Why Unity Won’t be Reached Through Compromise
Let’s begin our journey with a theological term: Christology. Christology is what we believe to be true about Jesus’ nature and purpose and where we believe reliable testimony to that purpose and nature resides. I must confess that I don’t have all the answers but I do know this: A weak Christology will provide insufficient fire power to overcome the disunity currently entrenched in the American church.
I think one of the real dangers of not knowing history, is that we incorrectly perceive our cultural challenges and problems to be uniquely our own. In reality, Solomon was right in Ecclesiastes, there is “nothing new under the sun.” There have always been problems, divisions and trials within the “little c” churches who comprise the “Big C” Church and there always will be. People of faith and conscience have never, do not currently and will never agree in the future on all matters of Biblical interpretation, practical application of Scripture and the doctrines extracted from them. If you think about it, there are not that many issues that differentiate one Christian faith tradition from the next. Church traditions today primarily differ on how to how to run the church, employ pastors, properly serve communion, how the Holy Spirit works, theology around baptism, and a handful of doctrinal issues. People will send me personal messages with some frequency in which they inquire about clarifying divisive and complex theological issues. My response is always, “The church has been debating this for about two thousand years; there is an outside chance we are not going to clear this up in a Facebook message.”
That the mainline American church is in decline is undeniable. It is actually more like a slow leak than a blowout but the tires have been leading for decades and the rim is almost on the ground. That the mainline American church is not united around many social issues is equally undeniable. I think our decline and disunity are intrinsically linked. A mainline religious tradition whether it be Episcopal, UCC, Lutheran, Presbyterian or United Methodist that in disunity, discord, discontinuity and disharmony will certainly not be attractive to searching people. No one wants more “dis” in their lives.
I believe the task of the church circa 2019 is to provide a real time navigational map toward Christian unity. I received a correspondence in response to blog I posted about the state of the United Methodist denomination. I concluded my blog by stating, “I truly love this church but I am concerned that the battle lines have been drawn in the wrong places. There will be no winners if the church who once “organized to fight the devil” continues to “organize to fight each other.” The writer asked me if I could support a compromise proposal that some are advocating in United Methodism. The idea is for the right to give a little bit and the left to soften their agenda as we enter a special session of General Conference 2019. I told him I could not support it. The right simply can’t compromise on matters that amount to apostasy for them and the left will only be content with the compromise for a minute and a half before wanting to reload their full agenda. That is the whole problem of theological compromise. It settles nothing, only delays the inevitable and prolongs the divisive spirit. It is a manufactured unity that only provides a temporary smokescreen from the troubling reality in front of us. I often think to myself when I am inundated with requests from the right, left and middle to support their perspectives, “There must be another way” and then I remember, didn’t Jesus say HE was the way? Methodist founder John Wesley wrote, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” If there is going to be unity in this church, the United Methodist denomination or the American church, it will have to come from finding our identity in Christ and Christ alone. If our identity is found in our social or political positions, we will fail but if our identity is found in Christ, we enter into what is already there. We don’t have to invent a way, fabricate a way or make a way, Jesus is the way.
Paul did not write the letter we call Ephesians to addresses specific problems in the Church of Ephesus. I believe this to be a circular letter that was circulated among all the churches with whom Paul had influence in the Roman Empire. Being such, it does not address micro things, it addresses macro things and the main thing it addresses is disunity in the body of Christ. I love William Barclay on this, “In this world without Christ, wherever we look there is nothing but disunity. That disunity is not God’s purpose; God purposed the universe to be a harmony and not a disharmony; and this disunity can only become a unity, and this disharmony can only become a harmony, when all things and all men and all powers in heaven and earth are united in Christ.” I find it interesting that Jesus never defined his followers or his church by their stands on social or political positions. Some of his disciples did, but he did not. They were defined by the person of Jesus and he told them to love each other despite their differences and then people would know “you are my disciples.” Let’s drill down into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and find out what God might be saying to us today.
Ephesians 3: 14-21
14 When I think of the wisdom and scope of God’s plan, I fall to my knees and pray There is more going on in the Big C church than ecclesiastical sensibilities circa 2019. Our issues are often so important to us that we demand they be addressed and those who fall into line we deem “relevant” and those who refuse are deemed “irrelevant.” In Jesus’ time the prevailing issue of the day was Roman occupation of Israel. Had Jesus focused his ministry on this, the Gospels would read to us today much like Leviticus or Isaiah. But Jesus didn’t focus on relevant things, he focused on universal things. No matter how big the issues of his day seemed to the people to whom he preached, Jesus refused to be seduced away from his stated mission, “To seek and to save the lost.”
16 I pray He will give you inner strength from the Holy Spirit Let’s face it, the church needs strength today. Not the braggadocios posturing of Social Media but the inner strength that comes from Christian character. When Paul prayed for “inner” strength, he tapped into a familiar Greek concept. The Greeks viewed the inner man as one’s reason or the way we think; conscience our inner guidance system and will, the thing in us that prompts actions in congruence with our reason and conscience. These all merge to form what I call Christian character. Inner strength. How is this character developed?
17 And I pray Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust him. May your roots go deep into the soil of God’s love. The Greek word translated home denotes a permanent, not temporary dwelling. I think we can all relate to times when we gave Jesus temporary dwelling but then began to close off the parts of the house to which we offered him access. So the big idea is that as Christ permanently dwells within us and does his work within us, we grow in Christian character. I find as I get more comfortable in the “skin” of my faith, that I more naturally share it on one hand and I am less defensive about it on the other. I love to tell people, “I am an orthodox Christian but I’m not in a bad mood about it.”
18 And may God enable you to understand the height, depth and breadth of God’s love I love the three dimensional aspect of this verse! As Christ dwells in us and his character takes root in us, our understanding is not just added to, it is multiplied! When you think about the difference between 2 and 3 you have one thing, but when you think about the difference between the second and third powers you have something else entirely! I have been a Christian for almost thirty-five years and I honestly can’t say my political or social positions have changed all that much but I can tell you that my understanding of the height, depth and breadth of God’s love has expanded exponentially.
19 And when you experience God’s unfathomable love, you will be given a fullness of life and power that comes from God Paul now says that the love of Christ does not just produce character and understanding in us but it produces abundant life and power! Immature Christians want to fuss, argue, defend and pontificate. They are like yippy little dogs that won’t stop barking but mature Christians walk in love and power. Grizzly bears really don’t have to yip.
20 By God’s work within us, He is able to accomplish more than we could ever ask or hope I can’t unify the American church or even my own United Methodist church but I can allow Jesus to do his work in me. And if you allow Jesus to do his work in you, the Jesus we share will bind our hearts together. Unity if it arrives, will have to come one person at a time!
21 May Christ be given glory in the church forever I think the boldest thing the American church can do in 2019 is to stop letting the culture set our agenda and allow Jesus to set it. I think the single boldest thing a pastor in 2019 can do is choose to not get caught up in the polarizing issues of our culture and simply focus on Jesus. It is not lost on me that some of the most polarized things dividing the “little c” church today are things Jesus did not deem important enough to mention! Others issues are central to the Christian faith and we are called to defend them. Regardless, we are called to treat one another with civility, kindness and due respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What do we have in front of us? A divided and underachieving American church.
Four Convictions Around Unity
1) Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by him.
2) The person of Jesus is the most reliable testament to God and the Bible is the most reliable testament to Jesus.
3) Love must be the defining characteristic of the Christian community.
4) We don’t all have to agree on everything to go to church together but we DO have to agree on items 1-3.
These short scriptures end this blog far better than I ever could. In this passage Paul used the metaphor of clothing. Clothing is something we choose to put on, for good reason to be sure, but we must choose it. It is not standard equipment. He is referring to a life united in Christ.
“In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” -Colossians 3: 11-15 (NLT)
Unity in the church will not be achieved through compromise, it will only be achieved through Christ.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist in the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.