Are All Divisions of the Devil?
By Rob Renfroe
I don’t mind people thinking differently than I do. I often learn from such people, and I regularly benefit from considering opinions different than my own.
But I admit I am upset when influential leaders express views that seem shallow and vapid. Or when, to promote their agenda, they throw out emotionally laden half-truths that condemn their opponents.
On May 7, 193 churches in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference were approved for disaffiliation. Bishop David Graves used that occasion to state, “I’d like to use Scripture to tell you to behave and become better Christians and love each other more. For division is of the devil.”
Of course, we could all probably be reminded to behave and become better Christians and love each other more. But are all divisions of the devil?
That statement being made by a UM bishop is richly ironic considering the historical fact that the denomination he oversees began when the Methodist movement in the early years of a newly formed United States divided from the Church of England. Was that division of the devil? Were Wesley, Asbury, and Coke influenced by demonic forces in facilitating that separation? Should we all “renounce the devil and all his works,” and go back to being members of the Church of England?
Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline that made a path for churches wanting to leave the UM Church was originally written by a progressive delegate to the 2019 General Conference. Was she demonically inspired? What about the vote on May 7 that allowed 193 churches to divide from the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. Were those who approved disaffiliation doing the work of the devil?
I am grateful that members of his conferences report Bishop Graves has been gracious and fair in handling congregational disaffiliations. That is what makes his statement all the more incongruous, perhaps a moment of emotional venting during a disheartening time for the continuing UM Church.
I assume Bishop Graves would say that his intention behind his statement was that the dynamics that led up to this division were of the devil. A pastor once challenged me in an accusatory tone after one of my presentations in Florida, “Well, it’s just wrong, this division that’s going on. Jesus prayed that we would be unified.” I asked her, “And whom do you hold responsible for this division? Those who have followed the Book of Discipline or those who have broken it? Those who say that until the Discipline is changed pastors should live by it and bishops should enforce it? Or the annual conferences that have publicly stated they will act as if parts of the Discipline do not apply to them, and the pastors who are disobeying it and the bishops who refuse to enforce it? Who is responsible for this disunity that you find so distasteful – those who have kept our covenant or those who have broken it?”
Divorce is not God’s will. But most pastors, myself included, have found ourselves counseling one who is being physically and/or emotionally abused by their spouse. We have heard others say that their spouse is breaking their marriage covenant and is unwilling to change. And though we know that divorce is not God’s perfect will, we end up stating, “You do not have to endure an abusive marriage. It’s OK to say that you will not stay in a relationship when you are being disrespected and mistreated in a way that puts your physical or emotional health in jeopardy. And even Jesus said that divorce is permissible in cases of adultery.” Very few UM pastors would say that divorce (the division of a marriage) in those circumstances is “of the devil.” Sad, yes. A last resort, yes. But, of the devil, no.
That’s where many of us in the UM Church have found ourselves. Our covenant has been broken. Those who have been unfaithful to it have said they will never change. And we traditionalists have been emotionally and verbally abused – being called everything from hard-hearted, hypocritical, incapable of reason, to not possessing the spirit of Christ.
In general, I agree that a church’s division is not the will of God. But there comes a time when a dysfunctional, destructive relationship needs to come to an end. Condemning the final act of division rather than all the events leading up to it – the breaking of the covenant and the abusive treatment that many progressives and centrists have shown toward those who have lived by the rules and obeyed the Book of Discipline – is at best shallow thinking and at worst a ploy to shame those who are leaving and an underhanded attempt to keep others from doing likewise.
We are living in difficult days. Some among us can no longer remain in a denomination that allows its bishops, pastors, and seminary professors to teach doctrines contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. Others have decided that they can no longer in good conscience give their name, their time, or their money to a denomination that allows its leaders to promote a sexual ethic that is not only in opposition to what the Bible teaches, but that might even lead people into sin and away from the Kingdom of God and eternal life.
Those decisions should be respected. If you believe the UM Church is unwilling to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” your decision to leave is not “of the devil.” It is reasonable, understandable, and may very well be the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Go out with grace. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Bless those who curse you. But don’t let their shallow thinking or their half-truths cloud your mind, change your heart, or bring shame into your spirit. As we say here in Texas, “Vaya con Dios.”
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.