Unity in diversity is a common rallying cry for all kinds of institutions and organizations including the church. I love the idea of unity in diversity. One cannot look at our one creation in all of its differences and not see a God who relishes diversity. In Paul’s image of the church as the one Body of Christ with different parts, he puts forward the idea that the diversity of the church is essential for the unity of its mission (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
But the question that needs to be asked, and too often is not, is this: As wonderful as diversity is, how much diversity can unity tolerate? Is there a time when too much diversity undermines unity? United Methodists like to quote the following dictum attributed to John Wesley that he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity” (St. Augustine didn’t say it either). Even though Wesley never said it, I think it is a quote Christians should live by, but here is the problem– just what are the essentials needed for church unity? I think a case can be made historically that the church is not at its best when it makes the non-essentials essential, and the essentials non-essential. But what happens when God’s people become bitterly divided in trying to decide what unity requires?
In our United Methodist Church, we have been arguing for many years over the matter of homosexuality. I know folks on both sides of the debate who are passionate and take this matter personally. I also know people of good will and good intentions on both sides of this issue. I stopped participating in the discussion a few years ago because I was not going to engage in what often degenerated from a good and healthy debate into a raucous argument where people on both sides ascribed nefarious motives to those with whom they disagreed. Some people say I’m too trusting. So be it. I would rather assume the best in people until clear evidence to the contrary presents itself. Others say the issue is too important not to call out others with whom they disagree. It’s time to “call a spade a spade.” That may be true. So be it. But I simply will not participate in character assassination. I have friends who are faithful and well-intentioned disciples of Jesus Christ who belong to the Wesley Covenant Association and the Reconciling Ministries Network. I will not participate in the demagoguery that assaults them. There have been good and helpful discussions as Annual Conferences have intentionally hosted way forward gatherings, but my fear is that when the rubber meets the road in actual decision-making, there will be much more heat than light. In this post, I am not re-entering the debate itself, but rather raising a serious question as to the relationship between unity and diversity. We must avoid an extreme form of unity that results in a sterile and manipulative uniformity, but at the same time we dare not emphasize a broad and shallow diversity that undermines our identity as the church that will inevitably muddle our mission. So, what are we to do?
First, let me say that I am extremely suspicious of the way the debate on this issue is often presented; that is, we have a minority of traditionalists and a minority of progressives on the extreme ends and a large percentage of centrists who are willing to live and let live and leave this matter up to local congregations, pastors, and Annual Conferences. I have no doubt that there are some “centrists” among us who have noble intentions, but I am not positive that the majority of UMs practically come under that label when it comes to homosexuality. I have spoken with persons who say they are centrists, which means they support gay marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, but they believe there are other issues that are just as or more important. I have also had discussions with self-proclaimed centrists who do not support a change in the discipline, but say they are centrists because they do not believe we should label homosexual orientation as the sin. It is its practice that is not acceptable.
I think the argument that the vast majority of UMs are centrists on homosexuality is for two reasons: First, many who claim to be centrists are conflict avoiders who just don’t want to deal with the controversy; and second, they have latched onto the current fad of being moderate because they don’t want to be perceived as extremists. The polarization of the church and the culture is wearying to many, myself included, so to claim centrality is seen as a viable alternative. The problem is centrism often hides the true reality of the situation. The centrist majority is, I believe, more of an illusion than anything else. There is not a large centrist coalition as is often claimed.
Second, the reason we UMs have been arguing over homosexuality for decades is that for many on both sides of this issue, it is an essential required for the unity of the church, and neither side finds it possible to make it a non-essential. Do I really need to demonstrate this? All one needs to do is to read the arguments on both sides to know the church’s position on this matter is not a non-essential. I very much appreciate our Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Way Forward for their hard, sincere, and often thankless work, but if I am correct in what I have written thus far, the local option will only take the fight to the Annual Conferences each year instead of the General Conference quadrennially (and there will continue to be a fight there as well). I might very well be wrong, but if the One Church model is adopted, I envisage is a deeply fractured church that will continue to fight over this issue every year taking it to a local level that will make the argument even more personal than it already is.
By the way, we continue to talk as if we might find ourselves in schism blaming the other side as the schismatics. Friends, we already are in schism and have been so for some time. But like a marriage that is already over even though the couple still lives in the same house, has not filed for divorce, and refuses to admit what will be inevitable, our denomination keeps chugging along toward a divorce that we continue to deny. How that divorce will show itself is not clear; but to some of us that the divorce is coming seems unavoidable. (I wrote on the UMC as a marriage of irreconcilable differences a while ago. You can read that post here.)
It is extremely important to note that two of the biggest schisms in the church– the East-West schism of around 1054 and the Western Schism of 1378– did not happen with a mutually consenting vote. In the former schism both sides mutually excommunicated each other, and the latter schism occurred when more than one man claimed to be pope. Schism happens without formal deliberation. Schism happens because everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Third, I come back full circle to my earlier point: the fact that we continue to argue over this issue, the fact that a special General Conference has been called to specifically deal with this matter reveals the essential nature of human sexuality for the unity of the church; and no amount of contextualization will make it less essential at least for the foreseeable future. Contextualization is an important consideration, but it is also a tricky thing; for every issue, every subject, every concern has more than one context. The local context of the church is no more or less important than the global context of the church.
I know there are those who disagree with me and I welcome your thoughts in the comments section as long as the discussion remains civil.
So, how much diversity can unity tolerate? I believe the United Methodist Church will discover the answer to that question in this particular context very shortly.
I am praying daily for the church and the denomination I love.