Is Structural Unity Mandatory for the Church?

In a recent blog, Bishop Gary Mueller makes the case for yet another plan to resolve the conflict in The United Methodist Church. His “2 X 4 Plan” calls for two regional conferences in each part of the globe — Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States — one traditional and one centrist/progressive in each area. He sees this as a way to accommodate “the 30- 40% of The United Methodist Church in the United States that is more traditional concerning human sexuality, but wishes to stay in The United Methodist Church.”

In the course of his argument, Bishop Mueller makes the statement, “The mandatory nature of this unity is expressed in John 17:20-24, when Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and God are one.” But what does Jesus mean by this prayer for unity, and is belonging to a certain type of church structure required by Jesus’ prayer? Is any type of structural separation therefore contrary to God’s will?

If this is the understanding of Jesus’ desire for unity among believers, then we must frankly admit that every Christian alive today is living in sin, contrary to God’s will. The Christian Church around the world is structurally divided into Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox main branches. Both the Catholic and Orthodox branches have a few divisions in their branches. And of course, Protestants are divided up into thousands of denominations worldwide.

Methodism separated from Anglicanism in the late 1700’s. Anglicanism separated from Catholicism in the 1500’s. Methodism itself has experienced many separations throughout its history, notwithstanding the mergers of 1939 and 1968. The mergers have not reunited all the original branches of Methodism.

If structural unity is required of us as Christians, we should all rejoin the Roman Catholic Church and advocate for a reunion with the Orthodox Churches. To do anything less would be a violation of Jesus’ desire for us.

Biblical Separation

The Bible gives examples of separation between individuals and groups for a variety of reasons. One reason for separation is a practical one. Genesis 13 records the decision of Abram and Lot to separate from each other because the land could not support both of their flocks, and their shepherds were continually getting into fights. To avoid conflict, they separated.

Amos 3:3 asks, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Where there is no agreement on the destination (or perhaps no agreement on the traveling companion), it is impractical to go together.

Acts 15:36-41 records an instance of “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas due to differences in mission philosophy (or perhaps again disagreement over a particular traveling companion). They chose to pursue different directions.

United Methodism is experiencing conflict at the level that separation seems the only way to end the fighting. There is deep disagreement over the direction of the church, necessitating different parts of the church traveling in different directions. There is a deep difference in the mission philosophy of traditionalists and progressives, making them incompatible mission partners.

Is the Bible the divinely inspired word of God or a fallible record of human experiences with God? Is Jesus the eternal divine/human Son of God, or a human being with an extraordinary closeness to God’s Spirit? Was Jesus’ death on the cross necessary for the forgiveness and redemption of all humanity, or was it a case of divine “child abuse.” Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did the memory of his life and teachings merely inspire his disciples to think he was “spiritually alive?” Did God “create us male and female for each other,” as it says in our marriage ritual, or did God create an infinite number of gender identities and sexual orientations that are all good? Is a sexual relationship outside of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman sinful, or are such relationships between consenting adults to be welcomed and blessed? Are all people ultimately going to be “saved,” or must one “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38), “receiving him” and “believing in his name” (John 1:12) in order to experience salvation?

I could go on listing examples of deep theological disagreement within our church. Ironically, our United Methodist doctrinal standards cover all these issues, yet many clergy and even some bishops fail to conform their teaching within the doctrinal boundaries our church has established. How can we continue as one church teaching many different and conflicting ideas, with the resulting theological confusion? We are already not united.

Is the “2 X 4 Plan” Realistic?

Bishop Mueller and others are well-intentioned in proposing this plan. There is pain and grief in considering separation from The United Methodist Church, including the loss of some personal history and some meaningful relationships. Change is hard, and the future uncertain. All who wish will have a voice in determining the future new traditional Methodist denomination, but none of us can say with certainty what it will look like. Only an inaugural General Conference will have the authority to stipulate how that new denomination will function. (Contrary to popular belief, it will not be a “WCA church.”) Some long to find a “middle way” between outright separation and forced unity (although the accuracy of Bishop Mueller’s estimate of “30 to 40 percent” of U.S. United Methodists is most certainly debatable).

One must ask, however, if the solution proposed in the “2 X 4 Plan” is any more faithful to Scripture than either of the alternatives? Under the “2 X 4 Plan,” each regional conference (traditional or progressive) will have its own Book of Discipline, so the church will be operating globally with eight different Disciplines. How is this structural unity?

Under the plan, the General Conference is supposed to create a “Global Book of Discipline” that focuses on doctrine, mission, and shared heritage. As we have seen above, however, our global church does not have doctrinal agreement and cannot enforce its own doctrinal standards.

The plan calls for nearly all the general agencies to become independent, so they would not remain part of the Global United Methodist Church. About all the global church would share is a small Global Book of Discipline, a General Conference, one agency (GCFA), and financial support for UMCOR, Africa University, and the Black College Fund. Oh, and the whole church would share the name “United Methodist” and the cross and flame logo. In reality, we would be “United Methodist” in name only.

One gets the impression that, in the view of the plan’s proponents, sharing the name and some small bit of structure allows us to be faithful to Jesus’ desire for “mandatory unity” in a way that the Protocol for Separation would not. If that is all that “unity” means, it is a very shallow thing indeed.

Practically speaking, it would be miraculous if the “2 X 4 Plan” were to pass and be implemented. The legislation to implement the plan has not been submitted to General Conference and has not been translated. This legislation would be every bit as complicated as the Protocol legislation, yet the delegates would undoubtedly not be able to review it in advance of Minneapolis.

Furthermore, the plan would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference delegates and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Besides the fact that this ratification would add two years to the process of resolving our church’s conflict, the consensus around the church now seems to favor separation, rather than another attempt to find unity where there is none. It would take a massive shift in the opinion of the church to move toward a supermajority support for this plan. If it passed General Conference but failed to achieve ratification in the annual conferences, we would continue to be locked in conflict for another four years — an untenable situation.

Real Unity

For centuries, the church has interpreted Jesus’ prayer for unity as desiring spiritual unity among believers, not structural unity of the church. Structural unity is based on deep agreement on the essentials of doctrine, the basic outline of how the church is governed, and the direction and nature of the church’s mission. Spiritual unity allows believers of different denominations to consider each other to be part of the Body of Christ and to work together cooperatively in areas of missional agreement. United Methodists do so all the time with Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Wesleyan Methodists of many different stripes.

Let us pursue true unity across the broad Body of Christ and not fall for the false ideal of “mandatory unity” based on some shared structure. Such structural unity across the whole Body of Christ is unattainable in today’s world. Chasing it would prevent us from realistically resolving the crisis in our church and would hinder our ability to engage in effectively loving God and our worldwide neighbors.

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