In-Sight: Amicable Separation?

As many of you already know, I am against schism in the church, even though it is talked about a lot these days in the larger Body of Christ, as well as within my denomination, The United Methodist Church.  I have written about my resistance in ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ and variously in this blog.

I want to return to my concerns in this post.  I know some of you do not agree with me, but I am as entitled to my resistance to separation as others are entitled to their advocacy of it.  I am not writing to argue with anyone, but only to communicate my opposition to schism as clearly as I can.

My resistance to separation is rooted in the Bible (e.g. John 17:11, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13a,  Galatians 3:28, and other passages that speak of oneness among Christians), as well as the Didache’s clear injunction to avoid schism (4:3).  I simply cannot ignore or oppose these admonitions.  Hence, I cannot be among those who believe it is time to divide–including a recent proposal to devise a new jurisdictional structure in The United Methodist Church that divides progressives and conservatives in a way that  creates a two-church reality without appearing to do so.

My resistance is further expressed because of the false presupposition which gave rise to the phrase “amicable separation” in the first place–a straw man which alleges that the time has come to divide because unorthodox Christians deny the divinity of Jesus and no longer believe in the authority of Scripture. [The first letter proposing amicable separation used these two items to justify the call for schism]

No one can deny that there are people who do both, but the problem is that this orthodox/unorthodox dichotomy is not adequate to describe total reality, and I am living proof that it is so.  I believe in the divinity of Jesus and in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible.  I am an orthodox Christian, using an historic interpretation of orthodoxy to define myself; that is, a Creedal Christian.

And yet, because my belief in Jesus, coupled with my hermeneutical views about certain passages in the Bible, have lead me to affirmations about human sexuality that traditionalists are unwilling to make, I fail to meet their stated criteria for being part of a Conservative Methodist Church (or whatever it might be named).  But neither would I be part of a Jesus divinity-denying, biblical-authority rejecting Progressive Methodist Church (or whatever it might be called).  But those are the only two “church” options available in the amicable separation scenario, leaving it exposed as insufficient in and of itself.

I am not writing this to defend myself.  I have already suffered the slings and arrows of criticism and shunning by some conservatives.  I am writing to expose the error of either/or thinking that would divide into two groups when the fact is, there are many people like me–biblical, creedal, orthodox, Christians–who are living their faith beyond the caricature of any two-church separation plan.

The fact is, schism (by its very nature) creates a false fracture of some kind–if nothing else, by trying to make something complex look cut-and-dried.  By insinuating that only the conservative view is orthodox, a believer/unbeliever myth is created, and it becomes an artificial basis upon which to propose separation.

But even more, the term “amicable separation” is a term that ends up canceling itself out, no matter which word you start with.  If you lead with “amicable,” you do not (or should not) move toward separation, and if you begin with “separation,” you can bet (on the basis of church history) it will not be amicable.  Amicable separation is an oxymoron.

Amicable separation simply fails to pass muster when examined beneath the surface, leaving us with the much more difficult call to engage in holy conversation with the principle of love and the practice of non-judgment guiding us to a better place than schism can ever provide.  We are called to something more radical than division, we are called to trust–to trust that nothing is impossible for God (Jeremiah 32:27), and to stay at the table until God reveals what the better way is and works through the power of the Spirit to bring it to pass.

Next week, and the week after, I will write about how we might live and act in order to move beyond separation and preserve unity.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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