Schism and Ecclesial Authority

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United Methodism is in schism. It’s not that schism is coming; it’s already here. It’s not something for us to work to avoid, it’s an evil that we must address.

Andrew Thompson did an excellent job illuminating this distinction in his post about covenant and schism last week. In “Sermon 75: On Schism,” John Wesley exegetes 1 Corinthians 12 in the following way: “Can anything be more plain than that the schisms here spoken of, were not separations from, but divisions in, the Church of Corinth (I.2, emphasis original)?”

Schism, according to father John’s reading of Paul is, “a disunion in mind and judgment, (perhaps also affection) among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before.”[1] What we have seen in recent years is not only a deeper rift of mind and judgment in our beloved church, but also an erosion of affection.

We are deeply in schism, and this is “evil,” a “grievous breach of the law of love.” 

If we do not take time in prayer and conversation to grieve the schism in our connection, then we are participating and perpetuating our failure to love.

We must not stop with lament, and diagnosis.  We must press further into Sermon 75 to find even more fertile ground to know what we ought to do.

In II.7 of “On Schism,” Wesley permits only one reason for breaking fellowship: that the fellowship is forcing one to sin by omission or commission. In all other cases, he offers this judgment: “Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

This is not an abstract question for Mr. Wesley. He chose, throughout his life, to continue in fellowship in the church of his birth, despite his questions of its faithfulness because there remained space for him to be faithful.

For traditionalists who would like to depart, this is a hard word.  If they are not themselves being compelled to sin disapproves, they are to stay.[2] It leaves traditionalists with an exhortation to keep their vow to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries.”

If we are to follow the logic of “On Schism,” it is the prerogative of the progressives (from their own perspective) and not the traditionalists to break fellowship, due to their sense of the injustice of our current position. This, in fact, is the position espoused clearly by William Abraham in both Atlanta and Memphis. He says that “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.”

The problem for traditionalists is that progressives aren’t sliding out the back door and joining different denominations that share their understanding of same-sex marriage. Rather than quietly departing from the UMC, they are breaking the rules set by General Conference. In most cases, they do so fully prepared to face the consequences. And traditionalists are frustrated with the paucity of suitable consequences.  The issue is not simply progressives are blessing same-sex practice, it’s that progressives are blessing same-sex practice as United Methodists.

Progressives’ decision to defy the rules rather than recant their faith and relinquish their membership,  is no new thing in the church catholic. There are manifold examples of dissenters in the church who did not leave willingly, but were instead excommunicated from the church for their incompatible views, leaving future theologians and traditions to judge the church’s decision.

Our current crisis is not primarily about Biblical authority or the movement of the spirit. Those things are a significant (but not the only) component of the theological argument for the question: “Is same-sex marriage in keeping with Christian/United Methodist teaching?” But that’s not the primary question in this moment.

At this point, the primary point of tension relates to the authority of the institutional church.


It’s not that covenants should be kept, it’s that the church should be able to offer correction when they are not.


Authority (i.e. the possibility of providing accountability to members) is essential to ecclesial coherence. If the church can do nothing to ensure that it is Methodism, and not something else, being proclaimed we have no raison d’être, we have no identity.  About this, traditionalists are right.  Authority is, in fact, the intent of the Trust Clause, to ensure that Methodist Churches have faithful pastors leading them.  About this, traditionalists are right.

Therefore, if we want a healthy institution with an established identity, we must ask: (a) Can the church determine that some beliefs/actions are wrong, and (b) how, if at all, should the church respond when its standards are violated? Furthermore, where should that authority be held?  Furthermore, is the church capable of distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and if so, where does fit among those categories?

In summary, the crisis that we are facing is not about the authority of the Bible or about covenant, it’s about who gets to determine what is authoritative for the people called Methodists, and who can enforce the lines once they are drawn. To say it more firmly, it’s about who has the power to discipline (up to excommunication) and who gets to discern what demands such an action. It’s about establishing the essentials of our faith and then abiding in the connection formed by our shared faith.

Such statements are questions of polity that may not be able to be addressed in our current quagmire.  That’s why the #NextMethodism conversation is very important, even if traditionalists upset about Karen Oliveto can’t quote Wesley to justify their departure.


This post is by Chad Bowen, an elder in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  


[1] This is a topic for another day, but “disunion of mind” hearkens back to the 2012 General Conference proposal GC2012 acknowledge that we “are not of one mind” about sexuality.  That proposal, combined with the outcry that emerged when it failed to pass, exposed not only the explicit frustration with the UMC’s schism over sexuality, but was also a (likely unconscious attempt) to subvert our polity. Per our constitution, he majority of General Conference delegates as the legislative authority of the connection. One needs only to consult the voting history of General Conference resolutions to know that we are not entirely of one mind on nearly anything.

[2] This criteria is simply not being met with something like the election of Karen Oliveto. One could attempt an argument that asserts complicity through mission shares, but it would be a stretch. One would have to make an argument that it is sin to give to the church if one penny of your tithe is going support what one deems to be a sin. This would make it nearly impossible for anyone to give to a global church.