Thursday, February 09, 2006

On Schism

There has been some debate about the new Southern Baptist Church (SBC) International Missions Board's (IMB) position on baptism. Eternal security, no speaking in tongues - a less generous position, in my opinion. It all smells like schism to me. Lord willing, it will not end in that for the SBC, but it stinks regardless.

I was re-baptized after college by a church fellowship that, the week preceding my baptism, split over the issue of baptism. I've written about it before here, but it continually strikes me as a sad coincidence.

Nowadays we view schism in the church, at best, as merely regrettable. I believe it's sin. And I believe it's sin for two reasons. (1) Christ called us to be one. When we split, when we divorce ourselves from one another, we are resisting his call upon our lives. We are being disobedient children. (2) Church division allows us to feel better about, more certain of, ourselves. That's right, subconsciously, we love a good schism because, whatever side we choose, we are left feeling that we are in the right. It creates an us-them dichotomy. Schism is proud. It says, "I am better than the one who broke away/stayed because I am more gracious/because I hold more firmly to the truth of the scriptures." But schism is graceless and ends in little truth.

Here are some arguments for schism: apostasy, heresy, differing practices, distinctives, or interpretations. Which of these arguments, if any, are valid for schism, for division within the Body of Christ? Are there other arguments? Can we maintain unity in the midst of our differences? If so, how?


Scott said...

Here's the post, Jared. Sorry about that.

I rarely pull posts, but for some reason I just weaseled out of this one. Cowardice, I guess. I know that division within some Protestant circles is a proud tradition - I've been part of those circles, after all - but yesterday I just got tired of the conversation.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm being a divider - I can be too tactless far too often - rather than being a unifier.

Also, some people who read this blog just aren't in it for the ecclesial bent. And I totally get that, but it's where I am right now too. I hope that they don't tire of my every-so-often theological wondering.

(Oh, to define a term a little: I suppose I loosely use the word "schism" here to describe any split, rather than a formal break in the Body of Christ, such as took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.)

Jared said...

No problem, Scott. I'm glad you put it back up because I really liked it, but don't leave it up for me if it becomes a matter of conscience. I have a lot that I think I need to share on this, one way or another. I too am frustrated (with schism generally, not the SBC/IMB) and need to talk through some things. I don't think I'm ready just yet. Hopefully I will be able to share at some point over the weekend. Thanks, Scott!

zoe mou said...

Come to think of it, it is graceless. I never thought of it that way before. Still holding out for heresy to be possible grounds for division (as a last resort), but most of the time when denominations or churches split, the issues are so petty. We really should quit giving each other ultimatums and quit acting like spoiled children. Thanks for putting it so well.

truevyne said...

I get the image of a literal Christ's body being torn apart, limb by limb, with every split. "I'm offended and leaving this church because...." does not fly. I believe in going out with joy and being led forth in peace.
I've actually gotten the left foot of fellowship. So painful. But the better news is that many years later, it was reconciled.
Glad you reposted this. It's another sober reminder for me to look to unity than point out difference.

Jared said...

Ok, I've been thinking about this for a while, and it's about time for me to just write and see what comes out. Like I said above, this topic is very important to me... for several reasons.

I think the reason that I've been thinking about it so hard lately is because I may soon find myself becoming much more involved in leading a particular ministry, which I believe in very much but that I think may really ruffle some feathers. Every person is so different that sometimes I think that to act is to be divisive, and that frustrates me incredibly. I don't want to just sit on my hands and do nothing just so that everyone can get along. That can't be the right way to go.

Sometimes I wonder what is really being torn apart by schism. Is it really Christ's body?

I come from a very divisive spiritual heritage: the Stone-Campbell Movement, out of which came the churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and the Christian Church. One thing that I noticed a long time ago is that schisms tend to no longer look like schisms after years have passed. People forget what has happened, so that what was one-cleaved-in-two is later seen as just two. When this happens it seems that the need for repentance, for a reunification, is no longer felt. So if we are going to be bothered so much by schism, where do we stop? It seems that we can't just hope that no schism happens in the SBC, for at some point in the past some people broke off from something else and formed the SBC, like every other denomination. To be bothered by schism is to long for a visibly unified body of Christ, and I feel a bit like Baruch when I think about it.

Do you know what I mean?

Scott said...

Jared, excuse my ignorance, can you explain your Baruch allusion?

I think that you're right to suggest that sometimes just to act is to be divisive. That problem highlights the importance of grace and humility in all our actions and speech. It highlights the importance of surrendering the need to be right.

Most people are naturally defensive. For example, for you to speak about Preterism in your local body would be divisive (assuming not everyone in your congregation is a Preterist), but it could be spoken of in such a way as to soften the hearers in the very act of their disagreement. Pride and certainty will never accomplish unity. But if the subject matter is bookended by grace and humility then it will be, for the most part, received with grace and humility. Regardless of how much agreement is reached there can still be real unity. Unity can thrive in the midst of disagreement. Another example: I have been considering Catholicism. My brother called me last night and talked with me a bit about it. The first problem he mentioned he had with the RCC was prayer to the saints and Mary. I tried explaining to him what I have read about the Church's view on the issue, but he wouldn't have any of it. I had a decision to make at that point: Do I become offended and become defensive in my attitude and end up becoming divisive or do I let it go? Eventually, I decided to let it go. Praying to saints is not a hill I'm willing to die on. Not even close. But I felt the argument rising in my breast - the pride, the need to be right. And it's that spirit that needs to be killed in order to achieve unity. (I also realize that my consideration of what lies beyond the Tiber has been a long journey and it is only right that I not be impatient with others' journeys.)

I think this becomes trickier when the disagreement is over formal practices or distinctives within our churches. For example, how we baptize. Yet even with differences in distinctives or practices I believe there can be unity, but maybe that conversation's for another time.

"To be bothered by schism is to long for a visibly unified body of Christ."

I agree with this statement. I am longing for a visibly unified body of Christ. To me it seems an impossible task. It seems like emptying the ocean with a bucket. Can there be unity within the diversity of denominations? I think so. But in my heart I hope for something even better than that. I would love to see the universal church be visibly one, in structure and in mission. All of us know that it's right and that in that Sweet Someday it will exist - why not work for it now?

Unity proclaims truth to a watching world (seen and unseen). Division, while allowing us to pretend as if we have a corner on the truth, proclaims something other than truth to a watching world. There cannot be truth without love, and, importantly, love includes truth. If there is love, there will be unity. If there is love and unity, the world will know that Christ was sent by the Father and that the Father loves them.

But I'm rambling. Sorry. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Also, if you want to re-center on another topic in your comment that I missed, highlight that for me.

Jared said...


Sorry about that. I was alluding to Baruch, the "scribe of Jeremiah", and the deep sorrow of seeing the city of God in ruins (for him this was after Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the Holy City). The allusion wasn't very clear... my bad.

I have more to say, but I'm running late to pick-up my wife at the moment. More soon. :)

Jared said...

Ok, I've picked up my wife and am now sitting comfortably at MoJoe's coffee house and redeeming some time before our Tuesday night church meeting. WARNING: Major rambling follows!

I am encouraged to see that my experience is shared, and that you agree that at times it seems like to act is to divide. I guess I'm focussing on the actions that I take as a leader (of various things). To draw on our beloved TV series (Lost for those of you who don't know), I often feel like a weird mixture of Jack and Locke. Like Jack I try desperately to keep people together, but like Locke I'm driven be deep beliefs that others will never be able to follow. What does one do in that situation?

I really appreciate what you shared from your experience with your brother. I'd like to take a turn at sharing now. The thing that's been on my heart does have to do with preterism, but not in my own church. In my church everyone shows extreme love and grace and we have some who are preterists and some who are not, but it doesn't matter. All are seeking to follow Christ. Anyway, what I'm struggling with is how I and others can lead preterism in the direction that we think it should go without further splintering the movement. Some friends and I are trying to pull the preterist movement over toward Emergent (both Emergent proper and what Emergent stands for) and away from all of the old dogmatism which has characterized it. But in doing so many people will pull back and indeed it's happening already. So do I continue on in something that I very much believe in knowing that it will divide many people who have previously been united, or do I just do nothing for the sake of peace? To be honest, that's not a genuine question... I've never been one to do nothing just for the sake of an artificial and shallow peace. But it does bother me.

Sometimes, though, I think: why worry about it? I'm talking about a movement and not the body of Christ anyway. How is keeping one movement or church or denomination together contributing to the overall unity of the body of Christ?

But I think that there's something that bothers me more than all of that. I wonder if to call oneself anything other than a follower of Christ (however you like to word it) is to be divisive. Should I go by the label 'preterist' at all? Should I call myself 'a friend of Emergent'? What about calling ourselves Catholics or Baptists or Methodists? Is this divisive? I want to say yes... my heart says yes. But how can we accomplish anything if we can't work together with other people who share an identifiable set of beliefs. How can Emergent advance its goals without encapsulating them all under that helpful tag? I feel like to follow my heart and reject all labels for the sake of unity would be to consign myself to kingdom uselessness and even to annoy people who want to have serious dialogue without worrying about offending me by use of labels. I am seriously rambling now... but I warned you.

So Scott, I sense that idealism is somthing we share. We are both driven by fundamental beliefs, or maybe I should say, a vision of the way things should be. But how do you keep your idealism unspotted from the world of pragmatism, because I confess that I cannot. I think this is where your post hit me the most. I perceived your idealism on the issue of unity, and it resonated with me, but my pragmatic side keeps me double-minded in this area and that frustrates me. Wow, that was helpful. I'd love to hear what you think.

Scott said...

I'm going to try to post this afternoon, jared. I actually wrote a response on Wednesday, but Blogger ate it. Someday I need to get back into the habit of safeguarding my posts by typing them in TextEdit first.

Anyway - after my shower and breakfast, I'll get to it.

Jared said...

No problem at all.

Scott said...

Jared, this is a far more difficult idea to put into practice than it is to talk about, and it isn't easy to talk about. But, generally speaking, I tread rashly where angels fear to go, so here it is.

In the last year I have begun viewing the Kingdom through one of its major themes, Unity. It's an interior Kingdom theme, but one whose implications are highly missional:

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me" (Jn 17.20-23, ESV, my emphasis).

Whenever I get into a church discussion these days, I try to keep unity in view. Your views of the parousia, as well as the emerging conversation itself, is viewed by large sections of the church as flat wrong - by some in the church as being grave error. How do we respond to such serious criticism, such rejection? I don't think we need to relinquish our vision for the sake of unity in this situation. We may need to drop it temporarily, we may need to back off, and we certainly need to be full of humility, patience, and love. The church will not be convinced overnight.

So what is the best way to go forward? There are a couple of ways, I think, in which we can be gracious, retain unity, but still speak. Firstly, N.T. Wright's view of amillenialism and the new creation is attractive to me, a former hard-nosed dispensationalist, because of the implications of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom. Our eschatology influences how we live and act in our world. If our eschatology is escapist and creates an us-them dichotomy then we will live and act accordingly. If, on the other hand, our eschatology is fundamentally redemptive, then our present actions necessarily become redemptive. I think that's where differing eschatologies are most persuasive, where any view is most persuasive - an effective exposition is lived. Secondly, art plays an important role in shaping how we view our world. Qualifications aside, though they be many, the Left Behind series has gone a long way in pushing forward a dispensational eschatology. Another, more tolerable example, when Emerson was hashing out transcendentalism, he longed for a poet to bring it to the people - Walt Whitman presented himself as that poet in Leaves of Grass. (A third way involves not creating any divisions, as I've done with dispensationalism in my other examples, by criticizing others. Oops.)

So we call ourselves followers of Christ and we seek to share with people the beauty we've seen in his wake, but, I believe, always with unity as a higher goal. In other words, we must be wise in how far and how fast we push against the established beliefs of our churches. Wood that quickly breaks, can be looped with patience. I believe that should be our approach with the church. Moving forward, but always with love and respect. Moving forward, but never outpacing love.

I think what may be core here is that we resist the urge to be impatient, ungracious, and unloving. For me, unity is more important than convincing others of its importance - and that's what I need to continually remind myself.

I hope some of that makes some sense. And honestly it's probably much more helpful to me than it is for you. But that's how I've been thinking about it recently.

Jared said...

Wow, Scott. That was incredibly helpful! Your wood analogy really resonated with me. I totally agree with you. I was actually already feeling a bit better since my previous rants, but you completed the transition for me. Thanks!

I'd like to try to put what you've just said into my own words. Here goes. Unity is a value that is of a higher order than other Kingdom values. When a conflict between unity and another Kingdom value arises in an interaction with another, unity must be allowed to shape our expression of the other value. It's not that we simply choose unity over the other value (in a false either/or), but we let unity transform the way that we embody the other value. This means that all other Kingdom values are subverted to unity... subverted, but not destroyed. What do you think? Am I understanding what you're saying?

Scott said...

Yes, I think that's what I'm saying, though you say it far better than I.

"[Love] does not insist on its own way . . . Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."

I think implicit within the scriptures' definition of love is oneness. Implicit within the gospel itself is oneness - and what else is the ministry of reconciliation? Implicit, therefore, within the Body of Christ is oneness.