Saturday, January 4, 2020

Lessons from Schisms Old and New

The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company (Acts 15:39). One of my seminary professors used to refer to the famous quarrel between Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts as the first instance of team ministry - and its failure - in the history of the Church. However that may be, it is certainly an example of what has been all too common in the history of the Church - conflict, followed by separation. There have been many such conflicts caused by many seemingly irreconcilable disputes. The resulting separation in the case of Paul and Barnabas seems to have been relatively amicable - in the sense that each party went its own way without further harm to the other or to the life and mission of the Church. That could hardly be said for most subsequent schisms and conflicts in the Church, the intensity of which often spilled over into politics, producing persecutions and wars. 

In the present instance of the conflict that has apparently ripped apart the United Methodist Church, it may be politics (in the form of so-called "culture war")  that has spilled over into the inner life of the Church. Such conflicts have become increasingly characteristic of contemporary Church life (which increasingly mimics contemporary cultural and political divisions).  What seems distinctive - and hopeful - about the United Methodists' response to their internal disagreements is their apparent readiness to take the Paul-and-Barnabas route of peaceful separation. If this separation proceeds as planned, we may be spared such unedifying spectacles as congregations and denominational structures suing each other in civil courts - scandalously ignoring Saint Paul's warning that to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you (1 Corinthians 6:7).

The fact that the Church is divided - despite Christ's explicit prayer that all may be one (John 17:21) -  is a regrettable result of disagreements during the course of the Church's history, disagreements in theological understandings that in some instances may seem so incredibly abstract as to be incomprehensible to outsiders.  Yet those differing theological understandings meant - and may still mean - much to those involved, one reason why the ecclesiastical divisions between, for example, the Eastern Churches and the Western Church and later within the Western Church at the Reformation still persist.

"We tried to look for ways that we could gracefully live together with all our differences," Methodist Bishop Harvey of Louisiana said in The New York Times. But when that increasingly became impossible, given the perceived seriousness of this issues in conflict, the Methodists settled on separation as what Bishop Harvey called "the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the church to remain true to its theological understanding."

Obviously the ideal would be for all to agree and for the Body of Christ to be completely united. Short of that, however, it is imperative that all Christians, which remaining scrupulously faithful to their particular theological understandings, recognize, as the Catholic Church teaches, that those who believe in Christ are still in some sense in communion with one another as members of Christ's Body and that separated communities certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community (Vatican II, Unitas redintegratio, 3)

There may be a tendency among some in our world today to give primacy to culture-war politics even in religious matters - as if the sole point of being a Christian were to engage in constant conflict. That too, like division within the Church, is a part of the sinful state of our fallen world. That said, we would do better to follow the famous suggestion of Saint Augustine, so many conflict-ridden centuries ago: We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. (Commentary on Psalm 32, 29).

No comments:

Post a Comment