministry, racial inclusion and other issues that have long been put to rest at the General and Annual Conference levels.

This pattern makes me so sad for our denomination. I am dismayed to see us locked in patterns of conflict. Can we stay together- United- while we work through bitter disputes, even as other mainline churches experience schism? Or will we become "untied"? Will we allow lines in the sand to become stronger than the ties of fellowship?

Our history shows that we can do either. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery to become the MEC and MEC South. But then in 1936, it reunited. In order to reunite, the MEC had to stop ordaining women and created the Central Conferences, which segregated the church by race. Reuniting came with a price: that price was justice for women called to ministry and African-Americans.

The story of the MEC, one of the UMC's ancestors, tells us that unity comes with a price. That price is compromise, and sometimes ethical compromise is contrary to God's demand for justice. Disunity also comes with a price. A church that breaks away loses the richness and diversity of being one body with many others who are different, and who can teach us new ways to believe.

As we prepare for another General Conference, we must pray for God's Spirit of unity. We have a lot of learning to do in order to live together harmoniously. Being ""One Body" in Christ" takes work, perseverance, courage, and love. The fruit of all that work is that our "body of Christ" is Jesus' hands and feet in the world. We must learn to abide with one another so that we can carry out God's mission.

Therefore, I propose a new action item for General Conference 2012. I would like to amend our Conference procedure to include the following: Eat. Together.

Potlucks NOT Polemics
Because you can’t argue if you’re stuffing your face.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  – Jesus


  1. So this just might be my favorite post of the rally. Great insights, great sign, great writing. I love that you made it relevant to actual events too. Thanks so much for participating!

  2. Rachel, thank you for your kind words! I'm really glad you like my blog post. :oD Alas, I am not on Twitter. But I do try to post regularly- and substantively- on Facebook. Feel free to friend me.

  3. Thanks for sharing some of the history of the UMC -- great post.

  4. Great Blog! It was really insightful! And I love your true about not being able to argue when you are stuffing your face. Food is good at sedating people...I know I'm always more on edge when I'm hungry!