Schism and Wesley’s Understanding of the Church

August 24th, 2017

It is evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together, and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretences 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 bond of peace. It is therefore contrary to all those commands of God wherein brotherly love is enjoined: To that of St. Paul, "Let brotherly love continue;" that of St. John, "My beloved children, love one another;" and especially to that of our blessed Master, "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you". Yea, "By this", saith he, "shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another." [1]

In his recent article “Applying what Wesley Taught about Schism,” Scott Kisker argues that Wesley’s understanding of the unity of the church is focused on the one invisible Church of which all true believers are members. Division is, however, a characteristic of visible institutional churches because they are a mixture of true believers and unbelievers, and because their unity is constituted by common opinions and modes of worship in which they differ from others. He thus states that “because of differences of opinion, the church will be an institutionally divided union in faith, even among true believers, until Christ returns”. The one invisible church is manifested in diverse visible institutional churches. The presence of the invisible church is manifested in the holiness of believers.

Kisker draws five conclusions from this. First, the UMC should affirm an ecclesiology rooted in Pietism. Second, that the integrity of the UMC has no impact on the unity of the church and institutional unity cannot have pre-eminence over other creedal marks of the church, especially sanctity and catholicity. Third, Methodism should embrace denominationalism. Fourth, there are now legitimate reasons for the UMC to separate into different connections. Five, the result of separation will not be the creation of a pure church; churches resulting from such a separation will include faithful and faithless people.

Kisker’s proposal of an ecclesiology rooted in Pietism does provide a basis for his five conclusions; however, it seems to me that this ecclesiology fails to explain Wesley’s rigorous rejection of separation proposed in the quote above. Nor does it explain Wesley’s persistent refusal to leave the Church of England, which is an important part of the context of his sermons “Of the Church” and "On Schism.” Wesley disagreed with Anglican ecclesiology in its understanding of the episcopacy. He had questions about aspects of its doctrinal standards seen in his editing of the 39 Articles and, as Kisker notes, his not insisting on part of the article defining the church that he included in his revisions. He disregarded its laws in relation to preaching in the parishes of other priests. He felt free to change aspects of the mode of worship by introducing extemporary prayer and revising the Book of Common Prayer. He regarded many of its priests and some of its bishops as unbelievers. His ministry was strongly opposed by bishops and priests. Many of his followers pressured him to leave. In terms of Kisker’s model, Wesley had every reason to leave the Church of England; but not only did he remain, he insisted that remaining was theologically justified and even required.

As Kisker notes, the Eighteenth Century revival was composed of loosely interrelated groupings which over time took institutional form as separate connections with different theological positions and ways of ordering themselves. But what he fails to note is that at various times, Wesley sought to promote greater unity amongst these groups. The first conference of Wesley’s preachers was only held after the failure of other revival leaders to accept an invitation from Wesley to come together to discuss the unity of the movement. Wesley also regularly invited Howell Harris, the leader of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists to participate in his conference. While Wesley desired greater unity, he seemed to be unaware how some of his actions and possibly his personality got in the way.

Wesley on the Visible Church

I would suggest that Kisker’s argument fails to do justice to Wesley’s strong critique of separation and his practical commitment to unity. And while it provides a thorough analysis of Wesley’s understanding of the invisible church, it does not do justice to Wesley’s understanding of the visibility of the church. For Wesley, visible churches are the communities in which the invisible church becomes visible in particular concrete locations.[2] Wesley's often-quoted description of the visible church from article 19 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England states: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men”. The important term for Wesley is “faithful": he defines it as “holy believers”[3] , “true believers”[4], “true believers who have ‘the mind that was in Christ’ and ‘walk as Christ walked’”[5] “men endued with a living faith”[6]. Commenting on the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts he described the church as: “… a company of men, called by the gospel, grafted into Christ by baptism, animated by love, united by all kind of fellowship, and disciplined by the death of Ananias and Sapphira.”[7] While Wesley’s terminology varies, he understands the visible church as a community of people who have been transformed by the grace of God manifested in holiness of heart and life. It is the gathering of the scattered members of the invisible church in a particular location. This location can range from a relatively small community to a nation. Such a visible church is “a branch of the one, true, Church of Christ”.[8] Holiness of heart and life and not institutional structures constitute the visibility of the church.

Negatively, this means that institutional churches were mixed bodies made up of genuine believers, those who professed to believe[9] and those who had “the form of godliness without the power.”[10] Wesley stresses the importance of discipline in the church. This was manifested in early Methodism through the exclusion of those who failed to keep the General Rules. His understanding is strikingly portrayed in his comments on the parable of the wheat and the tares (or darnel). Wesley contrasted darnel with thistles and brambles. The darnel represents people who have a “form of godliness;” they must be allowed to remain. He contrasts them with brambles and thistles, open “sinners” who must be rooted out. Institutional churches have a responsibility to promote the holiness of their members and where necessary to exclude those who openly reject God’s transforming grace.

Positively, institutional churches should be open to all genuine believers. Commenting on Acts 11:17 he stated:

And who are we that we should withstand God particularly by laying down rules of Christian communion which exclude any whom he has admitted into the Church of the first born, from worshipping God together. O that all Church governors would consider how bold an usurpation this is on the authority of the supreme Lord of the Church! O that the sin of thus withstanding God may not be laid to the charge of those, who perhaps with a good intention, but in an over fondness for their own forms, have done it, and are continually doing it.[11]

Separation and the Visible Church     

Holiness constitutes the visibility of the church but this is not to be contrasted with unity. For Wesley, holiness is “essentially love … The love of God and of all mankind? Love producing ‘bowels of mercies, humbleness of mind, meekness, gentleness, long suffering’? ... Love is holiness wherever it exists”.[12] Thus the authenticity of any institutional church’s claim to be part of the invisible church lies in the extent to which it embodies love.[13] As Wesley described it in his poem “Primitive Christianity”

Ye different sects, who all declare

‘Lo! Here is Christ!’ or ‘Christ is there!’

Your stronger proofs divinely give,

And show me where the Christians live.


Your claim, alas! Ye cannot prove;

Ye want the genuine mark of love:

Thou only, Lord, thine own canst show,

For sure thou hast a church below.[14]

It is from this perspective that Wesley sees separation as a failure of love as quoted at the beginning of this article. If, as Wesley argues, love unites Christians together and separation is ultimately a failure of love, then separation from a body of people one regards as genuine Christians, even if they have different theological opinions, strikes at the authenticity of an institutional church's claim to be an expression of the invisible church. As love is the essence of holiness and unity is the fruit of love, then the unity and the holiness of an institutional church are inseparably related. Separation, disunity and strife compromise the holiness of a Christian community.

As is well known, Wesley gave two grounds where separation could be justified. The first was when one was required to do something which was convinced was contrary to the command of God. The second was when one was prevented from doing something that one was convinced was commanded by God. The corruption of the church and the faithlessness of its leadership were not grounds for separation. In the case of justified separation, the sin lay with those who prevented one from acting according to ones conscience. The implication of this is, if separation is a failure of love, then love requires that institutional churches be structured in such a way as to allow for genuine believers to have as much freedom as possible to act in accordance with their conscience. Wesley remained in the Church of England despite the restrictions placed on his ministry by its institutional structures. Rather than leaving, he defied the rules in order to fulfil his calling. This, too, can be understood as a manifestation of love. His remaining arose out of his conviction that Methodism was called to renew the Church of England, to reform it so that it more fully manifested the invisible church. He thus remained out of love for those he disagreed with and for those he regarded as unbelievers.

Wesley recognised the reality of denominationalism as it existed in England in his time, as can be seen in his sermon “Catholic Spirit” to which Kistner refers. He also recognized that in this context, it would not be possible for all Christians in good conscience to be part of the same denomination due to their commitment to the truth of particular theological propositions and their obligation to worship in a way which they believed God required. A comprehensive understanding of Wesley’s approach to the unity of the church needs to include this. I would suggest that from the perspective of his mature thought, both his strong rejection of separation and his affirmation of the reality of conscientious disagreement and denominations can be accounted for as follows.

  • The affirmation of conscientious disagreement and denominations in “Catholic Spirit” is theologically rooted in his understanding of human responsibility before God and hence the duty to respect other people’s consciences even when one believes them to be wrong.
  • In eighteenth century Britain, divisions between denominations were often deeply acrimonious. His emphasis in “Catholic Spirit” on the spiritual unity of faithful Christians and the importance of working together even when one could not in good conscience be part of the same denomination was a striking exception to the norm.
  • “Catholic Spirit” is probably written, on the one hand, for early Methodist Societies which included both members of the Church of England and non-conformist denominations with the aim of encouraging unity within the societies and their common mission despite differences in theological opinions and modes of worship. This was Wesley’s ideal for Methodism as a para-church renewal movement. On the other hand it is also probably written with a view to the differences between the revival groups encouraging common mission despite their theological differences.
  • Then sermons “Of the Church” and “On Schism” are addressed to the context in which some Methodists are promoting separation from the Church of England. They are thus trying to prevent a situation in which new denominations are formed; “Catholic Spirit” is addressing the reality of the existence of denominations and of deep set differences. Wesley was also critical of the processes out which the non-conformist denominations were formed. In his sermon “On Attending the Church Service”” he was critical of nonconformists who left the Church of England.[15] And in Thoughts upon Liberty he criticized the Act of Uniformity which resulted in the expulsion of clergy who could not conscientiously conform to it.[16]
  • Hence, if all separation is rooted in a failure of love then the origins of the various non-conformist denominations was a failure of love. “Catholic Spirit” is promoting the renewal of love in this situation in a way that respects existing entrenched conscientious difference. “On Schism” suggests that when there are differences in a particular Christian community love will seek to find a way in which unity can be maintained while respecting conscientious differences. An example of this can be seen in the events leading up to Wesley’s ordination of people to serve in America. Before he did this he approached the Bishop of London with the request that he ordain Methodist preachers to serve in America. It was only when the Anglican hierarchy refused to do this that Wesley took the matters into his own hand resulting in the creation of a separate Methodist Church in America. The response in love from the Church of England should have been to ordain preachers for America.

A Wesleyan approach to diversity is that love requires the respect of conscientious difference and at the same time seeks to embody love by seeking the closest structural unity amongst those one recognizes to be members of the invisible church. Interestingly in “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley speaks of respecting “congregations”, hence a possible Wesleyan solution would be to find a structural way for different “congregations” with diverse opinions and modes of worship to belong to the same overarching connection in such a way that their consciences are not violated.

Some Conclusions

The UMC is not a comprehensive national church like the Church of England was, nor is it a para-church renewal movement like early Methodism. Hence we need to be careful when we Wesley’s writings to our contemporary context. However, I would make the following proposals as to what this could mean for contemporary Methodists.

  1. A Methodist understanding of the church stands in strong critique of nominal and cultural Christianity and is directed toward the development of churches that embody genuine love for God and neighbour in the lives of its members and their institutional structures and are thus constituted as counter-cultural communities.
  2. Methodists should, drawing on the Pietist model, affirm the presence of faithful Christians in denominations and groupings with whom they disagree. This recognition should be a motivation for seeking the visible unity of the church both within their own denominations and between denominations.
  3. The unity of the United Methodist Church has theological significance not because division would impact the unity of the invisible church, but because it would compromise its claim to be a manifestation of the invisible church whose presence is characterised by the embodiment of the divine love that draws us into unity with each other.
  4. Where members of the UMC recognise each other as faithful Christians who are in good conscience seeking to conform their lives and their opinions to the revelation of God in Christ; then despite different and even contradictory opinions and practices love obligates them to develop structures which allow for liberty conscience while maintaining as much unity as possible.
  5. Where members of the UMC are convinced that other members hold opinions or have practices that are wrong, love obligates them to remain in connection in order to work for the renewal of the church for the good of those they disagree with.

This does not mean there is no place for boundaries but it does mean that the location of these needs to be carefully discerned in relation to the core identity of the church as a community that embodies the transforming love of God revealed in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are theological and ethical positions, and ways of living that are incompatible with this. Hence, for example in the wake of the struggles, within and without the churches, against Nazism in Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States, churches (at least in theory) affirm that racism cannot be tolerated within the church.

[1] John Wesley, Sermon 75, “On Schism,” §[2]:11, in The Works of John Wesley [Begun as The Oxford Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975–1983) continued as The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984—)], 3:64 & 65

[2] See Sermon 92 “On Zeal” §2.5 in Works of Wesley 3:313 & 314.

[3] Journal of February 4, 1740 in Works of Wesley 19:138

[4] An Ernest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion § 76 in Works of Wesley 11:77

[5] A Letter to the Rev Mr. Fleury §5 in Works of Wesley 9:391

[6] “On the Church” §16 in Works of Wesley 3:51

[7] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (Bristol: Graham and Pine, 1760–62 repr. London: Epworth, 1976), Acts 5:11.

[8] Letter to the Revd. Gilbert Boyce, May 22, 1750 in Works of Wesley 26:426.

[9] See “Minutes of the London Conference of June 25-29, 1744”, Wednesday June 27th § 45 in Works of Wesley 10:133.

[10] NT Notes Matthew 13:28.

[11] NT Notes Acts 11:17.

[12] The Doctrine of Original Sin: According to Scripture, Reason and Experience, Part 2, section 4, in Works of Wesley 12:277.

[13] See Sermon 24, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth” §§2,1-7 in Works of Wesley 1:539-541.

[14] Primitive Christianity, Works of Wesley, 11:91

[15] Sermon 104 “On Attending the Church Service” § 25 in Works of Wesley 3:475

[16] See Thoughts upon Liberty §17 in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., ed. Thomas Jackson, 3rd ed., 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 11:39.

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