Schism and Reunion in the Methodist Church

Schism is defined generally as a 'split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties' and this is usually 'caused by differences in opinion or belief.'

In the 1820's a group of Methodists broke away over the issues of church government and the role of the laity.  This group felt the clergy and bishops were too powerful and made decisions and then expected the local church to simply abide by these decisions with no input from the lay persons of the church. This group formed The Methodist Protestant Church.

In 1844, conflict emerged between the abolitionist northern churches of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the slave owning and permitting M.E. churches of the southern states (primarily). As a result,  the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South developed from a formal split.

In 1939, the Methodist Protestant, the M.E. and the M.E., South reunited to form the Methodist Church.

In 1968, The Methodist Church, the United Evangelical Church united to form the United Methodist Church.

John Wesley was greatly apposed to the idea of schism. He was so committed to the idea that 'love' and 'grace' should so infuse the hearts of men and women dedicated to seeking after God and living a life of faith that it was his understanding that to do less than live in harmony was sin. His sermon "On Schism" is filled with the scriptural admonitions to live in peace and harmony. He specifically mentions the 'petty' issues that might encourage divisions and urges Christians to rise above such actions.

This aspect of his sermon is often offered when issues of deeper significance arise that serve to challenge the reach of harmonious unity.  The base issue often seems to be a question of how scripture is viewed as authoritative to life and how applicable its injunctions are held to modern life.

In reading his sermon it is clear that there are two classes of issues creating schism. One were those interpersonal issues that are revealed in squabbles, jealousy, malice, unkindness and similar issues of the life half-heartedly given over to God's love and the transformation of the repentant life.  The other class was the issue of schism stemming from being forced to do something held to be against the scriptures and a violation of conscience.

"But perhaps such persons will say,[in this issue of leaving or schism] "We did not do this willingly; we were constrained to separate from that society, because we could not continue therein with a clear conscience; we could not continue without sin. I was not allowed to continue therein with breaking a commandment of God."

This clear distinction illustrates that not all schism was bad.
"If this was the case,' [a violation of conscience or perception of sin] "you could not be blamed for separating from that society. Suppose, for instance, you were a member of the Church of Rome, and you could not remain therein without committing idolatry; without worshipping of idols, whether images, or saints and angels; then it would be your bounded duty to leave that community, totally to separate from it. Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England. I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay -"

It can be implied that over the issue of church governance, part of Methodism deemed schism appropriate in light of a threat to a violation of conscience and/or s committing of sin. The same can be said regarding the issue of slavery.  The examination of the arguments used in both of these situations might be very illuminating in light of what was considered a violation of conscience and/or the committing of a sin.  Learning why something was so important and what elements served as the tipping points might serve to address current issues and future challenges for any religious group facing inner turmoil and conflict significant enough to threaten schism.

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