We Methodists don’t do the judgment of God very well at times. We often forget that God is intimately involved in our lives, down to the smallest detail and the grayest hair. We forget that what we have is all from Him and that this Church we serve is His alone while we are mere stewards. This is not unique to Methodists, of course, but this myopia seems especially apparent, at least to me, in light of our current debates around schism.
Time and space won’t allow a rehash of all the debate. But before arguments that our current unity is “untenable,” or wondering what is the biblical argument for schism, or suggestions that breaking the covenant of our church is bad news, or various prayers for our church, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a word before these words which we are missing, one that directs our attention back to the judgment of God. That word might sound something like this:
Schism is not something which invites God’s judgment. It is God’s judgment.
My simple observation from reading God’s inspired story about Himself is that schism is God’s judgment, not an invitation for it. Or to put a finer point on it, the visible, physical schism which happens in our world is a direct result, or judgment upon, our invisible, spiritual schism with God and each other.
Those on the right side of God’s commands have long been reticent of exercising church discipline and those on the wrong side have long been in rebellion, and you and I may insert ourselves on whichever side suits us. And all of us have the audacity in the midst of this to call ourselves “United,” the Body and Bride of Christ. God will not be mocked nor will His Spirit strive with our disobedience forever.
From the beginning this has been a major theme of the story of God with us. The unity our first parents enjoyed was ruptured when they disobeyed God’s directives, despite their reasoned attempts to circumvent them. Physical schism was the result of spiritual schism, and they were cast out of the Garden. We quickly move to Noah and the physical schism of the righteous from the wicked, a result of God’s judgment on the thoughts and intents of man’s hearts (Gen. 6:5). Babel is next, where God judges the proud hearts of men by scattering them throughout the earth, fracturing their common tongue (Gen. 11).
Three times in Genesis 1-11 alone we find this principle to be true: Schism is not something which invites God’s judgment, but is God’s judgment! Later, God will divide up the unfaithful Hebrew people in the wilderness,, allowing most to die – even Moses – rather than enter the Promised Land. And again, later, the scattering of Israel because of their idolatry, sending them into exile. God, in His sovereignty, used even pagan nations like Babylon or Assyria to bring about schism upon His people as a means of judgment. Listen again to what God has to say to the House of Israel, those with whom He has made covenant:
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ (Jeremiah 18).
The point here is not to say the Church and Israel are one and the same. It is to say that we fooling ourselves if we think that the current fracturing of our church is somehow taking God by surprise or is something we can stop if we would just pray for unity without an equal if not greater call for repentance. God was clear to Jeremiah, as but one example, that those who are praying for peace have missed the point completely, and are the false prophets in the land. He warns against those “who trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.'” (Jer. 7:4). If God would not spare His holy Temple who are we to think God would spare the United Methodist Church? Those who would say we must not allow schism for this will hurt God’s witness in the world I have to ask: Have you seen what God allowed to happen to His witness with Israel? With the Temple? God seems to care less about what the pagan world thinks of our institutional church unity than we do, particularly when that unity comes at the expense of our fidelity to Him.
We have not even considered here the words of Jesus, who said he came not to bring peace on earth but division (Luke 12:51). Of course, these words come in the context of judgment and an exhortation for his hearers to interpret the times. Are we interpreting the times? Or have we so watered-down the sovereignty and judgment of God that we think that this talk of schism has come to Him as a surprise and He is somewhere distant, wringing His hands in hopes that we get this thing figured out so as to protect His witness?
The work of God in the universe rests upon our ability to maintain our cross and flame logo and pension funds? God, make us humble!
“For it is time for judgment to begin in the household of God,” Saint Peter writes (1 Peter 4:17). What might this judgment look like if it is not what we are already seeing? Our current talk of schism is not something which might invite God’s judgment of us, but is God’s judgment upon us. Our only response to judgment is to admit we have lost our way and repent. The only course of action for a people who are witnessing fracture in God’s House is to acknowledge that this is judgment, not politics, and our only course of action is to allow our hearts to grow even harder or to repent and cry out to God for mercy. Perhaps if we do this He will relent. Perhaps not. But whether we find ourselves united or in exile, above all else, may we be found once again faithful.