Essay / Culture

On Division in the Church

While his Christology leaves much to be desired, the grandfather of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) has some great thoughts on ecclesiology. Consider the following:

‘[T]here are frequently also efforts at union which do not originate in the Spirit of the Church, and the success of which cannot therefore be regarded as a gain, reminds us that there may also be divisions which are not due to the worldly elements in the Church, but must ultimately be reckoned among the effects of the Holy Spirit….But just as those unions may only be apparent, and the united elements may certainly tend to separate from the whole body in some other fashion, so too that which is in fact only seeking closer union within the great fellowship in a way that will do it no injury, or again that which is really a return to a formerly abandoned fellowship with earlier forms of the Church, may seem to be a division, and yet not be such. Hence it is universally true that the Spirit unites, and that it is the fleshly mind that disunites. But the application of this may be difficult; and when several communions separated from each other exist side by side in Christendom, it must be left to criticism to decide on which side the disuniting principle is entrenched, and which therefore is responsible for division. This is a question which it will often be as difficult to solve as the question which of two sides in a war has been the aggressor.’ (The Christian Faith, §150.2, pp. 682-83)

Subtly, aptly put. And this is an important word for today’s Church, with the joyful prospects (and perils) of ecumenism on the one side and the splitting and proliferating of denominations on the other.

Take the Episcopal Church in America (which I love dearly). She suffers from a dilemma which is all too often put in terms of truth vs. unity. That these could stand on opposite sides of the field reveals how far they have moved in our rhetoric from their Christian home. For Christians, Jesus Christ is truth. And to be united in the Church means nothing less than to be united with Christ the truth. That is, our relationship to the fountain of truth is what establishes unity in the Church. You simply can’t have one without the other.

A number of evangelical Episcopal churches have made the move of disassociating from ECUSA, charging her with having abandoned the teaching of scripture on homosexuality. (Note that, while sexuality is the flashpoint, the first concern of these churches is fidelity to scripture.) This is typically seen as a truth-defending stance on the part of conservative Episcopals. But it also reflects a concern for unity with the Church across time and space. That the liberal wing of the Episcopal church is about more than just unity can be seen in their self-styled prophetic move in electing a practicing homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire. If anything, unity was risked by doing something for the sake of truth, in ECUSA’s eyes.

And, in a great, heart-breaking irony, unity was lost. Most tragic at the time of Gene Robinson’s election was ECUSA’s deafness to the cries of Anglicans in the developing world to stop short of such a rash move. One of the great gifts of the liberal wing of the Church has been its clarion call to listen to the voices of the marginalized. ECUSA’s profound failure on just this point suggests that, at best, this principle is reserved for some voices, those voices that are ‘enlightened’, maybe. In the implicit declaration that Anglicans in the developing world are unenlightened, ECUSA betrays a surprising colonialism and racism. (Rowan Williams, the Archibishop of Canterbury, models well here. Despite his personal support of the ordination of homosexuals, he has refused to condone the practice institutionally because the Anglican communion is simply not there.)

That being said, it is incumbent upon Christians to pray and think long and hard before splitting. Some consider issues of sexuality secondary and not worth the cost of division (though again the issue of authority is also in play). All should count that cost and consider it a last resort, a horrible, radical amputation when all other treatments have been tried. Simply put, splits (whether denominational or in individual churches) break the heart of God. And sadly, some evangelicals have seemed all too eager in this regard. Ecclesial division can only be wept over.

Schleiermacher once again:

‘A complete suspension of fellowship in this sense is unchristian as long as the communion that has been cut off retains its historical connexion with the preaching of the gospel by which it was founded, and does not, itself breaking the connexion, trace the origin of its present form to a different revelation.’ (§151.2, p. 684)

In Schleiermacher’s judgment, schism is only an option in the face of idolatry. When ‘a different revelation’ founds a communion, that communion is de facto no longer Christian. And at this point, the Church only acknowledges what the severed communion has already confessed – that whatever it is, it is not Christian.

The difficulty is that few, if any, communions will come out and say, ‘We are now idolatrous.’ To determine when and if a communion has broken the connection, then, can be challenging.

The further difficulty is knowing that my own heart is a petri dish of idols. Insert here the line about ‘there but for the grace of God…’ Not that this excuses the Church from the hard responsibility to, on (very) rare occasions, cut ties. Rather does this recognition of my own wayward heart bring a humility and a sobriety to judgment. I know that I stand under judgment. And so the judgments I make in turn demand patience, caution, humility and provisionality.

Of course, they also demand courage, the courage to say ‘No!’ as well as the courage to repent. In fact, in an ecclesial setting where (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, it may be that we have to be ready to repent of actions that, nevertheless, seem morally and theologically necessary. That is, there may come a time in a particular church or larger communion where ties have to be cut in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the truth which he is and the unity which he establishes. But it may be that the best we can say on Judgment Day when accounting for the severance is, ‘I repent. Lord, have mercy.’

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