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.

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3 thoughts on “The evils of schism

  1. The discussion is fascinating because Wesley seems to support “unity at all costs,” yet we know he did not. His sermons surely address specific situations, the contexts of which are obscure to us now, yet still relevant. It’s highly UNLIKELY Wesley would have traveled far down the road of sexual aggiornamento, as some want him to do by their claims.

    1. Highly unlikely is an understatement. Wesley pitched people out of Methodist societies for spreading gossip. But I am not aware of him suggesting a person should be removed from a parish for being a sinner, indeed, such an idea runs counter to the whole parish system.

      The differences between society and church are important here.

      Wesley also would say someone who sins is not a real Christian, so this gets into all other kinds of issues.

      I don’t think the comparison between Wesley and us should be simplistic, but I do think it would be fruitful.

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