In these days of crisis within the United Methodist church, many are the calls for unity. Many are also the condemnations of even the mention of schism, understood as a formal separation. To compromise the church’s unity is to compromise the church’s witness to the world according to some. According to others schism will reveal a failure of leadership and love. The unity of the church, the mark of identity that the church is one under the headship of the one Lord and one God, is vital and essential. Unity, however, is not the only vital and essential mark of the church. The four traditional marks of the church are that the church is: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These four marks are together stated in the Nicene Creed. Each of the three other identity markers of the true church are also vital and essential. Each is integral to a people’s connection to the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the church’s witness to the world. True unity can only be a reality and understood correctly within the context of these other marks of the church.
The church is called not only to be one, but to also be holy. In the Apostles’ Creed this is the first of two marks of the church mentioned therein, the other being catholic. To be holy is to be set apart by God the Father through faith in the Son and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live holy lives that reflect the image of God in the world. The church is called to make a difference by being different and living differently in the world by the grace of God. A beautiful summary of the holiness for which the church is saved from a decaying and darkened world is found in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.
There, after the sermon’s introduction called the Beatitudes, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14 ESV). The saltiness of the salt and brightness of the light are determined by the extent to which the holy characteristics as defined by Jesus are evident in the lives of his followers. The righteousness to which disciples of Jesus are called is a higher righteousness that includes the right motives of heart to go along with the motions of obedience. It is a righteousness that is in harmony with the intent of the law and the prophets and each and every commandment found in scripture, as summed up in the Ten Commandments (5:17-20). Among other many vital aspects of holiness, Jesus highlights the importance of sexual holiness and the integrity of marriage to the highest degree and with the sternest of warnings about the danger of temptations to compromise that holiness.
The content of the holiness for which the church is set apart can be found in the moral law, which has ongoing relevance for the church. The moral law, revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, reflects the heart and character of the Law-Giver. Being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) humans were created to reflect God’s holy love and righteous character into the world. Sin disrupted that vocation; grace restores it. Hence, Jesus’ call for his followers to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As the perfect human being, Jesus embodies as the first perfect image-bearer since the fall the content of the very character of God revealed in the moral law.
Through the forgiveness available through his sacrificial death and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit we too are called to embody the character of the God who sets us apart. To compromise the holiness for which we are saved is for the salt to lose its saltiness and to hide the light that is meant to bring blessing and healing to the nations of the world. This too constitutes a compromised witness of the church and reveals a failure of leadership and love. A church that has lost its flavor is “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” A church that compromises the moral commandments of God is a church that refuses to shine the light of God in all its fullness by doing good works (i.e. living a life in harmony with the commandments as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount) for the glory of God. And a church like that stands the risk of Jesus removing its lampstand. To such a church Jesus’ message is:
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:5 ESV
Unity does sometimes require compromise, but only on non-essential matters. The integrity of the moral law, summed up in both tables of the Ten Commandments, is not an indifferent matter. If Jesus says we shouldn’t relax even one of the least commandments, how much more serious to relax his call to sexual holiness which comes with the sternest of warnings about the severest of judgments? It is evident that even in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”, which is often misused to justify treating differing opinions on sexual morality as an indifferent matter, that John Wesley saw the moral law as a non-negotiable, essential matter for true Christianity. For Wesley the true catholic spirit would include a hatred of “all evil ways”, which he describes as “every transgression of his [God’s] holy and perfect law” (Sermon 39 section I:16).
The word catholic means universal. It does not refer to just one branch of the universal church that uses that title in their name, but includes that branch and every other Christian body throughout the world and throughout history. The catholic (universal) church is not limited to any one ethnicity or nation as it is made up of Jews and Gentiles, and it is not limited to any particular geographic area, as it spans the globe. The catholic church also is not limited to any particular time, as it spans all of history. Neither is the church confined to those who are presently alive in their body on earth, but also includes the saints who are absent from the body but present with the Lord in heaven. In other words, the catholic church includes the church militant (against sin and the forces of evil on earth) and the church triumphant who worships before the throne of God in heaven and pray for justice to be carried out on earth (Rev 4-6).
It must also be noted that the catholic church, made of of Jews and Gentiles in one body, stands in continuity with Israel, the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The unity of the church cannot be conceived apart from its catholicity. We are to be one in the essential matters of the Christian faith around the globe and throughout history. A presentism and cultural-centrism is not a recipe for unity when understood within the context of the catholic nature of the church.
The apostolic nature of the church refers to the church’s foundation upon the witness and teachings of those called and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. With the exception of Paul they were as his disciples witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, his crucifixion and burial, and, along with Paul, of his appearances after his bodily resurrection. The New Testament bears witness to the teachings of the apostles and their reports regarding the teachings of Jesus and the meaning and significance of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as the fulfillment of the new covenant promise found in the law and the prophets. The apostles affirmed the ongoing authority of the Old Testament as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount indicates (Matthew 5:17-20; also see Luke 16:16-17). Hence Ephesians 2, which shows the continuity of the church with Israel, says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Although there is discontinuity between the church and Israel in terms of ceremonial, civil, and symbolic laws for Israel as a distinct nation among the other nations of the world no longer being necessary for the church as their purpose was fulfilled in Christ, one of the most important areas of continuity is the universal and timeless moral law of God.
While in Ephesians 2, for example, Paul can speak of laws being abolished, it is clear in Ephesians 5:1-14 that by this he does not mean the moral law, which remains the standard of obedience and judgment for the new covenant people of God . As N.T Wright says, for Paul the outward markers of Israel’s national identity are “no longer required, but the moral standards which were supposed to distinguish Israel from the nations were if anything intensified” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p 1048). And for Paul, as well as Jesus as indicated in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 19, sexual holiness, celibacy in singleness and fidelity within the lifelong covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, is a vital component of the moral law to be lived out in the life of the church together.
The teaching of the apostles reveals the ongoing authority of the Old Testament, particularly the moral law revealed therein. The testimony and teaching of the apostles as revealed in the New Testament also show how Jesus fulfilled the promise of the new covenant found in the law and the prophets, in which God’s people receive forgiveness and a new heart empowered and guided by God’s Spirit for obedience to God’s law.
We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, but not apart from the call to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling (Ephesians 4:1-6), and not apart from the call to “put off” “the old self,” which “corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Holiness and the other two marks of the church cannot be tossed out in the name of unity. Neither can unity be achieved through compromise with “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). That is not a recipe for unity, but is the very act of schism itself because it is to dilute the ingredients of the church’s saltiness, to separate from the church universal, and to break from the witness and teaching of the apostles. This would be to move away from the foundation of the New Testament apostles and Old Testament prophets.
John Wesley said that schism biblically speaking is not separation from a church, but division within a church through the failure to remain united in word, mind, and judgment (“On Schism” Sermon 75 section I:1-2). According to this understanding of schism, it is obvious that we already have schism internally in the UMC. This is really the result of the failure of leadership and love to maintain the unity of the Spirit, which scripture describes as being united in the same mind and judgment and of the same mind, love, spirit, and purpose in full accord (1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:2.). When we admit that we are of two minds, we admit that there is schism. It is those who insist on revising the moral law to accommodate modern, western sexual sensibilities who are causing division and compromising the church’s witness, not those who insist on upholding the church’s scriptural standards.
While Wesley did indicate that a believer should not separate from a religious body frivolously, he did indicate that separation would be necessary if a believer would be forced to sin by remaining within a compromised Christian community (Sermon 75: section II:17). If the United Methodist church does officially compromise the biblical standard of sexual holiness, even by treating it as an indifferent matter, which it clearly is not, or if the denomination fails to hold covenant-breakers accountable, then in order to remain those of us who hold to the traditional Christian teaching would be forced to break the clear command of scripture to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesian 5:11). This would be true if the terms of communion included being forced to either accept and celebrate sin, or to treat it as an indifferent matter when it clearly is not. Either scenario of possible compromise will be unacceptable.
The bottom line is that any church or denomination that would allow itself to be conformed to the world by deliberately rejecting a straightforward command of scripture, would fail to be one with the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Regarding the presenting issue of whether or not to affirm same-sex relationships, which has brought every mainline denomination to the point of schism, in the scriptural or traditional sense of the word, the theologian Wolfart Pannenberg said:
“Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Wolfhart Pannenberg (see full article in Christianity Today HERE)