Church Unity

posted on March 01

by Rev. Fred Jordan

This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of the First UMC (Salisbury) newsletter, Ecclesia. It is offered here, as will follow up articles, for the edification of others across the Uwharrie District. Rev. Jordan is a retired Elder, former District Superintendent, and adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary.

Shortly before he died, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one even as he and his heavenly father were one (John 17:11). That proved difficult for a deeply divided church. His first century followers came from diverse backgrounds. Early Christian converts included Jews, Samaritans, Ethiopians, Roman soldiers, and even a persecutor named Saul. They did not always agree.

The first recorded church fight involved Greek and Aramaic speaking widows. Each felt the other group received more than their fair share of the food distribution. Church leaders resolved that issue and many other disagreements that followed. Slowly, Christians united and called the new church Catholic. The word catholic literally means “universal.”

In 1054, internal divisions led to the first major church division. The Orthodox Church continued in the eastern part of the old Roman Empire while the Catholic church prevailed in the west. Five hundred years later, another split divided Roman Catholics and Protestants. Methodists trace our lineage through the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church of England.

Diversity also dominates Protestantism. Some churches practice a congregational form of government where each local church is independent. Church members have total control over all legal and doctrinal decisions. That is not our tradition as Methodists. United Methodists inherited an episcopal government with bishops and organic unity. Our structure embodies of the connexionalism of our predecessor denominations. We affirm that Christians are stronger when they work and serve together.

When someone joins a local United Methodist Church, they become a member of the world-wide United Methodist Church. Every church and church member belongs to that larger whole. Historically, this united government has been fluid and adaptable. A quadrennial General Conference of democratically elected lay and clergy delegates reviews and updates the legislation that unite us. General Conference decisions are published in The Book of Discipline.

Two key words appear throughout The Book of Discipline. They are “shall” and “may.” If a paragraph uses the word “shall,” then it is something every congregation is expected to do. If it uses the word “may,” then the directive is optional. The wide use of “may” paragraphs allows local flexibility.

United Methodists not only have denominational unity, we also embrace an ecumenical spirit. We practice spiritual unity with all Christians. The Book of Discipline says that while each local church is part of the entire United Methodist Church, it is also part of the church universal.

“The universal church is composed of all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and which in the Apostles’ Creed we declare to be the holy catholic church (BOD ¶203).” The Discipline permits congregations to create federated, union, merged, and yoked parishes with other denominations (BOD ¶208).

Church unity has never been easy. Among the original twelve disciples there were divisions. One disciple betrayed Jesus, another publicly denied knowing him, and two disciples launched a political campaign to get the best seats in God’s kingdom. Every local church is still filled with imperfect people. No wonder Jesus prayed for unity. Yet for those who love Jesus and who love one another, the prayer for Christian unity is our prayer too.