Friday, November 9, 2012

Division Is Not the Answer

There is, among Protestants, a seemingly unavoidable urge to divide. The Reformation did not so much Reform as it did fracture the Church, and like a glass bowl breaking in slow motion we continue this process even today, five hundred years later. I’m certainly not suggesting that the protests of the Reformation were illegitimate, but the principle of sola Scriptura, intended to reform the Church by prying authority away from the magisterium, created a situation in which communities quickly began to split off from one another over matters related to scriptural interpretation. Ever since, we who participate in the Protestant traditions of the Christian faith have split off from one another, seeking the ever-elusive ideal of a church that finally gets it right. At some point, however, we have to ask, “When does it stop?”

Recently, Jack Jackson of Claremont School of Theology argued for a division of the UMC over the issue of homosexuality. Dr. Jackson is not the only such voice calling for division. Many other people believe that our differences over this issue are irreconcilable. I don’t know what the future holds regarding this debate, but I believe that dividing the UMC, and thus further dividing Christ’s holy Church, is the wrong answer.

On both sides of this debate, people quote scripture selectively in order to legitimate their positions. What I don’t hear in this debate are the numerous NT passages, particularly in the letters of Paul, urging unity among Christians. Paul upbraids the believers in Corinth for dividing into factions: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). In response to reports that the Corinthians have divided into factions, Paul asks facetiously, “Has Christ been divided?” In Ephesians believers are urged “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:1-6). And the point of quoting the beautiful kenosis hymn of Phil 2:5-11 is to urge believers to unity. The NRSV translates 2:5 as “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” but in translating the passage in this way we may miss the point. Paul is urging them to “Let the same mind be among you [pl.] that was in Christ Jesus.” Among Christ’s followers, we are to share the mind of Christ, which will lead us to live out Paul’s instructions to the community: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (2:3).  

There are many other passages in the NT expressing the same idea. God’s will for the Church is not division, but unity.  In our attempts to be  faithful in the UMC, let us bear in mind that whatever God’s will around issues of human sexuality, the unity of the Church is a scriptural theme that is as important as any other moral virtue. 


  1. In my opinion, this IS the issue: "In our attempts to be faithful in the UMC, let us bear in mind that whatever God’s will around issues of human sexuality, the unity of the Church is a scriptural theme that is as important as any other moral virtue." In other words: What is the role of the church? Nurture (Wesley) or Regulate (Calvin)? Inclusive or Exclusive? Just what does Jesus say?

  2. . "In response to reports that the Corinthians have divided into factions, Paul asks facetiously, “Has Christ been divided?”

    Christ is not divided but the Christian Church is.
    Are there issues critical to Christian teaching when breached worthy of division?

    You omit where Paul found compromise not acceptable and expulsion from the church the only remedy?
    1 Corinthians 5:132, Thessalonians 3:6-16.
    Scripture does not encourage dividing the church but discipline and expelling those that cause division is. 2 Cor. 6:14-7:
    Under some circumstances “separation” is called for. Titus 3:10

    A closer look at what Paul says to the church in Corinth might be in order.
    The Greeks were lovers of knowledge, philosophy, and the spiritual. They were obsessed with the origin of man and the universe and in many ways emphasis was on sensuality and pleasure.
    Paul reminds the church where the physical stands in Christianity.
    No longer is their body to be used primarily for sensual pleasure because the human body in Christian understanding is “the Temple of God”.

    Interesting St. Paul says :
    12 Some of you say, “We can do anything we want to.” But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me.

    Empedocles said:
    “What is lawful is not binding only on some and not binding on others. Lawfulness extends everywhere, through the wide-ruling air and the boundless light of the sky.”

    Is Paul using the words of Empedocles, highly regarded among the Greeks, to remind ,appeal and teach the correct use of Christian Liberty?

    Trying to understand the writing of Paul with a 21st century mind and reference I believe is a mistake. You have to go back……way back to understand. You have to go to where the Apostles where,see what they sawand know what they knew.


    1. Excommunication v. Schism is a wildly different concept. Expulsion means to put out until such a time as they have reformed. Schism is a complete separation. At no point did Paul advocate schism.

      Regarding the misuse of the body for sexual ends, I would suggest we examine it from a particular point of view, that of Paul. It is doubtful he was arguing over the idea of "traditional marriage" as no such yet existed. Instead, he was arguing of the religious misuse (cultic prostitution), of the body along with the abuse of bodies by another. Yes, he was against incest as some call it, but what was this really about but the misuse of the body of one's father.

  3. David, you are correct that unity is a command consistently in Scripture. The question is whether unity trumps other commands, such as faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus. I agree that any form of disunity is a last resort. It seems, however, that neither "side" of the homosexuality debate is willing to live with the other "side's" position in place. The movement toward "ecclesiastical disobedience" to me changes the equation. It seems that the options on the table are either disunity or for the church to capitulate to the pressure tactics of those advocating GLBT approval.

    1. Or to capitulate to the pressure tactics of those advocating against the personhood of the GLBT's, right?

  4. Hey Dave,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I can relate to your strong desire for unity among Christians. I'm with you on that. Unity in the Love and Truth of Jesus Christ is undeniably important, but our fallen nature and the American Church’s growing tolerance to sin inevitably lead to conflict and division. What you speak of seems more like an issue of dealing with conflict in a loving way. You used the example of homosexuality in the UMC. I am not familiar with the positions that each “side” of the UMC holds regarding homosexuality. I will assume it is related to one side tolerating it in the church body and/or clergy in some form and the other side regarding it as sin. I believe the bible is clear on this matter and the truth is that homosexuality in any form is sin and is not compatible with who Christ created people to be. Any church or clergy that calls homosexuality something other than sin tries to reconcile good with evil. If you cannot see sin for what it is, then as clergy how can you send out a clear call to those that need repentance from this very sin?

    You mentioned Paul exhorting the Corinthian church to “be in the same mind and purpose”, are you implying that he is saying to tolerate sin (in this case, homosexuality) in the body of the church for the sake of unity and peace? Christ never compromised the truth for the sake of peace; nor should we. Division is not the goal either, Christ is. We are called to love the sinner, and hate the sin…at all cost, even if it means division in the church. Of course, prior to division you would follow the instructions in Matt 18 in hopes of drawing the offender to repentance and then move into the reconciliation process where both sides own their sin in the conflict and make amends to one another. But not at the expense of compromising the Truth. Lk 12:51 and Matt 10:34 are Christ’s own words about division. He states that he came to divide, and with a sword. This division however is done out of deepest Love and the purest Truth.