In the discussion of the Way Forward and the current United Methodist debates over homosexuality, thinkers on many sides have parsed the words of the Bible, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury on the nature of and conditions for church unity. Here, I offer thoughts from another significant Methodist: missionary E. Stanley Jones. These thoughts are not meant to endorse any particular policy position in the UMC. Rather, some words from Jones on the connection between Christ and unity seemed timely at this moment of the life of the church, and in this Advent season.
"For at the central place of our experience of Jesus we are one. It is Christ who unites us; it is doctrines that divide. As someone has suggested, if you ask a congregation of Christians, "What do you believe?" there will be a chorus of conflicting beliefs, for no two persons believe exactly alike. But if the question is asked, "Whom do you trust?" then we are together. If the emphasis in our approach to Christianity is "What?" then it is divisive, but if the emphasis is "Whom?" then we are drawn together at the place of this Central Magnet. One has the tendency of the centrifugal and the other the tendency of the centripetal. He is the hub that holds together in himself the divided spokes."
"Christianity with a what-emphasis is bound to be divisive, but this tendency is lessened with a Whom-emphasis. Note the things that have created denominations in the West: baptism, human freedom, rites, ceremonies, church government, dress, orders--the points of division have been nearly all "whats." The church divided once over the "Whom," namely, in the Unitarian issue. Here it had a right to divide, for the question of who Jesus is is vital and decisive. Everything is bound up with that question."
"Do not misunderstand me: The whats of Christianity are important, a body of doctrine is bound to grow up around him [Christ]. We cannot do without doctrine, but I am so anxious for the purity of doctrine that I want it to be held in the white light of his Person and under the constant corrective of his living Mind. The only place where we can hold our doctrines pure is to hold them in the light of his countenance. Here their defects are at once apparent, but only here.
"But we must hold in mind that no doctrine, however true, no statement, however correct, no teaching, however pure, can save a man. "We are saved by a Person and only by a Person, and, as far as I know, by only one Person," said Bishop McDowell. Only Life can lift life. ...
"But further, we shall soon see that as we draw closer to him we shall be closer to each other in doctrine. Suppose the essence of Christianity is in utter devotion to Jesus, and truly following him is the test of discipleship, will not such doctrine as the new birth take on new meaning? If I am to follow such as he, I must be born again and born different. A new birth is a necessary beginning for this new life. And as for the doctrines of sanctification and the fullness of the Spirit, apart from him, they may become hollow cant, as they, in fact, have often become; but in the business of following Jesus they become, not maximum attainments, but minimum necessities. If I am to follow him, he will demand my all, and I shall not want to offer him less. Holiness has been preached very often until it has become a synonym for hollowness. The word has got loosed from Christ and has lost its meaning. Had it kept close to Christ, we would have preached less holiness and more of a Christ who makes men [sic] holy."
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (The Abingdon Press: New York and Cincinnati, 1925), excerpts from Chapter IX, "What or Whom?"