Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unity as friends or family?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Last week, I posted that because denominations serve different functions, people will understand denominational unity in different ways. This week, I'd like to make a similar point about Christian relationships. There are different ways of understanding such relationships, and those different understandings lead to different understandings of Christian unity.

To demonstrate, let me ask a question: Are relationships with your fellow Christians more like your relationships with your friends or your relationships with your family?

Both metaphors have been used to describe relationships between fellow Christians, but there are important distinctions in the implications of these metaphors.

Friendships are based primarily on shared qualities, whether those are interests, aspects of personality, common experiences, or common pursuits. They are freely chosen and may be ended for a variety of reasons (hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, change in life circumstances, inconvenience, etc.). Certainly, there are various types of friendships (best friends, Facebook friends, friends of convenience, work friends, etc.), but these three qualities apply to all type of friends. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, friendship is a choice.

If we think of fellow Christians, or more to the point, fellow United Methodists, as spiritual friends, then these three characteristics will carry over: We will understand United Methodists as people with whom we have freely chosen to affiliate. We will expect them to have certain shared qualities with us (whatever that list may be). We will reserve the right to end our relationships with our fellow United Methodists for a variety of reasons, including hurt, diminishment of shared qualities, inconvenience, etc., since we will see our relations with fellow United Methodists as a choice.

Family relationships, at least with families of origin, are different. We do not choose them. They do not necessarily imply shared qualities, though often some shared history and shared genetic material are part of that. Thus, family relationships may make a clearer distinction between "like" and "love" than friendships. You may love your family members even when you don't like them. Moreover, we can choose to stop nurturing or participating in our family relationships, but we cannot end them. You cannot stop being a sister or brother to someone, even if you never see them. The degree of closeness and the level of mutual obligation may vary or be understood differently in different cultures, but at the heart, family is not a choice.

If we think of fellow United Methodists as sisters and brothers in Christ, we will expect these three qualities to carry over: We will understand our fellow United Methodists not as people with whom we have freely chosen to associate, but as people that God, descent, and/or chance have conspired to link to us. We may presume some shared history and some genetic similarities, but we will not necessarily expect our fellow United Methodists to share an extensive list of qualities with us. We may not always like our fellow United Methodists, but we will love them. We may choose to stop engaging in our relationships with fellow United Methodists or those relationships may become strained, but we will recognize that a connection will always exist, whether or not we act on it.

American culture tends to emphasize choice. Indeed, in the US, there is a whole discourse about choosing your family. This is a particularly contemporary, consumerist, and American approach to family that would be incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.

Given the emphasis by Americans on choice, I think there is a tendency for Americans to think about church relationships as friendships, which as I said, are about choice. Unity then, is the unity of friends, which presumes similarity and which the parties may choose to end for a variety of reasons. It is important to note, though, that denominational unity as chosen friendships is not necessarily what makes most sense for non-Americans.

Interestingly, the more common metaphor for Christian relationships throughout history has been the family one. Paul writes to the "brothers" (and "sisters") in the early churches, and this language has stuck. Many denominations (including some of the UMC's predecessors) put the term "brethren" or "brotherhood" or "family" right in the name of the denomination. "Brother" and "sister" were common terms among early Methodists. This metaphor may also be the more important one for many United Methodists outside of the US.

How might it shift American United Methodists' thinking about the current state of the denomination to draw more extensively on the metaphor of family instead of the metaphor of friendship? How does contrasting these two understandings of what it means to be in relationship as United Methodists help all United Methodists more fully understanding the nature and quality of unity?

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