On proposals to split the denomination

Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right. But it must also be understood, I think, that the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.

— Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage”

I’ve been waiting for Ben Witherinton III to finish his four-part response to retired Bishop Richard Sano’s call for what he and others in the United Methodist Church call biblical obedience.

Here are Witherington’s responses.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

In the last part, Witherington makes his case for a split in the UMC. He ends his final post this way:

So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In the piece, Witherington uses the analogy of marriage and divorce, and in all these controversies I do find myself reflecting on the nature of marriage vows. I ask myself in grief how people can break their vows of covenant while presiding over the vows of marriage.

But I also hear myself talking about the way marriage is treated in our country and culture. Marriage, we are told by the courts of law, is a contract entered into for mutual benefit and terminated at the whim of those who entered into it. That may be the secular meaning of marriage, but that definition of marriage has nothing to do with God.

Christian marriage is a lifelong bond that is not intended to be ever broken. The vow to love until death does not include small print that says “unless we get sick of each other.” Yes, Christians divorce, but only because we are fallen and hard-hearted people. It is always a tragedy. Divorce, Wendell Berry wrote, is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its possible outcomes.

And so, I find myself unable to suggest divorce as a solution to our crisis in the United Methodist Church. Not over this question. Even though we’ve had — and likely will have — some fights that damage the walls and break lamps.

I am sick of the fighting. I am outraged by the politics of it all. I am heart sick over the name calling and the distrust that runs deep in our connection. I believe some of my brothers and sisters are teaching doctrines that imperil the happiness and salvation of souls. That for many is a reason to break fellowship. I understand why people feel this way, and I worry that perhaps there is some hypocrisy in me that I am not ready to join the ones calling for a split.

I don’t have a good response to that charge. I guess, in the end, I hope and trust that God will overcome the mistakes of human beings. In end, I am too aware of my own flaws and failures to eliminate the possibility that I am wrong. In the end, I am holding out hope that there is a coherent, biblical response that neither denigrates scripture nor forgets that mercy triumphs over judgement.

I pray that God makes right what I have done wrong in my ministry and has mercy on my mistakes and my failures. If I pray that God will do that for me, then I feel I must pray he will do the same for those with whom I disagree on these questions.

There are lines I could not cross. There are matters that amount to theological adultery. If the UMC became Unitarian Universalist, I would leave. But when I read Witherington’s call for a split, I find I am not ready to go where he summons. Maybe that is cowardice. Maybe it is hope. I cannot say. All I can report is this:

I’m not ready for divorce.

28 thoughts on “On proposals to split the denomination

  1. If not divorce, then how do we change the status quo? How do we overcome the differences, not just on this issue, but on what we mean when we talk about the primacy of scripture. Even if someone were to miraculously create peace in the realm of the same sex ordination/marriage debate, some other issue would arise because we read scripture differently.

  2. How long do we maintain the facade of unity and fellowship with what I can only regard as theological adtery?

    Maybe we should stay married for the sake of the children, but the marriage metaphor here is misplaced, I think.

  3. Even Our Lord allowed that adultery was always a proper reason for divorce. The marriage analogy eventually breaks down, since other marriage-related Scriptures indicate that if you divorce, you should remain single or be reconciled to the other party of the marriage covenant. But the progressive/traditional-evangelical divide is in some ways like spiritual adultery, refusing to live out the covenant we have entered into together. I look at what happened in the wake of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative takeover and the two small splits that happened thereafter as instructive of what a positive end-result for us might be. Suddenly unshackled from a faithless partner, I could foresee the traditional-evangelical wing of the UMC making a huge turn-around in the US.

    If the answer is not to let the progressive wing go its own way, then what are viable alternatives? We continue to see that willingness to uphold the Book of Discipline is a regional affair, with the Western Jurisdiction in open rebellion against it and other individual bishops in places like New York doing the same. Perhaps we should dissolve the Western Jurisdiction and place the congregations and pastors there on a sort of region-wide supervised probation under the care of people willing to be faithful to our covenant as a Church.

    Something has to change, and if it is not a separation from the progressive wing, then the only possibilities the traditional-evangelical wing can accept are either better mechanisms for enforcing the covenant, leaving for other places as individuals (likely SBC, ironically) as soon as their consciences can no longer justify staying, or waiting it out as a group before leaving en masse after a tipping point is reached farther down the line.

    1. I know it feels like something has to change. As I said in the post, I did not intend to offer this as a solution, just a report of where I am. There is a reason I am a blogger and licensed local pastor and not a bishop or General Conference leader.

  4. I don’t see how schism can be avoided. We are talking about what is and is not sin – eternal separation from God – and a difference between one group calling people to repent and another group saying there is no need to repent. Both cannot be right. One of these sides is clearly in the wrong and is unfaithful to God’s plan and design for Creation. As such, both sides view the other as unfaithful to the gospel. Even if there is no schism there is no unity, and as such, I think appeals to stay “united” are appeals to perpetuate a fraud. Only with repentance of one side to the other can there be the sort of unity Jesus desires His bride to have, and without repentance I think staying together is to be enabling the sin of those who call themselves “brother” while being sexually immoral. 1 Cor. 5 and Matt. 18 gives us our marching orders. Why are we disobedient to these texts?

    1. Good questions. I’m not pretending that my unwillingness to call for split or endorse one is a solution. There comes a time in a troubled marriage when a wronged spouse is justified in demanding divorce but does not do it. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t see a solution. But I’m not personally able to call for divorce.

      1. I suppose I’m just not seeing the link between a church structure adopted in 1968 and a covenant made between a man and a wife. If there is a link, and unfaithfulness happens in a marriage, there can be no true marriage if the offending party does not repent and promise to live right. I know this from first-hand experience, as you know. But I’m not all that convinced the analogy is a good one to begin with. The UMC is not the seamless bride of Christ. The people are – at least those who are faithful to Jesus – but not the institution itself. My loyalty, or covenant, is with Jesus and His teachings, and if and when the organization I call a “church” departs from those teachings, then they are not being unfaithful to *me* but to Christ, and therefore must repent, or, as Scripture dictates, be removed from the assembly. I’m less concerned by what name we call ourselves or who will pay my salary, but very concerned about knowingly and willfully defiling Christ’s Church (the people) by allowing unconfessed and unrepentant sin to run rampant among Her without check.

        I’m not a life-long Methodist, though, and perhaps that is why I will not lose any sleep if, or rather, when, this 46 year old “marriage” ends. Forgive me if I am sounding overly harsh, but I do long for a day when I and many others like myself can once more be proud to call themselves Methodist.

        1. I’m prepared to seek a new metaphor. I picked up on the marriage metaphor from Ben’s post and from the issue of fidelity to vows. I’m not a lifelong Methodist, either. I was not a Christian until 2001. I’m not arguing this out of some loyalty to the institution.

          For me, being a covenant does not end because one partner in the covenant breaks their vows. That does not appear to be what God did with Israel, anyway.

          Perhaps the better frame to ask these questions is about church discipline. I am not certain about that. I do not feel God leading me that way.

        2. I believe you are right about church discipline. Schism, IMO, could easily be avoided if we as a Church would exercise proper discipline, as defined by Matthew 18 and other similar commands. I hear people quoting Ignatius (and other church fathers) as an appeal to guard our unity, but the same people seem skittish about doing what Ignatius would have done to maintain said unity. Does anyone here think he would call for “deep listening” if one of his pastors married a same-sex couple?

  5. Good piece!
    If the CC church understood and studied the history of marriage and where the church stood on the issue we may be better prepared to explain, understand and support marriage.
    We would have a better understanding of the CC thru the marriage model ideal.

    A few notes I wrote when I was studying the history of Christian Marriage.

    When the Christian Church regulated marriage there where 12 laws governing lawful marriage. Divorce was granted for adultery, marriage to a minor, marriage without free consent of both parties or the inability or unwillingness of either party to fulfill their coupling duty.
    Under civil law governed by the state we have a maze of hundreds of laws.

    At different times in history and in different places like France uncontested divorce was lawful .
    One declared they were unhappy and divorce was granted. That would place woman and children in a very difficult position. Women and children were propelled into poverty and homelessness. Those very loose divorce laws only lasted about four years because the state found divorces outnumbered marriages and that was not good for a healthy community.
    The right of inheritance, who gets the kids, who pays for the kids, division of property etc. have not always been fair under civil laws. The father was not always required to support the children under civil law.

    Under Christian Law it is an abomination to not care for family.

    8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8

    In the eyes of the Christian Church (earlier times) marriage was understood to be between one man and one woman. . The Christian Church saw the union of one man and one woman bound by marriage as one and everything and all things could not be divided because a man and woman bound in marriage owned everything equally. The basis was “How can things or person be divided among one?”

    How many in the CC today know or understand those truths?
    It’s all about rights. God has less rights than we do in today’s world.

    As far as church division…There have been successful splits. Some end in court over property rights and some don’t. Some still co-operate with each other in areas they do not disagree on.

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