I’m often told that unity is the centerpiece around which the United Methodist Church will live or die. We must be united or else there is no “United” in the Methodist Church.
I agree but not in the way you might think. I view unity much in the same way that the apostles Peter and Paul did.
Those dudes were united around a single point of focus. That point was not practice. It was not morality. It was not purity. It was not uniformity. Peter and Paul were united by Jesus and their need to tell everyone about him.
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul gives a brief overview of an incident he has with Peter in Antioch. During that confrontation, Paul got up in Peter’s grill and called him out for his hypocrisy in dealing with Gentiles, particularly around the issue of dietary laws.
Paul believed that Gentiles didn’t have to adhere to Jewish Law, especially dietary restrictions or circumcision. Some of the other apostolic leaders, notably James and Peter, disagreed.
Following Jewish codes and practices were morality issues. So, the argument around whether or not new followers of Jesus, himself a Jew, needed to follow these moral laws was an important one to have. Peter and James were making a claim on morality more than they are on rule-following.
Paul successfully argued that one’s morality was not wrapped up in Jewish purity codes and dietary rules. People were made right with God through the faithfulness of Jesus and their willingness to emulate that faithfulness.
The current point of disunity dividing the United Methodist Church is around the issue of human sexuality. This is a point upon which some say we must agree or the whole thing falls apart. It’s a morality issue for many.
I agree that it can be seen as a morality issue. I disagree that we need to breakup over it.
Peter and Paul eventually agreed that the focus of their faith was the person of Jesus not adherence to particular views of morality. They went their own ways and allowed each other to exist in dramatically different, one might even say opposing, ways in order to bring people to Jesus.
The United Methodist Church needs to be unified around Jesus or else there is no unity worth anything. When we have been truly unified on this point, the differences have been able to coexist.
Peter and Paul were at odds on the morality of their day but unified around Jesus in the end. We can too. Dietary restrictions were every bit as dramatic of a moral issue as the one we face around human sexuality. It’s the same morality in a different wrapping.
In the end, they knew that the greater purpose was more important than the moral restrictions that were in place.
Morality does not make you a Christian. Following Jesus makes you a Christian. The church was not founded on unity of practice. It was founded upon and centered around Jesus. We would do well to remember that.