The potential for separation in The United Methodist Church has sparked a lot of thinking and discussion regarding unity. Appeals are made to Wesley’s sermon on Catholic Spirit. This discussion is handicapped, however, by widespread imprecision of thinking and a failure to take into account the variety of spheres or levels of unity. Each sphere carries with it different expectations and levels of agreement on “core issues” versus “peripheral opinions.” Clarifying the different spheres of unity can help us think clearly about what level of agreement is necessary at different points.
One sphere of unity involves our commonality as human beings. This is often expressed as “everyone is a child of God.” This is not technically correct, as the Bible refers to those who are children of God being those who put their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (see John 1:12-13, 3:1-8). But as Christians, we can say that every person is created in the image of God, a “son of Adam and daughter of Eve” to use the words of C. S. Lewis. As human beings, we share the same physical, mental, and emotional makeup; we have similar hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We share a common humanity, regardless of gender, race, or nationality. But we have many differences, as well: differences in personality, religious beliefs, and political philosophy among many others. We don’t expect agreement in these areas, even while affirming the unity we have as human beings. This is the level at which we address issues of human rights and social justice.
Another sphere of unity we have is our unity as Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ. Primarily, this unity is a gift of God through our shared relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, as expressed in Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17:20-23). This unity is expressed in shared doctrine, based on the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Within this unity, however, there are many different denominations or groups of believers. Some believe in bishops, others decide issues congregationally, and some have a pope and church hierarchy that is determinative. Some believe that Holy Communion becomes the body and blood of Jesus, while others hold it is purely symbolic. Some baptize infants, while others insist on only baptizing people who can affirm their faith for themselves. Despite all these differences, we can recognize in each other the family resemblance of being children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. We allow each group or denomination the freedom to practice its Christian faith in its own way, while affirming ways that we can work together and speak with one voice on basic faith issues. This is the level of unity that John Wesley was speaking about in his sermon on Catholic Spirit.
A third sphere of unity involves our unity as a denomination or group of Christian believers. As United Methodists, we share common doctrines that go beyond the basics of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds (see Wesley’s standard sermons and his Notes upon the New Testament). We believe in bishops and itineracy; we emphasize the need to grow in discipleship and Christlikeness (sanctification); we attempt to balance and combine evangelism and social justice ministry; we baptize people of all ages and stages, using sprinkling, pouring, or immersion(!); and we love potlucks! We expect a greater level of agreement to be United Methodist, than we do to be simply a Christian. That is why clergy are asked before they are ordained whether they will keep the General Rules of our Church, preach and maintain our doctrines, and support and maintain our form of Church discipline, government, and polity (see the Book of Discipline, ¶336). These basic United Methodist beliefs are established by our church constitution and implemented by the actions of General Conference.
Denominational or group unity is what is being talked about in the proverbial expression, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so” (Amos 3:3)? This higher level of agreement and unity is required to pursue a common ministry and mission. It is this level of agreement that was lacking, when Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways because they could not agree whether or not to take Mark with them on their missionary travels (Acts 15:36-41). When this “separation” took place, Paul and Barnabas were still united in Christ, still pursuing the mission of Christ, but in different ways. It could be argued that the mission itself was multiplied, since Barnabas got Mark reengaged in the work, while Paul took Silas as his new missionary partner. And one can speculate that Timothy would never have been needed or chosen by Paul as another assistant if Paul had still been accompanied by Barnabas (Acts 16:1-3).
Some are advocating a type of “big tent” United Methodism that would allow varying beliefs and practices to all be contained within the same denomination. This is particularly true regarding the church’s moral teaching on marriage and homosexuality. But it is also true regarding other basic theological beliefs, such as the deity, atonement, and resurrection of Christ, and the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Such a “big tent” approach would have the effect of diminishing the amount of agreement required to be United Methodist and reduce the level of unity more toward the basic unity of the Christian sphere, rather than the special unity that we have in the denominational sphere.
Advocates of the “big tent” support it using Wesley’s Catholic Spirit. However, that sermon was not addressing denominational unity, but the broader Christian unity that we share as believers in Christ. Wesley himself did not practice a “big tent” approach to Methodism. In fact, he essentially forced out the Calvinist Methodists because they preached predestination. And Wesley did not hesitate to remove any preacher who would not submit to his authority and follow his direction. Wesley himself insisted on a high level of agreement in order to be part of the Methodist connection.
It all comes down to our identity: What does it mean to be United Methodist? And is it fair for people to join The United Methodist Church, declaring that they will support and uphold our unique beliefs, and then turn around and try to change what it means to be United Methodist? Explicitly since 1972 and implicitly for its entire existence, Methodism has believed that marriage is the union of one man and one woman under God. The push to change the definition of marriage for us is like someone joining the Baptist church and then trying to convince them that they should start baptizing infants through sprinkling. Not only does it cause major conflict, it impinges on the denomination’s very identity.
How much of our United Methodist identity are we willing to give up in order to preserve the institution of United Methodism? Who is to say that the “compromise” should stop with the issue of marriage and homosexuality? And at what point are we such a “big tent” that we have altogether lost the meaning of what it means to be United Methodist?