I came across a refreshing piece of writing concerning the split that is currently happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I intentionally use the present tense because this is not a split that is “coming” or one that has passed. Instead, it is a long slow (sometimes faster) rending of a Christian church over genuine theological disagreements about significant issues for life and faith.
In the midst of this sundering passions run high. Words like “apostasy” and “schism” are flung around, often carelessly. This can create a toxic environment that makes it almost impossible to move into reconciliation.
Enter J. Barrett Lee, a progressive pastor who wrote the post mentioned above. In it he lays out his cards as a member of the progressive wing of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and cites his advocacy for the “equality” (read, “full inclusion” and “affirmation of”) GLBT people in the life of the church and in the New Testament orders of ministry (elders and deacons).
In his post he names reality as it really is when he asserts:
In reality, both sides are delusional. The PC(USA) is not the United Federation of Planets and ECO is not the Rebel Alliance. It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re essentially dealing with two different religious traditions under the roof of one denomination. This leaves us with two options. We can either: (A) Organize our denominational life together in such a way that leaves room for both parties to coexist, or (B) Peacefully part ways in a spirit that is consistent with our highest shared values.
The “Schism” Model
Typically, any division of a single denomination or church into two or more denominations or churches has been labelled a schism.
Many are, but is it really necessary that the only way to separate is in acrimony? Is it really always wrong to follow your understanding of the teaching of the church across history and leave for a place more consistent with that understanding?
Obviously schism is a serious matter since not only does it mean that error has taken place, but its also detrimental to the witness of the church in the world. However, even Calvin provides for situations in which separating is justified.
Peaceable separation model
Lee points to a second model rooted in the history of the people of God. In Genesis 13 Abram and Lot are journeying through the promised land. They reach a point in their journey where they realize that the land will not support both of their contingents. The solution is an amicable separation with mutual blessing and reciprocal generosity.
It seems to me that this is a model that we can pursue and maintain a wholesome witness to the broader world. What do you think?