There is, among Protestants, a seemingly unavoidable urge to divide. The Reformation did not so much Reform as it did fracture the Church, and like a glass bowl breaking in slow motion we continue this process even today, five hundred years later. I’m certainly not suggesting that the protests of the Reformation were illegitimate, but the principle of sola Scriptura, intended to reform the Church by prying authority away from the magisterium, created a situation in which communities quickly began to split off from one another over matters related to scriptural interpretation. Ever since, we who participate in the Protestant traditions of the Christian faith have split off from one another, seeking the ever-elusive ideal of a church that finally gets it right. At some point, however, we have to ask, “When does it stop?”
Recently, Jack Jackson of Claremont School of Theology argued for a division of the UMC over the issue of homosexuality. Dr. Jackson is not the only such voice calling for division. Many other people believe that our differences over this issue are irreconcilable. I don’t know what the future holds regarding this debate, but I believe that dividing the UMC, and thus further dividing Christ’s holy Church, is the wrong answer.
On both sides of this debate, people quote scripture selectively in order to legitimate their positions. What I don’t hear in this debate are the numerous NT passages, particularly in the letters of Paul, urging unity among Christians. Paul upbraids the believers in Corinth for dividing into factions: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). In response to reports that the Corinthians have divided into factions, Paul asks facetiously, “Has Christ been divided?” In Ephesians believers are urged “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:1-6). And the point of quoting the beautiful kenosis hymn of Phil 2:5-11 is to urge believers to unity. The NRSV translates 2:5 as “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” but in translating the passage in this way we may miss the point. Paul is urging them to “Let the same mind be among you [pl.] that was in Christ Jesus.” Among Christ’s followers, we are to share the mind of Christ, which will lead us to live out Paul’s instructions to the community: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3).
There are many other passages in the NT expressing the same idea. God’s will for the Church is not division, but unity. In our attempts to be faithful in the UMC, let us bear in mind that whatever God’s will around issues of human sexuality, the unity of the Church is a scriptural theme that is as important as any other moral virtue.