Last time, we saw from Scripture that division, while by no means ideal, is sometimes necessary. We must not tolerate false doctrine or sin for the sake of physical unity. But where does that leave us? What are the grounds for division? We've all heard horror stories of church splits over carpet color and other such nonsense. Is that really what Jesus and the Apostles had in mind? Of course not. Divisions within the body of Christ must be considered with the utmost seriousness. There are things which clearly demand a split, and there are areas where the solution is not quite so simple. I suggest we approach any discussion of division and split with charity and mercy, even going so far as to err on the side of union where the grounds for division aren't absolutely clear. With that said, I realize this is probably the most subjective post I have written in some time. Faithful Christians trying hard to live out their faith in light of Scripture will draw the line in different places. As always, feel free to disagree.
Here's my bottom line up front: when a church body declares that something sinful is good or something good is sinful, that body is doing damage to people's souls...spiritual harm cannot be swept under the rug in the name of 'unity.'
As always, our definition of Christian unity comes from Scripture. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor 1.10). Paul's plea for unity--that there be no divisions--stems from the Church's common confession. He commands that the Church 'all speak the same thing,' in other words, that we confess the same beliefs. In the Great Commission, Christ's standard for teaching within the Church is "to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matt 28.20). These imply that there are cases where an attempt to 'agree to disagree' for the sake of getting along is immoral and contrary to Scripture.
Throughout Christian history, belief in the so-called ecumenical (church-wide) creeds has always been considered non-negotiable. The teachings of the Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian Creeds have been understood as sketching out the basic boundaries of the Christian faith that all believers must be able to confess. The inability of such groups as the Latter Day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses to teach in accordance with these creeds places them outside the generous boundaries of orthodox Christianity in to the area of non-Christian religions or cults.
Differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants have centered primarily on those beliefs the Roman Catholic Church insists Christians must hold in order to be saved but which Protestants argue cannot be supported by Scripture and therefore cannot be considered essential. These sorts of beliefs include the doctrines of the Papacy (office of the Pope), the role of tradition as an equal to Scripture, purgatory, Mary's immaculate conception, transubstantiation (Roman beliefs about Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper), prayers to the saints, the necessity of unmarried priests, and others. For over 500 years, Protestants have firmly believed that requiring Christians to hold these beliefs was grounds for separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Because the Roman Catholic Church maintains that belief in these doctrines is essential for one to be a Christian, those not holding them are certainly welcome to attend worship but are not allowed to receive any of the sacraments or participate in the whole life of the church.
Within Protestant circles, there are both subtle and stark divisions. Some of the subtle divisions include different interpretations of our beliefs, such as beliefs on who should/can be baptized, the meaning/purpose of baptism, the presence of Jesus in the Lord's Supper, whether or not Christians can lose their salvation, the nature of original sin, the doctrine of election, and others. In my experience, both in the military chaplaincy and the civilian parish, most Protestants feel very strongly about their beliefs in these areas but consider others who hold different beliefs still brothers and sisters in Christ. They most likely worship in churches that align with their beliefs in these areas, but they may worship in a church with differing views because of proximity to their home, a desire to worship with family, or some other reason. For many, but not all, these are important but secondary issues.
There are also some major differences that divide Protestants; however, most notably different views on the nature and authority of Scripture. This divide usually focuses on questions such as:
- Is the Bible God's word (all of it applies) or does it contain God's word (some of it applies but not all)?
- Does Scripture contain errors that we must discern or is it without error?
- What is the relation of the Old and New Testaments for Christians today?
- Is faith in Christ the only way by which people can be saved?
How different groups answer these questions results in widely different interpretations of Scripture, understandings of sin and salvation, and the whole of the Christian life.
These differences necessarily divide us because what we believe about these things affects the core question raised in Scripture, "What must I do to be saved?"
We cannot, with any integrity, simultaneously teach that Christ is the only means of salvation and that other religions also offer ways of salvation. We cannot simultaneously teach that Hell is real and also not real. We cannot simultaneously teach people that specific acts/behaviors are and are not sinful. If we really love people, have genuine concern for their souls, and hold that our beliefs and actions have real, eternal consequences, we cannot hold and teach contradictory views about matters that affect people's souls. These are primary issues. These are essential beliefs. These are doctrines about which a church cannot maintain mutually exclusive views while still claiming to be faithful followers of Christ.
As I said at the very beginning--when a church body declares that something sinful is good or something good is sinful, that body is doing damage to people's souls and a break in fellowship is a must.
As I have said before, the division facing the UMC is not primarily about human sexuality. It is about the core beliefs of the nature and authority of Scripture. It is about a matter of such central importance that the two sides cannot continue to exist together and claim any measure of integrity, faithfulness, or continuity with the Christian Church of the last 2,000 years. For both sides, it is a matter over which I think division is not only warranted but required.