Basically, and help me if this sounds familiar, the Bishop of Bangor said that there is no biblical support for church government/authority of the church. William Law did not take kindly to this rank heresy and proceeded to literarily flay the bishop alive.
Again; I presume it may very justly be said, that the Christian Revelation hath some Effect towards the Salvation of Mankind; but then it hath not this Effect always and in all Cases, it is only effectual upon certain Conditions. Now if Excommunication can have no Effect, because it is not effectual when it is wrongfully pronounced, then the Christian Revelation can have no Effect towards saving those who embrace it as they should, because it has no such Effect on those who embrace it otherwise. The Reason of the Thing is the same in both Cases, and anyone may as justly set forth the Vanity and Insignificancy of the Christian Revelation, because it does not save all its Professors, as your Lordship exposes the Weakness and Vanity of spiritual Censures, because they do not absolutely, and in all Cases, throw People out of God’s Favour.1
William Law, The Works of the Reverend William Law (vol. 1, 9 vols.; London: J. Richardson, 1762), 160–161. ↩
I’m almost convinced that William Law is one of the greatest unsung theological heroes of the past 500 years. Here, he is urging something… using something else…
Remember, he is Anglican. Also, This entire 9 vol set is available on Logos.
I hope, my Lord, it may be allowed, that the Sacraments are Real Means of Grace: But it is certain they are only conditionally so, if those that partake of them are endowed with suitable Dispositions of Piety and Virtue. Glorious Means of Grace of the Sacraments, which is only obtained by such pious Dispositions; and then it is owing to the Dispositions, and not the Sacraments. Now, my Lord, if there can be such a thing as instituted Real Means of Grace, which are only conditionally applied, I cannot see, why there may not be an instituted Real Authority in the Church, which is only to be conditionally obeyed.
Your Lordship has written a great many Elaborate Pages to prove the English Government Limited; and that no Obedience is due to it, but whilst it preserves our Fundamentals; and, I suppose, the People are to judge for themselves, whether these are safe, or not. Glorious Authority of the English Government, which is to be obeyed no longer than the People think it their Interest to obey it!
Will your Lordship say, There is no Authority in the English Government, because only a conditional Obedience is due to it, whilst we think it supports our Fundamentals? Why then must the Church-Authority be reckoned nothing at all, because only a Rational Conditional Obedience is to be paid, whilst we think it not contrary to Scripture? Is a Limited, Conditional Government in the State, such a Wise, Excellent, and Glorious Constitution? And is the same Authority in the Church, such Absurdity, Nonsense, and nothing at all, as to any actual Power?
If there be such a thing as Obedience upon Rational Motives, there must be such a thing as Authority that is not absolute, or that does not require a Blind, Implicit Obedience. Indeed, Rational Creatures can obey no other Authority; they must have Reasons for what they do. And yet because the Church claims only this Rational Obedience, your Lordship explodes such Authority as none at all.
Yet it must be granted, that no other Obedience was due to the Prophets, or our Saviour and his Apostles: They were only to be obeyed by those who Thought their Doctrines worthy of God. So that if the Church has no Authority, because we must first consult the Scriptures before we obey it; neither our Saviour, nor his Apostles, had any Authority, because the Jews were first to consult their Scriptures, and the Heathens their Reason, before they obeyed them. And yet this is all that is said against Church-Authority; That because they are to judge of the Lawfulness of its Injunctions, therefore they owe it no Obedience: Which false Conclusion I hope is enough exposed.
If we think it unlawful to do anything that the Church requires of us, we must not obey its Authority. So, if we think it unlawful to submit to any Temporal Government, we are not to comply. But, I hope, it will not follow, that the Government has no Authority, because some think it unlawful to comply with it. If we are so unhappy as to judge wrong in any Matter of Duty, we must nevertheless act according to our Judgments; and the Guilt of Disobedience either in Church or State, is more or less, according as our Error is more or less voluntary, and occasioned by our own Mismanagement.
I believe I have shown, First, That all your Lordship’s Arguments against Church-Authority, conclude with the same Force against all Degrees of Authority: Secondly, That though Church-Authority be not Absolute in a certain Sense; yet if our Saviour and his Apostles had any Authority, the Church may have a Real Authority: For neither he, nor his Apostles, had such an Absolute Authority, as excludes all Consideration and Examination: Which is your Notion of Absolute Authority.1
While Joel is on vacation, I promised him I would contribute a few original posts this week on here. For the past year, Joel has given more of his energy to the United Methodist Church and the -ism Schism controversies within it. What are the reasons for schisms, and who are calling for them. There are some rather unwise persons out here in Christianity calling for schism over their pet issues, without even knowing what it means historically. Do they not understand that schismatics desire bloodshed? The history of Schisms in Church history is a rather gory one. The Protestant Reformation brought with it about a century of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. The Eastern/Western Schism in the 11th century was followed by the anti-Greek Orthodox Crusades in the 14th century and the invasion of Constantinople. In the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus declared Indians as non-persons, and pretty soon Africans replaced First Nations persons as the enslaved class, only to have thousands of “Christians” die in battle for the right to own other people during the U.S. American Civil War.
What I am trying to say is this: religious bloodshed does not happen in a vacuum. The context for each of these conflicts is church schism. The one primary example of church schism is the Donatist controversy. Blood was shed on both sides. The Donatists rejected men as bishops if they were suspected of turning over fellow Christians and the already rare copies of sacred writings. The Donatists believed their words and actions made them the one true Pure Church. The debate became about tribalism versus the Church Universal. I don’t think the Donatists were in error; they just needed to understand our righteousness comes from Christ, and not our own beliefs or commitments.
I do believe it is possible for progressives and conservatives to fellowship together. When yet another leader of the NeoCalvinist movement was selected to a high position within the Southern Baptist Convention, I said to myself this is problematic. I mean, I live across the street from Southern Baptists who identify as more Armininan. The Southern Baptist church I attend is labelled as “liberal” by Al Mohler because it ordains women deacons, and yesterday, we had the honor of having an ordained UMC elder provide the sermon for us yesterday. Her message was a testimony to the possibilities of church unity. Not only did she recognize the persecution of Christians around the world, but also the racial divisions that keep us separated here at home. She reminded us of Paul’s teaching of biblical solidarity, that Christians are all of one body. Schism is an attempt by one limb of the body in order to several all the others off. Schismatics are inherently prone to violence, and they will inevitably fail.
When I was moving out of the cult of fundamentalism to a more robust and liberating faith, an Australian pastor, Mark Stevens, advised to me to refrain from being as liberal as I was once fundamentalist. I am eternally grateful for that piece of insight. Of course, the reverse is true as well. I know of a pastor who was once an extreme liberal but now is as conservative as he was once liberal, even to the point of fundamentalism.
I am equally happy that I found the particular United Methodist Church I did. I detail some of this in a recent Sunday morning sermon:
There are plenty of UMC churches that are not so familiar with the middle. Rather, there are many on the far right and many on the far left. Hal Taussig is a United Methodist minister who has created a “New New Testament.” He preaches a Gospel far, far removed from even mainline Christianity. Then there are those churches who believe the Gospel requires a fundamentalistic lockstep into legalism, with no room for disagreement. In fact, some of these pastors have taken to forums to suggest any who disagree with their interpretation of Scripture must repent.
Let me stress this point. Many of us believe that Scripture is primary and as such, our authority in guiding the Church and the Christian. We just disagree, given new facts (via Reason), with the previous interpretation that homosexuality is a sin.
One of the things I’ve thought about since engaging with the vileness on some of these forums is the Catholic Church and their sense of unity. Rome has core doctrines and views. Yet, there are plenty of Catholic groups proposing change. However, they are all still Catholic. I do not want to paint a rosy picture of how these groups worship together while seemingly working a part; however, I believe that the focus on the Eucharist helps to shield many of these groups from the desire to rip each other to shreds. I am not sure we have such a thing. The views of the Eucharist in the UMC are pretty far ranging, from Zwingli to Hahn. Further, we have different views on a variety of issues. But, our central view is that God’s Grace is free to all. Perhaps we should focus on that.
There have been calls for schism within the United Methodist Church. This has happened before in American Methodism. In the days before the War Between the States, the southern Methodists went their own way in order to protect slavery. Let’s not kid ourselves. Even after the union in 1939, the old Methodist Episcopal South still remains as the bastion of conservative evangelicalism within the UMC. The resistance to challenging slavery, the resistance to women ordination, and the resistance to progress in Civil Rights generally hails from one specific area. Further, it was this area that gave rise to the Evangelical Methodist Church. And it is this same area that today has a resistance to full inclusion. Schism only allows extremes to develop. Schism is not viable and I still maintain, unbiblical.
Please do not get me wrong. I do not think that all pastors who believe homosexuality is a sin are against women ordination or are for slavery. Rather, there is a same intellectual tendency to hold tightly to the past. Liberals have an intellectual tendency to fling away anything that smacks of the past.
I further do not believe separation is the key either. Rather, what I do believe is that we need to teach the power in covenant and the responsibility to uphold that covenant. The Book of Discipline is not simply document from a bygone era, but that which makes us Methodist. Yes, it has changed and will change, but to discard it is to create extremes. We need discussion. Separation and Schism will prevent discussion because it provides for us a way to isolate ourselves from being challenged. In teaching the duty and obligation to the covenant, we are in a real sense teaching the duty and obligation to the local church, to the family, and even to God.
I cannot help but call attention to the fact that the so-called bible belt has the highest rates of divorce. Perhaps it is because there is no obligation any more to the covenant. The use of “covenant” has lost all meaning. Thus, when changes occur, people react selfishly and rush to leave, forgetting that a covenant is not merely about uniting in agreements but uniting even in disagreements.
And thus I return to Mark Stevens and his advice. He demanded that in my liberalism I remain challenged unlike I was in my fundamentalism. If we isolate ourselves from discussion, we will become the extreme. If I had isolated myself from conservative elements in Christianity because I was coming from a far right sect, I would have done great damage to myself and my faith. I did not. I, instead, found a rather uncomfortable middle. From there, from the notion that iron sharpens iron, my faith has grown. I want to be challenged by conservatism and liberalism. As such, I do not believe separation or schism offers any positive notion, but instead will help to further stifle American Christianity.
Is our unity, then, confined to matters of polity? Are we only held together by the trust clause and our pensions? I really, really don’t want the UMC to split. I would consider that a great tragedy. Yet what are our main reasons for staying together?
I’m going to do something different. I’m going to turn off the comments for this post to direct you over there.
But, my answer is this… if one schism is bad, then maybe all schisms should be reexamined.
Further, where in Scripture is the Church allowed to split? Yes, we can “put people out” or even leave but to split and each go their own way?
The UMC should remain together due to doctrine and a commitment to Wesleyan theology. Yes, there are issues about personal holiness, but I do not believe these issues outweigh the great union caused by Wesleyanism. There are groups acting within the UMC to seek division. These groups should be called out for the damage they are doing to the work of the Church and the universal Body of Christ. But, if we can unite truly on doctrine, then we must find common ground there.