United or Unity?
Updated: Dec 8, 2018
The second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC) is schismatized. For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB). In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times. He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward. The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.
This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’? The New Testament speaks of unity in two regards: horizontal and vertical unity. Why do not Bishop Ough and the prevailing church-chatter cut to the heart of unity? Why little mention of transcendent unity?
First, look at horizontal unity. Horizontal unity is Peter exhorting believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This is unity on the human plane. It speaks of human
inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves. This unity must characterize our communities of faith. Unity on the human plane is the unity which Bishop Ough seeks.
Second, vertical unity speaks of oneness with God. What is this ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness? It is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son. Jesus says the believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son. He prays in John 17:21, ‘That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’ Further, Jesus prays, in John17:23, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’ This is the oneness and unity that comes only by believing in Jesus Christ. Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.
The apostle Paul confirms this when he says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’(1 Corinthians 6: 17). The New Testament word ‘united’ used here means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’. Paul can use it in reference to sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ. Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” is intimately joined indissolubly with Christ.
This is vertical, transcendent unity! Strange that oneness with Jesus Christ is neglected in current talks on unity? It is even odder since vertical unity, and only vertical unity, issues in horizontal unity. When grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ vertical unity triggers the reconciling of antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, Gentile and Jew, slave and free, and male and female. ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16) By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12). Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ. Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17: 21) only works in this light. The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit. The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power. Only now can there be oneness in diversity.
Many argue today we in the UM Church with radically different opinions should be bound with unity in the bond of love. They famously quote John Wesley saying when we cannot think alike, we still ought ‘to think and let think’. They egregiously ignore the preeminence for John Wesley of an intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith. Talking of brotherly-sisterly unity implies already answering affirmatively Wesley’s questions: ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever? Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ Vertical oneness is first-order business. It cannot be assumed or ignored. Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!
Martin Luther was violently exasperated with the great scholar Erasmus who with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity - but neglected Jesus Christ! Of what consequence is ‘unity’ without Jesus Christ? Of what significance is ‘unity’ if we are not first united with the Savior Jesus Christ, God over all? No transcendent union, no unity!
Rev. Dr. H. O. (Tom) Thomas