I try to steer clear of controversial subjects and listen to all sides. I believe in unity rather than division, although the United States has increasingly become more politically, racially, and socially divisive during my lifetime. I am not proud of this trend and have prayed for it to cease — with little success. Greatness lies in weakness; the ability to admit failures and seek a path forward that allows for all voices to be heard and respected despite passionate beliefs. Great communities are built through their unity around common humanitarian values. Great nations decline when the majority tries to destroy the minority or seek one-sided solutions.
I witnessed the fracturing of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from my youth until General Assembly voted in 2014 to ordain homosexual clergy who lived in committed same-sex relationships. My entering class at seminary in 2014 was at least one-third homosexual, the first class that admitted practicing homosexuals. The amount of time and money spent over many decades on this internal issue was one of the reasons I decided to leave the PCUSA, a mainline Protestant denomination that is now a liberal shell of its former, more diversified religious organization.
For many years, The United Methodist Church (UMC) tried to stay united but is now divided. General Conference voted numerous times on various LGBTQ proposals, but the status quo held: “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (¶304.3, Book of Discipline of the UMC) Some leaders advocating LGBTQ ordination did not enforce the UMC rules citing human rights; disorder, rather than order, ruled. So the conservatives, who were in a slim majority, decided to leave this past summer. UMC churches have left this year in large numbers to join the newly formed Methodist denominations, such as the Global Methodist Church, or became nondenominational. History repeats itself and the UMC, a name that does not reflect reality, followed the footsteps of the PCUSA. In both cases, the conservatives voted with their feet, regardless of whether they were in the minority or majority.
Is this just a post-modern Protestant issue? The answer is clearly no. Dr. Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), in his book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Volume I, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992, pages 328–382), wrote about the development of the Medieval Church sect movement. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), an Italian Dominican priest, developed the Church of Rome’s theology. During his lifetime, Christianity was split between Rome and Constantinople (Istanbul). The western Church (Rome) created a theology of compromise between Scripture, natural law, ethics, and political theory. Aquinas published his magnum opus, Summa Theologica, which has been the foundation of Catholicism theology ever since the Middle Ages. Aquinas sought to live within and above culture rather than outside it. By adhering to the Thomist social doctrine, a Christian could live within society with Church support.
But Aquinas’ social doctrine was a compromise, not perfection. “The contrast between the radical law of the Scriptures and the way of life of genuine Christians which was measured by this standard, and the ecclesiastical ethic and social doctrine, with its relative and inclusive tendency, led to the formation of sects.” Some early Christians, such as St. Anthony (251–356), ran away from society into seclusion to escape the sinful world. Monastics sought seclusion with like-minded men or women and spent their lives in solemn contemplation, leaving the rest of society to procreate and deal with earthy matters. In the Medieval Church, sects started to form within society under strict ascetic ideals based on their interpretation of Scripture.
“The sects gained on the side of intensity in Christian life, but they lost in the spirit of universalism, since they felt obliged to consider the Church as degenerate, and they did not believe that the world could be conquered by human power and effort.” Infants were baptized into the Church of Rome and registered as new citizens. It was later that a Christian made the decision to join a sect. “An individual is not born into a sect; he [or she] enters it on the basis of conscious conversion.” This parallels early Christian conversions, except the conversion was not to Christianity but to a subset of Christianity.
The sect movement started just like early Christianity. Small sects, including Waldensians, Franciscans, Lollards, Taborites, and Hussites, formed regionally over western Europe as religious education and access to Scripture increased. Before the Church became legal in the Roman empire, pagans persecuted Christians. Christians then persecuted their fellow Christians for heresy. Peasants demanded Scriptural justice and revolted against the State only to be slaughtered by the State that justified violence to maintain order. The more sect members tried to follow their interpretation of Scripture, the more they were persecuted by the controlling Church. The split became permanent in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg University door. However, the violence and divisions did not cease when the Protestants separated from the Church of Rome.
Our post-modern Protestant splits over homosexuality and other denominational issues are just additional Christian theological dispute over living authentically as God commanded. The UMC’s theological guidelines are based upon Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, with Scripture “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” (¶105.4) These guidelines were founded upon Reformational theology; that the whole of Scripture trumps all other sources.
John Wesley founded the Methodist movement but would not break with the Church of England (CoE), although he did not always agree with his denomination. The Methodist rupture with the CoE occurred after his death. “For Wesley, a cogent account of the Christian faith required the use of reason, both to understand Scripture and to relate the biblical message to wider fields of knowledge.” (¶105.4) If Wesley rose from his grave, traveled to the United States, and observed the 2022 state of the UMC, what would he say to the Methodist flock? Something to ponder in our Age of Division.