Church Dividing Issues

August 29th, 2018

Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. (Eph 4:2-3 CEB)

Ecumenical relationships, conversations, and partnerships are a gift. All of us have benefited from them in varying degrees across our life in the church. I recall most ecumenical relationships with fondness and appreciation, and only occasionally with tearful disappointment. Among the many blessings has been the opportunity to learn new (for me) terms and wrestle with familiar words in light of new contexts and relationships.

In recent years, the phrase “church dividing issue(s)” emerged. During a series of scheduled conversations in a bilateral dialogue of which I have been a part, these three words started to be used with regularity as the dialogue team began to reach some key decision points in our work. We would ask ourselves from time to time as we waded through the pivotal theological and ecclesiological topics, “Is this a church dividing issue?” Or sometimes a participant might declare, “This is not a church dividing issue.” This checkpoint helped each participant and the entire dialogue team to distinguish between truly substantive matters and pet peeves, quirks, or misconceptions. To be sure, arriving at consensus or reaching sufficient agreement to move the work forward was not always smooth or easy. At several places, it was hard won, punctuated by lots of prayer and sometimes uneasy silences. I refer not to the kind of planned silence to give space for prayer and meditation. It was more the silence birthed in one of those I can’t believe what I just heard moments. But testing our work and our progress by whether or not something was church dividing gave us reasonable confidence that our labors focused on things that really mattered in light of the gospel and the mission of the church.

The proclamation of the gospel and the mission of the church are at stake. If one of the marks or characteristics of authenticity for church is oneness, then the church in every iteration and expression must wrestle with whether it embodies this quality or not. Oneness is not only the stuff of ecumenism. It is also essential and ongoing work within distinct church bodies or denominations. In the case of The United Methodist Church, now fifty years old but with roots much older, we must determine for ourselves what are and what are not church dividing issues. What rises to a level of importance that schism might be the most obvious, preferred, or best option?

Even a cursory reading of the New Testament and of church history make it plain in short order that people of Christian faith have found themselves at such odds that they determined they could no longer walk together or work together. Think about it. The Apostle Paul spent more than a little time urging and praying for the unity of the early Christian communities he sought to lead and encourage. He exhorts, cajoles, and sometimes paints with words a picture of what oneness and unity look like. Who among us has not turned repeatedly to the body images he paints? Yet even Paul has some record of separation from others; namely Barnabas and John Mark (see Acts 15). It is not altogether clear whether this was a theological difference or, more likely, a personality one. Thanks be to God, there are intimations elsewhere in the record that there was some redemption, if not explicit healing and reconciliation. So clearly from the beginning, Christians have struggled with what it means to be bound together for the sake of the mission. We have not always been successful in this.

Beyond the pages of the New Testament, there have been all sorts of partings of the way for those who make up the church. People have engaged in vigorous conversations about how to articulate the faith and live it out in practical ways. These conversations sometimes began in formal church councils. Sometimes they were more movemental, triggered by the assertion of a new interpretation of scripture, the activity of the Spirit in an individual or small group who pursued a particular focus they felt called to emphasize. This short (not exhaustive) list points to a few crucial turning points in which the church experienced division or radical change:

  • Nicea
  • Constantinople
  • The Great Schism of East and West
  • The Reformation

In our own Methodist tradition, there have been notable divisions over matters of race, worship practices, leadership and authority, how the Spirit evidences its work in the Christian life, and on and on. Occasionally there have been some reunions, and some would rightly ask, “but at whose expense?”

Not only do the scriptures bend in the direction of urging oneness and unity, but so do the witness and teaching of John Wesley. His thinking on these matters shows up in a number of places. Among them are “On Schism,” “Catholic Spirit,” and “A Letter to a Roman Catholic.” I also love the attention he gives to matters of unity and division in the church in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.” Wesley returns repeatedly to several themes in his guidance: humility, liberty of thought, and love. He also challenges us to both affirm and question what is essential for salvation and for the mission of the church. These instructive words are from “The Character of a Methodist”:

"But as to all opinions, which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist."

The question before us in the present struggle of The United Methodist Church over matters of human sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, is whether or not “it strikes at the root of Christianity.” How we answer that will speak loads about the gospel to the world and determine, at least in part, our missional and institutional future.

comments powered by Disqus