Over the past decade I have been worshiping with both Anglicans and Mennonites, two ‘tribes’ that each grappling with deep differences over sexuality. Both have been further challenged by new (mostly conservative) networks/denominations/communities created to absorb dissenting congregations. Other denominations have similar dynamics. The logic of both traditional and progressive views on sexuality is comprehensible (to be overly broad), but the logic behind division and breaking fellowship is much more strained. It’s regrettably true that there are times in just about any type of relationship when separation is the best decision; there are times when it’s wise to ‘see other people’. But does this apply to the church? If the church is the body of Christ how can there be others to ‘see’? Doesn’t moral discernment require the patient involvement of disagreeing parties?
It seems to me that these intentional divisions run headlong against the biblical claim that the unity of Christian practice is tied to the existence of one God. I’m thinking here mostly of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:4-6. Purposeful fractures also ignores Jesus’ own prayer that the unity of his followers would reflect his relationship to the Father (John 17). Surely institutionalized disunity compromises Christian witness. Jesus says that his disciples will be known by the mutual love they demonstrate (John 13). A church at war with itself cannot communicate much about grace or love. Put another way, formalized divisions represent a failure of the church to be a school for peace and patience. Finally, in many cases purposeful separation is a failure to submit to mutual accountability. It is ironic, if not flatly incoherent, that some of these new ‘networks’ stem from the claim that church structures fail to exercise proper authority and discipline.
Whether these new ecclesial entities call themselves ‘denominations’ or ‘networks’ or ‘communities’ is inconsequential. What matters is that they are the institutionalization of a failure of Christian virtue and the product of overt decisions to break the household of God. I have no doubt that there are respectable motivations for breaking ecclesial ties, maybe faithfulness or the desire to not fixate on one challenging topic. But more troubling motivations appear most prominent, like an unwillingness to walk with those with whom we disagree or to be identified with people we might find disgraceful. Might it not be the case that our inability to achieve clarity on moral issues is a product of our disunity and our willingness to sever ties with the broader church rather than its cause? What would happen if we simply took fracturing our denominations off the list of options and, instead, worked for the unity of these denominations? What would happen if we thought of such breaks themselves as sin? We would still need to find ways of dealing with disagreement, but we would at least retain the mechanism for resolution.