Unity is Hard

Tonight and for the next few days, our family will undergo a ritual that we have repeated more than a dozen times in the last year.  We will welcome a stranger into our family and home.  We’ve never met this person.  We know nothing about her beyond her age, her country of origin, and that she’s coming to Santa Barbara to improve her English and learn about American culture.  We don’t know anything about her family, her background, her experiences, her education, her hopes, her dreams.  Perhaps more pertinent, we don’t know anything about her personal characteristics, whether she’s tidy or messy, fresh or stinky, grumpy or cheerful, a morning person or a night person, how well she shares, whether she likes dogs, or children, or much of anything else.

Yet for the next two months, she becomes part of our family.  She has to learn to adapt to us.  We have to learn to adapt to her.  We are committed to working out misunderstandings, clarifying confusion, giving the benefit of the doubt, smiling, being patient, trying to listen more than speak, and otherwise to love this young woman as her family-away-from-home, which is what we are.

In a little over a year of doing this, with people from literally all over the world, we have only had one situation that wasn’t pleasant.  We’ve had no shortage of goofs and mistakes and misunderstandings.  We’ve been stretched in dealing with privileged teens and pampered pubescents.  We’ve learned that you can survive the callouses that form from biting your tongue.  It isn’t lethal.  And only once – and not by our initiation – was a student reassigned because it just wasn’t a good fit.

I’m not bragging, but I’m proud of that track record.  It has taught our family a lot.  A lot that I wish my larger church body (not my particular congregation!) would learn.

I spent the day planning for a conference in the fall that pastors from our region are all supposed to attend.  Only about half of them do.  Some don’t because of logistical reasons – their parishes can’t afford to cover their travel expenses, things like that.  Others don’t because they dislike gathering together as clergy.  I’m an introvert, I get that to large extent.  Conferences are painful and awkward for me as well.  But I go, because it’s important to be there.  Not necessarily important for me, though that could easily be debated.  But important all the same.  Important to my congregation as a tangible reminder that we are not some sort of renegade group out here in paradise.  Important to my brothers in the ministry as a sign of support and encouragement, even if they have no idea who I am and we never exchange a single word.  Important to remind me that I’m not the Lutheran Lone Ranger.

But unity is hard.  Not all of the guys who gather for this conference see eye to eye on all matters.  Some of them disagree pretty firmly on aspects of ministry and worship and Christian life.  For some guys, these differences are reasons to skip the conference all together.  It is their passive or active judgment on all the people that don’t agree with them.  Some of these guys don’t come because they don’t want to take Holy Communion with their brothers they disagree with.

Brothers that are ordained in the same denomination they are.  Brothers who have taken the same ministerial vows that they have.  Because they disagree, they have decided that they cannot Commune together.  They are stating that they are not in unity with the rest of us, or at least those who disagree with them.

I have my opinions and ideas and preferences like anyone else.  But I try to bear in mind at all times that the odds that I’m wrong about something are frighteningly high.  A Masters in theology doesn’t make you theologically bulletproof.  It makes you just sharp enough to be dangerous.  To yourself, your congregation, and your colleagues.

But unity is what we affirm in our ministerial vows.  Unity is what we are called to not just in Christ but by Christ (John 17).  I may not agree with everything a colleague of mine does.  But is he still a brother in Christ?  And is there nothing that I can learn from him?  Nothing he can learn from me?  Isn’t it going to be awfully awkward in heaven to be around people that you refuse to speak to here and now?  Brothers and sisters in the faith?

Unity is hard.  It takes a lot of work.  A lot of tongues bitten.  A lot of grace rather than judgment.  It has to be prized in and of itself, as something to be striven for and achieved to at least a limited degree.  The harder you work at it, the more you realize that it can be done.  It isn’t the end of the world to have a heated disagreement with somebody and not change their mind.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit down around a table with them a while later and share a meal, whether chips & salsa or Holy Communion.  It in fact is very helpful, very necessary, very important.

I need the opportunity to learn how to stay in unity with someone I don’t agree with – who I may not even like!  And I need brothers in the faith who will do the same with me.  Not because it’s always fun and easy, but because it can be done, should be done, and must be done.

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4 Responses to “Unity is Hard”

  1. SB mom Says:

    Hello again – still thoroughly enjoying your blog but felt the need to jump in once more to make a very brief point regarding unity. There is much talk of unity these days in the church, and while I agree it is important to remember that we are called to unity with our brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is equally important to be sure that what we are united in is Truth. If we are not, then, to paraphrase a famous quote, wouldn’t it be better to be divided by truth than united in error?

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Excellent point. Yes, we must acknowledge that while we are united in Christ in broad brush strokes, there are places where we disagree. Some folks advocate for a unity in the body of Christ which ignores the very real theological differences we have. The vast majority of these differences are not going to affect salvation – I look forward to sharing a beer with Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers and many other strains of Christianity in heaven. But for here and now, using the minds God gave us, we have to acknowledge that we disagree in some areas. Then it should become a matter of affirming where we can act in unity (caring for the poor, etc.), while maintaining where honesty requires us to act separately (worship, etc.).

  2. Doug Vossler Says:

    Thank you for writing on this topic! It is one that we’ve all had reason to think about and certainly merits more discussion. The actions of your fellow pastors reflect a division in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (and I suspect other denominations as well) which has existed for decades. And this division is getting wider and will continue to widen in the future unless tangible action is taken to address it. I agree with you that we need to identify where we can act in unity and where we need to act separately, but the question is how this can be done on a practical basis without crossing the line into unionism – which we are to avoid. If we are allowed to individually set this line (and change it as it suits us) and are not held to a common “definition”, unity, no matter how much it is desired, will not ever be possible. And, if we don’t have the will and conviction as a group to study, establish and agree to this definition, a state of division will always remain.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      In conversation with some colleagues the other day, it was pointed out that most all of our practical unity (as the specific LCMS denomination) is dependent upon the honesty and follow-through of member pastors and congregations. While we have a polity, that polity doesn’t have much in the way of teeth (except in extreme situations where the law has been broken and/or we’re exposed to lawsuits. Then we’re pretty quick to act to protect our interests!). In other words, if there are congregations and/or pastors who refuse fellowship with other LCMS congregations/pastors, there is no way to call them to account.

      So it is that within our denomination there are people who are more than happy to rip one another to shreds without a qualm or second thought, because it’s all “in defense of the Gospel”. So long as I can convince myself that I am defending the Gospel, I am free to deride, belittle, slander, defame, and otherwise be not nice to those I have classified as a threat to the Gospel. Frankly, it’s a Law-oriented approach that bears a much closer similarity to the Qur’an than the Bible.

      This is not necessarily easy stuff, to be sure. But if Districts and the Synod have no way of requiring congregations and pastors to act in good faith (which is different than forcing congregations and pastors to do things a certain way), then disunity will continue, with all sides convinced that all they need to do is gain a majority or a consensus to force everyone to do what they think they ought to do. Hardly healthy. Hardly in keeping with the unity that St. Paul called the Corinthian Christians to, in spite of their very different backgrounds (and therefore I’m guessing very different preferences and approaches to worship).

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