The Trouble with Schism

It’s been fascinating listening lately to all the Methodist voices calling out and speaking against schism. And I applaud them.

On the one hand, we are all genuinely concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our church.

We want it to stay together. We want to remain in mission and ministry together. We are not ready to give up on all the wonderful things that the UMC is and still can be.

What’s more, I am encouraged to hear so many remind us that this unity is God’s calling. Jesus himself prayed for us to be one church:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one even as we are one. I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into oneness, so that the world may know that you sent me and that you loved them just as you loved me. (John 17:22-23)

It’s true. We are to be one Church. The Body of Christ. The visible hands and feet of Jesus in this world. Our oneness should be evident to all, a witness to the Oneness and Glory of God.

And schism gets in the way of that.

It tarnishes that witness. It calls into question God’s Oneness, let alone God’s power to transform human lives and make us one with God. After all, if that’s the best God can do with the Church, how much more can I hope for God to do with me?

So, by all means, schism should be avoided. Unity should be maintained. If it all possible, we must remain One Body of Christ.

However, here’s the problem.

We are already in schism.

I hate to bring this up, but it really is the inconvenient truth. We are not One Church. We are not One Body. We are already divided and broken and separated from one another.

The history of that division and brokenness is the stuff of church history courses. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Church split from one another in what is often referred to as the Great Schism.

The presenting issue was the filioque clause in the creed, but the truth is, the issues were much deeper and more irreconcilable. It involved language, culture, geography, national politics, and a host of other complex issues.

All the same, that’s when the Roman Catholic Church became distinct from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Then, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his Ninety-Five Theses. From that point on the Roman Catholic West fractured and splintered into a multitude of Protestant denominations and churches.

The presenting issue was the authority of the Pope, but I suspect that it was all far more complicated than that.

Nonetheless, we are all heirs of that Reformation. We are all still protesting against papal authority, or church authority or any other kind of authority.

Never tell a Protestant what to do or think. They’ll just walk away. They’ll simply split.

Which is, of course, the trouble with schism. Once you start splitting, it’s hard to stop splitting.

That’s how we’ve ended up with at least 41,000 denominations worldwide.

At least, that’s the conservative estimate. And the truth is, it’s growing by the day. Protestant churches just keep splitting apart. Frankly, it’s in our DNA.

So, ironically, for one Protestant to call another Protestant a “schismatic” is a little like the pot calling the kettle black. It’s more than a bit hypocritical.

We are all schismatics.

Even the United Methodist Church is the result of schism. Just ask John Wesley what he thought about breaking away from the Church of England.

Of course, one might counter: But at least we don’t want to schism and break apart anymore than we already have.

True. And, in my opinion, that’s the right way to think.

However, here’s the catch. To truly avoid more schism, to truly build unity, we as Protestants (even United Methodists) have to reconcile with church authority.

And not just our Book of Discipline. Or the next General Conference.

Rather, we have to submit to the authority of the Church as a whole, to the teaching of Holy Tradition.

That is, if you are really serious about being the one Body of Christ, the One Church of Jesus, then you really need to be moving toward becoming Roman Catholic.

Or Eastern Orthodox.

Whichever works for you, in my opinion. (I have multiple friends on either side that will be more than glad to help you cross the Tiber or the Bosporus.)

What we cannot do, though, is tell one group of Methodists that they can’t talk about schism or amicable separation or any other kind of division while we remain in outright rebellion to the Historic Traditional Church.

That is, we cannot talk seriously about maintaining unity while we are actively maintaining division ourselves.

We cannot condemn schism in others while living in schism ourselves.

I’m not sure, but I believe Jesus told a parable about people like that. It had something to do with pointing out the speck in your brother’s eye while you have quite a bit more than a speck in your own. (Matthew 7:3-5)

So, please, whatever we do as Methodists, let’s strive toward unity without all the finger-pointing and name-calling of “schism” and “schismatic.”

It’s a straw-man argument, and it’s hypocritical to boot.

I want us to remain one United Methodist Church as well, but let’s at least be honest about what we are.

We are Protestants. We divide from time to time. It won’t be the end of the world if we do.

The Church of Jesus Christ will stand the test of time with or without us.



6 responses to “The Trouble with Schism

  • hollyboardman

    Lauren, you are absolutely correct. We are in schism, and schism is in our DNA. Another aspect of this situation that you did not mention in this post is the ongoing fighting in the church that is supported and encouraged by our democratic structure. We vote, and make decisions about virtually everything with a “majority rules” standard. This might work, if the majority happened to be composed of people who seek to do God’s will rather than their own. However, we have allowed people who are not committed to Christ’s way to infiltrate the leadership of our churches at every level. So we are stuck in a church that makes decisions by squabbling, by partisan political maneuvering, and by the non-Biblical practice of VOTING.

    The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions avoid such squabbling by living under a strong central authority. There is a great deal to commend this idea–it has a proven, and sustainable track record. These branches of the Christian Church have held together for millennia, and they have preserved Christian teaching.

    I would become Roman Catholic in a minute if they ordained women. As it is, I am an inactive, retired United Methodist pastor sitting on the sidelines of a church that beat me down over the course of 24 years of faithful ministry. Sadly, I think there are many inactive or former United Methodist people who feel the same way. We are simply languishing on the fringe of the institutional church.

    If a new branch of Christ’s Church emerges from the homosexuality debate, I hope the new branch will drop the structures that encourage schism. Let’s learn from our Catholic and Orthodox siblings, let’s pray for direction, and begin again.

    • Lauren

      Thank you, Holly. I think you’re right about the problems our democratic structure causes. Voting on matters of ethics and morality, let alone theology, does not seem like a very wise course of action. Thanks for highlighting that.

  • John Meunier

    Thank you for this post. It is quite thought provoking. Authority is a challenging issue for us. It is complicated by the fact that every faction claims it is following a more true and deeper authority than those from whom they are splitting. Martin Luther is a case in point.

    I suppose you could say this splitting goes back to apostolic times. The New Testament — and heck the Old — are full of divisions and factions. Unity, it seems, has been out of our grasp since Cain and Abel went into the field.

    • Lauren

      Thank you, John. You’re right. Luther is an excellent example of our Protestant problem.

      Once you undercut the teaching authority of the Church, it’s to each his/her own. Truth at that point is in the eye of the beholder.

      I think the key is to reground ourselves in the Church’s historic teaching authority. What our Catholic and Orthodox friends would call Apostolic Teaching.

      It’s part of why I am so intrigued by Vincent of Lerins. He seems to provide a helpful model.

  • James Mahoney

    There have been schisms since the first century, though most eventually healed. The first great schism was not actually the Great Schism of 1054, but the breakaway of the Oriental Orthodox (Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Tewahedo, etc.) after the Council of Chalcedon in the 450s AD.

    Quite frankly, I don’t think we can talk about “schism” as if it is only an institutional matter. If we do not personally, in our own theology, hold to the historic faith, we are in schism. And that is what we’re seeing with the UMC–many people are already in schism, but seek to press ahead (“progress”) further.

    • Lauren

      Your points are well taken. I especially agree with you about the need to personally affirm the historic faith and live into it. Thanks for the clarification.

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