The evils of schism

From John Wesley’s sermon “On Schism.”

One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives’ end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out.

How much truth is there in this observation about nearly every dispute in the life of the church? How many arguments grind on forever because we cannot even agree on the meaning of words?

But this sermon of Wesley’s is worth our attention for more than his insights into the nature of disputes. It is a challenging and fascinating reflection on issues that are being discussed openly among us today. (Thanks to the colleague who drew my attention to it.)

The first section of the sermon is a word study on the biblical word “schism” and its meaning. Wesley argues that schism in the Bible refers not to separating from another group of Christians but the presence of divisions or divides within a body of Christians. Wesley argues that schism is a lack of unity of mind or loyalty within the church. It is agreeing to disagree while still claiming to be outwardly united.

After arguing that schism is not about separation from the church, Wesley then goes on to discuss the evil of separating or breaking off from a community of Christians.

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 he Spirit in the bound of peace.

To separate, Wesley argues is a repudiation of the command to love each other. And this breach leads to all sorts of evil consequences. See if you spot any of those among us today:

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmising, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.

Do we think evil thoughts about each other? Do we impugn the motives of those who we see as our foes? Do we celebrate their struggles and resent their victories? These are what happens when you stop loving each other.

And as these things grow and grow, Wesley writes, they become a real obstacle to the work of the church. To those outside the church, they become a spectacle that undermines any claims we make about what it means to be Christians or follow Jesus Christ.

But then Wesley turns in a way that speaks to the very heart of our present troubles. He asks what one should do if they cannot remain in a church without being compelled to sin. He argues that in that case we must separate and that the sin of the separation should fall on those who forced us to it. He explains his own thinking this way:

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no 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 so, in the United Methodist Church, I believe, we have many clergy and laity who say denying them the ability to preside at same-sex weddings is the equivalent of the scenario imagined by Wesley. For them, preventing gay weddings is in some way forcing them to sin and, perhaps, risk their own salvation. (I’m not sure if any argue the point as far as Wesley.) And I know some clergy who have reflected upon what they would be forced to do if the language in our discipline were rewritten. Could they stay in such as church, they ask?

Of course, many of our contemporaries opt to stay in a church that requires them to betray their conscience and choose to defy the church. Wesley was neither the democrat nor the activist that many of us are today. To defy the church and remain within it at the same time would be unthinkable to him. We, in our day, have made it not only thinkable but righteous.*

Wesley ends his sermon with a call to Christians not to separate from their church. This is, I believe, a sermon written to quell the calls from within the Methodist movement to pull away from the Church of England or to cease to attend parish churches where the priest does not preach sound Methodist doctrine.

But Wesley then closes by returning to what he had called the biblical definition of “schism” — division within the church. He summons his hearers and readers to resist all factions, parties, and divisions within the church as well.

O beware, I will not say of forming, but of countenancing or abetting any parties in a Christian society! Never encourage, much less cause, either by word or action, any division therein. In the nature of things, “there must be heresies,” divisions, “among you;” but keep thyself pure. Leave off contention before it be meddled with: Shun the very beginning of strife. Meddle not with them that are given to dispute, with them that love contention. I never knew that remark to fail: “He that loves to dispute, does not love God.” Follow peace with all men, without which you cannot effectually follow holiness. Not only “seek peace,” but “ensue it:” If it seem to flee from you, pursue it nevertheless. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I read these words and think of our factions and divisions. We have saavy and in some cases well funded groups vying to power and leverage within the church. On the congregational level, who cannot think of these same kinds of divisions and factions. Who does not have within their congregation divisions that poison the life of the church, the love of Christ, and our witness to the world?

Wesley’s closing words are of encouragement. Do not weary of doing well and seeking peace, even if there are no signs of peace coming. No where — no where — does he imply that such peace should be bought with betrayal of truth. But neither does he suggest we should abandon our hope and trust in God, the God of peace.

I do not expect Wesley’s words to solve an disputes among us, but I hope those of us who claim some fellowship with Wesley would at least listen to his words and reflect on whether they might have some wisdom for us.

*Some would cite here Wesley’s practice of field preaching and the complaints that generated, but note the difference. Wesley always argued that his practice and theology were in line with the Church of England. He did not declare the authority of the church void or its rules evil. I think there is an interesting discussion about this comparison, but to just say “Wesley broke the rules” as if that justifies breaches in our discipline strikes me as simplistic and perhaps misleading.

Holiness is of God

Late in his ministry, John Wesley looked back at the early days of Methodism and described in his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” the truths first proclaimed by the Oxford students who started the movement:

Let us observe what God has done already. Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths, which were then little attended to: — That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; — that this holiness is the work of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do; — that he doeth it of his own good pleasure, merely for the merits of Christ; — that this holiness is the mind that was in Christ; enabling us to walk as he also walked; — that no man can be thus sanctified till he is justified; — and, that we are justified by faith alone. These great truths they declared on all occasions, in private and in public; having no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.

Pulling this apart, we can list the key doctrines, according to Wesley, as these.

  1. Without holiness no one will see the Lord
  2. This holiness is the work of God who works in us both to will and do
  3. This holiness is grace, merited not by us but by Christ
  4. This holiness is having the same mind that was in Christ, enabling us to walk as he walked
  5. This holiness, or sanctification, must follow justification
  6. Justification is by faith alone

I wrote about point 1 in a recent post.

I wonder how we can communicate point 2: Holiness is the work of God — from first to last — who works in us both to will and do good. It seems people have a hard time hearing it.

In a recent comment here, someone wrote that telling a person to “try harder” when they cannot fulfill the demands of the law is not very helpful.

I agree, 100 percent. “Try harder” is at its heart Pelagian. It is why Pelagianism was actually a very harsh theology. If you were not holy, Pelagians said, the problem is that you did not work hard enough at it. A lot of Christianity, I think, is unintentionally Pelagian in that way.

What orthodox Christianity has taught since the settlement of the Pelagian controversy is that it is not our effort that makes us holy. God works in us so we can will and do what God desires.

What we are called to do is to trust in the grace we have been given. This grace stirs in us, convicting us when we do wrong, and drawing us to do right. But it is God’s initiative. We respond.

I’m not sure how to explain this. I think part of the problem is that it is all grounded on a doctrine of original sin and human depravity that is not well received in the church today.

Without holiness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

If Methodism went looking for a bedrock biblical verse, Hebrews 12:14 would be a strong contender for that title. There are some verses that John Wesley might have liked more, but the need for holiness was the driving force that got him up in that saddle day after day.

And so, I find myself wondering what this verse means in 2014 in the United Methodist Church.

For me, this verse, especially when read in the context of the whole chapter, resonates with a tone that we shun. Hebrews 12 takes a stance toward God that we do not. It stands in reverent awe of God. It shudders at the immense stakes of all this. It is the voice of one who stands humbly and meekly before a God beyond our comprehension.

We, for the most part, do not stand where the author of Hebrews stands. We are arrogant. We presume to tell God what is right and just and true. We treat God like a hired servant, here to cater to our whims. We let our democratic impulses invade our theology, informing God that the voters are not buying his program. We lecture God about poor customer service and threaten to take our business to the vendor up the street.

Without holiness no one will see the Lord.

If we believed that, our theology would be undertaken with much less confidence and much more fear. Lives are at stake here. Our God is a consuming fire.

But here is the good news in that. Our God is powerful. Our God is not helpless to save us. Our God is not reduced to merely weeping beside us when we suffer. Our God is stronger than the foes that surround us. The Psalms know this to be true. They are prayers to a powerful and awesome God. They are prayers that speak in anguish when God does not rebuke the wicked precisely because they know in their bones that God could shatter evil like a rod on a clay pot.

A God powerful enough to kill Pharaoh’s child is a God who can save you, too.

The unholy will not see the Lord.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16, NIV)

The simplicity and depth of Christian faith

A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”

– John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist

When John Wesley wanted to explain what it means to be a Methodist he quoted Scripture. He quoted Romans 5:5. He quoted Matthew 22:37. He quoted Psalm 72:25-26. He might have even paraphrased Psalm 84:2.

Suffice it to say, he used the words of Scripture as much as he could. To understand what it means to be a Methodist, you have to read the Bible and read it well.

Take a moment and read Romans 5:1-11, where the verse Wesley applied to Methodists can be found. Here we have justification by faith, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, sinners saved by the death of Jesus, the hope of glory, and the reconciliation that puts away wrath.

To be a Methodist, Wesley writes, is to lay claim to all the glorious good news in those verses. But it is also, therefore, a plunge into the depths of the Bible. How long, after all, would it take to thoroughly discuss all that Paul touches upon in those 11 verses in Romans 5? You can spend a lifetime trying to come to a full grasp of them. And by “grasp” I am trying to say it is not merely, or even primarily, about intellectual accomplishment. Perhaps the better way to say it is to be grasped by the truth of Christianity. It can seize your heart — and warm it strangely — in a moment, and yet the depths of it will never be exhausted.

Being a Christian — we Methodists have never claimed we were anything other than old-fashioned Christians — is something that can be described in a few sentences. It takes a whole life to live it.

We are all disabled

These thoughts are not fully formed, but I think by writing and, as yet, neither my work, nor my ministry, nor my seminary has required me to wrestle with this topic. So I am going to share a few notes and reflections, without any illusion that they are complete or fully worked out.

We are all disabled
I mean this in at least two ways.

First, we all, at some point in our lives, are disabled. Unless you were hatched fully formed from an egg as an adult and die suddenly in young adulthood, you have lived or one day will live with a body (and brain) that does not do what “normal” bodies do. We all are disabled, have been disabled, or one day will be disabled. So, this is not just a conversation about some other group of people.

Second, we are all disabled right now if we understand that Jesus Christ is the standard for our comparisons. Jesus is the fully human one. He is what we would be without sin. And compared to him, none of us is fully human. We all fall short of the glory of God. So, again, the conversation about disability is not about someone else. It is about each one of us.

Wesleyan theology has helpful resources
One of the things that John Wesley’s theology gets dinged for is the way he writes about sin, but I find his discussion of sin is uniquely helpful in working through problems raised for conventional Protestant soteriology by mental disability.

In a nutshell, the problem I’ve had is with the cognitive dependence of most Protestant soteriology. Salvation tends to hinge on a person having awareness of certain ideas, holding certain thoughts, confessing in an articulate way certain inner conditions, developing certain emotional responses, and explicitly asking for God to do certain things.

Wesleyan theology — at least as I read it — is not troubled by this. Wesley taught that though we all bear the disability of original sin, no one is guilty or liable to punishment for original sin alone. It is only for own sins that we are liable to punishment. This is where Wesley’s conception of sin is important. He taught that sin is the willful and knowing violation of a law of God. Critics bewail the problems raised by Wesley’s conception of sin and guilt. I don’t want to dismiss that. But when I consider questions of soteriology, Wesley’s theology brings to mind the teaching of Jesus: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

My take away: Those who cannot willfully and intentionally violate the law of God, do not sin.

Maybe that is patronizing or problematic in other ways. For an intensely salvationist theology such as Wesley’s it may raise the question: Why do people with mental disabilities need Jesus, then? That is a question worthy of more thought that I have given it. As I say, I am thinking out loud here.

On one final note: I find Wesleyan baptismal theology warmly embraces the baptism of those with mental disabilities in ways that “believer’s baptism” does not.

I’m not sure what this all means for worship & church
Wesleyan theology, however, with its undeveloped ecclesiology, struggles as much Protestant theology does with questions about the incorporation of those with mental disabilities in the worship and life of the local congregation. The typical response that I’ve seen in Protestant churches is to focus on those with disabilities as recipients of ministry rather than as Christians with ministries of their own.

What does it mean for those with more obvious, less easily hidden, disabilities to worship and minister among those of us who do a much better job of hiding our disabilities? This is a question that I’ve not fully understood or explored.

As I warned, this is not really a post with a point to make. It is more about sketching out some thoughts and raising some questions. If it stirs up any thoughts for you, please let me know.