Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

The seductiveness of schism: a caution to fellow Nazarenes

gallant_lady_shipwreckAs Nazarenes, our core values are clear. We are Christian, we are holiness, and we are missional. Regarding the first value – “We are Christian” – we celebrate the remarkable times in which we live. For the broader Church of Jesus Christ, these are days of conciliation, of unity, of coming together for the sake of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a great moment to be alive and on the winning team!

The evidence of growing unity is all around us. In 1998, a joint declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the nature of justification was pronounced, a declaration ratified in 2006 by the World Methodist Council. Closer to home for those in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit,  2011 saw the birth of the Global Wesleyan Alliance, with the 2013 meeting witnessing the participation of 11 denominations, including the Wesleyan Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of God (Anderson), the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methoodist Church USA, and others. These are encouraging signs that the Holy Spirit is bringing us together in new ways, helping us advance in unity and with greater joint effectiveness.

As the only Nazarene missionaries living in the West African country of Benin (1999-2003), we reached out to missionaries of other denominations. Every Sunday night, twenty or so met together for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. On Wednesday, our missionary men’s group met for  breakfast. Despite differences, we were one in Christ. Friendships forged with brothers and sisters of different theological persuasions became our lifeline. While we didn’t agree on a handful of doctrinal issues, we knew this: We needed each other!

Against this larger backdrop of cooperation between churches of various traditions – a move to strengthen the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love, as the old hymn says – a dischordant note has been sounded this week by Nazarene pastor and blogger Josh Broward in his essay, “Will the Church of the Nazarene split?”

I don’t begrudge Pastor Broward his right to ask the question. Our denomination from the start at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908 has been founded upon a spirit of compromise to bring together diverse groups. Tensions have existed all along, and sometimes those tensions have resulted in schism, like when the Bible Missionary Church left the denomination in 1955 over the issue of television. Smaller splits happen in Africa, such as when a handful of Nazarene congregations in southeast Nigeria broke away from the denomination in the early 1990s. If Paul and Barnabas went their own ways over the issue of John Mark and his usefulness to the mission as a traveling companion (Acts 15:36-41), can we expect to always have unity in our time?

That being said, there are 4 reasons why expending energy talking about denominational schism is misguided:

1- Talk of a split ignores that the Holy Spirit is moving churches closer, not further apart. At the very moment when an interdenominational choir of Christians is learning to make beautiful music together, the “Shall we split?” dirge from some Nazarenes sounds strangely off-key. Instead, Paul advises:”So then we pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19, NASB).

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