The Crucial Difference Between Schism and Division: Lessons from the Garden

The Crucial Difference Between Schism and Division: Lessons from the Garden February 9, 2016
day-lily-sm
(C) Christy Thomas

The question appears again and again in church life and right now particularly with mainline denominations: should we just give up and split up?

There is a way to divide and still thrive. Let’s pay attention to the lesson from the garden here.

In 2012, I wrote a post about the now-impossibility of actually reforming the death-giving structure of The United Methodist Church. My frustration emerged after the Judicial Council, doing exactly what they are supposed to do, put the final nail in the coffin by overturning several significant votes taken at out 2012 General Conference.

The big challenge, besides our structure, are the multiple theologies held by varying United Methodists. One of the UMC’s great strengths has long been its wide umbrella gathering many under its shelter. That wide umbrella now threatens to self-destruct as theologies that should be informing and sharpening one another now say with greater frequency: “You are no longer with the trouble. Just get out. ”

But I say today: we must not give up and split up. To do so denies the transforming power of the Gospel that all of us seek to uphold.

To say to one another, “Our disagreements are so great that I no longer wish to stay in connection with you,” says to the world, already prepared to condemn the church for its poor ability to create anything approaching heavenly harmony, “Yep, pretty well everything we say to you is a lie.”

Let us not be liars. We are called to be vessels of life-giving truth.

The Healthy Division

However, as a gardener as well as years as a pastor, I think there is a healthy division. This division brings vibrant new life.

As with many gardens, my flower and vegetable beds display a mix of annuals and perennials.

We plant annuals each year. Ideally, and if not using hybrids, the plants produce well for a year, and then set some seeds for rebirth the following year. Life to death and back to life again, that beautiful cycle.

Part of church life consist of “annuals,” short-term efforts that produce fruit and then die and then have the seeds resown as necessary or have the beds cleared for the next short-term effort.

But the larger church functions also functions like perennials, which come back year after year adding new growth without the necessity of resowing seed. Eventually, however, all perennials get so intertwined and stuck together that only the act of dividing them gives them opportunity of new life. Otherwise, they begin to die from the core outward. The tight core can’t let in light and fertilizer. They stop blooming.

Most gardeners I know take immense pleasure in dividing their perennials and giving them away. The flower beds at the church I served last are almost entirely populated with donated perennials. Those plants are a testament to the life-giving process of division and separation.

The image at the top of this post shows a daylily bloom just about ready to offer its flowering beauty. That particular daylily plant is the third or even fourth division of the original plant. One plant has turned into at least 20 more, all related to each other.

There is some evidence that plants feel pain, so the divisions may have been painful. Each plant had to be forcibly removed from the ground, pried apart (sometimes with a sharp knife or even a hatchet depending on how long it has been since the last division) and replanted some distance away. Some of the divisions didn’t carry enough roots and withered away. Most sections, however, thrived and will in time be ready to divide again.

elephant-ears-sm
(c) Christy Thomas

These elephant ears were four years old when I took this photo. I had planted seven bulbs originally. At least sixty to seventy have now come up where the original seven first took root.

At some point they, too, will have to be divided. Otherwise they will end up killing each other because of inadequate space to grow and inadequate light and water.

So what do lessons from the garden say to the church?

Exactly what we need to know:  if we are going to stay alive for generations to come and continue to offer the beauty of grace, we must engage in healthy division practices WHILE staying connected by our DNA.

Right now, we function like a perennial that refuses to be dug up and broken apart. Our roots are intertwined and stuck together. Our core has become hard, tight, inflexible and unable to bring forth blooms or to find the energy to reproduce. Slowly, but with great surety, the entire plant, The United Methodist Church, will die without separation.

We must do an intentional division to survive, but a division that brings life to all parts of the divided plant. Let’s not leave some without adequate roots for thriving life.

Doctrinal Purity/Missional Relevance

But how do we do this?  I so appreciate what Jeremy Smith has said hereSchism seeks to end the tension between doctrinal purity and missional relevance, but fails. There can be space in the UMC for both those who place doctrine above the human condition and those who place the human condition above doctrine.

We must not break into different denominations over these issues. We must find a way to strengthen that umbrella so there is room for both to be covered by grace underneath it.

Certainly, there is not going to be unified thinking or universal agreement in our connection particularly with regard to sexuality but also on many other issues.

Thanks be to God for that.

A place with unified thinking and universal agreement is a place where terror and mind-control rule.  

Our over-arching rule is to be a place of life-giving love. That is how others will know we are Christians. They will see us love WHILE we disagree and fight and argue and make some healthy divisions so we can continue to grow and bloom and give life.

Those on the side of missional relevance need those who value doctrinal purity. Doctrine matters hugely. We are to be distinctively Christian. We are not an “anything goes” church.

Those who value doctrinal purity must learn to find their humility in the mystery of God and grace and recognize that doctrinal purity at its core leads to practices like the Inquisition. When the need for purity is not balanced with deep humility and awareness that all human decisions about the nature of God are deeply limited and always flawed, that need brings death without hope of resurrection.

So, yes, we must divide. No, we must not split or let schism rule.

We need to stay United Methodists. United in love, in the core of our Wesleyan understanding, and held together by the bonds of grace that remind us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.

In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Glory to God. Amen.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Certainly a lot to think about.

  • Certainly a lot to think about.

  • celia

    Great distinction … and great analogy.

  • celia

    Great distinction … and great analogy.

  • Thank you, Christy. As a fellow gardener, I related to your example. However, you never really answered your own question of how division might take place (in practical terms) as opposed to a separation over doctrinal differences. I would be curious to hear your thoughts further on this.

    Another point I would make is that the conflict is not between those who value doctrinal purity over missional relevance vs. those who value missional relevance over doctrinal purity. There is a doctrinal purity of the left (fully affirming same-sex relationships) and a doctrinal purity of the right (maintaining that same-sex relationships are outside of God’s plan). The conflict is over which doctrine we will follow, not whether or not we will have doctrine. There are those in the middle who are agnostic about which doctrine is correct or who wish to include in the church people who believe and live by both doctrines. But those who hold the doctrines on the left and on the right have come to the point (most of them) where they are unwilling to live in a church that legitimizes and affirms the other perspective. So the doctrinal purists on the left pursue disobedience. And the doctrinal purists on the right pursue accountability (even trials).

    Many people quote Wesley’s statement that, if we cannot think alike, at least we can love alike (and stay united). But in context, he was speaking about various branches of the Christian church seeing themselves as all branches of the whole. He insisted on a far greater unanimity within the Methodist movement, even to the point of a wholesale break with the Calvinist Methodists and the pietist Methodists. He excluded them from the Methodist movement because of a foundational doctrinal disagreement. He didn’t de-Christianize them (he affirmed them as Christian brothers and sisters), but he de-Methodized them.

    In light of the doctrinal commitments on the left and right, would it not be better to have a life-giving division of the church along those lines, with mutual respect and affirming each others’ Christianity, and seeking to give each other enough roots to survive and thrive?

    • bthomas

      Very well stated. Final paragraph is absolutely on the mark.

    • I appreciate your point here about two seriously opposing doctrinal purity poles. So you ask, “In light of the doctrinal commitments on the left and right, would it not be better to have a life-giving division of the church along those lines, with mutual respect and affirming each others’ Christianity, and seeking to give each other enough roots to survive and thrive?”

      I admit I have wondered the same thing. Unfortunately, what proposals for separation I have seen do not offer adequate roots for the “survive and thrive” position, but seem quite punitive to the “other.” And I understand this goes both ways.

      Unfortunately I am not adequately versed in the UMC structural essentials to be able to write a “survive and thrive” proposal, but even supposing one could be written, the bigger question would be: Will both ends of the spectrum have adequate Christian charity to sincerely desire that the other end actually thrive? Should we be able to agree on just that much, I suspect we could figure out a way to do this that will actually say to the larger, non-Christian world, “See how they love one another!”

      • Thanks, Christy. Speaking as one who has interacted with many evangelical leaders in the U.S., I believe the sentiment would be to want to be generous in allowing progressive congregations to leave the denomination, or in putting together a planned separation. We agree with the Gamaliel option of allowing each group to go its own way and allow God to determine who is being faithful. A plan has actually been submitted to General Conference for an amicable separation. (It should be in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, although I haven’t looked for it, yet.) I don’t expect it to pass, but I wanted to demonstrate that an equitable division into two or three new entities is possible.

  • Thank you, Christy. As a fellow gardener, I related to your example. However, you never really answered your own question of how division might take place (in practical terms) as opposed to a separation over doctrinal differences. I would be curious to hear your thoughts further on this.

    Another point I would make is that the conflict is not between those who value doctrinal purity over missional relevance vs. those who value missional relevance over doctrinal purity. There is a doctrinal purity of the left (fully affirming same-sex relationships) and a doctrinal purity of the right (maintaining that same-sex relationships are outside of God’s plan). The conflict is over which doctrine we will follow, not whether or not we will have doctrine. There are those in the middle who are agnostic about which doctrine is correct or who wish to include in the church people who believe and live by both doctrines. But those who hold the doctrines on the left and on the right have come to the point (most of them) where they are unwilling to live in a church that legitimizes and affirms the other perspective. So the doctrinal purists on the left pursue disobedience. And the doctrinal purists on the right pursue accountability (even trials).

    Many people quote Wesley’s statement that, if we cannot think alike, at least we can love alike (and stay united). But in context, he was speaking about various branches of the Christian church seeing themselves as all branches of the whole. He insisted on a far greater unanimity within the Methodist movement, even to the point of a wholesale break with the Calvinist Methodists and the pietist Methodists. He excluded them from the Methodist movement because of a foundational doctrinal disagreement. He didn’t de-Christianize them (he affirmed them as Christian brothers and sisters), but he de-Methodized them.

    In light of the doctrinal commitments on the left and right, would it not be better to have a life-giving division of the church along those lines, with mutual respect and affirming each others’ Christianity, and seeking to give each other enough roots to survive and thrive?

    • bthomas

      Very well stated. Final paragraph is absolutely on the mark.

    • I appreciate your point here about two seriously opposing doctrinal purity poles. So you ask, “In light of the doctrinal commitments on the left and right, would it not be better to have a life-giving division of the church along those lines, with mutual respect and affirming each others’ Christianity, and seeking to give each other enough roots to survive and thrive?”

      I admit I have wondered the same thing. Unfortunately, what proposals for separation I have seen do not offer adequate roots for the “survive and thrive” position, but seem quite punitive to the “other.” And I understand this goes both ways.

      Unfortunately I am not adequately versed in the UMC structural essentials to be able to write a “survive and thrive” proposal, but even supposing one could be written, the bigger question would be: Will both ends of the spectrum have adequate Christian charity to sincerely desire that the other end actually thrive? Should we be able to agree on just that much, I suspect we could figure out a way to do this that will actually say to the larger, non-Christian world, “See how they love one another!”

      • Thanks, Christy. Speaking as one who has interacted with many evangelical leaders in the U.S., I believe the sentiment would be to want to be generous in allowing progressive congregations to leave the denomination, or in putting together a planned separation. We agree with the Gamaliel option of allowing each group to go its own way and allow God to determine who is being faithful. A plan has actually been submitted to General Conference for an amicable separation. (It should be in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, although I haven’t looked for it, yet.) I don’t expect it to pass, but I wanted to demonstrate that an equitable division into two or three new entities is possible.

  • Interesting post. Picking up for UM Insight.

  • Interesting post. Picking up for UM Insight.

  • Sarah Flynn

    In pragmatic political terms doing nothing ups the frustration and anger on both sides, making amicable separation agreements less likely. Consider how marital separations escalate from amicable to obstinate to sabotage and mutually assured destruction. Who will be the disinterested third party to effect the separation and enforce it? Witness the hugely expensive property battles in The Episcopal Church as a result of separations. And the tearing up that began locally now reaches up to include the Anglican Communion.

  • Sarah Flynn

    In pragmatic political terms doing nothing ups the frustration and anger on both sides, making amicable separation agreements less likely. Consider how marital separations escalate from amicable to obstinate to sabotage and mutually assured destruction. Who will be the disinterested third party to effect the separation and enforce it? Witness the hugely expensive property battles in The Episcopal Church as a result of separations. And the tearing up that began locally now reaches up to include the Anglican Communion.