There is a progressive/liberal group within the Texas Annual Conference called "That We May Be One." On this group's website, they say:
We see divisions within the church as hurting the witness of the biblical unity of the church that Jesus asked for and expected from us. This is why we are deeply committed to being a church that is diverse in thought, and united in mission.
I completely agree that divisions in the church hurt our witness, but can we use Scripture and church history to get from their premise (divisions are bad) to their conclusion (we must always maintain unity)? I honestly don't think so.
Again, let me state, divisions within the church are unfortunate and certainly do hurt our witness. We should strive against them. We should fight to maintain unity...but we shouldn't fight to maintain unity at the expense of faithfulness to Scripture. I think Scripture itself teaches us this.
This is a little tongue in cheek, but if the TWMBO folks are really serious about unity, shouldn't they (as Western Christians) strive to lead their congregations back into fellowship with the Roman Catholic Church and repair the damage done by the Protestant Reformation and Council of Trent? After all, that is the biggest split the Western Church has ever seen. The effects of that, including our damaged witness, are still felt today, more than 500 years later! Surely centrist-turned-progressive Adam Hamilton and some of the heavy hitters calling for unity of the UMC at all costs could get an audience with the Pope and at least start the conversation, right?
If they suggest that reconciliation with Rome isn't possible, we must ask why not? Other denominations have petitioned Rome for reconciliation and been reinstated to fellowship with them, even in the last couple decades, so reconciliation isn't impossible.
More likely, if pressed, TWMBO and progressives in agreement with them would be forced to admit that there are some beliefs over which we can (and maybe must?) divide. If that is the case, then we are forced to ask, "Which ones?" Would they appeal to Scripture for their convictions? If so, why may they appeal to Scripture to support their arguments for separation while denying traditionalists/conservatives that same appeal?
In his day, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in an effort to bring reform to the Catholic church. He did not want to split off but called the Church back to faithfulness to Scripture and the Apostolic tradition from which she strayed during the Medieval period when creating the doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, etc. It wasn't until the time when the Catholic church proved she was not interested in biblical fidelity that any sort of split came into the picture.
The story is similar for John Wesley. He served as an Anglican priest through his entire ministry. He likewise strove to reform the English church from within, not setting out to divide and start another church. During the American Revolution, however, when the Anglican church refused to ordain Methodist-leaning clergy for the American Colonies, Wesley took matters into his own hands and ordained clergy for America (which, since he was not a bishop, he was not allowed by the Church of England to do). This act made a split inevitable. Since then Methodists have split and rejoined several times.
History can tell us what has happened but not necessarily whether or not what happened was good and right. For that, we must turn to Scripture to see what it says. Does Scripture speak to the breaking off of fellowship?
Over and over again, the New Testament forbids Christians from associating with false teachers or tolerating false doctrines. Jesus cautions against false prophets (Mt 7.15) and the influence of the false teachers (Mt 16.6). Paul warns the Christian church in Rome (Rom 16.17) and Timothy (1 Tim 6.3-5) to avoid those who teach anything that departs from the received, Apostolic faith. John warns his readers to neither hear nor even greet those who do "not abide in the doctrine of Christ" (2 Jn 10-11). There is not a single example in the New Testament where false doctrine or false teachers are tolerated for any reason, even in the name of unity or witness. Over and over the call is for a return to faithfulness or a breaking of fellowship as a consequence.
The arguments today against divisions for the sake of unity and witness don't even make it on the radar scope of the New Testament writers. Such an argument must've seemed absurd to them, suggesting that physical unity was more important than doctrinal unity or faithfulness to Scripture. That notion is very much a modern one.
If not for the sake of unity, then, the argument against division usually appeals to love--love of the church, love of our brothers and sisters, or love of God. To quote one theologian from the last century, "To say that love demands such a practice [unity at the expense of truth] is a misuse of that word. Love of God and love of the brethren rather requires the opposite practice. He who loves Christ loves Christ’s Word, and Christ commands us to avoid all who teach anything that is contrary to His Word. And whoever really loves the brethren refuses to participate in their erring and sinning, seeking rather to deliver them from error and sin. Moreover, the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testament state explicitly that God permits false teachers to arise in order that Christians may show their obedience by avoiding them, not in order that Christians may fraternize with them (Deut. 13:3; 8:2; 1 Cor. 11:19)." In other words, if we believe that our beliefs and actions have eternal consequences, as Christianity has always taught, toleration of false doctrine or unrepentant sin is the exact opposite of love because it ignores real damage to the souls of others for the sake of getting along.
So do we divide over every little thing? God forbid! What may we disagree on and remain in fellowship together? Stay tuned...that's the topic for my next post.