Separation and the Unity of the Church

The Enoch Wood bust of the Rev. John Wesley (1703-1791). Courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

By Tom Lambrecht –

There is resistance and reluctance to support the idea of separation in The United Methodist Church. That is as it should be.

Separation in the church, like divorce in a marriage, should be a last resort, not entered into lightly or without pursuing all other options.

For 50 years, United Methodists have tried to make the “marriage” of theological pluralism work. The United Methodist Church was conceived in 1968 as a church that could accommodate a wide range of theological perspectives and beliefs.

Even today, one can deny or “reinterpret” cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith like the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and remain a clergy in good standing.

Unfortunately, the ship of theological pluralism has run aground on the shoal of the definition of marriage and sexual ethics. If the church can redefine marriage in ways that are contrary to Scripture and can approve practices that are prohibited in Scripture, it demonstrates that its theological foundation is not the rock of God’s self-revelation, but the sand of human will. Increasingly, a global majority of The United Methodist Church is unwilling to live together with leaders and structures that undermine the foundations of Christian faith. Powerless to bring about authentic accountability to the duly determined standards of the church, the only option remaining for global traditionalists is separation – ecclesiastical divorce.

Objections to Schism

Of course, there are those across the theological spectrum who have a principled opposition to any form of schism or separation. They have a powerful ally in John Wesley’s own words in his sermon, “On Schism.” “Schism is evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love.” Thus, they say, any form of separation is inherently wrong and must not be pursued, no matter what.

I would like to draw upon an illuminating article Applying What Wesley Taught About Schism by the Rev. Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary to address these justified concerns.

First, it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Separation has been a hallmark of Christianity since at least A.D. 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church. Even before the “Great Schism” (as it is called), there were other sects of Christianity, such as the Coptic and Assyrian Christians.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s opened the floodgates of separation, as various Protestant denominations proliferated. There are literally hundreds of denominations in the United States today, 260 of which are profiled in the latest edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, published by Abingdon Press.

Those with a principled opposition to separation of any kind must feel drawn to return to the Roman Catholic Church in order to be consistent with their principles. According to that principle, all the Protestant separations are illegitimate and evil. The only redress for Christians in the West would be to return to the original “catholic” (universal) church, Roman Catholicism.

Principled opposition to separation within Methodism runs into further difficulty in the fact that the separation of Methodists has been characteristic since our formation in the 1730s. Despite John Wesley’s own words against schism, he was the author of schism several times during his own life. Major schisms Wesley perpetrated were his separations from Calvinistic Methodists under Whitefield and from the Moravians. Methodist historian Russell Richey stipulated in an address a few years ago to the Commission on a Way Forward that Methodism experienced a schism/separation at least once a decade for the first one hundred plus years of its existence. So which iteration of Methodism is the pure one to which we should return?

Wesley’s Understanding of Church

Further exploration of Wesley’s understanding of the church helps us address this apparent inconsistency.

As Kisker points out, Wesley distinguished between the visible church and the invisible church. In his sermon “Of the Church,” Wesley focuses on Ephesians 4:1-6, which speaks of the unity of the church consisting in one body, one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This is the invisible church, the body of true believers who are experiencing salvation through Christ. As he defined it in Predestination Calmly Considered, the true church is “those who are grafted into the good olive tree … not barely the outward, visible church but the invisible, consisting of holy believers” (quoted in Kisker). As Kisker puts it, “the ‘oneness’ of the church is a unity through shared experience of the new birth and changed character, not encompassed in any particular organization or even through the sacramental sign of its true communion.”

In contrast to the unity of the invisible church through relationship with Christ and a life growing in holiness or spiritual maturity, the visible church is a plurality. There are multiple groups of Christians, each group having its own opinions, structures, and forms of worship. Yet, each group is also part of the invisible church through the presence in that group of true believers.

The visible church cannot experience institutional unity for two reasons. First, the visible church includes people who are true Christians and people who are not. These are the “weeds and wheat” Jesus spoke of in Matthew 13.

Second, people will not agree on all opinions. Some will like liturgical worship, others more free flowing. Some believe in having bishops to oversee the church, others believe in a congregational form of government. Some espouse infant baptism, while others are for baptizing only adult believers. As Kisker puts it, “each ‘outward visible church’ is constituted by people who share ‘opinions’ – on doctrine, discipline, and modes of worship. Such shared opinions are necessary, constituent aspects of community cohesion, and yet they separate even true Christians from one another.” According to Wesley, “A catholic spirit [Christian unity] is not indifference to all congregations. That is absurd and unscriptural” (quoted in Kisker).


It is therefore futile to aspire to some kind of “super church” that contains all Christians in one institutional church. Too many differences of opinion divide Christians from one another. In order to have an institutional church that encompasses all opinions, that church would have to be indifferent to all opinions, which Wesley himself denounces.

The impending institutional separation in Methodism is a result of a deep disagreement over what people on both sides consider essential opinions. Can modern understandings overturn the teaching of Scripture? Can marriage be redefined to include persons of the same gender? Are sexual relations to be reserved only for marriage? These and other essential questions divide United Methodists from each other. Only through indifference could those holding opposing opinions live together in one church body. Neither progressives nor traditionalists are willing to be indifferent to these (in their minds) essential opinions.

In Kisker’s words, “United Methodism should abandon any argument that the integrity of a fifty-year-old denomination of Protestants impacts the unity of the church.” We cannot pretend to advocate institutional unity in the face of the current church reality consisting of hundreds of separate denominations and thousands of nondenominational churches. Kisker goes on, “Furthermore, external institutional unity cannot be held as paramount over other … creedal marks of the church, especially … sanctity and catholicity.” Nor can the aspiration to institutional unity supersede one’s own conscience.

Importantly for our current situation, Kisker notes, “United Methodism should, by the logic of our history and ecclesiology, acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to go separate ways in separate connections. Without separations, we would not have a Methodist tradition worth preserving or dividing over. Furthermore, if we cannot hold each other accountable to any coherent expression of Christian ethics, if we cannot agree on explications of the General Rules, we are no longer one church, in the Wesleyan sense. The practices that constitute our legitimate ecclesial order (the General Rules, oversight, [accountable discipleship groups], conferencing, and itinerancy) have already been abrogated. We can no longer ‘walk together.’”

Finally, Kisker concludes, “United Methodism should realize that should a split occur, by the logic of our ecclesiology, there will be no ‘pure church’ on the other side of it. No schism produces a church that is the church, prior to the eschaton. There are always faithless people within any body called ‘church,’ sharing the ‘opinions’ necessary to hold together corporately. There are also always people, genuinely grafted into the true vine, which is Christ, who do not agree with the opinions of my congregation, my connection, my denomination. One can be wrong and be ‘being saved.’”

Instead, we can find Christian unity across denominational boundaries, as well as within them. We can experience a true unity of spirit with fellow believers, even of different opinions. As Wesley put it, a believer only focuses on “that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If so, give me your hand’” (II Kings 10:15). While we may be divided into different denominations or fellowships, we can be united in love for Jesus Christ, pray for and with one another, worship together, and serve our communities together. Doing so, we will both respect our differences of opinion and display true Christian unity for a watching world.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

One thought on “Separation and the Unity of the Church

  1. Exactly Tom. Just because we’re separated does not mean we’re divided. What I mean by that is, using your marriage and divorce metaphor, I’ve known many couples who divorced. However, especially in circumstances involving children, a number of those couples maintained a certain degree of unity through the separation in order to foster the highest possible good for the children. As far as denominational bodies are concerned, in certain circumstances (and I think the UMC has definitely arrived at that point) separation can actually foster a greater quality of life together, unity of purpose, and effectiveness of mission. It worked for Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, and it can work to that same end for today’s UMC.

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