With all of this talk of schism from both sides in the LGBT debate, I once again returned to something I once overheard in seminary: The Church is not ours. I wrote about this several years ago and I want to revisit this for a moment.
A trust is something, perhaps a financial benefit, established by one act of grace and forethought for later generations. The trust is governed in such a way as to benefit some future beneficiary, with little or no advantage to those administering it. I cannot shake this as a proper description of the Church. How so? Because through the act of grace, Christ has himself established the Church universal in such a manner that it is always for future generations.
For Wesley, the Church is not merely an early organization. He writes, “Here, then, is a clear unexceptionable answer to that question, “What is the Church?” The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character; as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.””
Note the words, “all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called…” Perhaps, Wesley has something more cosmic in mind.
I would be remiss if I did not note Wesley’s challenge here to Article 19, the one where the “real church” is limited to those with the pure doctrine and the administration of sacraments. Wesley challenges then-current assumptions by preaching, “I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.””
For Wesley, he cannot enforce separation based on our notions of doctrine, or the lack thereof. Further, he goes on to say that even non-members who defend the Church zealously are to be left along because this is God’s wisdom! Oh, how precious the words of Wesley are to everyone but the United Methodist schismatic!
John Wesley thought forward. He knew something we seemed to have lost today.
The Church is not ours, but Christ’s. It contains not just us, but all believers in Christ — past and present. Again, I cannot help but place into Wesley’s words here the proper veneration of the Saints.
How then are we to behave? While I am not so sure the “Romish Church” does not have “the pure Word of God” taught and the sacraments properly administered as the founder of Methodism believed, nevertheless the schism remains between Rome and the Anglican Communion. And while the Anglican Communion has accomplished much in resurrecting the Gospel to the poor, there still exists a separation between it and the people called Methodists. Of course, some of this is in the process of reconciliation. When schism is accomplished, ancient writers and others important to us suggest it opens the doors to all types of heresy.
Might we suggest, in however a nuanced way we find fashionable, that schism not only separates brother from sister, but so too the body from the head, if even for a moment — and it is in this crevice the demons play and from this fissure the demons escape! Schisms billow heresy like hell billows smoke.
If the Church is not ours, but Christ’s, then we but administer and do not control; if the Church is not for us, but for all future generations (since we are present, we must not count ourselves in this lot), then we must be weary of schism for the long-range damage it will do for future generations.
We are cast as administrators, as ministers, but never as rulers.
How might the world be different today if the wound between Canterbury and Wesley had not ruptured — between Rome and the Reformed, between East and the West, if the lesion had healed rather than have the body disassembled? How might the people called Methodists further fracture and face extinction if a schism within our ranks occurs once more?
American Methodism has started to heal from the great fracture over slavery. Reconciliation has gone further – English and Germans have combined! What might we accomplish if we further heal previous wrongs, such as with the Evangelical Methodists? Or even with larger, older communions?
What if we began to think of the Church as something we must leave for future generations rather than let our squabbles, differences, and divides take center stage? What if we simply serve as each position of the church is called to do rather than attempt to control as if we are the rules? If we are truly one body, under one Lord, with one baptism with one mission, then we must remain in connection with not only our past but so too our future. Our concern should never be over something we cannot control, but about that which is given to us.
The Church is established by Christ, but not for us here and now. Rather, while we are a part of the Church, we do not rule it. We benefit from those before us and we seek to leave it to those after us. We are but tenders of a field that is not ours, but the Father’s.
John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions, Sermon 74 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).
John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions, Sermon 74