Schism: Good or Bad, Don't Believe the Hype

April 14th, 2014

If you follow religion blogs and news sites, it’s likely you’ve heard buzz about the possibility of schism in the United Methodist Church. The controversies surrounding homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and how the denomination should discipline pastors who defy church law have many wondering if it wouldn’t be better for conservatives and liberals to just go their separate ways. Others feel strongly that there should be only one United Methodist Church, no matter what.

The truth is, splitting the denomination would be neither a panacea nor the end of the world.

You see, the unity and connectionalism we talk about so much in the UMC exists more in theory than in practice. In many ways, we’re already two or more churches. United Methodists on the left tend to run in the same circles with folks from the Episcopal Church, PCUSA, and the UCC. The right side of the UMC is more likely to keep company with groups that are more evangelical. Birds of the same theological or political feather tend to flock together. No one’s telling tales out of school here.

Schism gets a lot of bad PR because some think of it as analogous to divorce. But even if one accepts the accuracy of the analogy, he’d be hard pressed to see the current situation in the UMC as anything other than a marriage of convenience. We’re arguably staying together largely for financial reasons. No one wants to lose their buildings or mess up everybody’s pensions. There’s also the whole nostalgia thing. Splitting up an organization with our history isn't something to be taken lightly. 

But practically speaking, there are some compelling arguments for schism.

The United Methodist Church has little brand consistency. We technically don’t allow United Methodist congregations to align themselves with caucus groups or unofficial movements in their branding (although many local churches openly violate this rule). So, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, when you walk into a random UMC, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s a big problem.

When you visit a United Methodist church, will you hear a message that’s more evangelical or one that’s heavier on social gospel? Or something somewhere in the middle? Does the congregation affirm same-sex relationships or declare them off-limits? Are people mostly in agreement on theology and social issues, or is there a divide? Right now, it’s hard to tell before you walk through the front door.

Schism wouldn’t completely solve the consistency problem in the UMC, but it would significantly decrease the chances of entering a United Methodist Church on a Sunday morning and hearing theology that’s 180 degrees away from what you expected.

A church split would also take the sexuality debate off the front burner and give the new denominations an opportunity to focus on more important things. In the business world, when corporations decide they’ve spread themselves too thin and need to narrow their focus or get “back to the basics” they create a completely new company with a separate management structure. This is known as a spin-off—the opposite of a merger. In most cases, this is viewed as a positive development. The main question a company has to answer before spinning off a company or merging with another company is this: Will the company be a better company operating as one entity or two? A church should ask itself the same question. A split doesn't have to be a tragic event.

But if you think schism would solve all the big problems of the UMC, think again. Even if the denomination could be neatly divided into conservative and liberal groups (it can’t), there would still be disagreement on various issues within these groups. No one really discusses those issues much now, but if the biggest point of contention were to disappear, everything else would begin to seem bigger. Nature abhors a vacuum.

If you watched James Cameron’s “Titanic,” you probably remember that the ship broke into two parts just before the whole thing wound up underwater. I’m certainly not a pessimist, but I don’t believe schism is the ecclesiastical elixir so many are making it out to be.

Dividing the the denomination wouldn’t be a walk in the park, anyway. After what happened in 2012, can you even imagine General Conference pulling off a church split?

So with regard to schism, all things considered, I can take it or leave it. I see some clear benefits of a split, but what I don’t see as clearly are the trade-offs and unintended consequences that would be an inevitable part of such an event.

The question is whether those consequences would be better or worse than the chaos that will likely result if we stay on the road we’re on right now.

Shane Raynor is an editor at Ministry Matters and editor of the Converge Bible Studies series from Abingdon Press. Connect with Shane on Google+Twitter, and FacebookSign up to receive Shane's posts free via email.

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