(Luther Oconer of United Methodist United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, shared these remarks with delegates from the Philippines at a February 22, 2019 dinner in St. Louis, MO.)
In John 17, as Jesus was about to leave his disciples, he prayed for their protection and that they remain “one” in the midst of the difficulties they were about to face in the days following his death (11-12). After this, in verse 21, he prayed for his future followers “that all of them may be one” (21). ). While this prayer was meant for the disciples and Jesus’ future followers, it is easy to see why it also applies to the Church. However, what makes this prayer so compelling is how Jesus described unity. In verse 21, he added, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” His was a prayer for the disciples and the Church to exemplify the unity of the Father and the Son.
So, how did Jesus describe the unity between the Father and the Son? He described this in 5:19 when he declared: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” Again in 12:49 Jesus said, “I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.”
Jesus’ prayer for unity is set in this context. Jesus did what he saw the Father do, spoke what the Father told him. Jesus understood the unity between him and the Father as one of submission or obedience. Jesus only did what he saw the Father was doing. This was why he “became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8) Jesus’ prayer must, therefore, be seen in the light of this context. He was obedient to the Father and, therefore, we too, being his disciples, must be obedient to him. There can be no real unity without obedience to Christ.
John reiterated this understanding in his first epistle as he described the abiding relationship between Jesus and his disciples: “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.” (1 Jn. 3:24) The centrality of obedience is clear. We can do nothing apart from our connectedness to Christ through obedience. Anything we do outside of Christ will not bear fruit. Even if we are “united” among ourselves, our plans will not prosper if we are not obedient to him. In John 15:5, Jesus taught: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” When we speak of unity, it has to be framed according to our connectedness to Christ whom we obey.
Another important aspect of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, connected with obedience is his prayer for holiness. He prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. . . . For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (17,19) Jesus prayed for unity and holiness at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. They go together. Here, Jesus pointed to his sanctification as the precursor to his disciples’ sanctification. Since he is holy, they too must be holy. Unity. Obedience. Holiness. That is Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul also made clear the connection between holiness and unity in Ephesians 4, a well-known passage on unity. He wrote: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (11-13) Paul believed that unity and holiness go together.
Likewise, John Wesley understood the connection between unity and holiness when he organized the first Methodist societies (fellowships) in England. Wesley, in fact, called them “United Societies” and the only requirement to join them was the desire “to flee from the wrath to come,” a phrase he used to mean conviction of sin and a desire to be saved from it.
The activities in these “united societies”—the class meetings, the bands, and various ministries to the poor—were all meant to help those who were convinced of sin overcome their sinful nature and grow in holiness. The first Methodists pursued holiness through practices of disciplined obedience and preached it with great optimism. They saw great potential in people, in who they could become by abiding in obedience to Jesus through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
Correspondingly, Bishops Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke captured the relationship between holiness and unity for American Methodism when they remarked in the Journal of 1796: “Our grand object is to raise and preserve a holy and united people. Holiness is our aim; and we pay no regard to numbers, but in proportion as they possess the genuine principles of vital religion.” For these two pioneering bishops and for American Methodists, holiness and unity went together.
The Methodist Church in the Philippines in the decades prior to World War II thrived under the same spirit. Filipino Methodist preachers and American missionaries promoted holiness throughrevival meetings or what they called “culto ng pagbabagongbuhay” (life-changing meetings) or “culto Pentecostal” (Pentecostal meetings). It was not uncommon to see people in these gatherings so convicted of sin that they gave up cockfighting, drinking, or surrendered their cigarettes and buyo(betel-nut chewing) at the altar. In some instances, couples living together outside of wedlock would get married as a result. For this reason, Methodism experienced phenomenal growth during this period since these transformations testified to its ability to bring change or re-order people’s lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fast-forward to today, given the logic of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, given Paul, Wesley, Asbury, Coke, and the history of Filipino Methodism, it seems almost inconceivable that we find ourselves divided over same-sex marriage and the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. But here we are.
Through a set of petitions under the One Church Plan (OCP), we are contemplating removing restrictive language on human sexuality from our Book of Discipline. Local churches and annual conferences would freely decide these questions based on “their contexts” while supposedly keeping our “unity” intact. But this is not “unity” according to John 17 or Paul or historic Methodism. We have drifted far from the original design of Methodism—from what it means to be genuinely united and holy at the same time. Those who support the OCP, despite their best intentions, have forgotten the Holy Spirit’s power to transform all of us in the midst of our sin and brokenness, which is the center of Methodist doctrine. They have lost sight of the Wesleyan vision that saw great potential in people and what they could become through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Promoters of the OCP argue that its passage would allow for a diversity of practices (or approaches) on human sexuality in the UMC while keeping the church “united.” “Unity in diversity,” they claim. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is that practices cannot be separated from beliefs. When John Wesley met with others at the First Methodist Conference of 1744 in London, the first item in their agenda was the question, “What to teach?” Doctrine was their first order of business. They discussed doctrines of sin, grace, repentance, justification, the new birth (born again life), and holiness.
They saw to it that these shared beliefs regarding salvation would form the basis of their unity as Methodists. These were the glue that kept them together and distinguished them from other groups like the Moravians and the Calvinistic Methodists. It was only after they have established what they believed that they asked the question, “what to do?”, in other words, practice. From this early beginning, it was very clear to Wesley and his colleagues that beliefs about the nature of salvation would determine their practices.
Thus, I firmly believe that by allowing different approaches to marriage and ordination base on context, we will have already undermined the very essence of what makes us Methodists—a community of believers united under a set of shared beliefs. These established beliefs will be weakened if we maintain opposing views on human sexuality. For the beliefs that drive our views on this question are not merely inessential beliefs for they run at the core of our understanding of sin, grace, justification, and sanctification.
Practice follows doctrine. Practices around sex and marriage stem from what we believe about our Creator, the created goodness of female and male, the command to be fruitful and multiply, marriage as a sanctifying ordinance, and, perhaps most significantly, the power of the new birth and the work of the Holy Spirit to change our inclinations and give us new hearts. For “having once been slaves to sin,” as Paul wrote, “[we can]become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which [we] were entrusted.” (Rom. 6:17)
Hence, if we vote to approve the OCP petitions, we will have set “unity” above Jesus’ understanding of unity in his John 17 prayer. We will have set institutional unity above Wesleyan doctrine, above our understanding of what the Bible says about how one is saved and grow in holiness. It is tantamount to surrendering our spiritual identity to the dictates of the world.
I encourage you, therefore, to support the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) because it is our best chance of having a UMC that pursues unity and holiness at the same time. The MTP also addresses the problem of governance in the UMC in the U. S. while allowing for a graceful exit to those who according to their conscience cannot keep our covenant. We can no longer let people, who by their disobedience, make a mockery of our Book of Discipline and doctrinal standards which we all have agreed to uphold. It is unfortunate that those who have been called to defend the faith have done very little to fulfill that role. If this issue on governance is not addressed, there is simply no telling when these acts of disobedience will end.
To close, let us return to John 17 and finally ask why Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples? What was his ultimate vision behind his prayer? The answer is, he wanted them to be ready for the coming of the promised Advocate. For on the day of Pentecost, as they were in “one accord in one place,” the Holy Spirit came to them and filled them (Acts 2:1). Their unity was the necessary condition for the coming of the Third Person of the Trinity to empower them for mission and grow them in holiness until they attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). That is our hope.
Friends, God has placed upon your shoulders in the next three days the opportunity to change the course of our denomination. May your votes allow for unity and holiness to come together again among the people called United Methodists. For it is the necessary condition that will bring forth a new Pentecost in our beloved UMC so that it can once again “spread scriptural holiness over the land.” May God bless us all! Thank you.