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?