When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?

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*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

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14 thoughts on “When is schism justified (or required)?

  1. Just wondering: how can Congregationalists be “in schism”?

    In any case, this isn’t really schism, is it? He’s just telling individuals to leave their individual situations, right?

    What gets me is the “You need to….” part of this; I find it really obnoxious, frankly. And then, in the comments he’s begun calling people who don’t do things his way “not Christian.” Sorry, but I’ve had plenty of that thrown my way since my first contact with the church, and i don’t like it any better coming from so-called ‘liberals.” Is there some problem with with saying “Here’s my case,” and leaving it at that?

    I’d say this is coming from a place of “I’m embarrassed to be part of this backwards organization.” Well, the Church IS backwards, and very slow to change; is he just now cottoning on to this? He’s also saying that the church hasn’t ever “been Christian,” over the course of the past 2,000 years, until he came along, apparently.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of Christians sure seem to like telling other people what to do – and that they’re not “really Christian” if they don’t toe whatever line is being drawn. I find this truly repulsive by now, to be honest.

    • Well, that’s a good point. Schism implies some sort of collective decision to break away. If we’re thinking about it as a question of individual conscience, then it’s not clear that “schism” is an appropriate term.

      And I think that’s why I share your dislike of Jones’s tone here–if we’re talking about people following their individual conscience, hectoring them about it (to the point of de-”Christianizing” those who disagree) isn’t a very good way to go about it.

      What I was trying to emphasize here is that institutional structures are not “neutral” between the two sides; and that needs to be taken into account. Simply saying “let’s disagree in love” is, effectively, asking one side to give up (at least temporarily) on their claims. Of course, as I was trying to get at in my last paragraph, it’s not always clear (at least to me) what a given situation calls for.

      • It’s true about institutional structures – and I’d have no problem if he encouraged people to fight against those things. Or organized mass protests against them – or even said “This is worth leaving a church over.”

        It’s the “my way or the highway” attitude I really dislike – and the self-righteous we’re-better-than-you-are-and-in-fact-the-only-ones-really-Christian-here moralism. Those two things are my most-disliked features of the church in the first place, and both have in the past made me think seriously about leaving it entirely.

        The church is idiotic, and everybody knows it; his post is just another good example of this. The faith itself, though, is so valuable that it can overcome most of the idiocies, most of the time. This is why most people can afford to wait and be patient with those who haven’t quite reached Tony Jones’ exalted level of enlightenment.

        In any case: since there actually are churches that ordain women, and since nobody’s required to belong to any particular church if they don’t want to, and since women have two feet of our own – how does advocating for “schism” have any relevance at all?

        Tony Jones is apparently attempting to totally stamp out a particular system of beliefs he doesn’t personally care for; he seems unaware, though, that this is not really necessary, since women do have options, and we do have agency.

  2. The obvious problem with this is that there is no end to it: either this just ends up being a long series of showy symbolic gestures (and, to make it worse, the symbolism is of how much better you are than other people) performed by people only at those times where the modishness of a cause makes it relatively low-cost for them to do it (and it’s really hard not to read Jones’s ‘equality for women now, oh, but LGBT equality not yet’ as anything other than this), or it amounts to a never-ending attack on those around you for falling short and moral failure because there is no large-scale fellowship possible — certainly not on the size of a typical big-name denomination — in which you cannot find an endless list of power imbalances and structural injustices.

    What really gets me about Tony Jones’s post is that one of the things he’s advocating is ‘schism’ — although, as Barbara notes, it’s hard to see how this could even conceivably have the force for a Congregationalist that it has in almost any other kind of denomination — with a large group of people he outright admits he doesn’t know very well. Breaking off from people you have almost nothing to do with anyway is a pretty weak foundation for thinking that you can lecture other people on how to deal with the same kind of people when they are actually known and loved as your family, friends, neighbors.

    • One interesting thing about Jones is that he has in the past explicitly called for a dismantling of denominations, and it’s not clear (to me anyway) what, if anything, he would replace them with. So “schism” effectively seems to amount to leaving your particular congregation.

      I do think, as I suggested in the post, that there can be “deal-breakers” where the only option one has in good conscience is to leave. So to that extent, I agree with Jones. Though I’m far less confident than he seems to be that I can make that judgment for others. The ambiguity of many churches on LGBT equality is a case in point: as I said in reply to Barbara above, it’s not always clear what the situation calls for. Presumably it depends at least in part on what one considers to be the prospects for institutional change.

      • I think an important question here is, “What actually makes something a deal-breaker in this way?” It can’t be the injustice of whatever it is, because that’s going to be constant — for instance, if failing to ordain women is genuinely in itself unjust, then it always has been. I very much fear that what it actually amounts to usually is, “I myself will benefit more if I break relations, due to public opinion (or whatever).” That’s no good; even if you happen to be right in this case, it just shows that you can’t be relied on when your self-interest is on the line. So the contributing factor has to be something between the two. But what could that really be?

    • And Brandon makes an excellent point, too. Somebody who’s never been through schism – and won’t ever have to go through it, as far as I can tell – has no business at all advocating it to other people who’d actually have to deal with the fallout.

  3. (He’s also saying that huge swathes of the Christian world are in fact “less than Christian” – i.e., the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches – because they don’t ordain women.

    Sorry, I think he’s completely full of it – and way too into himself. What a total jerk, is my impression, to be honest….)

  4. I think Brandon homes in on the key question: “What actually makes something a deal-breaker in this way?” After all, we all put up with stuff we regard as wrong or even just less-than-optimal in the church (not to mention in other institutions). At the same time, most of us, I think, would recognize some cases where we do need to draw the line (the splits in American churches over slavery come to mind) and compromise is no longer possible.

    At the same time, as Christians, we also have to consider the possibility that we may object to something our church does because of something wrong with us and not it. So that may argue for sticking it out for a while and understanding what there is to be said for the other side. If one is committed to a particular community, it does seem like there’s at least a prima facie obligation to work within the system and let whatever processes there are for dialogue, study, prayer, etc. work themselves out before leaving (much less urging–or demanding–that others do the same).

    I think this is a genuinely thorny question, which argues for greater humility than is on display in Jones’s post. I happen to agree with him that women’s ordination (etc.) should be a settled issue, but as Barbara points out, there are already churches for people who think that. :)

  5. Those who know me probably know where I stand on this issue. I don’t want to get into that. However, I think that it is important not to focus too much on Tony’s first proposal.

    Evangelicalism functions primarily at the level of the ‘parachurch’ and through ‘ministries’ fostering a sort of ‘ecumenism’ between people from certain families of related and cross-pollinating denominational traditions. That is the level where Tony is suggesting the primary split and the focus of most of his proposals is upon those actively engaged in parachurch ministries and contexts. He is addressing evangelical influencers primarily (those who work for ministries, speak at conferences, and write books), not people in the pews. I don’t think that divisions at this level should necessarily be treated in quite the same way as those within churches.

    Evangelicalism as a movement, since it is focused on the parachurch, can accommodate more diversity in belief and practice within itself than an individual church could. And, as evangelicals can often be influenced primarily through the ministries of the parachurch, affiliations between ministries and people in denominations opens up channels for mutural influence. Tony’s proposal, as I read it, is that egalitarian leaders and influencers in particular need to take responsibility in this area and not validate complementarian ministries (and, by extension, teachings) by their working with and for them.

    • Lee says:

      Thanks, Alastair, for providing that context. Very helpful.

      I’m sort of regretting pegging this post to Jones’s since I’m not endorsing everything he says or even particularly invested in evangelicalism as such. To me the interesting question here is when trying to encompass conflicting positions within a church becomes a form of “repressive tolerance.”

  6. It is hard to justify staying in a church that acts wrongly – I do it by continuing to state my disagreement. To remain a part of an organization that does what you think is wrong without trying somehow to make a difference seems like complicity.

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