by Chris Ritter
I ran across a brief but meaty post on church unity by Douglas Wilson, a self-described “Chestertonian Calvinist.” Responding to Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, Wilson raises up a biblical model of addressing schism with discipline. Here are four quotes my beloved United Methodist tribe would be wise to consider:
- Unity is not the antidote to division.
…Scripture teaches us to attack divisiveness with discipline. We don’t answer division with unity; we answer division with discipline. Divisiveness and heresy need to be addressed in local congregations every bit as much as adultery and embezzlement do. And when we separate from a schismatic, we are not being schismatic. We are not doing the same thing he is doing. “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10).
2. Rejecting error is the path toward catholicity.
And there is another kind of future unity that we are supposed to grow up into (Eph. 4:13), when we finally arrive at the perfect man, in the unity of the faith. When we have arrived there, it will have been because we have rejected various winds of doctrine, the sleight of mind, and the cunning craftiness of false teachers (Eph. 4:14). In other words, in order to grow up into the truth, we have to reject the liars. And we do so while speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Identifying and rejecting the liars, the divisive, the sectarians, and the schismatics is therefore the path to catholicity.
3. Passivity and tolerance run counter to genuine church unity.
When we say that we can discipline for heresy and schism when we are more unified, we are missing the fact that when we are more unified, there is far less need to do so. If failure to discipline schism and heresy gets us to the point of greater unity, why don’t we continue to do nothing so that we can have even greater unity than that? But unity does not promote godly discipline. Godly discipline promotes unity.
4. Someone is always being disciplined… the church or the schismatics.
And this reveals something about the nature of discipline. Whether you discipline or not, you are always disciplining. This is because discipline is inescapable. To discipline the wolves is to protect the sheep. To not discipline the wolves is to discipline the sheep. As we wait for a unified church, we will find ourselves disciplining someone in the meantime. It will therefore either be the heretics, or the churches that discipline heretics.
In a number of ways that sounds like Wesley.
Those are thoughtful quotes. I ran across some very similar thoughts from Bonhoeffer in my study this past week (as well as studies in NT at United just today!).
1. On Bonhoeffer. In both Discipleship and Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes the heresy is more serious than sin because a sinner may be restored through confession and repentance (discipline) versus a heretic who is ideologically separating from the church.
2. In NT today, we discussed 2 Peter and Jude both of which address in specific and very strong language issues of heresy. Just surveying the NT canon in a very quick and general way, one can see that the threat of heresy and schism was a major prompt for the letters, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse.
Spot on, Chris! My first thought after reading #4 was: Of course, the one you “feed” is the one that wins. When people “get away” with behaving in a manner contrary to the stated beliefs of the church, they will only continue to grow stronger in their rebellion.
A view from the pew: The United Methodist Church is in existence because John Wesley pursued a vision of a practical religion for a plain people and his Priority #1 was always the individual and their relationship to God. To achieve that end, he was very careful about what was taught in the societies that were under his direction; he enforced discipline. Currently, The United Methodist Church is a long way from providing a “practical religion for a plain people” and its Priority #1 is most definitely not the individual and their relationship with God. I know that because it was not until I distanced myself from all things church that I was finally introduced to a God worth worshiping and my perception of Christianity went from “This feels like rocket science” to “Wow, this is simply unfathomable”. My teachers were and are an unusual assortment of people from the communion of saints past and present who crisscrossed denominational lines, including John Wesley. I am now hesitant to re-immerse myself in the local church because of its theological grayness that results from being in a conference that is a healthy mix of progressive and classical Christians–compared to the clear cut teaching I have been exposed to outside of the church, the current pastor is most definitely trying to straddle different understandings. Bottom line for me is the muddled teaching of the church will most definitely no longer do.