By The Rev. Dr. H. Gene Straatmeyer
While reading my journal from 2002, I came across a book I read and reviewed while my wife and I were serving in Malawi, Africa. The title was, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, by Michael Green (King’s Books, UK). I failed to write down the page of the quotes I am using here but they echo a couple of my thoughts on church schism.
Green said, “Many…see the church to which they belonged as so…unspiritual that they, as spiritual people, needed to leave and form their own church. In doing this and claiming at the same time they are obeying the Spirit’s leading, they are specifically disobeying the Spirit’s commands in Scripture to maintain unity. They assume the new church which they form will be more spiritual than the one they left. Charles Spurgeon said to a spiritual woman looking for a perfect church, ‘You will not find it this side of heaven, and if you do find it, don’t go near it. You will only spoil it.’”
Green concludes, “Here’s the punch line: Secession does not seem to be God’s way. God is the one who does not scrape the dry bones (of Ezekiel’s vision), but breathes new life into them. Not even in the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation is there any suggestion that one should succeed from a dead church? It is through renewal, not secession, that God purifies his people from Abraham’s day to our own. When individuals or groups separate they show they are not of the Spirit which they make themselves to be.” (I Cor. 3.3).
A second article which further reflects my thoughts on this matter was written recently by Theodore J. Wardlaw, the president of Austin Seminary. His essay, “A Bad Spirit Has Risen Among Us” appears in the Austin Seminary Faculty Journal (Spring, 2012; Volume 127; Number 2).
He says schism “is a great Protestant…heresy, i.e. to think that we could, by separating ourselves from each other, create a more faithful church.” Over the centuries of schisms we are “perhaps so punch drunk from our fights that there are those in our communions who blithely submit that schism is just a part of our DNA, maybe even a good thing….There is the terrible tendency to shrug schism off as inevitable, as if we need pay no price for the ways in which it diminishes our churches, often our families, and maybe even our souls.”
Part of the problem, he contends, is we are bitten by the heresy that the church is composed of those who are “like minded,” and so schism is for gathering the like-minded together. He asks, “How long can like-mindedness last?”
Wardlaw adds that schism breeds schism. He says that divided isn’t what the church is meant to be. The church should be a place where everyone can disagree and learn to love and forgive in spite of differences. The church cannot be anything but diverse until eternity. He says, “God is forever giving us the gift of one another, liberal or conservative, male or female, black or white or brown, gay or straight; we are given, through Jesus Christ, to one another, and for the sake of a broken world – as a body which, in the mind of God, is at its best a sign of the Kingdom.”
He concludes! The unity of the church is more than a value – it is a relationship. “Love of neighbor is not even a principle or a commitment. It is a moment. It is a shared experience with someone with a name and a need, a personality and a voice. Love is always incarnational. The unity of the church is a relationship. It is a love that sees the face.”
Dr. Wardlaw also believes schism isn’t biblical. He notes that the first epistle to the church at Corinth is a manual in conflict management. There Paul argues that the church, the body of Christ, can’t be divided. He writes “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the feet to the head….If one member suffers, all suffer.” The conclusion of Paul’s argument is “Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12:12-27).
Wardlaw includes a prayer from the 1993 PCUSA’s Book of Worship that asks the bad spirit among us be removed.
“Holy God, giver of peace, author of truth,
we confess that we are divided and at odds with one another,
that a bad spirit has risen among us
and set us against your Holy Spirit of peace and love.
Take from us the mistrust, party spirit, contention,
and all evil that now divides us.
Work in us a desire for reconciliation,
so that putting aside personal grievances,
we may go about your business with a single mind,
devoted to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.