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Christianity at a Crossroads: Is Another Schism Inevitable?

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The United Methodist Church is expected to split into two denominations.

Church leaders announced the potential split after years of attempting to find common ground on the issues of LGBTQ ordination and the church’s response to same-sex marriage.

The split will create a “traditional Methodist” denomination opposing LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage while opening the door for the United Methodist Church to affirm LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriages.

The Washington Post reported that church leaders stated the plan offered “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity and respect of every person.”

The United Methodist split might be revealing a larger division emerging within Christianity.

While doctrinal issues such as clerical authority, the Eucharist, baptism, the Bible and other important issues set the stage for the rise of denominationalism over the last 1,000 years, a new paradigm shift appears to be under way.

The ordination of LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage are forcing Christian churches to rethink their identity and practice when it comes to human sexuality

Two important questions are at stake in this debate: (1) Who can be a “Christian”? and (2) What constitutes appropriate and ethical behavior?

While few argue that LGBTQ persons cannot be Christians, the more conservative wing of Christianity claims that same-sex attraction and nontraditional gender identities are set against a created order.

The argument is made that anyone acting outside this normative order engages in sinful and unnatural behavior.

The more liberal wing of Christianity argues that LGBTQ persons are created in the image of God and their behaviors are not contradictory to the created order.

In other words, LGBTQ persons are acting out of their created existence and natural design. Therefore, it would be inappropriate and unethical to withhold the rites of the church.

While this debate will surely continue, the larger issue at stake concerns the very identity and mission of the Christian church.

Who can be considered a Christian? Do Christians have to adhere to a specific criterion of beliefs in order to be called Christian? Is the mission of the church to convert people to a certain set of beliefs or welcome them into a community following Jesus?

Two significant movements seem to be emerging regarding these questions.

For several decades now, the right wing of the evangelical movement has stressed the importance of doctrinal purity over all else. One must believe and practice correct doctrine before a Christian can find favor with God.

The second movement stresses the importance of relationships. Critics of this movement argue that advocates devalue or water down doctrine, but proponents refute that claim by stating their practices are derived from theological convictions.

With both movements unwilling to compromise, the situation has created a fracture crossing denominational lines. If the fracture continues to widen, the split of the Christian church seems inevitable.

Just as the Great Schism divided the church in 11th century and the Reformation in the 16th century, the fracturing of the church in the 21st century would be a watershed moment.

In Acts 15, the first great debate and schism erupted for the first century church. The issue at stake was whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised before being accepted into the community.

Jewish sympathizers wanted to keep circumcision as a physical sign for conversion, while others felt the practice unnecessary for Gentiles wanting to follow Jesus.

Paul wrote to the Galatians about this particular issue, advocating for a more inclusive principle. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

As the church faces an uncertain future, this same dynamic is at play. The church is once again at the crossroads of doctrinal allegiance and human relationship. Both viewpoints feel as though they are on solid theological footing.

As the debate continues, only time will reveal the outcome. However, if the United Methodist Church’s resolution is any indication, Christianity is facing yet another schism.

The growing division among Christians begs the question how this will affect the witness of the church in the United States.

Last year, Pew Research Center released a report demonstrating the decline of Christianity in the United States.

Sixty-five percent of American adults identified as “Christian,” a decline of 12% from 2018 to 2019. The decline startled many within the church.

However, Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, noted the decline had more to do with people of faith being unwilling to identify with the institution of the church.

“So, is American religion changing? No question,” Jenkins wrote. “But how far is this a real decline of faith, and how much is it a reduction in people’s willingness to affirm membership in institutions they neither like nor trust?”

Jenkin’s observation and question are valid. Yet, if people are growing weary of the institution of the church, we must ask why. Why are more and more people – even Christians – leaving the church in growing numbers?

Both sides of the current schism will blame the other. Conservatives will claim the church has grown too lax, arguing human secularism has crept into the church’s teachings and practices.

Liberals will argue that Christianity has grown too rigid, more concerned about doctrinal accountability than actually loving one’s neighbor.

Regardless of the accusations and blame, the church still stands at a crossroads. The future of the church hangs in the balance. Every Christian should thoughtfully and prayerfully ponder these issues.

Addressing LGBTQ inclusion and exclusion is vitally important. Whichever direction the church finds herself taking, the future of the church and our witness will be affected for generations to come.

Will the church continue to decline in the United States, or will it find new life through rebirth for a new era?

Only time can reveal the future, so for now we remain at the crossroads, arguing which direction to travel. It’s a lively debate and one worth pursuing.

For me, I will travel the road of inclusivity. I understand the possibility of my error, but I would rather err on the side of being too inclusive than pushing someone away.

Again, while the discussion of LGBTQ inclusion in the church has a place at this crossroads, the questions we face are more universal, relating to our ongoing quest to discover and live out our identity and mission.

The church is simply asking, as it has done before, “Who are we and what is our purpose?”

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.