An Optimistic Approach to Church Splits

I recently made the jump to the United Methodist Church (UMC), but there are still many elements of my Baptist heritage and theology I carry with me. I find value in both, and candidly, whether I describe myself as Baptist or Methodist still depends on what day you ask me. I’ve been paying more attention to the UMC side of things lately though, especially with the debate around LGBT inclusion and the rising concern over a possible denominational split. I am very much a novice to Methodist polity and politics, so I won’t attempt to argue any particular side of the debate. On the other hand, I’m intimately familiar with denominational schisms (having grown up surrounded by the SBC/CBF split), and as I watch the debate unfolding in the UMC right now, it feels very familiar.

You see, we Christians fight often.

The Methodist Church split previously over slavery in the 1840s and only reunited a matter of decades ago. The Baptist Church and many other denominations split for the same reason with varying degrees of reconciliation (and yes, this is where the Southern Baptist Convention finds its origin). While many of these denominations initially tried for a “live and let live” approach to slavery, the appointment of denominational officials with differing views forced the issue. Many are now concerned the LGBT debate could cause a similar split.

Of course, almost all the American Protestant denominations resulted from splits with the Church of England, which was itself the result of a split with the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church as we know it today came from an 11th Century split with the Eastern Orthodox Churches known as “The Great Schism,” but the history of church splits goes back even farther than this. A few short years after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter and Paul were ready to split over the issue of Gentile inclusion, and the books of Acts and Galatians record their fierce arguments. So yeah, barring a few weeks of peace in the early days, there’s never been a time when Christians weren’t fighting. Denominations split and reunite all the time; the real art is separating without too many feelings getting hurt (not to mention buildings getting repossessed, jobs getting lost, or pensions getting withheld).

Disagreement is a natural part of Christianity —as well as part of life in general—, and as people grow and learn and change, disagreements become all the more inevitable. The longer we put off addressing these disagreements, however, the nastier they can become. I know this may seem pessimistic, but remember, the unity of our denominational structures is always temporary, while the unity of God’s Kingdom is eternal. I don’t expect to hear labels like Methodist and Baptist in the Kingdom, so splits don’t really scare me; if anything, they allow for more diverse thought and intellectual honesty, and I always consider those good things. If the alternative is stifling conversation in the name of unity, then thoughtful and amicable splits (with an eye toward eternal unity) are a much better option.

We don’t need to fear church splits
—they’re inevitable anyway—,
and if we learn to approach them with love and charity and patience,
they can even be beneficial to the body as a whole.

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