Unity and Accountability

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, January 28, 2021

At what price unity?

Advocates of unity and accountability are locking horns these days in the halls of Congress. Those supporting the impeachment of former President Trump insist that he must be held accountable for inciting the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Opponents to his impeachment argue that such a pursuit will only further divide our country at a time when we need instead to seek unity.

Why do we advocate more for unity at certain times and more for accountability at others? Some crying for unity in face of the current impeachment proceedings have shown little regard for unity previously, while others who press for accountability in this situation have previously led the charge for unity.

One need not be a cynic to propose that much of the posturing on both sides is based on self-interest. What will help me most in the next election? What will endear me best to potential donors? What will most likely lead me to a place of influence or power in the current system? But some of the people in the debate are surely not self-seeking. Is there a time to press for accountability even if it threatens unity, or our own party’s future prospects?

Like Congress, the church has often struggled between calls for unity and accountability.

1 Peter 4 says that “love covers a multitude of sins.” Love is the essential mark of authenticity for those who follow Jesus – a love as unconditional among us as his love is for us. It is the foundation of the unity that Jesus prays his followers will demonstrate. It predisposes us to overlook each other’s faults and treasure each other’s gifts.

Yet unity is not our only important communal value.

Just before contending that love covers a multitude of sins, Peter declares that God holds the unrepentant accountable for their actions of reckless self-indulgence. Unity does not preclude accountability.

In January many of our congregations ordain and install officers for the upcoming year. In recent weeks I have enjoyed seeing the various ways this is accomplished when laying-on of hands is limited by current social distancing protocols. One way or another, we’re getting it done! One of the promises officers make at their ordination/installation is “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.” (Book of Order W-4.4003) “Unity and purity” may seem at first glance like opposing vectors. (How can we maintain pure doctrine while embracing those who do not adhere to it?) Yet we are called to uphold both equally, without self-interest.

In 1 Corinthians 8 (this Sunday’s lectionary epistle), Paul holds us to account for how we justify self-serving behavior by appealing to our freedom in Christ. If our exercise of freedom causes our sister or brother to stumble, we ought to set aside our right to self-expression in favor of preserving our wholeness as a community. As in the larger society, church members have differences of opinion on how best to respond to the COVID pandemic. Whatever our own opinion, how would we proceed if our question was less about what we have a right to do, and more about how our actions demonstrate our concern for the welfare of others?

Peace. Unity. Purity.

There is no real peace without unity, as President Biden noted in last week’s inaugural address. And unity without accountability (which is the essence of purity) is only a façade.

Holding each other accountable for upholding the church’s peace and unity is an essential marker of our authenticity as God’s people. Our Book of Order calls it one of the necessary “notes” of the church. (Book of Order F-1.0303) Christians have no moral authority to call for unity and accountability in the public square if we fail to manifest them within our own Christian fellowship.

Division in the church and lack of accountability for our words and actions destroy the church’s inner fabric and its outward credibility. But when we demonstrate the peace of our Lord manifest in unity that insists on accountability, we are true to our calling to exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world. The point is not for the church to enhance its reputation, but for the world to see that it is indeed possible for people to live in the way of Jesus, and that such a way of life bears the good fruit of peace and justice for all.

Seeking peace, unity, and purity in Christ,

This entry was posted in Letters from the General Minister and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.