I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:1-5, NRSV)
Decisions and disagreements mark our lives as human beings. Every aspect of our lives together as community is marked with deliberations, conversations and decisions that bind us together in one ‘communal’ life. Families engage and fight and even disagree, but they manage to maintain (for the most part) the sense that they are bound together by familial connections. Businesses, governments and communities all come to work of finding commonality and purpose through the infinite ways of disagreement, deliberation and conversation. The church, (the body of Christ), even has to reconcile itself to agree-to-disagree and/or be of differing views and yet be under the banner of Christian fellowship.
Sadly however, the hallmark of the age of partisanship (there is no such thing as a post-partisan), is that we have lost the ability to disagree and yet hold to our common bonds of identity and fellowship. Churches split, governments gridlock, businesses dissolve, and families separate because of disagreements that highlight our individuality over our sense of communal life together. Because I disagree with your position, I can no longer be identified with this group and must define myself by how I am different. This is what community looks like in the 21st century: fractured, breaking/broken and distraught with individuals searching for other individuals who they ‘can only’ agree with.
The scriptural passage above is taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It is one of the most comprehensive places in the New Testament where the theology of Paul is on display. He writes here as a pastoral theologian with great attention to the nature of faith, the power of the church and the work of God through Jesus Christ. This Chapter (12) is one of the most profound chapters in the book as it conveys the relationship of the believer to their community….the Church. The admonition here is that community takes sacrifice. Community takes an individual sacrifice that keeps the whole of the community in perspective. Sometimes, the whole (community) benefits and is strengthened when the particular beliefs and ideologies of the individual are sacrificed in light of the whole. Be wary of however, of the same individuals being asked to make all of the sacrifices. There is a fine line between elevating the greater good and oppressing the minority.
As much as Paul’s teaching makes sense, it is hard to live into the existential truth of its claim. The work of keeping the ‘bond’ in the forefront of our minds is always difficult if we think our position is of supreme importance. The text of the letter here reminds us to “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The scripture offers a truly profound statement in an age of partisan gridlock and 30 second sound-bytes, all designed to gain the upper hand in the debates we have in our communities.
Last Friday concluded two weeks of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The General Conference is the legislative body for the global United Methodist Church. According to the church’s website, “is the only body that officially speaks for the more than 12.1-million-member denomination.” Nearly 1,000 delegates from all across the world traveled to Tampa Bay to discuss, debate, caucus and vote on nearly 1800 pieces of church legislation. With the addition of live streaming, social networking and all of the other ways we are connected, the global church participated in the deliberations in ways that have never been experienced before. Despite the Christian nature and character of this particular gathering, the UMC is much like every other community and institution that suffers disagreements. Self-disclosure: I am not United Methodist, but a proud member of the Baptist Tradition. I am married to a UM pastor and son-in-law to a Methodist Bishop.
Watching on live stream, I witnessed mean-spiritedness, politicking, anger, hope, sadness, betrayal, offense and at times, gridlock and failure. Issues around sexuality and inclusivity, structural reorganization, and commitments to long-term change so stymied the assembly that protests, tears and gridlock seem to rule the day. Initially, I thought all of that I had witnessed was chaos, disorder, and the disintegration of a mainline protestant denomination. However, in light of the larger issues presented in the text and the struggle for communal unity, I see a different paradigm. I am sure many of my progressive UM friends will challenge me on this, but I like to think the world witnessed a Christian community struggle to be…. community.
Getting nearly 1000 people to sit in a room and agree on anything is a miracle in itself. Getting 1000 people to agree on what the Bible says takes nothing short of Divine intervention and influence. The fact that over a two week period, Methodists were able to hold in tension their individuality over and against the community of the global church is a model for the communal life together. Do they sometimes get it wrong? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT! Are some people hurt in the process? YES, and their hurt, challenges the whole to be better. Can the way we communicate be done in better ways? Certainly! An assembly like this still takes place and the community remains intact (even though hurt in the process), means that God is still in the reconciling and communal business.
The way I saw the above scriptures most strongly lived out was when the Conference voted to continue exclusion of openly practicing LGBT from recognition as clergy or as living in concert with Christian teaching. The failure of the Conference to even acknowledge the continuing disagreement around human sexuality speaks volumes regarding the lack of frank disagreement in our communities. Both of these positions are certainly the ‘right’ and privilege of the Conference to vote on according to UM polity. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, the fact that this segment of the UMC church has said they will continue to live as part of UMC church and as United Methodists speaks volumes to the love and belief of this population in the community as a whole. The world can take a lesson from the hurtful dialogue and discussion that surrounded this issue. Disagreements do not need to define us exclusively. Instead, the community we live through should always be our defining quality as people sharing life together.
A professor of mine once said, “The greatest sin in Christian community is schism.” Disagreements are an unchangeable part of life, schism is a choice. It violates our unity together and separates us from the diversity that strengthens us. A future without communal hurt and pain is a vision of truth; but so is a future without schism.