The Importance of Unity for Christians

Jesus prayed for unity on the night of his betrayal. His prayer that all of his disciples might be one (John 17:21) is followed in the next chapter by Judas and the soldiers arresting Jesus in the garden. The contrast is strong.

A similar contrast shows up in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he says in the fourth chapter, “I beg you 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.” Yet, a few short verses later he warns that disciples should not be tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, they should not live as the Gentiles live, and then, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Clearly the unity for which Paul was pleading included challenges from the outside culture and disagreements within the body of Christ. At the same time we must avoid errors in doctrine and practice. The contrast is strong.

United Methodists have a deep commitment to the unity of the church. Article VI of our constitution makes it clear:

Article VI. Ecumenical Relations—As part of the church universal, The United Methodist Church believes that the Lord of the church is calling Christians everywhere to strive toward unity; and therefore it will pray, seek, and work for unity at all levels of church life: through world relationships with other Methodist churches and united churches related to The Methodist Church or The Evangelical United Brethren Church, through councils of churches, and through plans of union and covenantal relationships with churches of Methodist or other denominational traditions.

We do not claim to be the whole church of Jesus Christ, but we do claim to be part of it. We also believe that the unity of the Church is God’s will and we should do all that we can to strengthen that unity.

United Methodists have always been a pragmatic people. This has been one of our traits since John Wesley sought a union of evangelical clergy in 1761. His effort was centered around the three essential doctrines of the way of salvation, repentance, justification by faith and sanctification. His 1786 sermon against schism is quite clear. Yet two years earlier he had split the American part of the Methodist Connexion into a separate church. The contrast is strong.

In the 20th century United Methodists were at the forefront of ecumenical efforts, including the founding and leadership of councils of churches, bi-lateral and multi-lateral dialogues and efforts. Lately our best thinking has turned away from organic union and toward mutual recognition of members and ministries. The fruit of this has been deeper relationships understood as full communion without the organizational commitments of organic union.

Unity is being discussed by many persons and groups in the UMC today. I have been quite disappointed in the quality of most of the conversations. Far too often leaders are using emotion-laden terms without clear definitions or deep understanding. Toward that end, I want to try to raise the level of conversation by offering greater clarity about the term “unity.”

There are various types of unity currently being practiced within the body of Christian churches. At the most broad, there is a type of unity binding together all Trinitarian churches. For example, United Methodists and Roman Catholics recognize each other’s baptisms.

There is a closer unity binding Protestants who recognize the authority of Scripture and the number of sacraments in similar ways. This would describe the relationship between the Presbyterian churches and the UMC.

There is an even closer unity among those who are committed to full communion and the mutual recognition of ministers, such as between the UMC and ELCA.

There is unity even closer than that between Wesleyan bodies that share the same doctrines and have similar organization structures. The UMC relationship with the AME, AMEZ, CME and many of our affiliated autonomous churches would fit into this category.

The unity currently espoused in United Methodist Church is expressed in paragraph 101 of our Book of Discipline. There it says, “The General Book of Discipline reflects our Wesleyan way of serving Christ through doctrine and disciplined Christian life. We are a worldwide denomination united by doctrine, discipline, and mission through our connectional covenant. The General Book of Discipline expresses that unity.” Our church is currently evaluating whether we are currently in schism or in unity and what is our best way forward. Consideration of unity is crucial in this conversation, and a nuanced understanding of it will help all participants.

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