Divided we stand

July 20, 2022

I pray… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. –Jesus (John 17:20-23, NIV)

Well… we made a mess of that.

I happened to be visiting a United Methodist church the first Sunday after the UMC decided to split into two denominations over gay marriage and the place of LGBTQ+ individuals in the church. I wasn’t quite sure what to think or how to respond when the pastor informed the congregation. I found it a bit surreal to be present for an unfortunate—and unfortunately common—church split.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on what unity in the church means, especially in light of my own departure from my church over theological differences.

Too many churches have divided over minor theological squabbles or even pettier preferences. I read about one church that split because some folks started raising their hands while singing.[i]

But what happens when your congregation has real problems? The pastor is controlling. Influential families don’t get along and cause division. Abuse is covered up. Gossip runs rampant. Funds are being misused. The church is poorly managed and led.

Or what about those theological disagreements that have a direct impact on how the community operates? What is the role of women in the church? What approach should be taken on issues like racism or politics or abortion? What does it mean that the Bible is “God-breathed,” and how do we use it to guide our lives and our community?

If you’re a pastor, and your interpretation of Paul’s prohibition of gay sexual relationships is context-driven rather than universal, it is difficult to remain in a church community that would preclude you from officiating a gay wedding. To do so would be to participate in—from your perspective—the oppression of a historically marginalized group.

On the other side of that coin, if you’re a pastor who understands Paul’s prohibition of gay sexual relationships to be universal, not context-driven, it is difficult to remain in a church community that would expect you to officiate a wedding that you believe God opposes.

What if unity in the midst of a broken and fractured Christendom looks not like remaining a part of the same church gathering but rather continuing to engage in relationship—continuing to love—those people with whom you disagree?

I haven’t fully figured out what unity in the face of these sorts of challenges looks like, but I want to propose one principle that I think can foster unity despite our differences: continued engagement.

You might leave a church because it’s unhealthy, or your denomination might divide over an issue like gay marriage. But just because you decide that you can no longer be a part of a church community doesn’t mean that you should sever all ties with the people in that community.

What if unity in the midst of a broken and fractured Christendom looks not like remaining a part of the same church gathering but rather continuing to engage in relationship—continuing to love—those people with whom you disagree?

Is this ideal? No. I don’t think divided churches tenuously linked by personal relationships was what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for complete unity, but it’s a start. And for the time being, it may be the best we can do.

I recognize that continuing to engage is comparatively easy for me. I left my church because I had concerns about how our theology and ecclesiology impacted other people. I’m a straight, cisgender, middle-aged white guy. Most of the teaching and practice within American evangelical churches benefits people like me.

So when I encourage continued engagement, I’m not suggesting that those who have suffered abuse need to just suck it up. You may need time and space to heal. There may be some relationships that remain cut off for an extended period of time, if not forever. I also recognize that continued engagement may not be an option for those of you who have been ostracized by your church due to some conflict or sin (whether real or perceived).

But for those of us who do have a choice, Jesus’ desire for his followers to be one should outweigh our general frustration with those who disagree with us, those who are—from our perspective—wrong, and even those who did something sinful or harmful.

The case for this approach can be made without ever appealing to Christian ideals. If I’m unwilling to dialogue with those who disagree with me, I exemplify hubris, tacitly communicating that I have everything figured out, and I need not listen to anyone who does not share my beliefs. I also lose influence and the opportunity to convince others to see things my way.

How much more should we as followers of Jesus— adherents of a faith centered around love, forgiveness, and restoration—be willing to remain in relationship with those with whom we disagree. We may find it untenable to be a part of a church that doesn’t share our perspectives, but we must still recognize that church as full of people who Jesus loves, full of people who if misguided need guidance, if broken need healing, if doing harm need correction.

We must in love and with love continue to engage, because while we may disagree on the “correct” beliefs or practices, they surely include heeding Jesus’ oft-disregarded call to unity.

Will Johnston is a former pastor and Capitol Hill staffer in the process of reconstructing his faith.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Read the rest of the stories in that thread and you’ll alternately laugh ‘til it hurts and mourn deeply for the body of Christ.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This