Guest Commentary: A Wesleyan view of schism

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“Do Not Rashly Tear Asunder
the Sacred Ties which Unite”

Since May 2014, when a group of approximately 80 United Methodists released a public statement through Good News Magazine encouraging “a plan of separation” within the United Methodist Church, talk of schism has run rampant across the connection. While some have strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation,’ others have strongly denounced any form of division. To say the least, it would be the height of irony for the United Methodist Church to split, formally or otherwise (perhaps we could become the LooselyUnited Methodist Churches).

Yet this issue is not new to Methodism. In 1844, schism tore through American Methodism, inflicting a deep wound which we are still recovering from to this day. While we formally bandaged the wound in 1939 with the union of the Methodist Episcopal Church and MEC-South, the sinful atrocity of the Central Jurisdiction was not disbanded until 1972. Even today, in 2015, the majority of United Methodist Churches in America are still unofficially segregated by race, with few cross-racial appointments or truly multi-racial congregations – a lingering symptom of that schism 171 years ago.

Even John Wesley, who lived a century prior to the schism of American Methodism, understood its threat and inherent evil. After considering the New Testament passages in which Paul writes against schism/division in the Body of Christ, Wesley writes,

“[Schism] 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 bound of peace. It is therefore contrary to all those commands of God, wherein brotherly love is enjoined…”

Wesley looked at the history of Christianity and saw that time and time again, people with a lack of love for one another split apart the Church. It begins with forming parties, groups, and cliques, surrounding ourselves with people who only think like us and believe the way we believe. It is the security which comes from not having others challenge our reading of the Gospel, question the way we talk about God, or call us out for the way we live our lives. When we isolate ourselves in silos and speak about ‘those people’ without ever actually speaking to‘those people,’ when lines are drawn in the sand and ‘we’ fight against ‘them,’ when the Church is broken into sides and factions, then “the love of many will wax cold.” Numerous excuses are given for such separation and schism, but “want of love is always the real cause.”

When “our love grows cold” and we consider separation and schism as a legitimate option, real and tangible consequences spring forth from our actions:

“And as such a separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit…But the ill consequences of even this species of schism do not terminate in the heart. Evil tempers cannot long remain within, before they are productive of outward fruit…From evil words, from tale-bearing, backbiting and evil-speaking, how many evil works will naturally flow!…A plentiful harvest of all the works of darkness may be expected to spring from this source; whereby, in the end, thousands of souls, and not a few of those who once walked in the light of God’s countenance, may be turned from the way of peace, and finally drowned in everlasting perdition…”

When our hearts grow cold as love withers within, the sickness of schism that has infected our souls festers and grows into hateful actions and evil works which destroy our life together. “A plentiful harvest of all the works of darkness” begins to appear in our midst. We no longer simply harbor resentment towards those who think differently than us, but we begin to let those inward dispositions manifest themselves in outward actions. We treat others as less than human, refusing to acknowledge the image of God and good-ness which is within them (Gen. 1). We speak hate-filled words meant to attack a person rather than critique an idea. Our lives with each other and with God begin to fall apart.

“But how mightily does all this altercation grieve the Holy Spirit of God!”

It is God who weeps and mourns with divine tears when schism plagues us. Indeed, God has many times looked upon human hearts which have grown cold from a lack of love, grieving time and time again.

“These consequences are not imaginary, are not built on mere conjectures, but on plain matter of fact. This has been the case again and again within these last thirty or forty year: These have been the fruits which we have seen, over and over, to be consequent on such a separation.”

As a pragmatist, Wesley does concede there are certain situations when one may separate from a group of Christians. If one is forced to commit idolatry or prevented from preaching the Gospel, then “the sin of separation, with all the evils consequence 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.” Yet even in such cases, the evil of schism is still a sin which deeply grieves the heart of God.

“Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

Wesley speaks a strong word of caution against such separation, for even those which he allows for should be carefully considered, lest the one separating be responsible for the consequences which follow. He ends with a compelling exhortation to all who would separate from a Christian community to which they have been united,

“Do not rashly tear asunder the sacred ties which unite you to any Christian society…if you are a living member, if you live the life that is hid with Christ in God, then take care how you tend the body of Christ by separating from your brethren. It is a thing evil in itself. It is a sore evil in its consequences. O have pity upon yourself! Have pity on your brethren. Have pity even upon the world of the ungodly! Do not lay more stumbling-blocks in the way of these for whom Christ died.”

As Jesus proclaims in the Gospel of Mark, “That which God has united let no person separate” (10:9). For some reason, God has seen fit over the years to unite the people called Methodists into a body known as the United Methodist Church. Overcoming centuries of division, separation, and schism, God has seen fit to join together a vastly diverse group of Christians into a body called United Methodism. Will any single action of the General Conference really force us to worship false idols or prevent us from preaching the Gospel? If so, then perhaps one may legitimately separate and divide the United Methodist Church. But if not, if there is any doubt in our minds, it is we who will bear the responsibility for the sin of separation. I believe Wesley’s statement is true, “nothing can divide those whom love has united.” But perhaps “our love grows cold”and we no longer care to remain united.  Yet even if the love of God wanes cold in our hearts, who are we to “rashly tear asunder the sacred ties which unite”?
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Read the full text of “Sermon 75 – On Schism” by John Wesley in the UM Global Ministries archives.

 

rickyharrison_croppedRicky Harrison is a student at the Duke Divinity School, a delegate to the North Texas Annual Conference, and a member of The Connectional Table. Ricky is also a member of the First United Methodist Church of Richardson, TX. This article was originally published at http://ummellinal.blogspot.com/2015/07/a-wesleyan-view-of-schism.html

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