Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Nkemba Ndjungu. Rev. Nkemba is a missionary with Global Ministries. He formerly served as the Mission Superintendent of the Cameroon Mission and currently serves in Belize. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption. It is the second of two posts by Rev. Nkemba.
The United Methodist Church is called to be one
“It is through others that we experience the love of God; it is with others that the pattern of new life that God gives is both learned and lived out” (Sent in Love, p.28). This is our commitment to unity.
Unity is the backbone of the Christian testimony. His relationship with the Father is what Jesus gives us as example of unity. In his Priestly Prayer, Jesus says that if disciples are one, then the world will believe in him (John 17: 21). Christian unity should be understood in the light of the unity that exists between Jesus and his Father. This is not about physical oneness; rather it is a spiritual oneness. Jesus and the Father are two different hypostases, but they are one in the spirit. Likewise, Christian unity is mostly a spiritual reality. In order to build unity and avoid disunity, we need to focus on things that unite us and ignore those that divide us.
Structurally, churches cannot be one but unity is possible in the spirit. Individuals have different opinions and churches have different doctrines. Some of those opinions and doctrines are of very opposing views and beliefs. We may never be able to agree with one another on them. But we can respect each other’s views and beliefs, knowing that we all have the same Master, Jesus Christ.
To be united in Christ means to be one in the spirit through him who sanctifies us. Often, some Christians feel superior to others. There is misunderstanding, resentment, pride and hurt among church members. Some groups of persons sometimes act as if they were in competition with others. Within congregations there are sometimes factions and divisions that have lasted for years; issues that have been unresolved for a long time. Oneness and unity is what Jesus wants for his Church.
Unity in Christ Jesus means that those who were near God and those who were far away from God have been brought together through Christ and are now equally gifted by God. In its unity, the Church should embody the reconciliation made possible in Christ who has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
However, we must say that unity is not equal to uniformity. The mystery of God that is revealed in Christ and results in our reconciliation does not wipe out our differences of opinions, traditions and cultures. Instead, what is made known through the church is the wisdom of God in its rich variety. To live out Christian unity, we must learn to be tolerant or to bear with one another (Ephesians 4:2). Our distinctions will never cease, but even with the persistence of differences, the Church may advance toward its maturity in the fullness of Christ.
When we come together out of various traditions and cultures, we must make an effort to get rid of our previous prejudices and peculiarities. We should not confine our fellowship to former friends and companies. We must seek to clear away the barriers that have separated us in the past. We must also cultivate friendship and fellowship with those who have come from different traditions and cultures. There is always more profit in considering words and ways which differ from our own than in rehearsing what we have been taught. So, it is very important to make an earnest effort to realize the absolute unity of all, in Christ. If we call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, in spite of our different beliefs, we can accomplish fellowship.
One of the greatest advantages is that unity fosters reconciliation. Unity of the Church is a reflection of God's gift of reconciliation in Christ. Ephesians 4:1 indicates that the argument here is built upon the previous chapters. In Ephesians chapters 1-3, the author has elaborated upon the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles that God has brought about in Christ. In light of that, the repetition of the word “one” highlights the understanding that the church is a new humanity that is “one” in Christ Jesus. Through the one body of Jesus, God has brought together two groups under one plan of salvation: Jews who were near God and Gentiles who were far away from God. Christ has joined the two groups together and drawn them nearer to God. The church’s task is to reflect this unity. And this task is a process that leads to perfection.
Preserving unity makes the Church stronger. The Church is equipped with gifts (Ephesians 4.7, 11); and those gifts will help the Church to reach maturity. No one individual can have all the gifts alone. The text says: “And he personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers” (Ephesians 4: 11). The reason why the Lord has distributed these gifts to different individuals is so that church maturity can be obtained when there is unity. When spiritual unity is a reality in a church, we can put our gifts together, and spiritual maturity can be attained.
I believe that God provided a diversity of gifts for many reasons. One of those reasons is that God wants his people to build a strong community of believers by depending on one another. If every Christian received all the gifts, competition and rivalry would have taken hold of the Church.
The other reason is that the diversity of gifts to different people allows believers to acknowledge their limitation and learn humility. Humility is the feeling that I don’t possess everything; so I need the intervention of other people. In church, even if you are the leader, you will need help sometimes.
Even still, the other reason why God provided a diversity of gifts is to be a living testimony of his presence in the world. When spiritual gifts are exercised properly, signs and wonders are effective among God’s people. And that makes people outside to affirm that the working power of God abides among believers. Jesus told his disciples that if they didn’t believe what he was saying to them, they should at least believe on account of the works (John 14: 11).
One thing all of us can do to bring about harmony in the Church of Christ is to facilitate dialogue whenever possible. Dialogue refers to a type of communication between two or more people. It is different from a discussion or debate. It refers to a mode of conversation that necessarily involves reason, discernment, accuracy and wisdom, as well as an interpenetration of convergent and convincing arguments, as dialogue unfolds among the interlocutors. Given that there are always issues among believers, dialogue must be constant to clear misunderstandings and conflicts.
The Church is God’s mission to the world. The Triune God sends His Church to be His ambassador in the world. For this purpose, He sends His Church in love. On its part, the Church responds to this sending and understands its mission as being fourfold: 1) Called to be apostolic: commitment to mission; 2) Called to be catholic: commitment to universality, diversity and ecumenism; 3) called to be holy: commitment to spiritual and social transformation; 4) Called to be one: commitment to unity.
Mission, universality, transformation and unity are the four meanings of our calling. In order to carry out efficiently its mission, the United Methodist Church must consider issues that arise inside her and find adequate solutions. History teaches us that the Methodist Church, our predecessor, had already suffered division in the past. Due to a conflict borne by the questions of owning slaves and the power of bishops in the 19th century, the Methodist Church in the USA split into three factions: 1) the Methodist Episcopal Church North; 2) the Methodist Episcopal Church South; and 3) the Protestant Methodist Church in the center. With God’s help, these three branches came back together in 1939 to form the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form what we now call The United Methodist Church.
It seems to me that history is about to repeat itself. The issue of human sexuality is about to reenact the scenario of the 19th century. I believe that no matter what happens at the General Conference in 2020, our church will not be the same. We all hoped that the Special General Conference of February 2019 in Saint Louis would resolve the problem once and for all, but it did not. Three plans have been submitted for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis: 1) The Traditional Plan; 2) The Indianapolis Plan; 3) The Next Generation UMC Plan. Another conversation has started under the leadership of Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone to propose a new legislation for 2020 or modify proposals that have already been submitted. Unfortunately, because of the big and apparently irreconcilable differences in views and beliefs of our members, people are going to leave the church no matter the plan that will be adopted because behind every plan there are people pulling strings.
As I personally meditate on this issue, I find wisdom in the First Book of Kings, chapter twelve. After the death of King Salomon, his son Rehoboam became king in his place. But because of his harshness in words and rudeness of his actions, Jeroboam and all the tribes in the North rebelled against him. Rehoboam wanted to wage war with them and bring them back to unity. But God sent Prophet Shemaiah to tell Rehoboam to leave the tribes of the North alone, because that division was willed by God himself. So, Israel was separated from Judah from that day. The lesson we learn here is that not every separation is diabolic. Perhaps, the best thing that can happen to the United Methodist Church concerning human sexuality at this point is amicable separation.