For those who value church unity, the Christian scene in the United States is increasingly causing claustrophobia. The space we once occupied seems to be getting smaller and smaller with each passing year. This is true for our nation in general, but it seems particularly true in our Presbyterian tradition.
In the wake of the decisions of the most recent General Assembly, even more congregations in my presbytery are weighing whether or not they should remain affiliated with the PC(USA). I am sure this is true across the country as well.
In the past week alone, I’ve heard that church unity means keeping the local body together with no regard for national connection; that church unity is a value unless there are false teachers amongst us who need to be cast out; that the other “side” caused the disruption of unity; and that if Luther and Calvin believed in church unity we would all be Catholic. Since we are not Catholic, it must have not been a priority for them.
All of these arguments have fatal flaws, and the last one is just flat-out inaccurate and incorrect. The sad truth, however, is that unity in the body is not a value upheld – or even considered – by many churches. Instead, it is an inconvenience to be argued around and avoided.
Both sides in the recent marriage debates assert that they are being faithful to Scripture and living under the authority of Scripture. Yet, Paul’s arguments regarding unity are ignored. If Paul’s teachings on unity were truly taken seriously, congregations wouldn’t be splintering off to join separatist conservative denominations. If the most recent General Assembly wanted to take Paul’s teachings on unity seriously, they would have been better served by only passing the authoritative interpretation, letting evangelical congregations adjust at a slower pace of change and allowing the debate to continue about whether or not marriage should actually be redefined.
Both sides decided they’ve had enough, though. Both sides have decided they need to have their way on issues around marriage, at the expense of the unity of the body. For one side, that means finally winning the vote on the redefinition of marriage. For the other side, that means leaving congregations and communities to join a separatist denomination where everyone agrees.
Marriage has become more important than unity. Winning the arguments about marriage has become more important than staying connected. However, I find little justification for this in Scripture. While marriage is important, it’s not more important than the church.
Paul’s letters are littered with exhortations to unity. For Paul, unity was not a convenience, nor was it a helpful by-product of agreement. For Paul, unity was a central part of the church’s witness to the world around us. Unity was a goal that should be worked towards, never forsaken and never severed because of a disagreement. For Paul, Christians had to resolve debates, not just separate, so that the world would know there was one God, in three persons, unified and pulling the rest of the world into that unity.
That doesn’t mean we don’t debate or that we ignore issues. Unity does not mean agreement. In fact, unity assumes disagreement. In the face of disagreement, though, we remain connected and we pursue decisions that will help us remain connected. This is not a stance born of naiveté. Unity isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest parts of the Christian life at times. But it’s a requirement, not a luxury.
Pursuing unity doesn’t mean every Christian should become a member of the PC(USA). No denomination has it all figured out. That being said, pursuing unity means that we work towards increasing connection, not creating new separations.
In 1983, the PC(USA) was born by the joining of the UPCUSA and the PCUS. This was a reuniting of a split that occurred in 1861. It took 122 years for the Northern and Southern Churches to reunite. The ramifications of that decision to separate in 1861 lasted much longer than the generation that caused the separation. For 122 years, Presbyterians were handed a broken church that had been ruptured along fault lines that didn’t matter anymore. Reuniting is much more difficult than separating, sadly.
And now, I fear that my generation will be handed a fractured church that was damaged over issues that won’t be divisive for us and for our children. My hope is that when we are passing the church on to a new generation, we’ll be able to hand them a church that takes Paul seriously, that values unity, values connection and realizes that the things we argue about now won’t be the things that future generations will argue about.
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, California.