Community and Conflict: My take on Schism and United Methodists

UMCI’ve been indebted to my Texas friend Richard Heyduck, who is not only reading my book, but periodically sharing bits of it on social media. This week, he pulled a passage out of chapter six which deals with community. The chapter is intended to articulate for students the complexities of building the kind of true community characterized in Paul’s writings. It borrows heavily from Scott Peck’s work (especially The Different Drum from 1987). Peck distinguishes between “Pseudocommunity” and the conflicting stages that lead to developing True Community. Richard shared this passage from the pseudocummunity section:

Surprisingly, a focus on emotionality, warmth, and belonging can actually inhibit the development of community. In a close setting, the primary focus of all members of the group is to smooth over differences by keeping them inside, avoiding conflict, and staying close to those others who already agree. The primary motivation is to maintain politeness.

Richard then pondered how this description could be applied to issues facing the United Methodist Church (news reports on potential schism or not are here, here, here, and here). The news stories describe how 80 United Methodist leaders from all five jurisdictions had released a statement saying schism was inevitable. This was followed by a larger group who signed a “Way Forwarddocument. The Book of Discipline makes clear that ministers officiating at same-sex marriages will be brought up on charges. This happened to Rev. Frank Schaeffer when he officiated at his son’s wedding (he was defrocked after a church trial). Following that case, other jurisdictions have announced that they will not bring charges in the future.

I am not a member of the clergy so some of these conflicts offer more sociological than personal interest. I defer to others who are attempting to find a way to handle the serious questions of same sex marriage in ways that take scripture seriously while offering compassion to all who seek after God. Two of my UMC social media friends have attempted to lay out paths forward (see Morgan Guyton and Zach Hoag).

But Richard’s original question has me thinking more carefully about Peck’s community stages. Pseudocommunity breaks in the face of what he calls Chaos. This is the stage where real differences come to light and where entrenched positions become exposed.

It is the most uncomfortable stage of community building. We find ourselves having to travel through the muck as a means of getting to better ground. If we persist, we move to what he calls Emptiness. In the words of Parker Palmer, “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” It is only when we give up trying to control things that Community begins to emerge.

My chapter goes on to explore Bonhoeffer’s ideas in Life Together. Bonhoeffer makes clear that Community is God’s work and not ours. He suggests that building our idealized form of community is doomed to failure because we will force others into our ideal.

It strikes me that Peck’s approach to community, like that of Palmer and Bonhoeffer, is best illustrated by small groups with the possibility for interaction. While Peck does attempt to broaden his approach to large-scale organizations and even nation states in a later book, it becomes much harder to visualize than with small groups.

So how does this work for denominations? What does it mean to be part of an international association of churches organized around particular theological and ecclesiastical priorities?

I still think there is value in Peck’s four stages. But too often denominational groups (as well as churches, but that’s another post) see Chaos as the enemy. They want to find ways of maintaining Order and Control and do so in ways that run counter to Christian community.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote that the major shift occurring in modernity was a move from social organization based on community (gemeinschaft)  to that based on contract (gesellschaft). In the former, we knew people in the town and the family and assumed the best of each other. In the latter, we need written agreements to insure proper behavior. The differences are profound. Community presumes that people will stay connected. Contracts are written to explain what happens in the case of breach.

General Assemblies are exercises in Gesellschaft. They stipulate procedures and protocols that are enacted by votes by majorities of representatives. Those become binding across the denomination. They are (relatively) successful in controlling behavior to insure Discipline (it’s the title of the manual, for goodness sake).

How else could denominations and churches proceed? Perhaps we could risk Chaos. Perhaps entering into Chaos allows the Spirit to move upon the waters. Yesterday, Karina Kreminski wrote a wonderful piece on the Missio Alliance blog titled “Taking the Spirit Seriously“. She writes:

Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives and in our theology? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world. God knows how addicted humanity is to control and self direction, so the Spirit functions in our lives to bring us into line with God’s good purposes for us.

Brandon Robertson raised similar issues in his Revangelical blog. His piece is titled “Loving our (Theological) Enemies” and speaks to the difficulty of managing disagreements. In my terms, he’s writing about being willing to risk Chaos. His words echo Karina’s:

Because when we chose to love, fear is dispelled. When we chose to love, our hurts can be healed. When we chose to love, we humanize the “other” and see them as who they truly are- image bearers of God who are earnestly seeking to follow Him and proclaim truth. And when you begin to see your theological other like that, everything changes. If all of us chose to follow the Spirits calling and love our theological enemies, can you imagine the power? After all, if we believe that we do have the right perspective, then the way to make a convert certainly isn’t through condemnation. It’s to love.

Bonhoeffer argues that the very basis for community arises not from our politics and plans, our book of Discipline, or even our Orthodoxy. It comes, he says, from Jesus Christ:

We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. He who looks upon his brother [sister] should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ.

So the challenge of avoiding schism doesn’t come from some accommodation or power moves or allowing regional variation. It comes from attending to the Spirit who is leading us to become that which Christ has called us to be. It’s hard, of course, but that’s what Jesus told the disciples the way forward looks like.

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