Schism and the Judgment of God

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. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 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. 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.  

schism

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.      

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Schism and the Judgment of God

  1. Perhaps the most visible example in scripture of division-as-judgment is the separation of Northern Israel and Judah under Rehoboam. We are explicitly told the schism is the result of his father Solomon’s unfaithfulness to God: “Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant.” I Kings 11:11. To be sure, Rehoboam acts pridefully and provokes rebellion and division, but in doing so he is only becoming the means through which God’s judgment on Solomon is manifested.

    • Yes. Thank you, Ken. It would take a very long post, I imagine, to gather all the many ways in which God brought judgment through schism upon His people. Why do we think we are immune to this?
      Appreciate your comment.

      • John, I wish we could all adopt that spirit of desiring to know what this or that may mean in light of Gods will for us. What if we did stop to ask the question: could this impending schism be the result of Gods judgment on us? I think that adds a dimension to the conversation which is necessary. But perhaps I’m wrong.

      • I don’t know if you are wrong, but I do agree that it would add dimension to our conversation. We can certainly argue that the shrinking of our church is a judgment as well. Or is it pruning? Or are those the same thing?

      • I think they can be the same thing. When I read Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree I think of that as both judgment and pruning. Perhaps our church has become that fig tree? It’s a question I think worth praying over – not just for our church but for the sake of our own souls.

  2. A couple of thoughts occur to me. One of them is Jesus’ clear desire (in the form of a prayer) that his disciples would be one (John 17:21). This means unity is not some sappy ideal that would be nice if it were possible, but the will of the one who is the Head of we who are his Body. Moreover, it presumes that a split church would somehow be a more holy church. I don’t think that some kind of “true” Methodist church that holds to traditional sexuality would somehow be without sins of omission or sins of commission (I think a split along ideological divides could easily increase our sin of omission, as we would be without the distinct emphases that the two sides bring to the table, which the whole Body needs). Lastly, it might be self-serving for those who wish for a schism to view it as “God’s judgment.” Nasty things happen when we too glibly assume we are agents of God’s wrath.

    • Drew, thanks for your comment and helpful push-back. Let me try to address where I see things based on your thoughts…
      Regarding Jesus’ prayer that we be one, what does that “oneness” look like? It has content, does it not? I believe it is much bigger than church identity or denominational affiliation, don’t you? Even if we do not schism, are we still “one”? We are clearly not of one mind and one heart. In Acts 15, the council determined that to be “one” with the new church Gentiles needed to do certain things, one of them being to abstain from sexual immorality. I understand that the liberal side of our church does not think they are condoning sexual immorality, but the GC has said otherwise, and continues to do so. I think we betray Jesus’ prayer when we think we are answers to that prayer just because we keep our denomination together.

      I agree with you to your second point, that a split won’t mean we’ve created a perfect church. There isn’t one this side of heaven. But that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for perfection, and things which are blatant sins (at least in the minds of one side of our church) cannot just be ignored lest we be guilty of sinning ourselves. The same argument (that there is no perfect church and you will still have sin present) could have been made when we split over slavery.

      As to your last, I don’t think I’m being self-serving by pointing out that we are all in this together, that we have fallen short of being the church and that we are all facing God’s judgment in this. I don’t believe I said anything about who the “agents” are of God’s wrath. If I did, please point that out to me so I can edit it. It’s not my intent. I do believe it is a question worthy of consideration and one we all should pray over, that being: Are we facing a church split because God is judging our unfaithfulness? I gave several examples in the bible where visible scattering took place after spiritual unfaithfulness,and all were done by the hand of God, working through others (even when they don’t realize it). Shouldn’t that humble us? It does me.

  3. Thank you Chad, for a great articulation. I have learned to never be afraid of God’s judgment, for it is a tool in the hand of God to form holiness in God’s people. You have spoken very well of judgment here. I once read a book entitled The Moral History of the Civil War, in which Abraham Lincoln was quoted as to his reflections about the war between the south and the north. He saw the conflict as a necessary judgment of God upon the Untied States, and held that both sides had much for which to repent and much need for redemption. If the UM Church ends up divided,, both sides of the divide (or the many sides of the divide) will have much for which to repent, and much from which to be redeemed. I will end up on the side labeled traditional or orthodox or some other nomenclature, but my deepest prayer is that the remnant I identify with will be greatly humbled, cleansed of foolish pride and the accusation of the other side,….. and redeemed and shaped more fully to God’s will.

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