Maintaining Unity Amid Diversity

Unity is a beautiful thing.  If anything could bring us together - shouldn't it be God?  Its easy to be unified when you all look, talk, act, think, believe, or work the same.  In life, however, is such homogeneous mixtures of humans are rare indeed.  We are often a choatic and diverse mix.  And what a beautiful thing it is... I believe the United Methodist Church, as denomination, right now, offers the best hope for maintaining unity amid diversity in the world.  I am after all, talking about Christians.  This post has nothing to do with non-believers.  I'm just talking about differences among Jesus-followers.  Christians are often quick to judge other Christians even more harshly than the "normal" people outside the church.

But what about those who believe Jesus wasn't a virgin birth?  What about Christians who don't think drinking is a sin? (or those who do)  Was Jesus a democrat or a republican?  There are so many flavors and delicacies to our understandings of God, one could really say there are as many "faiths" as there are people.  We need something to codify our lives.  Someone to teach orthodoxy and uphold whats right (at the expense of whats wrong).  To be truly unified in Jesus - what we REALLY need is denominations.  Right?  blah.

I've heard it said that the whole point of Denominations is that they are supposed to be like your local fast food franchise - if you go to any McDonalds in the world, you can get a double cheeseburger just like at any other McDonalds in the world.   This is no small feat, when you think of how many double cheeseburgers are made every day and how delicious and fattening they are.  Sorry - I ate two for lunch.

And some have lamented that United Methodist Churches to a really poor job of providing the same experience anywhere you go.  I don't even know what the "common" UMC service would look like.  I know what time it would be though.  There are certainly some "common" elements like worship time, paraments, color of skin, etc.  But does the traditional worship going on next door bemoan or even condemn the contemporary service in the gym?

Anyway - the truth is that we are (or at least, I am, and hope one day you will be too) United Methodist.  In fact, one reason for this blog is to encourage unity among Christians who consider John Wesley a great fellow.  But when it really gets down to it, our allegiance isn't with Wesley - its always been with Jesus.  or it should be.

Here is my issue - unity is easy when you push everyone out who causes problems.  And boy oh boy have we been good at that.

But here is my paradox spin for you: without dissention there cannot be expressed orthodoxy.  Yes, I believe certain things are important to God and are also important to me.  But can we please have a conversation that grows my faith in the presence of God?  I do not believe Jesus' Great Commission was an edict to cookie-cut the world into little Jesus robots.  It was and is an edict to help people live into their God-given callings as human beings that Jesus can speak through.  How beautiful is the Body of Christ when you and I bring different thoughts, beliefs, passions, and ideas to the table!

So, how can we maintain unity amid diversity?  
  • First, read Paul's letter to the Corinthians.  You'll see he is struggling with the same issue.  And this is a church of 50 or so, not a denomination with millions.  Or a faith with billions.  Thankfully we can gain from his words though.  And you know what I think he shows?  Two very important things: For the sake of the gospel, we must set aside our rights.  Now there is and should be a good deal of discussion about what those rights are.  For the Corinthians, it was eating meat that was sacrificed to idols.  Sure, idols are just that.  They aren't powerful at all - but Paul wouldn't eat it if it would help his witness.  Notice how carefully he maintains that love is the reason he simply won't break fellowship with these people.  Want to eat meat sacrificed to idols?  Well, apparently Paul leaves that choice open to the Corinthians, but not without first a strong awareness of how it affects other believers.  The other important thing that Paul implies in Corinthians (with regards to unity) is this: For the sake of the gospel, we must not devalue other Christians who feel differently about practicing our faith.  Giving up pork for the benefits to my spiritual walk is great - but its a slippery slope when I start looking down on others who don't give up pork.
  • Second, let Jesus bring us together.  Sounds really abstract, I know.  But if you love Jesus, and I love Jesus, can we bring the Kingdom of God to this Earth without walking out on each other?  Was there anything so abhorrent to Jesus that he excluded certain people from the Kingdom of God?  H-to-the-ell no. (literally)  Yes, Jesus had some strong words for those who used the Law to exclude people from the Kingdom, but even the Pharisees were welcome!  They simply had to stop misusing God's love!  Call it orthodoxy.  Call it middle ground.  Call it whatever you need to and remember God's grace is available for you and it sure better be available for others.  My faith rests in the fact that if anything can bring people together, it is Jesus.  Why?  Because he doesn't give like the world gives.  His gifts are not withdrawn or conditional.  It is agape.
  • Third, in Jesus, lets find common ground that we can both agree on and work in.  If you have Christians who don't think evangelism is important, you don't exclude them from your fellowship.  If you have Christians who don't feel their sins are worth dealing with, that doesn't mean you exclude them from your fellowship.  If Christians are not as concerned with social justice as yourself, you don't exclude them from your fellowship.  Paul had an interest in keeping the community healthy - and yes - there are those that we may need  to discipline and leave in God's care - but they are never not welcome.  We sit on much safer ground when we draw all men and women to Christ and stop deciding who can and can't be Christian.
  • And Fourth, never take yourself too seriously.  If you are beyond reproach, if you are beyond hearing your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (in their pain and their joy), if you are beyond accepting that God's truths are bigger than your little piddly brain - we have a problem.  You suddenly don't need Jesus anymore and you, yourself, are in danger of losing sight of what you hold so high.  Learn to appreciate a hard question.  Learn to appreciate a different view-point.  If there are no conversations about the holiness of the Bible - it becomes a moot point, doesn't it?  If we aren't struggling with our faith, it isn't a very big faith at all.  You cannot change without a catalyst and if you exclude the least of these, you've excluded Jesus.  As Methodists, we hold dear the four ways John Wesley felt God could be revealed in our lives: Scripture (first and above the rest), Tradition (the saints that go before us), Experience (hearts strangely warmed), and Reason (that brain God gave you).  I stay open to those much better when someone else is challenging me directly or indirectly.
I've reserved my strongest thoughts for my Church: The United Methodist Church must uphold unity amid diversity.  If we push or pull too much in one direction or another, the house of cards will come tumbling down.  There is a middle way, and it usually involves me giving control back to the one who I gave it to in the first place.

We, as a church, cannot take the place of Jesus Christ's role as savior.  You'll notice in the liturgy for Holy Communion in the UMC a prayer that goes kinda like this... "Holy Spirit, Bless these gifts of bread and wine.  Make them be for us the blood and body of Christ, that we may be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

If the UMC strives to be the blood of Christ, and not the Body, we have missed our purpose.  To paraphrase my friend St. Paul - if I maintain the Book of Discipline perfectly and have not loved, I am nothing.  We must be that body - redeemed by the blood and working to bring the Kingdom of God in fullness.  That Kingdom is a diverse Kingdom.

One last thought - diversity for the sake of diversity is a sham.  Diversity as a result of unity in the Gospel - is a beautiful thing.  Christ can bring us together.  Our rules, laws, arguments over apportionments and even the Cabinet that decides what pastors go where can either be a vessel for the love of Christ, or an empty shell not even worthy of this world we are trying to save.

Don't give up on me. Or better yet, don't give up on God.  We are too close to either empowering future generations of Christians or making it much toughter on them.  I believe in you.  Believe also in me.  We can do this, together.