Monday, May 26, 2014

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

            Recently a group of “traditional” United Methodists issued a statement that in effect calls for an amicable divorce over the issue of same sex marriage.  It was a document full of sweet reason.  Essentially it suggested that both parties in this conflict would be better off without the other.  And I am sure in one sense that is true.  I am certain it will be a relief for the advocates of same sex marriage to not have to listen to the biblical challenges of the traditionalists.  And certainly the traditionalists will be relieved to not have to confront the question of gay marriage and gay clergy once again at some local or national gathering.  It is the easiest, most comfortable response to this conflict to peacefully permit the others to go their own way.  And this, of course, is the Protestant way.  We have a long history of refusing to live together if we couldn’t agree on, well, just about anything: theology, sacraments, church order, the ministry, the place of women in the church, musical instruments in worship—the list goes on and on.  And we always have some biblical warrant for our position—whatever it is.

            Stanley Hauerwas once said something like “Catholics need to be more like Anabaptists, Anabaptists need to be more like Catholics and nobody needs to be Protestant.”  I find the proliferation of Protestant schisms shameful and appalling.  I find it appalling because it suggests we find our unity not in Christ but in our theology, or liturgical practices, or organizational structures, or view of the Bible, or hermeneutics, or social location.  I find it appalling because we present ourselves as “ministers of reconciliation” but spend our time refusing to hear each other.  And, let me make it clear, this is a fault of both the “left” and the “right.”  Our behavior confirms the views of Rene Girard that human communities need scapegoats to foster identity.  We need enemies.  And so the “liberals” need the evil “fundamentalists” to mock and scorn.  And so the “conservatives” need the evil “liberals” to denounce and despise.  As Nathan told David, “thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14, KJV).  When we solemnly chide the Israelis and the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Democrats and Republicans, on the importance of reconciliation and living together with differences, our essential hypocrisy is exposed.  Jesus said something about splinters and beams and the Protestant church in North America, both left and right, is blinded by its own need to be right, to be in control.  And this control is foster by despising the alien other. 

            I confess that I have no idea what to do about this.  I have been a part of the Evangelical movement my whole life.  It is my home—not always a comfortable place to be—but my home.  I see a small cloud on the horizon the size of a human hand; a storm of division and despair is on its way.  And of course, this is always our way, isn’t it?  My own denomination began as a renewal movement in the Lutheran church of Sweden that ended up as a group of denominations in the United States.  We couldn’t agree on baptism, eschatology, or ecclesiology so each group went its own way.  Division is in the evangelical DNA.  These days the Internet is filled with evangelical heresy hunters who search for nuggets of heresy like old men scanning the beach with metal detectors for lost watches.  Incapable of living with mystery and ordinary human frailty they insist on no accommodation with what they considered error.  To be fair, the left side of the theological spectrum has its own heresy hunters—although they would not call them that.  The left is as likely to call someone out over incautious thoughts and careless words as the right—because both sides want to win.  If I have any hope it is in young people who want to follow Jesus—the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels.  If I have any hope it is not in national organizations and ecclesial hierarchies but in local congregations seeking to be faithful to our long heritage as Christians and the call to be true disciples.  My hope, you could say, is that Protestants can stop protesting so much and be, well, catholic and Anabaptist.  I am hopeful but, as they say, not optimistic, because the theological terrorists, both liberal and conservative, are fully armed and ready to blow up even more bodies of Jesus followers.

John E. Phelan. Jr.


  1. This is a great call to unity and to be about the Gospel. No wonder the church in other countries fairs better than we do here.

  2. In countries where the church is growing, a consensus on a normal Christian lifestyle exists.

  3. Jay, you've helped me to make my choice between Ascension Sunday and Easter 7 (John 17 - Jesus' prayer for protection and unity of the church). Thanks and peace to you. Mike