Today's post is the second in a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. While the posts will not avoid issues related to the UMC’s debate on sexuality, the goals of the series are 1) to broaden the conversation about the future of Methodism as a global, missional movement concerned with a wide range of issues, not just a set of church institutions concerned with this one issue, and 2) to identify the bright spots of hope in the United Methodist tradition. Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press). It is timed to coincide with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Voicing hope for Methodism is no light task. I’m tempted to dream big. I want to believe that United Methodists can overcome their divisions of theology, race, class, sexuality, and politics. I’m drawn toward the eschatological visions of peace and righteousness of Isaiah and the new creation proclaimed by Paul. With the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoing in my head, I want to shout, “I have a dream, that one day United Methodists will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” I want to believe that our slavery to sin and death will be no more. I want to believe that, one day, we will be free of division and strife within this denomination. I want to believe that Jesus’ prayer, “that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe,” is a divine promise of unity. If Jesus is praying for us, who can be against us?
Yet, in Jesus’ prayer, I also see a warning: that division sows disbelief. That our refusal to be one body, in love and service to the Three-in-One God and our neighbor, displays a counter-witness to the truth we would proclaim. Our very efforts to guard the church, to be on the “right” side of history and the right hand of God, reveal our stubborn pride and misplaced trust in ourselves. Out of our fiery passion for purity popped a golden calf! Blinded with holy ambition and puffed up with dogmatic confidence, we wrest the task of unity from God, attempting to mold this church in our own image.
“You faithless generation,” I can hear Jesus saying once again, “how much longer must I put up with you?” Like the boy with the spirit in Mark 9, Methodism has, from its childhood, foamed and ground its teeth, unable to speak to unity in Christ. Methodists have spread the gospel far and wide, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and strived for perfection. Yet, we repeatedly attempt to structure our church as if it were up to us to control where the Holy Spirit leads and who is included in the body of Christ. Jacob survived his wrestling match with a limp and a new name. May The United Methodist Church be so blessed! Far better than another declaration of right belief would be an honest supplication to our sovereign God: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
I believe that the gospel is Good News. I believe Jesus when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Any so-called gospel message that does not serve the least of these, that does not prove abundantly life-giving to the poor, that does not scatter the proud or fill the hungry with good things is a curse against the gospel of Jesus Christ. True unity does not create scapegoats or countenance injustice for the sake of avoiding disruption. Embracing a cheap unity without justice is tantamount to saying, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” An abomination, says the Lord.
The unity for which I hope is not characterized by unanimity, sameness, or even shared mission. It is not the product of political compromise or doctrinal decree by a church council (no matter how “democratic” its representation). It does not replicate the tribalism, like-minded associations, and barriers to belonging that we hold so dearly in our finite hearts. It is not even the result of Christian conferencing, mutual recognition of baptism and ministry, or any other conciliatory or ecumenical effort. Unity in Methodism, and Christianity more broadly, is not something to be earned, deserved, or settled for. It is not of our own making.
I believe unity is a gift of God. The unity for which I hope is that of shared identity as disciples of Christ. It is with all of our differences that we encounter each other through Christ, answering his invitation to true communion. “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” Only then can we recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Only then are we truly empowered to “welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed” us. Our common identity in and through Christ gives us the kind of unity that boasts “a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.” It is by the Holy Spirit that we find ourselves “many members, yet one body,” tasked with giving “greater honor to the inferior member.”
Unity—this divine, common identity as children of God—is our witness. I believe that “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” also equips us for this ministry. I believe that in serving Christ, in seeking reconciliation and unity, we are empowered to fulfill his command to love one another, not simply tolerate each other. Is it too much to hope, as ambassadors for Christ, “that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? Not through our own righteousness but through the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
My hope for Methodism is this unity. God, help our unbelief!