was Thomas Oden wrong about schism?

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism
Do what must be done – John Wesley, c. 1773, to his barber.

I have written before about Wesley’s view of Schism (and here). I want to (re)turn to that in light of recent events in Mississippi.

Two growing churches — one of which is led by a pastor who also sits on the WCA board — have voted to begin the process of pulling out of The United Methodist Church.

A few years ago, Thomas Oden (RIP), wrote

Wesley remained steadfast in his conviction to remain in the church that baptized him until he was either forced out or compelled by unavoidable conscience to depart. He never left, and neither have I. I find myself ironically in a position analogous to Wesley’s in 1784, when he preached his famous sermon “On Schism.” He urged his fellow Methodists: “Do not rashly tear asunder the sacred ties which unite you to any Christian society.” (Here)

He is correct. That was Wesley’s two simple rules — no separation unless he was forced out or compelled to do something against the Gospel. Oden goes on to wrestle with Wesley’s words, ultimately concluding,

The problem of conscience is thus narrowed to whether the church commands you to do something wrong. Throughout my ministry I have continually remained in covenant connection with clergy with whom I disagree on both doctrinal and moral issues. If other ministers disavow their vows, I have preferred to act through ordinary disciplinary means to correct those abuses. My church has had innumerable failures of discipline during all my years of ministry, but these did not require separation. They call for the sensible use of legislative and judicial means of correction.

I can say with good conscience that I have not yet been commanded by my church to do something contrary to God’s command…

…So long as the church to which I am now united does not require me to do anything that the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything the Scripture enjoins, it is my indispensable duty to continue therein. Even if the general conference denies what Scripture enjoins, I am not required to cooperate with that attempt. I can stay and stand against the distortion. I want with all my heart to remain within the wrenched body that ordained me…

…As long as the classic Wesleyan doctrinal standards are in place and constitutionally guaranteed, my intention is not to leave the church that baptized me and ordained me. But if the church requires of me some act to which I cannot in good conscience consent, I will, like John Wesley, consider it “my bounden duty to separate from it without delay.”

One of the options on the table is to restructure the connexion in such a way as to allow differing views on human sexuality. As I have noted, this issue is a holiness issue — and is not likely to have the sides retreat if given a legislative boundary. Besides that point, there is something else — the very theological stance of the connexion. Polity and ecclesiology are theological precepts. Our connexion is Wesleyan and shaped by Wesleyan theology.

Why would the connexion need to be changed and what is the hope behind that? Because right now, a bishop in the UMC is a bishop of the entire church. The entire church is supposed to recognize their orders as well as pay their salary. In order to allow clergy and bishops that do not meet the current traditionalist qualifications, a new connexional structure is being proposed.

However, because the connexion is a theological stance, to change it would then force those who believe as a theological precept in the connexion to stay in a situation they do not believe in. They would have to submit to an upending of the Wesleyan ecclesiology in order to remain in the fiasco.

As congregations decide whether or not to stay, leave, or wait, we cannot surmise that if one annual conference was able to decide for itself its own rules of sexuality that suddenly the problem would go away — or that this solution would ease Thomas Oden’s conscience about remaining. Indeed, it would only cause more problems in a relatively short order as well as upend Wesleyan doctrine — on both sides of the argument.

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14 Replies to “was Thomas Oden wrong about schism?”

  1. Oden was not wrong, but I see few who are acting “rashly” in separating.
    In the same sermon Wesley points out that Schism is a division “in” a church, and not division “from” a church. Separation is the last resort cure for schism. After a season of discernment a church has decided, “(We have ) no desire to continue to engage in these divisive debates…” As the Scripture referenced in the sermon points out, we are to speak with one voice. A church that asserts that it is not of one mind and has no intention to be has devoted itself to perpetual schism contrary to Scripture. Separation is then the only cure for schism.
    Yet, there are those who will upend Wesleyan theology and ecclesiology to avoid separartion and maintain schism.

  2. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty…
    “We understand that the members of both congregations voted overwhelmingly to move toward exiting our church.”

    If this is the case, I think it is vital that we ALL know the exact circumstances involved. Specifically,

    1) How was the vote taken? Verbally, written? (Big difference, if presented as an informal request for feelings, or an actual – “hey, we might actually move forward on this”!

    2) What, exactly, was the wording of the vote. “Would you like to leave?” Or are you just ticked-off?”

    3) What was the actual vote, “for, against, no opinion?” What was the total number of voters?

    If specifics aren’t given, it is a paper tiger.

    1. I have this feeling that an overwhelming vote might be interpreted as 55% for, 45% against, with a total number of voters, as the total number that showed up on a rainy, Tuesday night – maybe 50 people. But taken and run with, by an over anxious pastor that wants to make a statement.

      1. Concerning the two churches that appear to be in question: Two of the articles I read said they were both votes by the membership. In UMC that would be called a Church Conference. A quorum would be those present and voting. We have no information on the attendance, but hope on so weighty a matter it would be substantial. If anyone didn’t care enough to show up for that ….. I don’t know what to say. Reports continue that the vote was 99% to leave at one church and 96% to leave at other.

        1. Of course, it is really none of my business, but,

          “After a congregational vote in favor of beginning the process to withdraw…”


          I find it interesting that they give details on their financial budget and attendance numbers in newsletters, but absolutely nothing on the voting results, let alone the voting procedures. No dissenting opinions?

          If it is 99%, so be it.

          But I personally find that hard to believe.

          The other church had nothing about leaving on their web site. Unless I just missed it.

          1. On that same website, the following,
            “You may see or hear comments about Getwell Road on social media or other outlets, but please resist the urge to comment. If there is anything we have learned in recent months from national events, commenting on social media or in conversation does not create peace or greater understanding, it only adds fuel to the divisive fire.”

            It seems that with a 99% vote, there would be no need to try and suppress opinions from the congregation, since they should all have the same opinions. I smell a rat.

          2. “The tally at the Tupelo church was 1,025 in favor of withdrawal, 2 against and 4 abstentions.

            The vote at Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Southaven, a Memphis suburb, was 782 for separation, 19 against and 7 unsure.”


  3. There are so many questions that arise from a separation. If there is a separation, especially from a large denomination, with a large income from tithing, what oversight comes over money and assets? Does the current pastor become the Guru that becomes the overseer of property and tithing? Does the current pastor become the head of the new mega-church, to pull the stings on the finances? Do they become independent, with no oversight? I think some hard questions need to be answered, regarding who controls funds and property. Doctrine is one thing – but the money is the real question. If the church that wants to separate proceeds as planned, I think the only reasonable, and honest approach, is that the current pastors of the separating church resign, and not be controlling the funds of the separating church. Otherwise, their motives are very questionable. Go start another church, and help the poor, not the new mega-church.

    1. Ok. With vast majority, I can’t complain. Although I still think with a large church, the potential for conflicts of interest with the pastor taking the lead is a problem. I would hate to see them morph into the mega-church, with the pastor becoming pastor/trustee for life, and all his sons and daughters ending up being next in line to dominate (own) the church. This goes for both liberal and conservative churches.

      1. I am also uncomfortable with the pastor “taking the lead,” though for different reasons. I have never personally encountered any UMC or Wesleyan church where it was even possible for the pastor to have any substantial influence over finances or property. We do, however, embody layered covenants and trusts that come into conflict in shepherding a flock away. I have chosen not to offer any specific advice to any individual congregation until after I completely exit the clergy this summer. In the absence of a general plan for separation, I think that’s the better approach for both progressive and orthodox clergy.

  4. I have read all of the comments and many of them just add to the frustration I have with the UMC. First off, the are many independent church denominations that have long ago figured out how to manage their affairs under the direction of God not some arcane bureaucracy that sits far away, so get over who is in leadership. Second, none of the UMC’s that I have been a member of owe ANY debt to the Annual Conference. They paid their corporate tax and paid ALL of their own bills. As a lay person I don’t see any functional reason to see why this disconnected distanced church overhead has any reason to claim any ownership of something they haven’t contributed a cent to – other than to send several pastors who NEVER should have been ordained. I have been a Methodist all my life, but my loyalty is to Christ not the UMC. My heart will be made full by being part of a local church that is fully committed to Christ and His word as given through The New Testament. I don’t need a bishop, Pope or anyone else to stand between me and my Savior. It’s time to get over the man-made denomination and refocus on the reason for our religion – Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  5. Perhaps the whole idea of Protestantism is wrong! You all split from the church that had existed for 1500 years. Now you discuss schism like you have some authority on it? Please, have a little more humility.

    1. Of course, the only schism that counts is the schism you personally experience. A schism that happened 500 years ago may be interesting from an academic point of view, but doesn’t even register on the emotional scale.

      Kind of like a divorce. The only people that are happy are the lawyers.

      Definition of irreconcilable differences: inability to agree on most things or on important things

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