What is the biblical argument for schism?

The church is a strange organization. We declare by creed that it is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. We look in vain for a church that clearly displays these marks.

From early in the life of the church the church has been embroiled in debates about how to cope with members within the church who other members believed to be apostate. We see this in the New Testament. We see it in the teaching of Jesus who instructed his disciples about the mingling of weeds and wheat. We see this in the Donatist controversy that so engaged Augustine.

These debates are beyond my ability to summarize, but one outcome over time of this conversation was the formulation of a distinction between the visible church and the mystical or invisible church.

This distinction is preserved in our Articles of Religion, where we read these words:

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The visible church is composed of many people who bear only the faintest resemblance to Jesus Christ. It always has been. The visible church is the assembly of those who profess the name of Jesus Christ, hear the Word of God justly preached, and partake of the sacraments properly administered. Doctrine and sacrament are the marks of the visible church.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve never been very good about enforcing discipline around the meaning of preaching the pure Word of God. We have a long history of not paying too much attention to whether our preachers affirm the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. So we are left with a situation in which it is hard to spot this mark of the church or for it to provide much unity.

Similarly, we are pretty lax when it comes to proper administration of the sacraments. Infant baptism is actively opposed in many places. Our practice and teaching of Holy Communion bares the same undisciplined marks.

In short — and this is hardly news to anyone — the United Methodist Church is a mess. Even the marks of the visible church are often hard to discern among us.

But I don’t understand the claim that the UMC is somehow mired in a unique level of mess today. We don’t strike me as massively more compromised by American culture than we have been for the last 40 years. I also don’t understand the claim that God somehow wills that the church divide.

For me that is the final question here: Is it God’s will that we split?

The question, for me, is not whether life would be easier or whether conflict would cease. The question is whether it is God’s desire for the church that we split. I have not seen that argument made.

I have seen the argument that we should exercise greater discipline and holiness. But I don’t see where the proper response to our inability to do so is division.

In the Old Testament God sent prophets to Israel and preserved a faithful remnant within Israel while everyone else bent a knee to Baal. I do not recall God calling one tribe to divide itself from the chosen people and start over.

I can think of Paul calling for individuals to be separated from the church. Did he call for the church to divide itself along party lines?

In other words, what is the biblical argument on behalf of separation?

30 thoughts on “What is the biblical argument for schism?

  1. Revelation’s “come out” verse(s) really only work from a futurist framework. For the preterist/partial-preterist and for the person who, with St Jerome, says “The interpretation of Revelation either finds a man mad or leaves him so,” the ‘argument for schism’ is not that believers should constantly be separating themselves from people with whom they disagree.
    Instead, the “biblical argument for schism” is closer to that of 2 John 8-10. False teachers are not to be welcomed, or we share in the evil which they do–and few of our leaders are willing to excommunicate or defrock false teachers. What other recourse do we have when our leaders won’t guard the doctrine of the church?

    1. Perhaps we have no choice. It may come to that, but this is not yet a universal condition. I suppose that is my greatest reason for not wanting schism. I don’t want the very people who are mostly likely to bring us renewal to abandon the church.

      I was reading 3 John just this morning and noticing that Diotrephes is held up as doing evil precisely because he puts out of the church those who want to welcome representatives of John. Do not imitate his evil, John writes, but do good.

      I don’t dispute that separation might become unavoidable. We cannot partake of Communion offered to a false idol. We cannot bow down to the golden idol of Nebuchanezzar. But I fear that people who proudly call themselves biblical Christians are taking too lightly the many words that call us to unity and warn us against dividing.

      1. I would argue that in 3 John, Diotrophes is held up as doing evil because he is attempting to shut out apostolic teaching in his church by throwing out members who would welcome the teachers of apostolic doctrine. I think a modern comparison would be congregations (and Annual Conferences, and Jurisdictions) that would view an orthodox/evangelical pastor as unwelcome.
        I think it should be obvious that Good News and the other renewal groups do not want schism if it can at all be avoided–the gravest statement they have ever made about the state of the church comes some 40+ years after Good News’ founding.
        I know that I do not want it–but it happened a long time ago. “Schism” is often translated as ‘division’ (for example, in 1 Corinthians 12), and particularly in 1 Cor 12, it is a reference to divisions within a church body rather than a separation of one group out of a church body. But its opposite, “unity,” in this case is not a morally equivalent position where both sides have to compromise and meet in the middle, though. As United Methodists, we are called to uphold the doctrinal standards of the church (the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes and Sermons), and if a part of us are not doing that, then that is the part that needs to return to the practice of the other part.
        If any group departs from the United Methodist Church, though, that won’t be the act of schism. The ‘schism’ came long before.

  2. We all have our breaking point.What is it that you need to see before you say it is time to part ways?

    1. Great question.

      I just watched video by a panel of pastors who had broken from their denominations or were seriously considering it. One of the people said that so long as you still had at least one seminary producing orthodox and/or evangelical pastors, to stay and support that work. I found that helpful.

      John Wesley said that he would not split unless remaining prevented him from being able to do what the gospel commands or required him to do what the gospel forbids.

      I don’t think the UMC is beyond saving.

      1. By the terms you have set down, it’s sounds like a last-man-standing contest. But something more ominous is barking at our heels, and that is what happens when a conference or jurisdiction legislates to disregard the BoD and suppress real gospel obedience. If I were serving in Indiana, I might feel opposed to schism because Mike Coyner respects real gospel obedience. But where I serve, “resistance” is a danger to the wave of the future. There’s pressure not only to keep silent while same-sex weddings are performed by colleagues (with 100% acquiescence of bishop & cabinet), but to endure barrages of lecturing and hectoring intended to transform resistance into acceptance. Today resistors are merely pariahs or outliers, but tomorrow they will be purged. That’s a snapshot of current reality where I serve.

        1. You make an excellent point about the way my location may influence my views.

          I’d like to see us come up with some ways for churches to support pastors and congregations who find themselves in hostile situations. If Bishop Talbert can carry his gospel into Alabama, perhaps there are ways for others to support pastors and congregations that feel isolated.

        2. Gary, I’m sorry you are having to bear that. I’m on the flip side of that. Here in Holston, in TN, it isn’t talked about. It surprises some people who only know me from me blog to learn that I’ve never once preached on homosexuality. Never even mentioned it. I don’t have to. However, I have lost potential church members because after visiting and wishing to do their homework on what the UMC is, they’ve gone to umc.org only to learn we are enmeshed in this mess, something they see clearly as sin and that our discussions amount to nothing more than false teachers arguing over whether or not 2+2=5. So they don’t bother coming back. They apologize to me, and say they love what our local church is doing, but will not tithe to a church where portions of their money go to fund something so obviously sinful. I’m tempted to just lob the “united methodist” off of our church sign so as to not be associated with all that.
          I’d just assume split and get it done with. The writing is on the wall, it seems to me. Our “united-ness” is only a mockery of what Jesus prayed for, as we are not of “one mind” in any sense of the word. Does light have any fellowship with darkness?

  3. If and when there is a great sorting out in United Methodism, some of us hope for non-geographical conferences that would allow for light to fellowship with light.

  4. I think Wesley’s quote that you mentioned above is pretty spot on. As far as splitting the UMC, most denominations were started over disagreements in theology and I can’t say that it’s helped the church as a whole. We are one body and I think God calls us to work things out together. So I would certainly argue he wouldn’t call us to split. Thanks for writing this post.

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