One of the most popular passages in the book of Galatians is the one on the fruits of the Spirit. Pastors love to preach sermon series based on it. Christians love to memorize it. What is less popular are the verses that immediately precede it. Before Paul describes the fruits of the Spirit, he describes the “desires” of our “sinful nature”(Gal. 5:16-17, TNIV). When Christians are trying to discern God’s will, looking at the decision through the lens of Galatians 5 is helpful. Is the choice more in line with the fruits of the Spirit or the desires of our sinful nature?
Any talk of schism in the United Methodist Church is more aligned with the desires of our sinful nature than the fruits of the Spirit. There is no “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23, TNIV) in schism. Depending on how you want to frame schism, the desires of the sinful nature run rampant, but not the fruits of the Spirit. Schism comes from our sinful nature, not the Spirit’s work in our midst.
There are many ways to talk about schism. Some would desire to focus on a wedge issue. Others might talk in terms of pragmatism. When I think of schism I think of it in terms of power and witness. At the heart of any push for schism is power. My most fundamental concern about schism is what it says to the world about our faith.
No issue necessitates schism. We do not have to agree on every issue to be a church. Yes, it is painful when we do not agree or see eye to eye. No one ever said that being followers of Jesus together would be pain free. As we try to discern God’s will for the church and our lives as individuals, we will hurt each other. Pain is a part of life. What we do with the pain is what matters most.
Ideally we would love each other in the midst of our disagreements. Jesus told his followers that the world would know that they are his disciples by their love for each other. Love is at the heart of Jesus distillation of the Law. Paul argues in a world where we cannot see clearly, faith, love, and hope will be what remains at the end and should be our driving forces. Out of the three, Paul contends love is the most important.
Love is an action, not an emotion. We can act lovingly towards each other regardless of our emotions. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. Acting with love does not require agreement.
If we act in love we can be a church in the midst of disagreements. With faith, love, and hope we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by the grace of God. When we make decisions as a church that lead to pain, sadness, and hurt, what matters most is how we treat each other in the aftermath.
What drives schism is not discernment from the Spirit or the fact that we cannot agree on every issue. What drives talks of schism is power. There is no simple way to break down all of the power issues involved in schism. Many groups and people want to change the United Methodist church. Wedge issues and talks of schism are ways they try to increase their power and control over the church. They use all of this to play on the desires of our sinful nature to drive fundraising and push agendas. If they genuinely believe they are on God’s side of the issue, and are not cynically trying to consolidate power, they are so caught up in their self-righteousness to focus on the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
For those caught up in issues of power using wedge issues to push their agendas, it is easy to suggest schism. It helps with fundraising and is a tactic in their game of power. If the denomination splits, they believe they will have more power. If the denomination does not split, it is one more card they can use to further push their desires on the church. For the rest of us though, schism is deeply problematic. Flawed as our efforts are, we are trying to discern God’s will. We do not assume God is on our side, we are looking for God’s desire in the midst of sin and brokenness. What is God’s preferred will for us?
Schism distracts us from discernment. If a wedge issue successfully fractures the UMC, local congregations will be in trouble. Very few congregations are of one mind on any wedge issue. As a pastor and life long United Methodist, I have discovered that any congregation you might label one way or another, has members who do not fit that label. Even when a congregation votes to label itself with a term like confessing or reconciling, you will find members who disagree. We do not have to agree to be the church.
If the denomination breaks up though, churches will have to take sides. They will not experience the fruits of the Spirit in all this. Instead they will experience the desires of the sinful nature trickling down from those playing a power game with the rest of us. Instead of seeking God’s will and working on who God is calling us to be, we will be dealing with the aftermath of the church falling to the temptations of this world.
Not only will schism bring out the worst in us, but what sort of witness does it create? What will the world think? What will be teaching future generations about our faith? Jesus tells us that we are to love one another and we cannot even do that? What could we possibly gain in schism that will not be severely compromised by deciding to divide?
Our best witness is to love one another, to act in love, even in the midst of severe disagreement. Just because it is difficult and goes against our nature, does not mean we should not try. The harder it is, the more difficulty we encounter, the greater witness we bear to God’s transforming work in our lives. If we could live with the tension of disagreement, console each other in pain, act in love when the tension is strongest, we could show the world what it means to be a followers of Jesus.
We live in a world where people cut and run when things get difficult. A society so polarized we cannot often work together for the common good or even agree that we should. As a church, our ability to be in relationship in the midst of disagreement could be a powerful witness. Instead of just packing up our toys because we have a fight, we could be together in the midst of great hurt and be a witness to the reconciling love of God.
Ultimately, I am a pragmatist. I do not think schism is ever God’s preferred will. At the same time, we could get to a point, where the desires of our sinful nature cause us to be too hurtful to each other to be in relationship. Sometimes the pain becomes too much. There can come a time when the sin is greater in staying together. We need to be honest with ourselves if this happens. It is not inevitable. Schism is not a fruit of the Spirit. Division would come because we have failed one of our most basic obligations as followers of Jesus, to love one another. Our witness would severely compromised and an opportunity to model a different way destroyed. All because we surrendered to our worst desires instead of seeking God’s preferred will for our lives.