In today’s vlog I try to wrestle with what should be a no-brainer — unity in the church — but really, really isn’t. Jesus prayed “that they all may be one,” probably the most striking Scriptural example of the fact that not even Jesus got His prayers answered all the time, since it took no time after His death and resurrection for His followers to start splintering into sub-groups, each convinced of their own rightness. And while the solution may look obvious — stop fighting and love one another! — a simplistic view of unity ignores the fact that the issues that divide us are often real and important issues, not to be glossed over by holding hands and singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Should Martin Luther have stopped whining about those stupid indulgences and just pursued unity with the Pope? (Catholic friends may answer this question differently than Protestant friends do).
I’ve noticed over years of involvement in my own church that people are most likely to highlight the importance of unity when they are on the side of those in power. During a time when the Adventist leadership (at least here in North America) was just slightly more liberal, liberals in the church were often heard calling for “greater unity” and asking reform-minded, hyper-critical ultraconservative groups to put aside their divisive spirit in the name of Christian unity. Under the current, rather more conservative administration, it’s conservatives we often hear calling for “greater unity” and chiding liberal churches and conferences for going ahead of the world church on issues such as the ordination of women. All of which suggests to me that our perception of “unity” may have less to do with genuinely loving each other (as Jesus presumably wanted us to) and more to do with conformity to existing power structures.
After I filmed this video, I read a thought-provoking statements about unity in Jeff Chu’s book Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. It’s from Susan Strouse, pastor of an affirming Lutheran church, talking about divisions within the church over issues like our attitude towards LGBT people.
“If people feel they cannot accept this interpretation of Scripture, this interpretation of theology, then you have say, ‘You go with our blessing! You need to be where you’re comfortable.’ We have to accept we’re not going to change people’s minds. There was a time back in the days of the Evangelical Lutheran Church when they were always talking about unity, unity, unity. We were worshipping at the altar of unity — it became an idol. But sometimes divorce on good terms is the right thing to do if you can’t live together. It would be great if we could be together, but sometimes, at some point, it’s not happening and it’s not the right thing.”
“Worshipping at the altar of unity” … that struck a chord with me. How far do we pursue the goal of unity with those with whom we disagree? And what happens when we go beyond the point where compromise is possible? Is there a way to disagree and be united?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but am, as always, interested in what people have to say.