I recently saw this press release from a group of 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians who have decided that the United Methodist Church is beset with a crisis.
There are many others far smarter than I who are weighing in, but I thought I would add some reflections on a few things that stood out to me. Toward the end of the release, it reads…
“While we are willing to consider many options, we wonder if it is not time for persons of good faith, representing the spectrum of theological positions within The United Methodist Church, to begin discussing ways to create a “win-win” scenario for the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of everyone involved? In the manner that Paul and Barnabas chose to part amicably (Acts 15:39-41), can we not work for a way of parting that honors the sincerity of those with whom we differ and no longer brings pain to persons made in the image of God?”
At first glance, that sounds peaceful, kind, wonderful, and speaks to all those who may think it is time to part ways. But I am left with a few questions…
Is this a crisis of the entire church, or is it just a crisis for certain groups within the church? I ask this because most Methodists I know don’t spend a lot of time or energy on this “crisis” until they are together at general meetings or stirred into a froth by someone who lifts up the issue. The vast Methodists I know in the local church are most concerned about living their faith in the midst of a variety of daily life issues. They are busy discipling, loving, struggling, living in community, worshiping, praying, working, and wondering why we can’t find more ways to better love each other. One of the reasons why I love being a local church pastor is that I don’t really think much about the general church unless I am at a general church meeting. Most of my time is spent with real people and real issues, not the latest general church “crisis”. What encourages me so much is that the social and moral issues we face are seen differently when a real person walks in the door of your church looking for relationships of love, grace, and mercy. I have found, more often than not, Methodists are willing to embody grace to all people…even people they disagree with. I’m not saying the issues don’t matter, but there are some who would have them be the central focus of all our conversation. I don’t find that’s where most people are.
Is there really such a thing as a “win-win” scenario when it comes to church schism? Can we really have an amicable breakup? Common sense and experience dictate that every breakup I’ve ever been a part of devolves into mistrust and anger. Have you actually ever been a part of an amicable breakup? Maybe, but you know they are not the norm. And when it comes to church history, there is no such thing as an “amicable breakup” or a “win-win” schism. They don’t happen. In college, I majored in religious history and religious studies and I don’t remember studying even one “win-win” church schism. Most of the time the losing side was deemed heretical and excommunicated. Just take a few moments and read the history of a few schisms on this page “Schisms in Christianity” on Wikipedia. Schism is never pretty and hardly ever amicable.
The last point I will lift up is not so much a question, but an historical observation. In almost every schism within the Christian church, there are never two sides sitting down and “amicably” working out all the details, coming to agreement, standing up at the end with a handshake and a smile and departing with two new churches. That doesn’t happen. Schisms in Christian history are never “win-win” scenarios. There is never consensus. There is no “HEART” principle. In every single schism, there are winners and there are losers. There are insiders and outsiders. There are conquerors and the conquered. This is probably why Jesus and Paul both lifted up the importance of the unity of the Body. How can you remove an arm or a leg and call it “win-win”? No, schisms are messy and militaristic. If we continue to move in this direction, which we may, it will be messy. I believe it will do harm to many local churches by causing members to “choose” sides…making enemies of their brothers and sisters who sit next to them in the pew each Sunday. That possibility grieves me! Recently, we’ve seen this in Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) at First Presbyterian in Houston, Texas. They fell a few votes of leaving the PCUSA denomination for ECO, a new denomination of conservative Presbyterians who feel the PCUSA is too liberal. The failure of the vote has caused a rift in the church they may not recover from since the pastors and most leadership were in favor of leaving the PCUSA denomination for ECO. I have and will continue to pray for First Presbyterian in Houston. This cannot be an easy time for them. As I said, schisms are not pretty.
I have always said that I believe our greatest witness is not in who wins or loses. Our greatest witness to the world is “HOW” we disagree with each other. The world will look at a church split and say, “how are they any different than any other earthly institution that doesn’t get what they want?”
But can you imagine the powerful witness if somehow we could exist together embodying grace, love, and mercy toward each other…even though we disagree? Now that would change the world!
To embody grace to those who need it as we receive it…may it be so!