Applying What Wesley Taught about Schism

August 15th, 2017

“[Schism] is evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. . . . The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bound of peace. . . . And as such a separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit; it is naturally productive of the most mischievous consequences. It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmising, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.”[1]

So wrote John Wesley on the nature of division or heresy (which he defined as the fomenting of division within communities of living Christians [2]).

With such a direct and strong statement against division, it is perhaps surprising that the Wesleyan Methodist tradition has produced as many bodies of Christians as it has, some living still: United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Wesleyan Methodist, Free Methodist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and Nazarene, to name a few, and these only within the confines of the United States. With a global perspective, given the independence of the descendants of British Methodism and the influence of Holiness and Pentecostalism, the divisions are legion. More surprising, given Wesley’s words, than the “schisms” that flowed from our movement is the fact that our movement itself depends on schism, separation, division, for its very existence.

Wesleyan Methodism and Schism

Wesleyan Methodism was birthed in and through division.[3] In the mid-1730s, “Methodism” was a loose confederation of like-minded proponents of experiential Christianity and included what would later become Wesleyan Methodist under Wesley, Calvinistic Methodists under Whitefield, and the Moravian Church in England.

The divisions that led to these separate connections were not amicable. They involved passionate feelings on each side and real separation. These early “Methodists” divided over differences in theology, diverse readings of scripture, community discipline, and liturgical practice. What we know as the Wesleyan tradition, with its emphasis on universal free grace, on human agency in salvation, on the means of grace, on the sacrament as a converting ordinance, on discipline, holiness, and perfection in love, is a product of these splits. To take an even broader view, were it not for church divisions (Imperial/Donatist, East/West, Protestant/Roman, Arminian/Reformed, Moravian/Anglo-Evangelical), Methodism would not exist as a coherent community to wrestle with identity.[4]

The Church?

That leaves the question hanging. Where is the church in all this? What is “the church” according to Wesleyan categories? Did these numerous divisions divide the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” or (since Wesley found the Nicene Creed too politically compromised) the “holy catholic church”?[5] Were all earlier separations heretical? And which? Was Wesley a schismatic?

There is a clue to Wesley’s ecclesiology in the sermon “On Schism,” in which he opposes division. It shows that Wesley was not unaware of his own participation in the disputes that formed his connection. “If I could not continue united to any smaller society, church, or body of Christians,” he wrote,

without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation, by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.[6]

Wesley even admitted that (if forbidden to do what God had called him to do in preaching the gospel) he would separate from the Church of England[7] (a church he thought was the best visible instantiation of primitive Christianity, and with whom he mostly agreed on matters of doctrine, discipline, polity, and liturgy) if its discipline threatened to stop the mission of Methodism to which he was called.

Another clue is that Wesley never assumed that those who disagreed with him—from whom he had separated institutionally, missionally, and who were even in a separate communion—were not true Christians, not members of the holy catholic church.

A Wesleyan Ecclesiology

The Oneness of the Church

If unity, given the founding logic of the Wesleyan movement, does not primarily exist institutionally or even ritually in a shared sacrament of the Eucharist, where does it exist? In his 1785 sermon “Of the Church,” Wesley reflected on this question using Ephesians 4:1-6, where he interpreted each of Paul’s statements of unity: one body, one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, to turn aside any understanding of the unity of the universal church as primarily institutionally visible, or necessitating connection to one organization.

Members of the universal church share in the one Spirit “who animates all . . . the living members of the Church of God.”[8] They share “a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.”[9] They have one Lord who “reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy.”[10] They have one faith, “the free gift of God . . . teaching them to say with holy boldness ‘My Lord and My God.’”[11] They share “one baptism; which is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church.”[12] Finally, “There is ‘one God and Father of all’ who have the Spirit of adoption, which ‘crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;’ which ‘witnesseth’ continually ‘with their spirits,’ that they are the children of God.”[13] And “the catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character.”[14]

This definition of the one church, Wesley argued, can be read as consistent with the Anglican Article of Religion 19: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men.”

However, while not opposed to the doctrinal standard of his own communion, Wesley clearly thought the article, where it reads “in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered,”[15] overreached. “The Article” Wesley says, “includes a little more than the Apostle has expressed,”[16] and he would “not undertake to defend” that statement.[17] His objection was precisely because he believed membership in Christ’s church to be about whether one is being saved. It is not opinions over teachings or modes of worship.[18]

The “oneness” of the church is a unity through shared experience of the new birth and changed character, not encompassed in any particular organization or even through the sacramental sign of its true communion. In “Predestination Calmly Considered” (which is not very calm and hardly a text promoting external unity), Wesley referred to the true church as “those who are grafted into the good olive tree . . . not barely the outward, visible church but the invisible, consisting of holy believers.”[19] Unity is through our invisible participation in Christ.

Plurality in Unity

According to Wesley, the universal church will not be one of outward connection. First, because the outward visible church includes non-Christians, people who are not part of the unity of the body of Christ. In the outward visible church “reprobates are . . . mingled with the elect,” as St. Augustine put it.[20] There are “weeds and wheat,” to quote another learned theologian.[21] “How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers,” wrote Wesley.[22]

Second, each “outward visible church” is constituted by people who share “opinions”—on doctrine, discipline, and modes of worship. Such shared opinions are necessary, constituent aspects of community cohesion, and yet they separate even true Christians from one another. “A catholic spirit is not indifference to all congregations,” or even connections. That is “absurd and unscriptural.”[23]

There will always be multiple separate groups containing real Christians, because “every wise man will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires [others] should allow him.”[24] Unity does “not mean,” according to Wesley, “‘be of my opinion.’ You need not.”[25] That cannot be desired or expected, even though differing opinions with regard to Christian teaching divides Christians. Of course, true believers across separate connections bear “with those who differ.”[26] A believer “only asks [another believer in a different connection] . . . to unite in that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart.’”[27] But because of differences of opinion, the church will be an institutionally divided union in faith, even among true believers, until Christ returns.

A Witness to the Presence of the One Church

While such differences “in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union,”[28] there are always signs of the presence of the invisible church. Despite outward division, there must be a physical gathering, a connection. There is no holiness that is not “social holiness,” that does not involve social commitments to other human beings. Believers unite. Such a gathering, according to Wesley, may be “any number of people, how small or great soever.”[29] It may be as small as two or three, who share “one body” and “one calling . . . out of the world, (so the original word properly signifies,) uniting together in one congregation.”[30]

However, the most important visible evidence of the true church is holiness. “The Church” (and here Wesley meant the invisible unity of believers) “is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy.”[31] This “olive tree,” wrote Wesley, “is the invisible Church, for it ‘consists of holy believers’ which none but the invisible Church does.”[32]

The Roots of Wesleyan Ecclesiology

This invisible understanding of “catholic unity” had been carried down through the centuries by a number of religious communities. Most proximately to Wesley, this ecclesiology was developed and passed on through Pietism. Wesley’s ideas about “church,” while certainly influenced by his eighteenth-century Anglican context (mostly in aspects he referred to as “opinions”), were much more influenced by this less institutionally defined movement.

Pietists expected Christians to behave differently in this world because they had encountered another world. Believers were expected to have a quasi-mystical experience of faith that would result in holy living. Christians were not simply declared righteous but actually made righteous by the power of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the Spirit’s work in individuals meant one could expect the Spirit’s work in the world, through mercy, mission, and social reform.[33]

Pietism had theological emphases yet was not doctrinal in the way magisterial churches understood it. It distinguished between theological “fundamentals” and “opinions”[34] and thus moved and multiplied across confessional borders. Wrong opinions (within a certain range, anyway) did not make transforming faith impossible. Pietism had institutional form, namely, the use of small groups for cultivating piety, but its unity was not defined institutionally. Pietists did not limit fellowship or missional cooperation across confessional lines.[35] Rather, true unity in Christ was demonstrated in shared fellowship and missional cooperation across ecclesial divisions. Their ecclesiology acknowledged common cause and care across divisions of doctrine, and practice, yet did not seek to eradicate the divisions.

Visually we might conceive of this ecclesiology as a sort of daisy[36] with each petal being a congregation, connection, or denomination in which Christians gather. Each petal shares peculiar opinions, modes of worship, and practices of leadership and discipline that distinguish it from other “petals.” The center circle, intersecting all petals, is the true church. There are faithful people in each petal. But not every participant in a given set of opinions, modes of worship, and discipline is within the true church. Not all have saving faith. The true church is a circumscribed “body” of some within each “petal,” who are vitally connected to Christ by faith.

The true church is visible within each various institutional church (and is what enables them to be called “churches”). It is visible to the outside world through holiness, through its departure from the patterns of the world and submission to the patterns of Christ’s reign. Unity of the church, however, exists at the center, in Christ. It is unity of fellowship, missional cooperation, and mutual recognition across division. Therefore, a division within a particular petal cannot touch this unity, has no effect on the unity of the true church, cannot touch those who remain “engrafted into the good olive tree.”[37]


So what do we make of this heritage, this ecclesiology, and its instantiation within the Wesleyan movement from its inception? Let me draw a few observations that may help us in our present predicament as a denomination:


  1. United Methodism should embrace the reality that its ecclesiology is defined primarily not through Imperial and Magisterial categories but through more radical (with assumptions about holiness and discipline) categories by way of Pietism. The very existence of The United Methodist Church, with its reformation roots in Anglican (the Methodist Church), Lutheran (The Evangelical Alliance), Reformed, and Anabaptist (the United Brethren in Christ) traditions, makes this obvious. The union of Mennonite and Reformed traditions in the United Brethren is another clear instance. Only this Pietistic ecclesiology makes sense of Wesley’s writings on schism and the church and the reality of Wesleyan Methodism’s origins.
  2. United Methodism should abandon any argument that the integrity of a fifty-year-old denomination of Protestants impacts the unity of the church. Any pretense of institutional unity ended with the Donatist controversy in the fourth century, if not before that. Furthermore, external institutional unity cannot be held as paramount over other Nicene creedal marks of the church, especially those shared with the Apostles’ Creed (which Wesley greatly preferred): sanctity and catholicity.
  3. Methodism, in line with its ecclesiological heritage, should embrace a robust defense of denominationalism. The church is the communion of saints. It includes those in all congregations, connections, traditions, and denominations who have true saving faith. Institutional expressions of church (which necessitate actually and firmly held “opinions” on doctrine, discipline, polity, and liturgy) are churches insofar as they contain said saints gathered to worship, serve God, and hold each other accountable. Where believers meet, they participate in the true church. But no gathering or connection encapsulates the catholic body of Christ, nor is the body of Christ fully encapsulated in any gathering or connection. Correct opinions do not ensure participation in the “true church.”
  4. United Methodism should, by the logic of our history and ecclesiology, acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to go separate ways in separate connections. Without separations, we would not have a Methodist tradition worth preserving or dividing over. Furthermore, if we cannot hold each other accountable to any coherent expression of Christian ethics, if we cannot agree on explications of the General Rules, we are no longer one church, in the Wesleyan sense. The practices that constitute our legitimate ecclesial order (the General Rule, oversight, classes, bands, conferencing, and itinerancy) have already been abrogated. We can no longer “walk together.”
  5. Finally, United Methodism should realize that should a split occur, by the logic of our ecclesiology, there will be no “pure church” on the other side of it. No schism produces a church that is the church, prior to the eschaton. There are always faithless people within any body called “church,” sharing the “opinions” necessary to hold together corporately. There are also always people, genuinely grafted in to the true vine, which is Christ, who do not agree with the opinions of my congregation, my connection, my denomination. One can be wrong and be “being saved.”[38] Thank God.

[1] John Wesley, Sermon 75, “On Schism,” [II]:11-12, in Sermons III, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 3 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976-), 64–65. Note that the damage in schism is not to a structure, but to the character of holiness in those who participate in it.

[2] Wesley, “On Schism,” I:6, Works, 3:62.

[3] Some will assume this refers to the beginnings of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, when a Methodist church became officially and organizationally independent from anything known as the Anglican Church. It does not. This was not a schism but a development necessitated by abandonment. The Anglican Church had ceased to exist in America—de facto when Anglican clergy fled to Canada or England in the 1770s, and de jure by the former colonies’ independence from the Supreme Governor of the Church, the King. In 1784 there was technically no Anglican Church in the United States from which Methodists could split. The Protestant Episcopal Church was not formed until 1789. Ironically, one of Wesley’s former Methodist lay missionaries to America, Joseph Pilmore, became one of its early priests. The schisms that formed Wesleyan Methodism as a distinct tradition had happened fifty years earlier.

[4] In many aspects, Methodism preserves a strain of holiness and charismatic ecclesiology, which is not easily traced through the standard line of institutional “orthodoxy.”

[5] Wesley preferred the Apostles’ Creed. See Wesley, Sermon 74, “Of the Church,” [III]:28, Works, 3:55. He also intentionally removed the Nicene Creed from the Articles of Religion and liturgy that he sent to America. Compare Article VIII “Of the Creed” of the Articles of the Church of England, which is omitted from the Articles of Religion sent by Wesley to America. See also John Wesley, Sunday Service of the Methodists, with other Occasional Services.

[6] Wesley, Sermon 75, “On Schism,” [II]:17, Works, 3:67.

[7] Ibid., [II]:17, 67.

[8] Ibid., [I]:8, 48–49.

[9] Ibid., [I]:9, 49

[10] Ibid., [I]:10, 49.

[11] Ibid., [I]:11, 49.

[12] Ibid., [I]:12, 49.

[13] Ibid., [I]:13, 50.

[14] Ibid., [I]:14, 50.

[15] Ibid., [I]:16, 51.

[16] Ibid., [I]:16, 51.

[17] Wesley, Sermon 74, “Of the Church,” [I]:19, Works, 3:52.

[18] Ibid., [I]:19, 52.

[19] John Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 461.

[20] Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 18.49.

[21] Matt 13:24-30

[22] Wesley, Sermon 74, “Of the Church,” [III]:28, Works, 3:56.

[23] Ibid., III:3, 93.

[24] Ibid., I:6, 84.

[25] Ibid., II:1, 89.

[26] Ibid., I:6, 84.

[27] Ibid., I:6, 84–85.

[28] Ibid., Intro:4, 82.

[29] Wesley, Sermon 74, “Of the Church,” Intro:2, Works, 3:46.

[30] Ibid., Intro:3, 47.

[31] Wesley, Sermon 74, “Of the Church,” [III]:28, Works, 3:55–56.

[32] Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” in Outler, John Wesley, 461.

[33] Dale Brown, Understanding Pietism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 27–28.

[34] This distinction is the origin of the contemporary language of “fundamentalism.” The nineteenth-century publishers of “The Fundamentals” were arguing that the supernatural essence of Christianity was threatened by liberalism, and that was not a matter of “opinion” but “fundamental” to the gospel.

[35] The first corresponding member of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, an organization with roots in the Anglican Pietist movement known as the Religious Societies Movement, was the leader of the German Pietist Halle Foundation, August Herman Francke. In his letter of introduction to the society, he wrote, “I look upon these things as comfortable signs that the Spirit of God is now about a great work to put a new face on the whole Christian Church.”

[36] The Reformed have their T.U.L.I.P. Why shouldn’t we Wesleyans have a flower too?

[37] Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” in Outler, John Wesley, 461.

[38] Acts 2:47; 27:20; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:2; 2 Corinthians 2:15

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