This week the General Conference for the United Methodist Church is being held in Portland, Oregon. General Conference is the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church. Some 864 delegates, elected from around the world, will gather to set policy and direction for the church, as well as handle other important business. Meeting every four years, General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the denomination. The United Methodist Book of Discipline, updated every four years, incorporates changes made by General Conference.
As you can imagine, trying to get 864 delegates coming from very different cultures and perspectives to agree about what time to break for lunch would be a challenge, much less to find common ground around Biblical and theological issues. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, a very small but likely very diverse house church, it is not surprising that they were wrestling with some disagreement and division. Paul’s famous plea for unity is found in chapter 2:
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Paul suggest that the way any church can find unity is by being clear about and in agreement upon who we are and what we do, our identity and our purpose. And to model our lives after Christ in acts of humility and selflessness (giving up my right to have my own way). Our identity and our purpose are really not up for debate. We are the “Body of Christ” which means he is the “head of the Body”. The church belongs to Christ and not to us. That also means we exist for His pleasure and purpose, which is to bring people into a saving relationship with God the Father revealed in Christ through the forgiveness and redemption offered by the sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
We need to be praying for the General Conference first of all that as a denomination we can stay focused on our main purpose. How that is lived out on a local church level may look a little different across the world, but the end result will always be the same. Secondly we need to pray that we can model for a world that is so divided, how through Christ we can have unity and love in our diversity.