When Should a Church Schism?

When Should a Church Schism? May 21, 2012

I took a lot of heat from my Methodist friends last week for suggesting that young clergy forsake the denomination and go do something new. Let me be clear: I don’t expect one single Methodist clergyperson or seminarian to jump ship because I blogged about it. Puhleeze, people.

I will reiterate something: It is virtually impossible to see the dysfunction of a system when you’re inside it. Ask anyone who’s married to an alcoholic; ask a prison guard; ask Michel Foucault. Sometimes Often it takes an outsider to speak truth into a system. Also, dear Methodists, to appease your anger, here’s a picture of me washing Methodist feet:

That being said the Presbyterians are facing challenges of their own. The closest church to my house is Christ Presbyterian, a large PC(USA) congregation, the pastor of which has been at the forefront of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, a group of primarily large, conservative, white, suburban churches. The Fellowship is launching a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order.

Our weekly suburban paper, the Edina Sun, covered the first meeting about the potential switch at Christ Presbyterian:

Edina church considering new denomination

BY LISA KACZKE – Sun Newspapers

Published: Thursday, May 17, 2012 9:27 AM CDT
Members of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina are grappling with a decision to change denominations.

The 5,000-member church is considering leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join a different denomination and the newly formed Evangelical Covenant Order is at the top of the list.

At an informational session on Wednesday, May 9, members questioned the financial ramifications of leaving as well as whether members who don’t agree with the new denomination’s theology would stay at Christ Presbyterian Church. A second informational session is scheduled for noon on Sunday, May 20, at the church.

The church also plans to hold a town hall meeting in the fall and poll the congregation to find out if a majority is interested in leaving PC(USA). No formal decisions will be made until January 2013, church elder Gary Tygesson told the mostly full sanctuary on May 9.

Many issues come up in the article, including the building — as in, who owns it? — and, surprisingly to me, the overwrought bureaucracy of the PC(USA).

What’s not mentioned is gay marriage and gay ordination. Theology is mentioned briefly, but there’s no acute mention of the issue of homosexuality, which those of us who observe such things consider to be the key issue in this conflict. So I ask you Presbyterians: What’s the real issue driving the ECO? And, honestly, how much is it that these large congregations are frustrated with the denominational bureaucracy? Or are they just frustrated that they don’t get power that’s commensurate with their size?

I found this comment at the every end of the article particularly interesting:

One member asked how the members are supposed to know if this is the right time to splinter off. [Former elder David] Schwandt responded that members need to consider what they hold dear. Schisms are caused by not fitting in. He concluded, “I think that’s corrective and helpful at times. Other times it’s destructive and narrow.”

That comment seems to me a particularly naïve view of schisms.

What do you think? Are schisms sometimes “corrective and helpful”?

PS: Regarding the headline, I know that “schism” is a noun, not a verb. But I want it to be a verb.

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  • Michael Martin

    as a long time member of the PC(USA) I mourn the coming split. I am a progressive and do not want to see the conservative branch leave. I read a comment yesterday from Randy Branson who is standing for moderator and he said something to the effect that Jesus did not require theological purity but called us to community. The coming split is a 120 year old fight between the fundamentalist and the progressives and homosexual ordination is just issue du juor. at its heart is how do we interpret scripture. my problem with it is i don’t see where it is healthy to walk away from the conversation. We are all seekers on a journey toward greater understanding of God’s call for our lives and the need to block ourselves off from those who may have different understanding from our own seems to me to be nonsense. at the end of the day though much like the end of a bad marriage it maybe the best thing for both parties that allows us to go on and fulfill our call in the world. We need to continue to be in prayerful discernment about where God is leading.

  • Michael

    In American Branded Christianity, Schism is probably good. Like the grocery store shelf 43 kinds of spaghetti sauce, we like to be particular about what flavors are in, and not in our church. We should just work really hard to not wound each other to much in the process.

  • Jim Bonewald

    What’s funny is that typically these churches aren’t even that involved in the denominational “beauracracy.” Often times it’s hard to find a head of staff of many of these sorts of big evangelical churches serving on a presbytery committee or in some other capacity. Mostly they just sit on the sidelines and bitch about the denomination and/or they claim they are too busy doing ministry in their local context that they don’t have time to be involved.

    IMHO, the issue is most certainly homosexuality. However, it sure sounds a lot better if it’s cloaked in some other language, or at the very least it helps them feel better about them selves as they work to justify making such a move.

    • > Jim,
      Regarding, “Mostly they just sit on the sidelines and bitch.. they don’t have time to be involved”; that’s been my experience more times than not. The really large churches can be viewed as a denomination unto themselves functionally speaking. At the same time, the “it’s easier to complain than do” syndrome is prevalent among all sizes of congregations in relationship to their denomination.

      As an ELCA pastor we’ve been through a very tough 3-4 years leading up to and following the vote to ordain homosexuals in life-long relationships. Last month at our synod assembly (presbytery/district convention) we finally got back on track to focusing on the many, many positive works and ministries we doing in God’s name. Our Bishop Bill Rindy, “posted” his “95 Gratitudes” for all that the Spirit is bringing forth through the people. It was incredibly refreshing!

  • Scot Miller

    I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:51-53: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

  • Hey Tony,
    You’re not going to get any heat from me. In fact, I think ‘Why the UMC is the Most Screwed Up Denomination’ is the perfect title to go with your talk when you’re here in July.

    Jason Micheli

  • Tracy

    The question not asked in the article is “why now?” The Presbyterians didn’t change their form of government this year and members didn’t change their theology en masse back in January. What happened is that indivdual presbyteries voted to change the Book of Order to allow for the possibility that gay and lesbian people may be ordained. (And those votes happened over the course of 2011.) So either we have a remarkable coincidence, or yeah, that’s what really bothers these churches. LGBT ordination. Or maybe it just became the symbol of a deep and pervasive sense of discomfort in a denomination which contains many of a more liberal bent. A tipping point. Up until this point votes were taken on this issue, and the conservatives always eeked out a victory.

    Presbyterians left and right are talking about streamlining governance, –everybody regards it as having outlived its usefulness. But this one thing — LGBT ordination –seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back — the point that finally made it impossible for conservatives to feel they could roll along in a church with a broad range of theological perspectives.

    Is it a good thing? — gosh, seems like you’d have to have the mind of God to know. It would be great to have less acrimony in meetings — but who knows what that really means. I’m sad to think of what this means in terms of less support for mission and ministry and partnership around the world. Maybe all that money will go over to Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. Hard to be happy about that. But there are plenty of things more illusive here, so I’d say, hard to know.

  • Carl

    My less-than-important Presbyterian opinion is that the folks identifying with ECO are tired. There is definitely an element of pouting that they lost a vote. But I believe that they want to move beyond the issue of sexuality. So they are looking to be faithful to how they understand God is calling them to be community
    My hope as a Presbyterian is that all parties involved can wish the others well during a time of transition. I don’t believe they have to agree. (My optimism significantly outweighs my cynicism when it comes to how things are going down.) I hope the ECO does well. I hope the remnant Presbyterians do well.
    I also thought I could be friends with girls after we broke up.

  • Curtis

    Isn’t this this same pattern that has gone on since the Protestant Reformation? Christian churches who are outside of the Catholic realm have been splitting apart and merging together, with the general trend toward splitting, since the 16th century. Usually theses splits were precipitated by current social realities — authoritarian government, immigration, industrial revolution, slavery, consumerism, changing role of women, and so on. I don’t think the situation at CPC is outside of that historical pattern.

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  • david james

    I worked at Christ Presbyterian Church for two years (’09-’11) and I was at another PC(USA) church in Minnetonka for four years before that, and in my humble opinion, the ‘homosexuality’ issue is THE issue driving the bus regardless of what is published in a paper or said aloud at a town hall meeting by the pastors or elders.

    Yes–the fact that the denomination technically owns the building and the property is absurd and absolutely has to be addressed–but let’s be honest, this particular bylaw is not a new development, it has been a part of the Book of Order for a long time. Attention is being paid to it now because so many churches are thinking of leaving.

    To be fair, most of the leaders will probably say, if they’re on the record, that the real issue driving the potential schism is the hermeneutic employed by the denomination. Subsequently, this hermeneutic leads to a diminished view of Jesus in their eyes, and of course, the ordination of gay people, but it’s really semantics at that point. The irony is that I didn’t experience a single gay person banging the doors of the church asking to be ordained during my six years in the PC(USA)…

    The whole situation reminds me the attempt the Evangelical Theological Society made to kick out Greg Boyd for being an open theist under the pretense that he denied ‘biblical inerrancy.’ If memory serves, he hadn’t paid his annual dues and so wasn’t actually eligible to be excommunicated in the first place…

  • Charles

    We left this particular Presbyterian church (CPC, Edina, MN) over the disingenuousness of the leadership, John Crosby in particular. We were clearly mislead over the acceptance of LBGTQ folk within the church when we first started attending. When Crosby was named as a leader of the anti-gay ordination wing of the PCUSA that was the last straw. We had already been summoned to his office over our “advocacy” for gay members. Having been raised Presbyterian it is sad to see the schism but not surprising. It is about acceptance of LGBTQ folk in leadership.

  • As a PC(USA) pastor, I’ve been interested in the development of the Fellowship / ECO(P) and have attended a couple of their get togethers. At first I wasn’t very interested in the Fellowship, even though I am, generally, in agreement with their theological perspective – seeing it as a sort of Pharisaic “we’re the holy ones” perspective.

    As it’s developed over the last couple of years, however, the Fellowship / ECO(P) has moved away from the issue of ordination of homosexuals to other issues of increasingly “missional” significance, which they are seeking to embody. As a denominational entity they’re still opposed to the ordination of gays, as in the PC(USA), but wholeheartedly in favor of ordination of women.

    For what it’s worth (for some, maybe nothing), at their Orlando gathering in January I heard not a single solitary word about the issue of ordination of gays. Not one.

  • “It is virtually impossible to see the dysfunction of a system when you’re inside it.”

    Indeed which is why we all need prophets to challenge and shed light on the dysfunction of the system. I am thankful for people like you to do such a thing. However, it is also worth noting that many of the religious reformers of time worked within the dysfunctional systems that were in in order to create change. For every MLK (prophet) that sheds light, there needs to be an LBJ (reformer) who can work within the system to change it.

    Keep preaching and shedding light! Those of us who are within the system need and appreciate it. Perhaps the rub that some had with your comments in the OP was that it may have been interpreted as not giving credit to the reformer as you seem to give to the prophet.

    (Love the new app by the way!)

  • tom c.

    I grew up at a PCUSA church, went to a PCUSA church camp, was later on summer staff there and seriously considered ordained ministry as an exploration of my sense of God’s call. Ultimately, I went another direction (academics), but I have warm memories of the ethical and spiritual benefits that rise from theological conversation and disputation even in the setting of a Church community.

    I’m no historian, but I wonder what Church historians might tell us about the context of today’s schisms (versus intra-denominational conflicts in the past that did not give rise to schism). I wonder if the fracturing of civil religion plays an important role here. It’s very sad (and it’s not just the Methodists and Presbyterians); it feels to me as if (most) everyone is climbing into their silos of affinity. The capacity for reasonable, respectful disagreement seems to be seriously degraded. And lest it seem I am finding fault with others or with today’s society, this is true of me as well; I could not be a member of a church that denies equal standing to LGBTQ folk. I just couldn’t.

  • Andrew

    When should a church schism? Apparently, everyday. There are over 30,000 Protestant denomination, and new ones forming all the time. At this rate, eventually every single person will just be their own church and do their own thing. Just like Christ intended… or did he?

    Saint Paul writes in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “And so, I beg you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that every one of you speak in the same way, and that there be no schisms among you.” (1 Corinthians 10). Clearly Saint Paul believed that Christ held to the belief that we should all be in unity.

    So, I would like to invite you all back into the Catholic Church! The Church that Jesus founded with Saint Peter being the first pope. Up until about seven months ago, I was a confirmed Lutheran. Like most Protestants, I had uneasy feelings about the Catholic Church. However, I have come to truly see how splendid she is, and how Jesus did not intend for us to be continually having schisms until nothing is left.

    We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus is calling us to be united in our faith, that we may forever change the world.

    • Dave N.

      This post is pretty ironic since the Catholic Church has been a party to (if not the major cause of) the greatest schisms in Christian history—beginning all the way back with the Council of Ephesus in 431. Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways when they could no longer work effectively together due to their disagreements. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad.

  • There is no question that theology and LGBT issues play a major role in the creation of the ECO. However, I will say that there are a lot of Presbyterians, on the right and the left, fed up with our bureaucracy and looking for ways to be more missional (variously defined). Though I know that we have profound theological disagreements, I have been taking a charitable approach to the claims of my evangelical sisters and brothers that they are mostly motivated by mission. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I am sympathetic to any attempt to move beyond the mess we’ve been in for decades.

  • Neil

    Hi Tony

    As a (youngish) methodist minister in South Africa I see the flaws in my church very clearly. Bureaucracy, resistance to change in regard to LGBT issues, and a largely conservative majority stance on many issues seem to prevent the hierarchy from implementing necessary change and leave progressive / emerging ministers like myself out in the cold. I wonder if the time hasn’t come for a “friendly” parting of the ways whereby the progressives are recognised and given space to do church in a way that is meaningful to them, whilst remaining under the umbrella and administrative offices of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    What an ominous name for a denomination… It practically screams “we’re regressives who don’t want women to be able to leave the house alone safely,” to me.

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  • Ahmed

    I believe that if there is a group of people who have reached a point where they have beliefs that are not accepted, it is much better to have a peaceful split wye all parties can still consider each other as brother and sisters in Christ rather than fight a losing battle where no one is happy and end up resenting and harboring bitterness toward the other . I think it is a more humbling posture to strike out I your own but if you at sincere and hold deeply to your new convictions then it is worth the temporary anxiety of forming a new community . That’s what happened with me at my old church. It was a mega church and I ended up questioning doctrines that they hold to as non negotiable. Instead of fighting I peacefully agreed to disagree and they did the same. I understand their position and I still feel that they consider me a brother but I do not foresee leading again unless they rethink some of their theological positions as well .

  • Harold Stassen

    “white” churches? But the PC-USA is only about 4-8% non-White. That’s not much help in identifying these churches. Probably less help than “suburban” or “wealthy”. You are disproportionately white and middle/upper middle class, even after decades of preaching “Celebrate our Diversity!” Which means either you’re lying, and lying a lot, or you have an unbelievably unnatractive church to non-whites and poor people.

  • Harold Stassen

    And isn’t a lot of the push for inclusion of LGBTQABCXYZM-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E people also funded and led by “rich, suburban White churches”? How many poor Black and Hispanic storefront Baptists and Pentecostals do you see demaning more Lesbians as pastors? Isn’t this an example of what Chris Hedges calls “the boutique activism of the Protestant Mainline”?

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  • Thomas Roger Anderson

    As a former president of the Christ Presbyterian Church Youth Group I am saddened by the decision to reject same-sex marriage. It reminds me of a Native American legend: A rumor swept through the village that a great change was coming. One individual said to himself: “I’ll never change”, and he began carving a pair of knives. The Transformer approached and asked: “What are you making?” “I am making a pair of knives to resist the change that is coming,” he replied. The Transformer said: “Those are beautiful. Let me see them!” and the one who resists change handed them over. The Transformer placed the knives alongside the man’s head and tod him: ” From now on you will be a creature of darkness and you shall be known as “Deer.”

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  • Stephanie Friant

    While I work at a church seeking to join ECO I plan to stay with PC(USA). It is my understanding that the schism is based on a significant difference in biblical interpretation. The “gay issue” is not spoken of as it has been decided on both sides. Also, while biblical interpretation on the PC(USA) side has expanded to include non-white male theologies, ECO stands by the “traditional” theology as the only theology. In practice, this results as a major divergence between how much Jesus is considered a Savior from hell or a Savior from injustice, how the minority and female experience with God is encorporated in all aspects of the church, and the idea of “mission” as immediate conversion or conversion through example. It is also my hunch that ECO is a very extroverted denomination, and PC(USA) is rather introverted. This last divergence makes a huge difference in how the denominations are run.