The present-day ecumenical movement, with its conceptual origins drawn together from the 19th and early 20th centuries, has largely been organized around an effort to restore unity (sometimes stated as “visible unity”) among Christians separated from one another by divisions over the centuries (most commonly noted among these being the division between Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics and Protestant churches). One alternative model of the ecumenical project is not to come together to have one institutional church, but, instead, to draw closer together so that we are in constant fellowship with one another, sharing with one another about our understandings of Christ’s teachings and our experiences of living the Christian life according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in our particular contexts. Whatever one’s understanding of the ultimate objectives of Christian unity, a persistent challenge confronting Christians is that of division. In the first model of Christian unity mentioned above, this is manifested in institutional schisms; in the second model above, it is manifested in a refusal to be in fellowship and to work side-by-side in the enactment of ministries of love and mercy modeled for us in the life of Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Looked at from one viewpoint, the second model can appear schismatic in light of the expectations of the first. Here is one major point of discussion that must be addressed among faithful Christians. Likewise, however, a series of theological questions arise when the first model is seen in light of the second. Notably, when institution is given priority over the free action of the Holy Spirit both inside and outside of that institution; when appropriate varieties of Christianity (fitted to the needs of groups within human society) are discouraged or suppressed in preference to a less flexible whole; when the demand is placed upon the faithful to submit in obedience rather than live faithfully in accord with their free will, etc., the first model can be seen as a catalyst to division among Christians.
In addition to concerns over the nature of church organization and governance, there are also questions of holiness (for some, these two categories may also overlap). The behaviour of some may be perceived as completely contradicting the requirements of the Christian life. While there can be debate over some of the interpretations of what constitutes a holy life, some are named and repeated throughout scripture and specifically referenced by Jesus in his earthly ministry. Among these are teachings concerning love, mercy, care of the poor, forgiveness, healing, and so on. While Jesus’s teachings make clear that we are to embrace one another, God’s children in general, and the whole of Creation, we are also taught not to conform ourselves to ways that are unholy (as seen through the perspective of Jesus’s teachings).
Problems arise when Christians seek to live in a harmonious and right relationship with non-Christians who do not share their values. What sorts of contact with non-Christians might be damaging to the Christian’s own well-being, or that of the Christian community? How does one navigate the fairly simple-sounding, yet perhaps infinitely complex challenge of being “in the world, but not of the world?” It is, at its essence, a question of Christian particularity in relation to the rest of humanity and creation. The teachings of Jesus need to have a human “space” in which they can function as formative of faith, persons of faith, and communities of faith. There need to be boundary markers that make clear that this is Christian and that is not. For two millennia, baptism has been a rite that has been specifically employed to “mark” a person as a Christian (and thereby declare everyone who does not bear that ritual mark as not being a Christian).
Likewise, within the Christian community, there are some behaviors that are deemed to be unacceptable. These call into question, or are even sometimes allowed to negate, a person’s claim to be a member in good standing of the church. Likewise, certain ideas are seen as unacceptable and those who espouse them are deemed to be such a danger to the inner cohesiveness of the Christian community that they are not allowed to remain. Again, there are boundaries that are drawn in order to maintain the particularity of Christian identity.
For as much as we — and I — speak about unity as a matter very near to the center of concern for disciples of Christ Jesus, it does not take precedence over core teachings or certain prerequisite characteristics of the Christian life. Indeed, one of my concerns is that the passion for unity has sometimes been employed in such a way as to cover over important questions and concerns about essential doctrine and holy living. There seems built into being a Christian the fact that constant striving for unity must also be accompanied by the persistence of some necessary disunity. But, it is also important to say that because disunity may sometimes be necessary this does not mean that it is ever an acceptable permanent state.
My studies in graduate school focused upon Methodists in New England from 1789 (when they became permanently established in the region) to 1845. What began as an interest in Wesleyan Methodists becoming a vital religious presence in a region dominated by Calvinist churches (the oft-assumed theological antithesis of Arminian Methodism) turned suddenly into a story about holiness and church unity. New England Methodists produced from among their number several anti-slavery activists. Many of these have become names known almost solely from footnotes accompanying academic works that do not generally get the attention of most people — La Roy Sunderland, J. A. Merrill, Orange Scott, and Timothy Merritt (to name but a few). These were people who spent many years working to bring about the end of slavery in the United States of America — and the end of complicity with the institution of slavery by their own (then) Methodist Episcopal Church (one of the forerunners of today’s United Methodist Church).
These people were well aware of the importance of maintaining the unity of the church. Even then, before the present-day ecumenical movement began, there was concern for not tearing apart the Christian community. For years, they gave public addresses, preached, wrote letters and articles, published newspapers, and struggled during meetings of the church’s governing conferences, to fight what they believed was un-Christian behavior. They fought for the church, and the United States, to live up to the holiness that Christ taught. They spoke of the Christian life and how the church and nation of that day were not living it. Slavery, for them, was a contradiction of the gospel, an affront to human dignity and an attack on personhood. Slavery, in short, was intolerable — and those who supported it needed to repent.
The problem, of course, was that they were calling for the abolition of a feature of life that had existed in human society for as long (and longer than) recorded history. For many in society the idea of a world without slavery was as unimaginable as a world without poverty, disease, and war. Slavery may not have been a holy thing, per se, but it was a reality of life. When anti-slavery activists delivered a lengthy condemnation and appeal for the repentance from that perceived evil at the 1836 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, they were seen by many as an evil presence in the church; an agitating force that disturbed “the peace of the church” and threatened its order. By 1844, having predicted earlier that the church would soon have slave-owning bishops, (which it did by that year in the person of Bishop Andrew), the anti-slavery activists in the church were saying that it would be better to be rid of the parts of the church that aligned themselves with the evils of slavery than it was to continue united with them. During 1844-45 the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South became a reality.1
I confess that, up until the time I spent years in the archives reading the writings of advocates for the anti-slavery cause and advocates of unity with slavery, up until I pored over the handwritten transcripts of the ecclesiastical trials of La Roy Sunderland (who was put on trial seven times in six years for disturbing the peace of the church by fighting to end slavery), I was one who believed that divisions in the church should be avoided at nearly any cost. If anything, I went to that research project with a bias towards southerners (but not slavery). I am a native of the American South myself. Many in my family were Confederates during the American Civil War. As I read those words in print and in manuscript form, I felt myself torn apart by a conflict that I could not imagine (even more than a century and a half later) having been resolved without schism. I also realized that I, a person with a life-long predisposition to non-violence, could not see a way our forebears could have avoided the war that would come a decade and a half after the North-South division that took place in my church.
Unity is to be striven for with passion by every Christian. I fervently believe this. My criticism of many on both sides of contentious issues in the church today is that they put more energy into condemning one another than into loving one another. But, I believe, there do come times when institutional division is necessary in order to bear witness to our understandings of the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Another thing I would observe as a historian of Christianity: All parties in divisions (even those that, perhaps, need to happen) have some measure of truth. And, all parties in a division are, to some extent, wrong. The tearing apart of a Christian community is not a simple separation of diseased from healthy flesh. It is always a separation resulting in multiple communities that remain a mixture, in various proportions, of both. Ultimately, they cannot be made whole until they come together in love again (institutionally or in genuine Christian fellowship).
When discerning whether separation is necessary, the leadership must be that of the Holy Spirit. Many, if not most, divisions in the Christian church are founded upon lesser leadership — often the arrogance and bigotry of humans. All of our quarrels with each other as Christians should be prayerful quarrels. Those of self-affirming rhetoric are sinful.
Divisions born out of deep conflict over questions of doctrine and holiness are generally not what I mean when I speak about the birth of new varieties of Christianity in a cellular growth model of the church. That sort of particularity is motivated by missional concerns wherein the question is asked, “What is needed to reach the people in a particular place or circumstance?” When the church suppresses development based upon that motivation, that suppression is itself divisive — because it becomes an obstacle to meaningful fellowship and partnership between the resulting churches in the future.
Our impulse towards unity is because love calls us to be united in the love of God with each other. Unity is part of the faithful expression of Christian love. When divisions occur — whatever the cause — the Body of Christ needs to strive to be made whole in vital fellowship in order to fulfill the command that we love one another as Christ first loves us.
1 Orange Scott, Address to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church; Presented During Its Session in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 19, 1836. To Which Is Added, the Speech of the Rev. Mr. Scott, Delivered on the Floor of the General Conference, May 27th, 1836 (New York, NY: Piercy, 1836).; a very interesting pamphlet from this same time also lays out in detail the grievances of anti-slavery activists during the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Please see, Daniel DeVinne, The Church and Slavery. A Historical Survey of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Its Relation to Slavery (Boston, MA: King, 1844).