Category Archives: United Methodist Church

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.

 


Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Can’t we all just get along?

It’s the question many of us as Methodists are asking these days, isn’t it?

Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just figure out a way to live together in spite of our differences?

Do we really have to divide over this or any other issue? For as many things as divide us, aren’t there more things that hold us together? Isn’t that worth preserving?

It’s what many of us are wondering, I suspect.

And yet, from where I sit it is becoming clearer and clearer that staying together seems less and less likely. Here’s why:

We have two groups in the United Methodist Church who believe that an absolute truth is at stake in this conversation. And neither one seems willing to compromise, even a little bit.

So, on the one hand, I talk with my progressive friends, and they assure me that same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights. They feel sure that homosexual attraction is a matter of biology. People are just born this way.

Marriage is a natural expression of human love. So, why can’t two people who love each other express their love for one another in this conventional fashion? Call them old fashioned, but they just want to get married like everyone else.

Plus, in our society, there are several legal benefits and protections that are conveyed through marriage. So, how can we bar a class of people from those benefits by denying them marriage? Marriage is a fundamental human right. It’s why they talk in terms of ‘marriage equality.’ Everyone should be able to qualify for marriage and enjoy its legal benefits.

As a result, my progressive friends assure me: They will not back down. They will not compromise. They are not interested in negotiation. Right is right. And wrong is wrong. So, just do what’s right. That’s their view as best I understand it. (I hope I have expressed it clearly and fairly.)

On the other hand, though, I talk with my traditionalist friends, and they are just as adamant that the practice of homosexuality is a sin. They feel sure that the Bible forbids this behavior. They likewise believe that there is nearly 2000 years of Church tradition interpreting the Bible in just that way.

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Orthodoxy Is: Universality, Antiquity, Consent – Vincent of Lérins

So, what exactly is orthodoxy?

According to Vincent of Lérins, orthodoxy is the Church’s theology. It is the way the Church interprets Sacred Scripture through Holy Tradition.

It’s not your interpretation. It’s not my interpretation. It’s the Church’s interpretation.

So, how do we determine what the Church’s interpretation is?

Well, Vincent says it is “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (2.6)

Only, Vincent doesn’t leave it at that. As mentioned in an earlier post, he expands on that and gives us his three-fold rule:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.

We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses;

antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers;

consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

So, this is the three-fold test: universality, antiquity, and consent.

First, the whole Church must believe it. Not just a part of the church. Not just our particular denomination, or even a segment of all our churches. For it to be truly orthodox Christian faith, the whole church throughout the world has to believe and hold to this thing.

Of course, Vincent isn’t talking about pure democracy here. He’s not interested in taking votes and counting them up to get a simple majority. Right is right, regardless of the number of people who adhere to it.

Nor is he naive to the fact that sometimes a new idea takes hold of the church for a time that later turns out to be wrong. See Arianism. Or any number of heresies that Vincent will list.

Sometimes the current majority of Christians get led astray or confused about something, and then later have to be corrected.

So, universality isn’t just about sheer numbers. Rather, it’s Vincent’s way of saying that the Church cannot be sectarian. To be an orthodox Christian, everyone everywhere has to hold to this idea. You can’t be Christian without it.

Like the Incarnation. You can’t be the Church, and you can’t be truly Christian if you don’t hold to the Incarnation the way the Church as a whole preaches and teaches it. It’s a universally held belief.

Of course, that raises the question: What do you do when a new idea seems to lead astray the vast majority of Christians? As Vincent puts it in 3.7:

What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole?

Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

And this is the second step: Antiquity. What the Church has always believed.

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A Methodist Pope

Okay, maybe that’s taking it too far, but you tell me what you think it means. Here’s part of the news release from UMNS entitled Bishops Seek Change in Presidency:

United Methodist bishops approved a proposal May 4 that would significantly redefine the role of president for the Council of Bishops.

The amendment to the church’s constitution would allow the council to elect one of its own to a full-time, four-year position without the usual responsibilities of overseeing a geographic area.

The individual in that role would serve as the denomination’s chief ecumenical officer, help align the strategic direction of the church and focus on growing vital congregations, among other duties.

I’m not entirely sure what to think of this. On the surface, it sounds harmless enough. Most bishops are overworked. It’s hard for a bishop to oversee her or his episcopal area and serve as president of the Council of Bishops both. So why not create a separate position that doesn’t have the responsibilities of a geographic area? Sounds reasonable enough.

On the other hand, it does seem odd on the heels of the Call to Action report to be laying down another layer of bureaucracy (I thought we were supposed to be reducing these) plus all the additional expense. Creating a whole new formal head of the Council of Bishops doesn’t strike me as streamlining.

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Eugene Peterson on Pastoral Impatience

Eugene Peterson always has a unique way of putting things. Recently, I ran across an old interview of Peterson in which he said the following:

I think the besetting sin of pastors, maybe especially evangelical pastors, is impatience.

We have a goal. We have a mission. We’re going to save the world. We’re going to evangelize everybody, and we’re going to do all this good stuff and fill our churches.

This is wonderful. All the goals are right. But this is slow, slow work, this soul work, this bringing people into a life of obedience and love and joy before God.

And we get impatient and start taking shortcuts and use any means available.

Impatience is the sin that pastors struggle with most.

Why? Because it tempts us to take shortcuts and do whatever it takes. It tempts us to use the ends to justify the means, to do all the right things in all the wrong ways.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at the pastoral life.

And a stunningly accurate critique.

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Retired Bishops: What should their role be?

What should be the role of a retired bishop?

It’s a question well worth considering, especially in light of the 33 retired bishops who issued their joint statement calling for a change in the UMC’s stance on self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. You can read their statement here: A Statement of Counsel to the Church – 2011.

On the one hand, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I may not agree with these retired bishops, but they certainly have a right to their opinion on the subject. What’s more, they have a right to work for change in the language of the church’s doctrine by legitimate means.

However, where I get uneasy is when they use their position and title as bishop in order to influence the political process.

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Surprise! Surprise! UM Ineffective & Irrelevant

The Christian Post has an interesting article reporting some of the results from a survey taken by the Apex Healthcare Group, who have been consulting for the Call to Action Steering Team. You can read the full article here.

In part it says:

A newly released report by the denomination gave “below average” grades to the body’s governance and agencies as it cited a lack of mission clarity and accountability, among other things, within The United Methodist Church.

“The agencies are a cacophony of voices,” the report, titled “Operational Assessment Project,” cited one surveyed Methodist as saying. “[T]heir ‘brands and communications compete with one another’ and result in confusion and dilution of impact at the Annual Conference and Local Church levels.”

Basically, the report says that we as United Methodists are ineffective because there is no one central group to speak for the Church on a regular basis. Yes, there is the General Conference, but they only meet once every four years and what they do mostly is legislate. Legislation is not leadership.

What’s more, into this leadership vacuum have stepped the general agencies, each of whom has their own vision of where the Church ought to be going. Consequently, not only are we slow and inefficient in making meaningful decisions, but we’re also confused as to which direction to go.

All of this confused inefficiency makes us less relevant. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there, you can’t really speak meaningfully to the world around you.

So, according to the report, we need more leadership. Risk-taking, innovative leadership.

One can almost hear in this a call to bypass the General Conference and to invest even more power in the Council of Bishops. I’m not sure if that’s what they really meant to say or if that’s where they are really headed. It’s just what I hear between the lines of this small article. I’d be interested in reading more of this report and finding out what their real recommendations are.

In one sense, this report says little most of us didn’t already know. We’re ineffective, confused, mistrusting, and irrelevant. What else is new?

Still, this is a report upon which action will presumably be taken. One wonders which way our denominational leaders will choose to go.