Beware of Schism

Given the recent release of a press release from a group of 80 large congregationJWmonogram pastors and theologians, I thought it instructive to look at what John Wesley has to say about schism. In my reading of this group of 80’s statement they are clearly calling for the schism of the church. It seems to me this is an incredibly irresponsible and selfish response to the current state of The United Methodist Church. I say so because they are advocating schism over what Wesley regards as “opinions” and not over matters of substantive doctrine. A more responsible, and Wesleyan, approach is to acknowledge that our disagreements are over opinions and we need to find a way to live and work together on the equipping people to participate in the mission of the Church and in Christ’s mission in the world.

The following is from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley. It is near the end of the book. He is giving his advice to the Methodist people and especially to those who are earnestly striving after perfection in love:

“Beware of schism, of making a rent in the Church of Christ. That inward disunion, the members ceasing to have a reciprocal love ‘one for another,’ (1 Cor. 12:25,) is the very root of all contention, and every outward separation. Beware of everything tending thereto. Beware of a dividing spirit; shun whatever has the least aspect that way. Therefore, say not, ‘I am of Paul or of Apollos;’ the very thing which occasioned the schism at Corinth. Say not, ‘This is my Preacher; the best Preacher in England. Give me him, and take all the rest.’ All this tends to breed or foment division, to disunite those whom God hath joined. Do not despise or run down any Preacher; do not exalt any one above the rest, lest you hurt both him and the cause of God. On the other hand, do not bear hard upon any by reason of some incoherency or inaccuracy of expression; no, nor for some mistakes, were they really such.

“Likewise, if you would avoid schism, observe every rule of the Society, and of the Bands, for conscience’ sake. Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. As one saith, ‘That part of our economy, the private weekly meetings for prayer, examination, and particular exhortation, has been the greatest means of deepening and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached, and of diffusing it to others, who could not attend the public ministry; whereas, without this religious connexion and intercourse, the most ardent attempts, by mere preaching, have proved of no lasting use.’

“Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethren, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see just as you see, or who judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.

“O beware of touchiness, of testiness, not bearing to be spoken to; starting at the least word; and flying from those who do not implicitly receive mine or another’s sayings!

“Expect contradiction and opposition, together with crosses of various kinds. Consider the words of St. Paul: ‘To you it is given, in the behalf of Christ,’ — for his sake, as a fruit of his death and intercession for you, — ‘not only to believe, but also to suffer for his sake.’ (Phil. 1:29.) It is given! God gives you this opposition or reproach; it is a fresh token of his love. And will you disown the Giver; or spurn his gift, and count it a misfortune? Will you not rather say, ‘Father, the hour is come, that thou shouldest be glorified: Now thou givest thy child to suffer something for thee: Do with me according to thy will?’ Know that these things, far from being hinderances to the work of God, or to your soul, unless by your own fault, are not only unavoidable in the course of Providence, but profitable, yea, necessary, for you. Therefore, receive them from God (not from chance) with willingness, with thankfulness. Receive them from men with humility, meekness, yieldingness, gentleness, sweetness. Why should not even your outward appearance and manner be soft? Remember the character of Lady Cutts: ‘It was said of the Roman Emperor Titus, Never any one came displeased from him. But it might be said of her, Never any one went displeased to her: So secure were all of the kind and favourable reception which they would meet with from her.’

“Beware of tempting others to separate from you. Give no offence which can possibly be avoided; see that your practice be in all things suitable to your profession, adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour. Be particularly careful in speaking of yourself: You may not, indeed, deny the work of God; but speak of it, when you are called thereto, in the most inoffensive manner possible. Avoid all magnificent, pompous words; indeed, you need give it no general name; neither perfection, sanctification, the second blessing, nor the having attained. Rather speak of the particulars which God has wrought for you. You may say, ‘At such a time I felt a change which I am not able to express; and since that time, I have not felt pride, or self-will, or anger, or unbelief; nor anything but a fulness of love to God and to all mankind.’ And answer any other plain question that is asked with modesty and simplicity.

“And if any of you should at any time fall from what you now are, if you should again feel pride or unbelief, or any temper from which you are now delivered; do not deny, do not hide, do not disguise it at all, at the peril of your soul. At all events go to one in whom you can confide, and speak just what you feel. God will enable him to speak a word in season, which shall be health to your soul. And surely He will again lift up your head, and cause the bones that have been broken to rejoice.


30 responses to “Beware of Schism

  1. Steve,
    Don’t you think it’s a bit naive to think we are not already divided? Schism is far more than a breech within an institution. Maxie Dunham is right – we are already divided. Schism happened long ago. We are not of “one mind.”

    I don’t think it’s fair to say this is just a matter of opinion. We are talking about sin, and what separates one from the kingdom of God or not. If that ranks low on our list of doctrines or matters of importance than something is terribly wrong indeed!

    Wesley said that if a church was in sin it would be incumbent for a person to schism, as a matter of conscience. We are there, I believe.

    • Chad,
      I know I’m not going to change your mind, but the argument is really over differing opinions on the nature of human sexuality and sexual orientation. No one is advocating schism over doctrinal or ecclesial issues. At least not yet. I pray that does not happen.

      • Steve, everytime I read the word “doctrine” in Scripture it is followed or incorporated within a context of how to live one’s life – sexually and otherwise. We are wrong to compartmentalize things in the way you are doing, I believe.

        1 Cor. 5 says to have nothing to do with one who insists on calling themselves “brother” while engaged in sexual immorality. Scripture and our tradition has consistently called homosexual practice sexually immoral. Call that an “opinion” if you like, but Athanasius had an opinion about the Trinity, too.

        Wesley said in his sermon “On Schism” that if a church approved of sin he would leave in a heartbeat. That’s where we are at.

    • Tell me Chad, where is the prohibition against gay marriage laid out in the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments, or the Beatitudes? I’m not saying that’s an exhaustive list of what constitutes essential doctrine, but I think covers most areas. You say we are talking about sin. While actually, only one side considers what you’re talking about to be sin. We had such disagreements on whether a specific thing is or isn’t a sin, but we also have found ways to agree to disagree and maintain fellowship before. Do you think if some Methodists viewed consumption of alcohol (even in moderation) as a sin while others did not, they should form separate churches? If some parents refuse to let their kids read Harry Potter while others do, should they have to form a separate church? You can argue that this debate is more important or concerns something bigger, but you have to be careful. If we insist too much on uniformity in the church at the expense of charity of opinion, then eventually we’ll become a church of one.

      • Philip, is there any sin either committed by or approved of by our church leaders that you would consider ceasing fellowship over?

      • Well as long as you get to pick and choose what parts of the Bible or councils or creeds you use you can prove anything. Ask Marcion. Your selections also say nothing about forbidding cloning and harvesting the parts. So that is ok too? and so forth. For some of this (alcohol, worldly pleasures/leisure activities) the Methodist have previously split. Start with the new denominations in the early 20th century that came from the Methodists.

        This is the best you can do?

    • Philip Brooks

      Tell me Chad, where in the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments, or the Beatitudes is there a prohibition against gay marriage? Now that might not be an exhaustive list of what constitutes essential doctrines to the foundation of our denomination, but certainly that covers a lot of it. You say we are talking about sin. While actually only you and one side are calling it sin, so we need to make sure that clear first. We’ve have had disagreements in the past on whether a specific thing is a sin or not and managed to maintain fellowship in spite of these disagreements. Are you suggesting that was a mistake? Let’s say you believe the consumption of alcohol is always a sin, while I believe it’s ok in moderation. Should you and I form separate churches on that fact alone? If one of us believes dancing and contemporary music are of the devil and the other does not, should we form separate churches? At some point if you take the push for uniformity too far, you’ll end up with a church of one. I have to agree with Steve’s analysis. This is not essential doctrine and shouldn’t be treated as such.

      • On target, Philip

      • Perhaps you need to expand your reading just a bit more, Philip. Homosexual, lesbian (gay) behavior (same sex relationships, marriage…) is sin, and is forbidden in the Bible. The graphic word arsenokoites (from arsen, “male,” and koite, bed) describes a man who “beds” another man. Although arsenokoites is sometimes used in a wide sense referring to all homosexuality, it also had a narrower sense, referring to the one who took the active or “male” role in the homosexual relation. The one who took the passive or “female” role was called the malachos. The word malachos literally means “soft” or “soft to the touch.” Although it had other uses such as “soft clothing,” it was the standard word in the Greek language for the “passive” one in the homosexual relation.

        With these terms in mind, as well as others we have encountered above, we see that the vocabulary in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 10 is very specific: “Neither the sexually immoral (pornos) nor idolaters nor adulterers (moichos) nor male prostitutes (malachos) nor homosexual offenders (arsenokoites) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Homosexual behavior is also addressed by descriptive phrases, idioms, and euphemisms rather than just through the words that refer directly to it. For example, Romans 1 contains some very descriptive language.

        Romans 1:24-27
        (24) Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
        (25) They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
        (26) Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.
        (27) In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

        It is hard to read these verses and conclude anything other than that homosexual and lesbian relationships are wrong in God’s sight. The “natural relation” is a man and a woman. Homosexuality is also mentioned idiomatically in Jude 7: “…Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire” (NASB). “Gross immorality” is a good translation of the verb, ekporneuo, which is simply porneuo, the verb meaning, “to commit sexual immorality,” with the prefix ek, which intensifies the verb. Thus, the NASB translation of “gross immorality” is a very good one. Later in the verse, the phrase, “to go after strange flesh” is defined by Louw and Nida in their lexicon as “an idiom, literally ‘to go after strange flesh,’ to engage in unnatural sexual intercourse—‘to have homosexual intercourse.’” In the Old Testament, the Law forbids homosexuality just as it forbids adultery and bestiality. “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22). “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” (Lev. 20:13).

        Have a great day.

      • Philip Brooks

        That’s not all entirely true, Duane. The word arsenokoites doesn’t appear anywhere else in antiquity (or anywhere for that matter) to refer to homosexual behavior, so saying that must be referring to that in 1 Corinthians is a pretty big leap. Just thought I’d bring that up.

        I think your response just reiterates Steve’s point, which is that this is a debate over scriptural interpretation, not essential doctrine. We are simply interpreting these texts differently, not challenging their authority or larger Christian truths. Five hundred years and hundreds of denominations later we still haven’t quite come to appreciate Erasmus’ warning to Luther, which was that when you open the Bible and its interpretation to the masses you will end up with a “massive” number of different interpretations, which isn’t a bad thing, but still very much true. If we seek uniformity too much, then we will have a church of one.

      • The word actually appears twice in Scripture. I’ve studied this word and the other places it has occurred in the early century writings. I’ve concluded there are vaguely three ideas that could possibly be meant by use of this word. And I did struggle for a time with why Paul would have used this word since there were other words that could have made the same point. So I am not going to argue with the fact that it would boil down to translation…..but also context. And i the vein of context when I look in Scripture in the other areas that speak of sexual immoralities my personal conclusion is that my understanding of this particular word fits with the message of sexual immorality as a whole. I should have stated that it was of my place of understanding. I appreciate your respectful response and hope you receive mine knowing it comes from the same place of mutual respect.

        Strong’s Greek 733
        2 Occurrences

        ἀρσενοκοῖται — 1 Occ.
        ἀρσενοκοίταις — 1 Occ.

        1 Corinthians 6:9 N-NMP
        GRK: μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται
        NAS: effeminate, nor homosexuals,
        KJV: nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
        INT: effeminate nor homosexuals
        1 Timothy 1:10 N-DMP
        GRK: πόρνοις ἀρσενοκοίταις ἀνδραποδισταῖς ψεύσταις
        NAS: and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers
        KJV: For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers,
        INT: the sexually immoral homosexuals men-stealers liars

  2. I’m convinced that those advocating “amicable separation” are deluded, maybe self-deluded. I’m a “child” of an ecclasiatical “divorce” (The Southern Baptist Convention). There was nothing “amicable” about it.

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  5. Like I said in my first reply Chad, I know I’m not going to change your mind. We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

  6. Gary Bebop

    Steve, “I know I’m not going to change your mind on this one,” but the rift is more than an intramural squabble over differing opinions on sex. As though it’s a toss-up. This is how some would like to treat the matter (as peripheral), but that doesn’t jibe with historic Christian understanding. It flouts it. Check out N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pages 1120-1123, for starters.

    • The current situation boils down to differences of opinions about human sexuality and Biblical interpretation. It does not touch on issues of essential doctrine, ecclesiology, or mission. In fact, both sides unwillingness to acknowledge and/or accept the differences they share has done damage to the mission of the church. Talk of schism over differences of opinions are irresponsible and thoroughly un-Wesleyan. The more responsible and Wesleyan response to our current, ongoing, conflict is to enter into prayerful dialog and true Christian conference with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

      • Gary Bebop

        Respectfully, I have to disagree that what we are dealing with “boils down to differences of opinions.” It’s that very characterization of the crisis that is in error. At best, it’s a half-truth, and notable ecumenical voices have indicated so. It’s a crisis of historic continuity (being in concert with the Church’s teachings handed down through the ages).

  7. Elke Sharma

    So we…agree to disagree that we can’t agree to disagree? Is that what it has really come to?

    • Elke, you’ve named our current problem very clearly. This situations reveals once again that The UMC is a thoroughly enculturated church. We are mirror image of the US culture.

  8. Chad, I do not know you but would like to know what you believe would be the position the schism anti homosexual church would take relating to women in ministry , and why?

    • Hi Jim,
      I have no authority nor knowledge to say for sure, but friends who are women clergy in confessing churches and who are part of these conversations assure me that women clergy rights will continue on (as they ought).

      Why? I think because the biblical argument on favor of it is sound. If there was an equally sound biblical argument in favor of homosexuality we wouldn’t be where we are now, IMO.
      (And I say that as one who used to argue the other side. My final ethics paper at Duke was titled “Homosexuality: Gods gift to the Church”).

  9. I am in agreement with Mr. Gary Bebop and Chad Holtz.
    Understandably, the concept of internal consistency can cause Christians to be uncomfortable….no matter how we try to explain it away to minimize our differences, there is not a different truth for different Christians. God asks Christians to get to the point “…that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10b). The way to get there is not by compromising what we believe, but by much prayer along with careful, diligent study of the revelation that God has given us about Himself….His Word.

  10. I’d like to agree with you that the issues that confront us are peripheral and non-essential. And apart from our divergent approaches to scriptural interpretation, I would concur. The deep problem we are facing, however, is the violation of trust by those who are disregarding the Book of Discipline. Read these words that you quoted of Wesley:

    “if you would avoid schism, observe every rule of the Society”

    The problem is that some of our number have forsaken the common discipline which holds us together. It is not our disagreements over human sexuality or scriptural interpretation which is causing the schism. It is the unwillingness of some segments of the church to abide by our common covenant.

    • It seems to me we are very selective when it comes to keeping our clergy covenant. The fact that most United Methodists are ignorant of the Wesleyan tradition and practices. Most have little or no knowledge of the General Rules. Most regard them as a historic curiosity rather than the rule of life they are intended to be. The neglect of the church’s liturgy and discipline by the vast majority of UM clergy is a serious breech of the covenant. Why is there no outcry?

      • “The neglect of the church’s liturgy and discipline by the vast majority of UM clergy is a serious breech of the covenant. Why is there no outcry?”

        Is there scripture which says it is a sin against God to neglect the church’s liturgy?

        I think there would be an outcry if there was more than neglect but a concerted effort to change the laws of the church. If liturgy were a matter that God said would keep one from the kingdom of God (like sexual immorality does) and people tried to change it, then I’d expect an outcry.

  11. Doesn’t quoting the man who split off a large part of the Church of England on preventing schism seem just a bit strange?

    Please forgive if this is a double post and delete if necessary.

    • Wesley never left the Church of England and struggled for decades to prevent the Methodists from leaving the Church. The British Methodist Church became a separate denomination several years after Wesley’s death, when he could no longer prevent the schism.

  12. Wesley on Schism:
    But perhaps such persons will say, “We did not do this willingly; we were constrained to separate from that society, because we could not continue therein with a clear conscience; we could not continue without sin. I was not allowed to continue therein with breaking a commandment of God.” If this was the case, you could not be blamed for separating from that society, Suppose, for instance, you were a member of the Church of Rome, and you could not remain therein without committing idolatry; without worshipping of idols, whether images, or saints and angels; then it would be your bounded duty to leave that community, totally to separate from it. Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not,) you ought to separate from the Church of England. I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have do desire no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, 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. But, setting aside this case, 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 obviously saw occasions where schism was an unfortunate necessity. I believe a better way than schism can be found at