Avoiding the idol of unity…

I hear the world UNITY a lot in Mennonite Church USA these days. I suspect it is because the possibility of division rooted in disagreements looms large. In order to hedge against that reality, there are many calls to unity.

It’s not that I don’t believe unity is God’s plan and purpose. I believe it is. I believe that the trajectory of God’s work is towards unity as all things are gathered under the lordship of Jesus.

With all wisdom and understanding, he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.  (Ephesians 1:9b-10)

Rather, it’s that I believe that unity – as it’s often talked about – has become an idol. By idol I mean something that is placed above God or higher than God. To go further, I mean that unity becomes a principle that is above God to which even God has to submit. In my view, this is a serious theological error.

In Ephesians 4:3 Paul writes,

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

The way that unity becomes an idol is through a simple turn in the order of Paul’s words. Paul says that we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Too often, I hear people say that we are to maintain the spirit of Unity. These are very different things.

In Paul’s original teaching, he is saying that as followers of Jesus we are stewards of the unity of the Spirit, which he explains by saying…

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-5)

There is unity in the Spirit.  There is only one body. There is only one Spirit. There is only one hope. There is only one Lord. There is only one faith.  There is only one baptism. There is only one God and Father of all. We don’t create a unity that doesn’t exist without our effort. It isn’t up to us to submit to a spirit of unity as if this spirit of unity is our Lord. No. We are simply stewards of a unity that is real and present and a part of who God is (Father, Son and Spirit) and what God is up to – gathering all things under the Lordship of Jesus.

Our real work, then, is being good stewards of the unity of the Spirit. That requires working against the forces of fragmentation and division which are contrary to God’s nature, will and work in the world.

The spirit of Unity is a fine idea that many people can get behind. It would be better if all humanity was on the same page.  But that is different than the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is essential to God’s nature, will and work. To monkey with that – either actively or passively, positively or negatively – is serious business. The kind of business that can find one fighting against God.

MC USA: What’s at Stake for You in This?

What’s at stake for you in this?

The first time someone asked me that question, I did the avoidance two-step. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I had never been asked that question before. I wasn’t sure I even understood the question. The more I thought about it – and the clearer the question became – the more I was really sure I didn’t want to do the kind of personal exploration that might produce an answer.

I was afraid.

What’s at stake for you in this?

It’s an unnerving question. It’s a revealing question. It pushes you to go deeper. It asks you to see what you might not want to see. It forces you to articulate your personal bottom-line.

It is also a question that opens up new possibilities. These are possibilities that are rooted in truth-telling.

It’s a question I like to ask people – especially when there is a conflict.

What’s at stake for you in this? 

Recently, I’ve been asking this question in the context of an ongoing conflict within the church denomination I call home: Mennonite Church USA.

The conflict is over how to be a church together amidst differences in how folks understand Jesus’ call to the church regarding gay people in our midst. (even the formulation of the issue is problematic, but that’s the best I can do right now)

In a public meeting yesterday, one participant said, “We’ve been dealing with this for forty years. I’m discouraged that we have made no progress.”

I have friends, and Christian brothers and sisters on both sides of the conflict. A question that keeps coming to me – which I haven’t had an opportunity to ask – is: What’s at stake for you in this?

I desperately want to know.

What will you lose if the conflict is resolved in a way that is not what you wish?

The answer to that question would be fascinating! Worth ruminating over! Potentially healing! Full of reconciling potential!

It’s a question the Holy Spirit is asking me!  So I’m asking you.

For those of you within MC USA – who are passionate and engaged and, perhaps, entrenched in this conflict – what’s at stake for you in this?

The answer, from both sides of the divide, might reveal a way forward.