By Tom ThomasThe second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC), is schismatized. For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB). In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times. He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward. The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church.[i] Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.
This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’? In the following I want to consider three New Testament words regarding ‘unity’. I will organize them under two headings, horizontal and vertical unity. In light of this, I want to show how the prevailing talk of unity leaves out the most crucial factor in the unity equation.
The word ‘unity’ (enotas) appears but four times and the term ‘united’ seven in the Holy Scriptures. This is few in comparison to such key terms as ‘truth’ which appears approximately seventy times. In each of the four occurrences ‘unity’ speaks of the saints in Christ’s Body having a oneness of spirit. Peter exemplifies its meaning when he exhorts believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This ‘unity’ is horizontal. It speaks of ‘unity’ on the human plane. It talks of human inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves. This is the plane in which Bishop Ough operates.
The word ‘united’ is used to mean being ‘joined’. Persons are ‘united in love’ if they are connected and brought into close association with another. One use of ‘united’ speaks of our being ‘united’ to the Lord. This conception of our being united to the Lord is more fully expressed by another term which I am coming to now. (1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 2:2).
I asked myself, is this all the Bible has to say about ‘unity’ and being bound together as one? The Bible talks also of ‘unity’ in speaking of ‘being one’. The Greek New Testament word for ‘one’ is eis. Eis can mean the quality of being one in mind, feeling, opinion, purpose and spirit. Indeed, the word ‘one’ is the Bible’s richest word for ‘being one’ or ‘unity’.
Let me organize ‘one’ under two large headings: (1) ‘vertical’/ transcendent oneness (2) horizontal oneness. What do I mean by ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness? This is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son. The believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son. Jesus prays in John 17:21, ‘…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’ In John17:23, Jesus prays, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’ This oneness and unity comes only by believing in Jesus Christ. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….’ (John 17: 20). Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.
Constituent of being one in the Father and Son is sharing: sharing their glory and the Son’s blood. Jesus prays, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17: 22). Believers share also in Christ’s blood. Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing…is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)
Being one with the Lord is further fleshed out by the Apostle Paul. Being one with Him is being ‘united to the Lord’ and one spirit with him. Paul says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ (1 Corinthians 6: 17). The word ‘united’ is ‘kollao’. ‘Kollao’ means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’. ‘Kollao’ can picture sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ. Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” has been joined indissolubly with Christ’[ii]
One would like to go on, but suffice to say, the believers’ oneness with the Lord is oneness and unity of the first order. Oneness as revealed by the Lord Jesus originates in being one in the Father and the Son. Vertical, transcendent unity issues in horizontal unity. Grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ reconciling antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, and Gentile and Jew. ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16) We, the Body of Christ ‘though many, are one body’. By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12). Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ. Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one (John 17: 21) only works in this light. The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit. The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power.
This is a brief and inadequate description of ‘being one’. Nevertheless, I hope it is enough to contrast the biblical witness on first-order unity with ‘unity’ being promoted by UMC leadership today. The prevailing view of the vanguard leading the way forward virtually ignores the vertical union. The stress is horizontally on a theologically diverse church (‘the many’) being ‘one’. Yes, so the argument goes, we may differ on the sufficiency and authority of Holy Scripture, on the nature of God and Jesus Christ, on the nature of salvation, and on human sexuality. These should not divide us because we the ‘many’ are one Body bound by a common purpose and mission. Do we believe in Jesus Christ so that we are one in the Father and in the Son?
The prevailing view is keeping alive yesteryear’s conception of ‘theological pluralism’. ‘Theological pluralism’ is doctrinal diversity in unity. It harks back to theologian Albert Outler’s revision of John Wesley’s theological approach. ‘Revision’ it is because it is a misuse of John Wesley’s approach. Indeed, John Wesley argued for unity on theological ‘essentials’ and liberty on theological ‘opinions’. However, he argued for it among a pre-selected group whom he knew was already united by an inner experience of conviction of sin and of saving faith in Jesus Christ. ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever? Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ he asked those of ‘catholic spirit’.[iii]
What Albert Outler revised and, subsequently, several generations of pluralists have ignored, is that ‘unity’ begins with intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith. Vertical oneness cannot be assumed or ignored. It is first-order business. Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!
Martin Luther became almost violently exasperated with ‘the Prince of the Humanists’ scholar Erasmus. Luther felt Erasmus with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity but neglected Jesus Christ.[iv] What value is ‘unity’ if we ignore Jesus Christ? What value is ‘unity’ if we are not united first with the Savior Jesus Christ? No transcendent union, no unity!
[i] Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church President’s Address: ‘In Love with Union’, Nov. 6, 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/news-media/press-center/documents/BishopOughAddressNov62017.pdf
[ii]F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 19 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee, p. 260.
[iii] Frank Baker, editor in chief, The Works of John Wesley, 34 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1975 – ), Vol. 2: Sermons II, ed. by Albert C. Outler, pp. 87, 90, 94. See, Howe O. Tom Thomas, ‘John Wesley: Concept of “Connection” and Theological Pluralism’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36: 2(Fall, 2001), p. 98.
[iv] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 368.