A schism is when there is a formal division in the body of Christ. It occurs when rival factions – or theological perspectives – believe that they can no longer share Christian fellowship with each other. Instead of working through their differences or attempting to come to a resolution an agreement is made for the two groups to go their separate ways.
Schisms can impact both the larger body of Christ and its representations in local communities. The body of Christ has been torn apart throughout the centuries of the church. Most notable was the Great East-West Schism of 1054, which created the separation of the eastern and western wings of the church. Schisms have led to the number of our various denominations in the United States and the break-ups of many churches in our communities.
These are hurtful moments in the life of the church. The United Methodist Church is not immune from schisms. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery. The two would reunify, along with the Methodist Protestant Church which had split off in an early schism regarding in 1939 to form the Methodist Church. (The United Methodist Church would be formed in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church).
As the United Methodist Church gathers in Tampa for General Conference, there are some who desire for the United Methodist Church to split along theological lines. The issue that is driving this is homosexuality. On the theological left are those who desire homosexuals to have a place in the ordination process. On the theological right are those wanting the church to maintain its position that homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture.
The United Methodist Church has faced this challenge before and overcome it. Throughout this General Conference it appears the fear is more prevalent now than ever before. But, is it appropriate? Is schism the answer to deep theological and practical difference between the left and right wings of the church?
I believe the answer to this question is no.
If we were to advocate a schism, or even have it on our mind in our discussions, then we are saying that it is impossible to be the body together. Even more, we are refusing to come to the table and hear from the other side. We must be willing to hear from each other and, most importantly, listen to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We cannot be defined by our desires and then threaten to leave when those desires are not met.
At the same time, a schism takes the dangerous approach to say it is only with our group , and people who believe like us, that Jesus is truly alive and believed. It is wrong to use God in an “us versus them” way. By doing this, we deny our very calling to be in a fellowship of Christian love with one another.
How can we be witnesses of Christ’s love for a broken world if we are unwilling to be witnesses of Christ’s love with each other? Yes, we should “speak the truth in love” and be willing to engage difficult issues, but it must be done in a way that seeks the Father’s will, and not our own. We must be guided by the Holy Spirit and not our own wishes. When we do, I believe, we will be effectives witnesses of Christ’s love.
As leaders in the church, let us put aside our talk and fear of schism and work together, as the body of Christ, to “make disciples of all people.”