Last month we looked at the question of how Christians should disagree with one another and learned that Wesley believed our controversies should be carried out in a spirit of love and mutual respect. But how should those controversies be resolved? What if they prove to be intractable?
John Wesley was the leader of a movement that sought to reform the Church of England. But within his church there were many who saw no need for reform. Among his Methodists there were a number who would be happy to leave the Church of England and start a new denomination. Wesley’s brother Charles led another group who declared loyalty to the church and feared John would not in the end stand up to the separatists.
This led John Wesley to offer his reflections “On Schism.” In it he made clear his opposition to leaving the church, as well as the conditions that would justify separation.
He argued that schism “is both evil in itself, and productive of evil consequences.” It is in itself evil because separation “from a body of living Christians with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love.” It is the nature of love to unite; hence it “is only when our love grows cold “that we can consider separation.”
Even more disturbing are the evil consequences: “It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole chain of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offence, to anger, and resentment ... which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.”
Sadly, with regard to our present controversy within the United Methodist Church, I have seen just these sorts of “evil surmisings” and “uncharitable judging” on Facebook, from persons on all sides. Whatever happens formally, we already have an internal division that can produce evil consequences. This should make us all pause and go back to Wesley’s advice on how to engage in controversy in ways that are governed by love and mutual respect.
Wesley knew that many seek to separate from a church for insignificant reasons — they are ready to leave “a Christian society with as much concern as they go out of one room into another.” But he also knew there are reasons that, in the end, warrant separation. If you could not remain within a church “without doing something which the Word of God forbids, or omitting something which the Word of God commands,” or “without committing sin” or preaching doctrines which one does not believe, then separation is warranted.
In Wesley’s view the Protestant reformers had good reason, in the end, to separate, but happily he could remain within the Church of England without violating conscience or belief. But he recognized that much depends of what one believes the Word of God commands or forbids and what teachings and practices are faithful to the gospel.
Whatever one concludes about these things, and whatever future awaits United Methodism, Wesley would urge us to be alert to the evil consequences that schism can produce, and let the love revealed in Jesus Christ be found in all we day and do.