United Methodist News Service Photo by John C. Goodwin
Delegates Burnham A. Robinson (left) and Rev. Judith A. Sands, both from Central Texas, embrace following a vote at the 2004 General Conference affirming unity in The United Methodist Church.
Lent is a good time for Christians to think about their responsibility for unity in the community of faith.
Achieving unity in a church has never been easy. I speak with the authority of one who has been a hired hand for Christians for over a half-century. Many tend to think it was easier in the first generation of Christianity because the spirit of Jesus in the world still lingered in the lives of people. There were people still alive who knew him, and almost everyone knew someone who knew him. One would think that in such blessed atmosphere it would have been easy to put together an organization that would reflect the spirit of Jesus in the most accurate and positive fashion. But just a cursory study of the history of the first-century Christian churches is more than a little disappointing. The same besetting characteristics of the church today were present in the very beginning of the Christian enterprise. In some respects it was even worse in the early church.
There was no working model to follow. It was the "first time" for almost everything. The model of the Synagogue was not adaptable for the needs of this unique understanding of faith and practice. Jesus did not leave a set of plans for the organization and promulgation of this new faith. He said, "Do it", but did not say specifically how it should be done. His command to the faithful was unambiguous. "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation," but he left the details to be worked out after he was gone. Not only did Jesus not leave an organizational chart, he did not leave a systematic theology of his teachings.
Poor Paul! He had to start from scratch. He set up the first systematic application of how the teachings of Jesus should influence the organized church. His best effort at this is seen in his letter to the Romans, but it shows up to some degree in all his letters. He took the human body as an example for how the church should work. (Read I Corinthians 12:12-31 and Ephesians 4:1-16 for examples.) He proclaimed the concept of love as taught by Jesus as the model for the spirit in which all things should be done. Love was to be the one essential factor without which nothing else was of lasting value. (See 1 Corinthians 13) Love was understood to be as essential to the healthy existence of the body of the church as the air we breathe is essential to the life and health of the human body. Paul insisted on the practice of humility, civility and love for the sake of the unity of the church, the body of Christ and used his own situation as a living example. "I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called." (Ephesians 4:1) He calls on the church to remember that Jesus, in humility, descended from heaven, as an act of infinite grace, and that we should use that as an example of how we should live in order to affect the unity of the body of the church.
Paul calls on the members of the church body to be mature, making room for all members to exercise their gifts as a contribution to the health and mission of the church. Only in the spirit of the kind of love manifested in Jesus can there be unity in diversity. The church has always been in danger of losing its unity and therefore its effectiveness by the thoughtless exercise of willfulness on the part of individuals. There is a certain democracy essential to the health of the church. It is not easy, but it is important for each member to have his/her say without insisting on having his/her way. Such respectful listening and speaking requires intentional effort born of maturity and augmented by the grace of God in Christ. God will help us achieve in our lives and relationships what we cannot achieve on our own, but we must begin our work with an intentional effort to live and work in humility, kindness, service, and love.
The church at Ephesus was young. It did not have the deep roots of tradition to hold it steady. The fledgling church as a whole, and its individual members, were vulnerable to heresy. For the early Christians there was the danger of being "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people's trickery and their craftiness and deceitful scheming" (Ephesians 4:14). The early church existed in an atmosphere of paganism. Many members were recent converts from paganism, and there was the danger and temptation of going back to the lives from which they had so recently come. Then as now, controversy and pressure often tempt a person to revert back to an earlier level of development.
Although the contemporary church has the advantage of a 2,000-year tradition to give it stability, and we do not have the blatant, raw paganism that surrounded the first generation church, we do have significant distractions and temptations. Modern-day paganism is present, but far more subtle than that of the first-century church. We live in a world of socially acceptable materialism that is contrary to the ethics of Jesus. Not only are individual Christians tempted by crass materialism, but churches tend to be obsessed with an inordinate love of the things of this world. Churches love the security of a "nest egg" of thousands of dollars in certificates of deposit accumulated in lieu of ensuring funds are available for the mission of the church to care for the poor. In this hoarding, we exhibit a lack of faith in God, through his people, to provide for the needs of the church each year. Like the secular world in which we live and minister, we pile up treasures of land and money and justify our institutional spirit of acquisitiveness by our pessimistic fear that there will be a "bad year" financially for which we should be prepared. We forget the admonition of Jesus to "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break through and steal…" (Matthew 6:19). This concept of stewardship is just as applicable to the institutional church as it is to individuals. In Christ, we are not First National Bank.
Both Jesus and Paul call us to organize our individual and institutional lives around the principle of love for God and one another, a genuine concern for the poor and oppressed, and an abiding faith that God will empower and provide for that to which God has called us.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is Pastor Emeritus, First United Methodist Church, Monroeville, AL. This article is reprinted with permission from his regular column, "An Encouraging Word," written for publication in the Monroe Journal, March 22, 2012.