On Schism and Unity

A point of clarification: at least if we let them tell the story, the early Anabaptists were not schismatics. According to Menno, schismatics and those who refuse Christian admonition are indeed the only ones who merit exclusion–“and that with sorrow and pain,” in order to turn them back to the Word of Christ (Complete Works, 1060–61). If there is a time for excommunication, it is only to be undertaken with an eye to unity and to reforming (never destroying!) the person or group who is excluded (p. 1049). What’s more precious to the church than her unity? A church divided can never witness to the reconciling power of Christ, or the constancy of the Father. Pilgram Marpeck likewise urges,

“If you truly contemplate these things [I have said] you will honor this great treasure of the bride (love), which is unity in the Holy Spirit, and preserve it in your midst without laziness and carelessness. For this treasure alone the Bridegroom prayed to the Father on behalf of the bride, that is, to keep the unity with one another as the Father and Son are one in Spirit and truth. This is the true and chief treasure of our most holy Bridegroom, Christ.” — Pilgram Marpeck, The Unity of the Bride of Christ

I say this, of course, in response to Eric’s recent post: get your schism on!. The title, I know, is offered in some jest with Eric’s usual wit—but it is nonetheless a devastating mark of a certain apathy with respect to the church as church, of a habitual irreverence with respect to its transcendent character. The true insight of the post—to expose the entropy of Mennonite moral rigor—is obscured by the lighthearted attitude towards rupture, which attitude can only be the result of our failure to see the church as anything other than a gathering of likeminded activists. If the church is truly the body of Christ, as the New Testament and Christians everywhere have always held; that is, if the church is a sacrament of Christ, and even a sacrament of the unity between the Father and the Son (John 17:11), then we will always speak with the deepest gravity and even, with Menno, sorrow at the prospect of division. Even with renewed moral rigor, schism will never be the answer to disobedience but always discipline: cautious, specific, performed in care and love and with the explicit hope of future communion. This was the spirit in which the early Anabaptists parted company with other Christian confessions, and the only spirit that could possibly justify our continued separation. Perhaps Eric intended this spirit, but the stark alternatives he proposes, headstrong schism or universalist moral indifference (neither of which have ever been espoused by any Christian confession), suggest otherwise. He seems to think it impossible to insist on Christian accountability without a reckless divisiveness that would end in countless ‘churches’ of one. I hold out hope for some better option.

“My dear ones, constrained by the love in Jesus Christ, I wrote this letter because of the schism which, until now, has existed between us, because we have never recognized in our hearts and consciences the acknowledgment and understanding of Christ Jesus in each other, nor have we ever been able to meet. Nevertheless, in my heart, I have always, and even now, consider you to be zealous lovers of God and His Christ, although you lack knowledge and understanding of Christ. Every hour and every moment, I am also concerned about this lack in myself, and I have to be, for eternal life depends on knowing…” — Pilgram Marpeck, Judgment and Decision

Comments (16)

  1. Forrest Moyer

    Thanks, Brian, these are helpful thoughts. Thanks especially for this last quote from Pilgram Marpeck. I’ll have to start reading his work….

  2. eric

    Well written Brian.

    I recognize that my approach to issues through sarcasm and humor is off-putting to many people. To me it seems like the best possible way to deal with issues full of gravity and even sorrow. In my experience, humor allows creative reflection and self-critique and can often lead to solutions that would be impossible to reason through seriously, sorrowfully and earnestly. That’s not your main point, though, so I’ll move on.

    You did catch the central question of my post, obscured as it may have been. The entropy of Mennonite moral rigor. Very well put.

    I do think you missed the potential for subtlety in my proposed categories. Why is the One Universal Superchurch necessarily any more morally indifferent than the semi-unified church you are proposing? Again, I’m less interested in a “yes” or “no” and more interested in the specifics. What issues are worth, as you said it, “excommunication… undertaken with an eye to unity?” How do you decide? How to you keep an eye out for the least of these?

    On the other side, of course, schism can be as “cautious, specific, performed in care and love and with the explicit hope of future communion” as any other option. I stated the two options distinctly because I think they are distinct options, not because they are polar opposites without any flexibility.

    I am behind you 100% in holding out for some better option. I have to admit, though, that excommunication worries me much more than schism, gravity worries me much more than irreverence, and the context of The Body of Christ only serves to increase those concerns for me.

    Excommunication and Discipline are exactly the issues that I would fear from a grave and earnest church. Both are paternalistic attempts to change “the other.” Where is the self-reflection in that? I cannot support a church “unity” that is self-fulfilling in that way, that is set up to retain the status quo rather than learn and grow.

    Excommunication is nothing more than schism with Hubris. I’m not leaving you, I’m pushing you out. It only works if you are the majority in power. The Mennonite GLBT community CAN NOT excommunicate or discipline the rest of the church for their unrepentant hate-mongering. Excommunication and discipline always come from the top against those at the bottom. This is not the way Jesus taught.

    To me, schism seems the more humble option, with greater potential for reconciliation. Schism is only speaking for yourself. I believe this, which is different from what you believe. We are different. From there we can talk as equals.

    At every single point I can remember, Jesus was opposed to both discipline and excommunication. It is clear that Jesus also did not propose schism from the church. What Jesus seems to have done is fight the church at every juncture without ever leaving it, excommunicating it, or taking any other institutional action for or against it. He built a movement inside the church that was aimed at change. What he got in the end was a fairly painful schism.

    As a card-carrying member of the Body of Christ, I take my irreverent and potentially inflammatory humor very seriously.

  3. Trini

    Eric, I’ve been reading your post and Brian’s follow-up response and the many comments along with them, I’d ask your forgiveness for some speed-reading at some point before I comment on this topic.

    I think the question you raise is more relevant than ever, especially in the (1) Mennonite view of the church, the universal body of Christ here on earth and (2) the fact that different denominations make up this universal body of Christ. There are different beliefs, interpretations and understandings, and personally I take schism as something different from excommunication. As excommunication seeks as Brian pointed out the eventual reconciliation and restoration of that person or persons into the body, but they have been disfellowshipped to prevent further harm to the body after rejecting all attempts to reconcile them. That said, I think churches have been too quick to apply disfellowshipping a brother or sister for ‘different opinions and interpretations’ than for plain ole’ evil and sin. I’d have probably voted after futile attempts at reconcilation to disfellowship (after a period of discipline and all that stuff) G. Dubyah from my church, if he continued in his illegal war and occupation of a soveriegn nation, if he attended my church, because it would’ve been too hurtful to the body and not advancing the truth of Christ. Of course that’s a different issue entirely.

    Then there’s this whole business of brothers and sisters in Christ. We want to fellowship with the ‘like’ now as we can’t seem to see eye to eye with the ‘unlike’, but then ‘When we all get to heaven… what a day of rejoicing that would be’. Actually it’ll be a day of swallowed pride. Standing alongside people we refused fellowship… we’re now going to have eternal fellowship with them… or will we?

    Coming in with my perspective, both as an international, and someone who worked with a parachurch organization, Campus Crusade for Christ, now attending a Mennonite church, I don’t look at my church as the closed walls of just the people inside of it. And even in my church there are people in there that I don’t agree with all the time. They challenge my faith, and my expressions of it, and I in turn do the same. Actually if they wouldn’t have welcomed me, I would have just been another ‘evangelical left outside’. I get to be engaged in conversations with people who support the war and people who are pacifists, and the people who sit on the fence. All the underlying respect that these are my brothers and sisters, and we all children in God’s eyes.

    That said, sometimes it’s frustrating to wonder why some people in my church couldn’t understand things which are simple to me like environmental stewardship and respect for life and non-violence. But would I want them outside my church? That doesn’t bode well for me. But then again, I’m not an ethnic Mennonite (what seems to be called these days, cradle-Mennonite), I have learned through careful study what it is we believe, I have challenged these beliefs and in doing so, these confessions have challenged me.

    There are people in my church who are GLBT, and I know it’s not the norm, in most churches, but this is something we don’t understand. We understand sin in different ways, as in sex outside of marriage, so we ask those people to stay sexually pure. Our church hasn’t yet had to broach the topic of same-sex ‘marriages’, and I think that’s going to be a tricky one to navigate, because as you said there is a line that crosses into condoning sin and being accepting of different interpretations. That’s going to be an interesting conversation one day… one I’m wholly unprepared for.

  4. eric

    On closer reading: I think the concept of a “unified” church being a church that excommunicates and disciplines members is exactly what I am complaining about in my original post. There is no unity there – there is a leadership doing everything they can to uphold a status-quo and defending it with god-language and vague statements of “unity.”

    It isn’t honest, and it is never applied consistently. As we can see in the Mennonite church: we can happily agree to disagree on war, but when it comes to love and sex we need to start excommunicating the slutty sinners “for their own good?” Isn’t it funny that the straight white men in power are divided on war, but they are all able to agree on being straight white and male? Works out nice for them, doesn’t it?

    That’s the system that opposed interracial marriage while it could, that kept (is keeping) women from ministry as long as it can, and is “disciplining” any congregation that commits the awful sin of including the marginalized and oppressed GLBT community (who, shockingly, happen to be sinners like ourselves. How dare they). All by excommunicating the evil-doers “for their own good” until the church had a chance to catch up with the basic tenets of human rights for all.

    When the church is falling behind humanism as the source for love-rhetoric, I think something is terribly wrong. And I blame the patriarchal concepts of excommunication and discipline.

    The system is self-fulfilling. That’s not unity or diversity, that’s oppression.

    We’re all adults. We don’t need to be disciplining each other. We need dialogue. My only question is whether that should happen between churches or within the church.

    Thus again, my two original options: Unity within smaller church institutional units making up a diverse body of Christ, or individual diversity within one large unified church institution. Personally I’m beginning to think it doesn’t matter – either one is more honest and loving than what we have now.

    (And what exactly does it mean to say that a group which split from the state church “were not schismatics?” You can’t really call that break “not a schism,” can you?)

  5. carl

    Great posts and discussion.

    Excommunication is nothing more than schism with Hubris. I’m not leaving you, I’m pushing you out.

    I couldn’t agree more. Claiming to prefer excommunication to schism is as pure a power game as ever there was. “Schism” is at least as amenable as “excommunication” to a spirit of dialogue and hope for future reunification (if not more so, thanks to the lack of arrogance). Preferring excommunication doesn’t reverence the transcendent body of Christ, it just betrays the power (so comfortable it can be assumed without comment) of unexamined privilege. The real question in eric’s original post is, “what issues of Christian faith and life might be worth breaking common fellowship over?” That’s a question for the ages, and claiming a preference for excommunication does nothing to address it.

    Humor, irreverence, even scandalous behavior on the excluded margins are far more in the spirit of Jesus than the privileged and powerful wielding the heavy glove of institutional power with “the deepest gravity”. The latter would be, rather, the spirit of the “brood of vipers,” I think.

  6. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Eric, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I don’t find your humor or sarcasm off-putting–on the contrary, I find it outrageously effective in exposing absurdities and for that reason eminently worthy of attention. I also, however, find it revealing: the starkly reduced character of satire makes priorities glaringly obvious. Thus the lack of any theological language in a piece about the church provokes a worry, for me, that we’ve somewhere lost the most basic aspect of the church, as distinct from any other social body–namely, that it’s not a merely social body at all but the mystical body of Christ. That loss, I was trying to say, has as a direct consequence a certain ease in speaking about rupture of any sort.* A second consequence, which is clear after your reply and Carl’s, is that tradition is reduced to status quo–which is to say that the church holds nothing worth preserving. Of course church discipline looks like mere power play when you’ve already decided for everyone involved that they shouldn’t trust what’s being required.

    My basic points, I think, are uncomplicated: the transcendent nature of the church, the imperative of Christian unity, the tragedy and even sin of schism, the need for discipline. These points have been made more eloquently and humbly than I can manage by all the saints–St Augustine to Mother Teresa, St Agatha to Menno. Without much trouble, you’ll even find them all over the New Testament!** That the human lust for power sometimes perverts church discipline is no new discovery; arguments over how to deal with that lamentable fact date back to the fourth century. I doubt too whether we’ve ever responded adequately, and perhaps Mennonites–having always insisted on rigorous discipline even as a minority perspective–might have something to contribute on the question. But if excommunication is a practice so obviously marked by hubris (the model for which certainly does come from Jesus, and which is repeated throughout the NT), surely you can see the hint of pride in ‘discovering’ the true spirit of Jesus for the first time in two thousand years–and breaking with the rest of the church by virtue of your insight?

    * Schism and the ban alike. I didn’t anticipate the sharp reaction to the ban, after Eric’s clear-cut language of the need for intentional exclusion.
    ** Eph 1:23, Eph 4:3-6, Rom 16:17, Tit 3:10–respectively and only representatively.

  7. eric

    Brian, I think you’ve missed the point of my call for constant reformation both here and over at the post on the eighteenth letter of the alphabet.

    I have no delusions of having “discovered” anything. Partly because I know there are and have been wiser, kinder, funnier, crazier, more radical people all over the world and all through history – but also because I don’t think I have things figured out. If I did, I would be suggesting we change once and be done with it. Get it right and move on? That would be the worst thing I could imagine.

    Constant questioning and reform is not about throwing everything out. It’s not about claiming to know more than people before. It’s not about ignoring history. It’s about continued creativity and growth. It’s about understanding that life and culture and people are always changing, that “the law” exists to serve people and not the other way around, and that there are often issues we aren’t even aware of until we try something new.

    As an analogy: you can do decent theatre by doing exactly what is expected. It won’t be wrong, it won’t need to be fixed, but it would sure be a lot more interesting if you took some risks. You might fail on some, but you’ll surprise yourself on others. Either way, if you’re open to trying again, you’ve learned something for next time. Keep taking risks. I have much more respect for a theatre company that takes risks and flops sometimes than one that just does the same old thing.

    Making new mistakes is something every generation of the church should have the chance to do. It’s a great learning experience, and it cuts down on potential for long-term abuse of power and long-term marginalization.

    I’m talking about theology. I’m just of the persuasion that god-language usually keeps theology in the vague and the abstract. Theology should be about people’s experience of God and each other. These are relationships that are always moving and shifting, and need a language that shifts as well. I could also reference canonized texts, but have never considered proof-texting all that useful. The Bible says a lot of things, and Hitler can use it as well as I can. He did. I read the Bible. I talk about it. I am informed by it. That is more important to me than having the exact words (of some translation) at my beck and call. (I’ll make sure to keep my Kurt Vonnegut Jr. quotes to a minimum as well, so as to remain consistent.)

    I’m not reducing tradition to status quo. They are two different, but very similar and closely related, things. Neither is inherently evil. Both should be questioned on a regular basis.

    Why is power abuse in the mystical body of Christ not more than a lamentable constant? How could any mystical body be so damaged, if not for the fact that it is also a very real, physical, institutional body with policies and laws and people in power and people on the margins? That institutional body does not have to be a constant. It could, in fact, be reinvented in such a way that a real voice is given to diversity and new ideas. That would require rebuilding from the roots, however, because racism and sexism and homophobia are structural problems that go deeper than having a black pastor or a gay friend. If you look closely, however, you will see that the structures of the church institution, just as with many non-mystical institutions, is built in such a way as to retain status quo and avoid change. That’s not just dangerous in some theoretical plane, that’s dangerous to the very marginalized and oppressed groups that Jesus made the center of his mission statement.

    I would also point out that exclusion and excommunication are very different things. Again, the difference is hubris and paternalism. I am excluded from the NAACP and the AARP for very good reasons – because I’m not part of their mission. Neither of those groups, however, has had the audacity to excommunicate me despite my continued, knowing participation in a system wrought with racism and ageism.

    My original question still stands: What issues are worth the division?

    According to the church recently: Women in leadership, divorce, remarriage and homosexual relationships.

    In Anabaptist tradition: Infant baptism, violence, instruments and arts, buttons, mustaches and electricity.

    Let’s not be too pious about our “roots” either. Among others, Menno Simons believed in the sexist (among other issues) Celestial Flesh theology long after the “medicine” behind it was considered bunk. That doesn’t discount the good stuff he had to say, but it does mean we can’t be taking “the roots” or traditions without a grain or two of salt.

    But what I can’t figure out is what unity means to you. Everyone loves unity, but no one wants do describe it. All I can figure from your comments is that unity ought to be imposed by the church and accepted by the members. I’m (surprisingly) not interested in that, but I may be misreading you. It seems neither unified, nor Christian.

    What if you take a different look at the schism idea? What if church is rooted in local, physical community rather than international institutions. What if those small, communal churches come together on some things to work as a larger church? What if there is no central church authority, but a collection of small groups of people who can actually relate to each other and each other’s needs? What if church unity happens from the ground up? What if it is defined by those things that people actually find in common, rather than what an authority claims is the universal truth?

  8. Katie

    Eric, there you go again. Just as I was gearing up to write a little bit in response to Brian, I reloaded my browser and you had already done it. I don’t have a lot to say that you haven’t just said so I’ll keep this pretty short (so no one else posts again before I get this off).

    Brian, the thing that really struck me was your calling Eric out for his lack of god-talk. I think he adequately responded to that but I would add something. As much as you see a lack of theology in what Eric writes, I see a lack of a true recognition of power dynamics, privilege, and oppression in your writing. It is starting to feel like a pattern for straight white males with privilege to really love the god-talk and wonderful ideas like the unity of mystical body of Christ. It isn’t that these things don’t hold a place in discussion but it serves as a marker of the priorities of the writer (just as justice talk does). Straight white men in seminary on a path to being Mennonite golden boys probably have a lot invested in god-talk and things staying the same and not questioning the status quo to hard. Maybe you should check your privilege.

  9. Trini

    Eric I see you asking your question honestly and really we’ve all been skirting around the actual replies you want to hear.

    For me, I would think it would be wise for a church to split if there are two differing missions and objectives so that each one can be explored more fully. I think splitting over a “problem” is one of the most idiotic things that I have ever heard, yet it happens everyday. This church is a “break-away” from that one.. and so on. I don’t think any issue is a good enough one for a antagonistic break. Breaking to explore different values, such as peacekeeping vs. feeding the hungry, I could understand. Not that one value is better, but that each body can fully commit themselves to one or the other. But in reality no one breaks for such reasons. They break for utterly foolish reasons.

    Your interpretation of schism vs. excommunication is correct. In Trinidad we call that “Taking front, before front take you”. So it’s basically two perspectives of looking at the same view. A church might “excommunicate” some members for say, their beliefs and actions regarding abortion, but these members might see themselves as having to chart a new course to start a new church because they were no longer welcome where they were.

    That being said, I don’t think you’re gonna get a clear answer on this one, about what values we think are justified to split on. At least not from me, because I can’t seem to justify a split.

  10. carl


    Wow, we are really talking past each other here. Eric and Katie’s posts said many things more clearly than I would have, so I’ll just add a bit from my angle.

    I think we could find common ground in a dislike for modernist hubris; you’ve mis-diagnosed me with that ailment. I don’t believe I’m the first to think. Over the past two thousand years of history (and before) I find plenty of both heroes and villains (mostly complex mixtures of the two, is is the human tendency) and plenty to learn from both. I find both tendencies in similar proportion within and outside of institutional churches.

    I don’t question your desire to honor the wisdom of our ancestors. I question your glib assumption that the best of that wisdom emanates from those who have acquired and maintained power within the institutional church (generally through very human means, differing little from any other human institutions), rather than in marginalized histories of faithfulness and resistance in the face of oppression. I don’t question the transcendence of the gathered Body of Christ, but I do question the easy identification of the human institutions called churches as the only or best manifestations of that Body. I question the seeming assumption that God only works in the world through those who piously claim to be in God’s direct employ.

    I don’t question whether to honor and learn from the voice of tradition, I simply ask “whose tradition?” To me (and many others throughout history – I don’t claim to be newly discovering anything) it seems more faithful to the spirit of Jesus to seek his voice in the streets, in the margins of society, among the poor and excluded. Not in the pious pronouncements of powerful and comfortable white men, whoever they claim to serve or whatever institution they are running.

    Trini – valiant effort to stay on topic. I admit to avoiding the question too, just because it’s such a huge one. But I think you make a good distinction between splitting acrimoniously and splitting because each group has a different role in the larger Body. I think that connects back to what Eric was saying at the end of his comment about seeing the church growing bottom-up rather than top-down.

  11. eric

    Good thoughts, Trini and Carl.

    On further reflection I’m finding it hard to remember any of Jesus’ cohorts being in the employ of the church or a church institution. He was, on the other hand, accused of spending too much time getting drunk and hanging around with prostitutes.

    Is “The Mystical Body of Christ” actually related to church institutions in any way at all? Or is it the sum-total of God’s Children? Or just those who follow Jesus? If it is anything but the first, church schism has nothing to do with unity within the body.

    The church is an institution. Institutions have mission statements, and divide when there is disagreement on the mission. Why shouldn’t church institutions do the same, even with animosity at times? Unless the mystical body is somehow tied concretely to the institutional body, this in no way divides the unity of the the Body of Christ.

    I guess I don’t see a big difference between happy splitting and angry splitting – they both lead to two institutions, each with it’s own mission. Sure, the first one sounds, well, happier, but is that all?

  12. Skylark

    Eric said: “I guess I don’t see a big difference between happy splitting and angry splitting – they both lead to two institutions, each with it’s own mission. Sure, the first one sounds, well, happier, but is that all?”

    There is a difference. Certainly not all good feelings are healthy, and not all negativity is misplaced. However, it’s better to still view each other lovingly as siblings in Christ than to hate and malign each other. When a split occurs among Christians who behave in love and maturity, they may come back together over time. Or, they may be able to work together on projects they still hold in common. Or, if nothing else, we learn how to split and not leave huge gaping wounds for someone else to try to heal. Yes, the children are watching. The non-Christians are also watching.

    If we Christians can’t have a separation without the viscious strife that defines many secular conflicts, why on earth would any non-Christian find that attractive? People slip through the cracks when leaders are too busy fighting each other to care for the “walking wounded.” A new or potential Christian (not to mention the rest of us) wants to know the church members won’t focus so much on the reasons for division that they forget their ministries. If we want to be a peace church, we have to know what we’re doing with that peace. Like that popular multi-colored banner says, peace is not just the absence of war. It means caring for the needy, feeding the poor, lifting up the oppressed, etc.

  13. jdaniel

    I have enjoyed the debate, but I’m having trouble understanding the statement below (from Brian’s reply under #6). Specifically, I’m drawing a blank on how Jesus developed excommunication.

    But if excommunication is a practice so obviously marked by hubris (the model for which certainly does come from Jesus, and which is repeated throughout the NT)…

    When you say this idea comes from Jesus are you referring to Matthew 18:15-19? Is that the only reference from the Gospels?

  14. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Thanks for the helpful comments and criticisms, everyone. Katie, thank you in particular for calling out the lack of justice-talk in my writing, and for connecting it back to my privilege. I am consciously (though not happily) reactionary at least in this way: I speak only about God on this blog because I perceive so few others talking about God, which is my (unhealthy) way of insisting that God can be spoken about as God, and not only in the context of talk about justice. And my ability to do so is connected to my privilege at least in this way, that I’m at an existential remove from oppression in almost every way, which makes it easier for me to bracket those questions in order to get at what I see as the more foundational question. I confess these quite devastating inadequacies, even while I hold out hope that they don’t completely sublate my concerns.

    I simply don’t have time to respond well right now; it’s the end of a school semester for me, which means forty pages of writing in the next two and a half weeks. Afterwards, maybe I can attempt some kind of revision. I’ll only signal that I think the discussion will need to focus around norms. Constant growth, regular repentance–but according to what norm? For the church, I’m saying: according to Christ the crucified and risen Lord. Any growth ‘beyond’ this principle will always rely on a different norm. Asking and answering the question of what issues could legitimately divide us, and deciding how to respond to such deep disagreements, presume a coherent answer to this question first–which I fear remains ambiguous in our generation of Mennonites.

  15. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    J. Daniel, that’s indeed the passage I meant. We can debate the shape of New Testament discipline, but not whether some form of rebuke, some process of discipline, and the possibility of the ban is there in the New Testament; it clearly is. In the Gospels we have at least Mt 18, plus the repeated language of ‘binding and loosing’ in Matthew 16 and 18 and John 20, and the command to rebuke in Luke 17:3. For repetitions of the need for discipline (and sometimes the ban) in the rest of the New Testament, see for just a few examples 1 Cor 5:3-5, 2 Cor 2:6-7, Gal 6:1, Tit 1:3, and Tit 3:10.

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