When efforts to reform one’s church fail, is separation a prudent choice? Or is it better to spare the church yet another division and do one’s best to worship and live faithfully as a diehard reformer within a broken or corrupted ecclesiastical organization? In this blog, we will trace Methodist precedents and Wesleyan theological bases that may help respond to this timely question.
As background, Martin Luther’s famous ejection from the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the further spread of Christianity through multiple branches of the church. Prior to this, the most ambitious attempts to reform the institutional church ended not in reform or division, but in the violent elimination of those who advocated for change. We think of Jan Hus and Girolamo Savonarola as prime examples. Many reformers intrepidly stayed within the fold and persevered with valiant attempts at reform from within, folks such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa of Avila.
John and Charles Wesley were loath to separate from the Church of England in the eighteenth century for the main reason that back then, dividing the church, or schism, was still widely viewed as a horrific sin. No one wanted to be associated with what they regarded as dividing the body of Christ. Both Wesleys remained priests in the Anglican Church until their deaths, even though they were deeply dissatisfied with what they viewed as unfaithfulness within the Anglican denomination. During their lifetimes they did their best to reform the church from within before John initiated the new Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
Today in the US and other places with freedom of religious choice and an ever-expanding selection of sects and denominations, the situation is different. On the one hand, denominationalism, the direct result of multiple divisions of the church through the ages, is now widely viewed as acceptable, if not advantageous to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, at least by folks with an ecumenical bent. Sectarian separatists, on the other hand, tend to view their own religious tribe as inherently superior to the exclusion of others, and to condemn both theological opposition and differences of opinion. Strict sectarians object to both denominationalism and ecumenism and, in doing so, champion this exclusive stance as itself a matter of purity.
American Methodism was born out of division and remains prone to division. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1784 after John Wesley himself declared that, as God had set the American people free from England, so the American Methodists were set free from the English Methodist Conference (that still pledged allegiance to the Church of England) as a new denomination in and for North America. In so doing, John Wesley set a precedent for heirs of Methodism in America.
Within the following century the following formal exits occurred, for a variety of stated reasons, from the Methodist Episcopal Church: The Republican Methodist Church (1792), the Reformed Methodist Church (1814), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821), the Methodist Protestant Church (1830), the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (1843), the Methodist Episcopal Church South (1844), the Congregational Methodist Church (1852), and the Free Methodist Church (1860), not to mention a plethora of additional holiness churches that left the Methodists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these “break-offs” in turn experienced “come-outers” from their own organizations.
How does one make sense of this phenomenon theologically? In the sixteenth century, major reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin justified exodus from the Roman Catholic Church because of its failure to maintain the true “marks” of the church. For them, the church of Jesus Christ existed wherever the Word of God was preached, and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church of their day, they believed, failed on both counts.
Notwithstanding their strong emphasis on discipline, Calvin and his immediate followers resisted the notion of proper discipline becoming a decisive mark of the church on the basis that it would make the existence of the church dependent on human fidelity (the heretical error of the Donatists in the early church) rather than on the grace of Jesus Christ. The separating Puritans, in most other respects adherents of Calvin’s theology, begged to differ. They believed it was the duty of the church to correct and cleanse itself by expelling the wicked for the purpose of faithfully maintaining the church’s covenant with God and church discipline within the congregation. At stake was the very existence of the church.
John Wesley also emphasized discipline or accountable discipleship. He maintained for the Methodists that “the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [sic] in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article XIII—Of the Church, “Articles of Religion,” emphasis added). The matter of church purity was important to Wesley, but he framed it in the language of faithfulness, holiness, sanctification, love of God and neighbor. He upheld the established means of God’s grace through the church—even an imperfect church, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying grace—that had the power to cultivate holiness in any believer, and even in an errant ecclesiastical body.
In the history of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement, one can trace the Wesleys’ and early Methodists’ tireless efforts to reform the Church of England—efforts that were not always appreciated by those who held its institutional power, and for which they suffered unwelcome consequences. Yet they worked tirelessly for this purpose: “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land.”
John Wesley, in the end, set precedents for both reformers and separatists. He remained a reformer within the denomination, but finally “set free” a whole continent of Methodists from association with the Church of England.
Both Methodist history and Wesleyan theology teach us that to fill the role of either reformer or separatist does not necessarily solve anything with finality because we live in an economy of human free will. The choice of either direction carries with it specific challenges. For those who separate, there is a burden to do so with humility rather than self-righteousness, and to keep a heart and mind of love toward God and the community of faith from which one has chosen to exit. There is a burden to demonstrate in both the near and long term the faithfulness and integrity ostensibly found lacking in the previous association. This is a tall order given the facts of history and the propensity of human nature toward sin and of power to corrupt persons, institutions, and mission.
The challenges facing reformers from within are similarly steep. It is the lot of the reformer to maintain a prophetic voice toward those in places of power while also cultivating holiness and a faithful witness to God with a heart and mind of love toward those in charge and those who have exited. In making the choice to remain within an errant institution, reformers carry the dangerous burden of possibly crossing the line over to complicity with the corruption or evil they disdain.
As everyone knows, The United Methodist Church (UMC) is on the brink of yet another Methodist division. Some argue the impending split is over sexuality and others contend it is about how to interpret Scripture. While these are important theological considerations that certainly need attention, the past half-century of UMC history demonstrates this is fundamentally another division over discipline. Failure to cultivate or at least maintain institutional discipline makes it impossible for a denomination to address successfully the ongoing theological task (related to scriptural interpretation or human relationship, for example) or to communicate the spiritual outcomes of this process within the larger community of faith. Lack of discipline inevitably leads to confusion and loss of trust. In extreme cases, it leads to dissolution.
Centuries of Methodist history and Wesleyan theology have demonstrated a sturdy capacity by those in this tradition, God helping us, to weather differences of opinion over things not necessary to salvation. This has been the case so much so that, in the past several centuries, this heritage has been able to play an important, if imperfect, role in spreading the gospel and scriptural holiness across the globe. Even though we have not always been faithful, I trust and pray God will remain faithful and graceful toward us, and not forsake us now for either our lack of discipline or our divisiveness.