An Independence Day Message for United Methodists Pastors
The United Methodist Church is divided. The presenting issue of human sexuality is merely a symptom of that which is the true source of our division. What is that source? Our deep divisions are rooted primarily in how we view Scripture.
While it’s important to validate the deep root of our division, this writing is not devoted to how we view the authority of the Old and New Testaments. Rather, this is about something deeply flawed in our ongoing narrative about our future. This post is devoted to asking the question, “When is unity at all cost too costly?”
These words are not intended as is an endorsement of officially dividing the United Methodist Church. It is, nonetheless, a treatise on the importance of understanding that separating is not always the improper thing to do. It is written out of hearing many colleagues from every theological stripe expressing; “I am not for dividing the church.” This is often said with a sense of sacredness; as if it would be a grave sin to consider otherwise. What if our sense of sacredness is misdirected? What if we have made a “sacred cow” out of preserving our institution as we presently know it? What if, in our attempt to not divide, we are blinding ourselves to that which would ultimately be sacred for everyone?
Think on these words from the late, Charles Spurgeon . . .
“If good men were all for union and bad men for division, or vice versa, that would simplify things for us. Or if it could be shown that God always unites and the devil always divides it would be easy to find our way around in this confused and confusing world. But that is not how things are. Light and darkness are incompatible; to try to have both in the same place at once is to try the impossible and end by having neither one nor the other, but dimness rather, and obscurity.
Truth is slain to provide a feast to celebrate the marriage of heaven and hell, and all to support a concept of unity which has no basis in the Word of God. When confused sheep start over a cliff the individual sheep can save himself only by separating from the flock. Perfect unity at such a time can only mean total destruction for all. Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar. Maybe what we need today is not more union but some wise and courageous division.” Charles Spurgeon
This July 4th , our country will celebrate its independence. This independence broke forth because the necessity of separation was born out of higher principles: No taxation without representation. This historic separation propelled a people into an unrivaled era of stable government and prosperity as new nation.
Does July 4th not serve as a reminder? While separations are painful, they can also catalyze people to move into a greater day.
At the 2016 General Conference, legislation was about to hit the floor to officially divide the United Methodist Church. Before this legislation took on inevitable momentum, a commission was proposed to find a way forward for the church. That moment birthed what we now know as The Commission on a Way Forward.
We are still early in the journey. Very early. Nonetheless, I would caution us around some of the characterizations emerging in our dialogs. When persons in prominent places of leadership publically make statements declaring “Why I believe the United Methodist Church will Remain United,” as the Commission on a Way Forward is in the midst of its ongoing work, it glosses over a blaring reality: We are not united. We are divided. That’s why the commission was formed.
There are many things one could point to that are flawed in our present narrative. One of those things is the notion that formally dividing the church is somehow, tragic.
The tragedy is not that we would formally divide as the United Methodist Church. The greater tragedy would be that we would continue to be enablers of our present plight. What got us here will not be what takes us out of here.
Our division is our disease. Division forces systems to become insular (forsaking mission in order to give great attention to ongoing division). Division drains precious resources (in the tens of millions). Division drains us of precious time (irreplaceable). Division bounds us to the continual forty-year ground hog day horror of wasted energy. Our present predicament is costly (Up to $4.3 million). Division is our billion pound albatross. “Unity at all cost” is a cruel taskmaster. Formally dividing the church would not be the greatest tragedy. Continuing to enable division which paralyzes the mission of the church would be our ultimate tragedy.
Contrary to what some voices say, unity at all cost is not virtuous. Unity at all cost, in fact, is damaging. As we throw away time and energy and resources, we throw away our present and our future. As vast amounts of energy are expended for a unity that is not tenable, we passengers fail to notice how the ship keeps sinking lower in the water. While laboring to save the future, our enabling a false peace serves to destroy it.
There was a day when the church recognized that the enemy was without. Today, the enemy is not only without, the enemy is within. Our enemy is our lack of resolve in bringing our disunity to a head. If we must separate, this would not be our greatest tragedy. It would, however, be a great tragedy to preserve our present reality. As we consider the future, Come, let us reason together . .
Unity at All Cost is not centered in the Art of Peacemaking
Jesus said, “ Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Notice two things: Notice what Jesus did not say. Notice what Jesus did say.
Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers.”
A peacekeeper enables a false peace by glossing over the underlying division and thus leaves the division intact. A peacekeeper lacks the inner resolve necessary for peacemaking. A peacekeeper avoids the short-term pain necessary which creates an authentic, long-term peace.
Jesus did say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
A peacemaker is radically different from a peacekeeper. Peacemakers will do the painful things that are necessary for the sake of a true and enduring peace. Peacemakers don’t do superficial. Peacemakers don’t gloss things over. Peacemakers go to the root. And because they go to the root, a true and authentic peace is created.
Unity at All Cost is not centered in the Testimony of Jesus
While Jesus prayed for the unity of the church in John 17, Jesus was not praying for the enabling of a false peace. If Jesus had been willing to enable a false peace, He would never have made statements like these:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34 (NASB)
“For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Matthew 10:35-36 (NIV)
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Mark 3:24 (NASB)
And Jesus would have never done things like this:
“And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” John 2:14-16 (NASB)
Unity at All Cost is not centered in the Testimony of Scripture
The Apostle Paul did not enable a “unity at all cost.” He instructs a New Testament church to dismiss a man from the church for a time because he is violating God’s standards for human sexuality in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.
This is also illustrated when Paul instructs the church to confront people in the church who are divisive.
“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”
The standard is as follows, if you are going to behave in a manner that constantly divides the church, then the one being divisive needs to be separated from the church. Paul does not enable a “unity at all costs.”
Unity at All Cost is not centered in Our Tradition
In 1740, John Wesley separated the Calvinist from the Methodist movement. John Wesley did not embrace “unity at all cost.”
John Wesley was Armenian. George Whitfield became Calvinist. While John Wesley and George Whitfield debated and yet loved one another as members of the body of Christ, they separated. Neither of them embraced “unity at all cost.”
Unity at All Cost is not centered in Christian History
Martin Luther did not hold to “unity at all cost.” If Luther had taken the position of “unity at all cost,” there would have been no reformation.
If the Moravians, who had an indelible impact on John Wesley, had held to a belief in “unity at all cost”, there would have been no Moravian movement.
As we celebrate July 4th this year, let’s be mindful that it is not always wrong to separate. There are times when principles and convictions demand it. Our forefathers and foremothers realized it. They knew that unity at all cost was too costly. So should we.
We are not lacking virtue if we empower portions of the United Methodist Church, in time, to go their separate ways. We may, in fact, be demonstrating the highest of virtues in light of our present plight. As Charles Spurgeon reminds us, “Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar. Maybe what we need today is not more union but some wise and courageous division.”
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC, and founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman, Patrick Lawler, founded the Patricia B. Hammonds Girl’s Home for 60 orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The home is operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the North Alabama Conference Discipleship Team. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111
i Matthew 5:9; New International Version; HarperCollins Christian Publishing
ii Titus 3:10; Ibid