Many people and caucus groups in our United Methodist Church these days are talking about words like “schism” and “amicable separation” and other ways of dividing our denomination. Why? Because, we have deep differences over issues like human sexuality, the authority and interpretation of Scripture and the application of our Social Principles. In the midst of such discussions, perhaps it is helpful to focus upon the things that unite us.
Here is my list:
- We are united by our faith in Jesus Christ. Once we become professing members who join two thousand years of followers of Jesus, we become a part of the Body of Christ and we discover our unity with all other believers. Our unity in Christ is a gift we receive, it is not an organizational reality we achieve.
- We are united by our common mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Despite our many differences of opinion on a variety of topics, when we focus upon our mission, we discover a unity which gives us power to achieve that mission. That was obvious at our Indiana Annual Conference Session when 201 congregations came forward to declare their desire to be one of our New Points of Light in the coming year and to start new worship services to reach new people. That wonderful response included people from different church sizes, differing theological perspectives and a variety of ministry styles – but they were united by a desire to fulfill our common mission.
- We are united by our compassion ministries. Every time there is a disaster anywhere in the world, United Methodists join together to respond with care, material goods and hands-on efforts. At such moments, no one asks about differing theological perspectives. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and other ministries of compassion through our United Methodist Church are offered to all peple – not just those with whom we agree.
- We are united by our Wesleyan General Rules, summarized by Bishop Rueben Job in Three Simple Rules as: Do no harm, do good and stay in love with God. From the beginning of the Wesleyan revival, those rules have governed the way Methodist people work together, and we would do well to focus upon those rules in our discussions about difficult issues.
- We are united by our commitment to vital congregations. In fact, our UMC is focused upon how the various conference structures can strengthen the ministry of our local congregations, and not the other way around. Or as we have said it here in Indiana, the conference exists for the sake of the congregations, the congregations do not exist for the sake of the conference. That’s why talk of our being “congregational or connectional” is a false dichotomy. We are both. We are a connection of congregations united for our global mission, so our congregations are really what I call “global churches” – churches which are both local and global.
- We are united by our desire to have our congregations and our supporting structure exhibit these characteristics of fruitfulness, as described by Bishop Robert Schnase in Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical hospitality, Passionate worship, Intentional faith development, Risk-taking mission and service, and Extravagant generosity.
- We are united by our Wesleyan understanding of God’s grace, namely Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace and Sanctifying Grace. We are not a “doctrinal” church in the narrow sense of that word; rather we focus upon discovering and living in the grace that God offers to all of us in Jesus Christ.
There are probably other things which unite us, and we need to focus upon the things that unite rather than focusing upon the things that divide us.
My wife and I just celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary, and I can tell you that such a long-term marriage does not happen by focusing upon our differences, or by throwing around words like “divorce” or ugly descriptions of one another. We have stayed married by focusing upon the love, commitment and blessings that unite us.
I invite all United Methodists to focus upon the things that unite us, just as John Wesley himself said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”