Archive: On Polarizing the Church

The following is reprinted with minor modification from our issue of April/June, 1970.

Recently, some United Methodist laymen met with their bishop. They came to talk about things that were bothering them.

“What happened?” we asked, afterward.

“The bishop accused us of making trouble. He said we were dividing the church. He said loyal Methodists go along with the Program.”

Across the continent, some pastors met with their bishop.

“What happened?” we asked, afterward.

“The bishop told us to stop polarizing the church.”

Such warnings have become commonplace. Out of the present turmoil and tension, United Methodism has developed a new litany: You are dividing the church! You are being disloyal! You are polarizing!

Most of the time, such warnings are directed at evangelicals. Often, we are condemned for polarizing (i.e., causing people to take strong positions for and against, thereby abandoning middle-of-the-road neutrality).

The time has come to look calmly at the polarization furor.

Why the alarm?

Who is frightened?

Is polarization really happening?

If so, who is responsible?

If so, is this necessarily harmful to the cause of Christ?

Is polarization an end in itself? Or is it really the means leading to a greater and more significant end?

Most UM laypeople are not often worried about the danger of polarization. The hue and cry comes from church officials at all levels. Those in the United Methodist Establishment show the greatest dread. The charge, “you are polarizing!” often becomes an institutional reflex action when questions are raised about United Methodist finances, theology, programs, and operating methods. The shrill cries of alarm, so often repeated, betray uneasiness in high places.

Those familiar with the Bible can recognize here the same sort of anxiety shown by the Pharisees, those ancient guardians of the church status quo. Remember? They reacted violently to a Polarizer named Jesus of Nazareth. He rocked the Jewish nation, polarizing the people called Israel into two opposite factions: (1) for the Pharisees and their religious system, (2) those whose religion boiled down to “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind … [and] you must love your fellow-man as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40, TEV)

Our Lord’s three-year ministry was one continuing polarization. He drew a clear distinction between believers and unbelievers (John 3:16-21). And He revealed an eternal polarity between the children of God and those whose real father was the devil (John 8:43-47).

Said the Prince of Polarizers: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world: no, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own family.” (Matthew 10:34-36, TEV)

To top it off, He said to the Church at Laodicea: “I know what you have done; I know that you are neither cold nor hot [unpolarized]. How I wish you were either one or the other! [polarized] But because you are barely warm, neither hot nor cold, [unpolarized again] I am going to spit you out of my mouth!” (Revelation 3:15-16, TEV)

Jesus polarized because He was incarnate Truth. And Truth always does polarize against falsehood. The two will not mix any more than oil and water. Thus polarization is inevitable, indeed often desirable, as long as the world contains both truth and falsehood; good and evil. Polarization is one way opposites are separated.

This means that polarization began when evil entered the world through the unwise choice of Adam. And polarization will continue until, in God’s good time, the universe is finally cleansed of evil. Then polarization will cease and our Lord’s great prayer petition will have come true. “Our Father in heaven, may Your name be kept holy, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10, Jerusalem Bible) Until then, polarization is inevitable.

The Bible is a record of Godman polarization. And it is amazing how the anti-polarization sentiments of Bible times are being repeated today. Consider the feisty prophet Amos. He did a mighty work of polarization at Bethel when he condemned the hypocrisy and corruption of the king’s own church. Fearing polarization, the priest of Bethel, Amaziah, told Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah. …” (Amos 7:10-17)

A similar response sometimes greets polarizers today. The wife of one United Methodist pastor recently told a layman, “You are a fundamentalist. Why don’t you get out of the church? You don’t belong here!” Of course it was the layman’s fault that polarization was happening. … He, in the spirit of Amos, had dared to question how church money was being spent. He had stated his belief in the Bible’s authority, and the need for people to be saved through faith commitment to Jesus Christ. According to the pastor’s wife there was no room in the church for such a radical polarizer!

Before Amos, there was a polarizer named Joshua. He declared to God’s people, “Fear the Lord and serve Him sincerely; put away the gods that you and your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if you will not serve the Lord, choose today whom you will serve. … As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14,15)

Church history reveals that leaders of the church have often feared polarization and tried to stamp it out. The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated a polarizing priest named Luther.

Our own John Wesley, though never excommunicated, was a polarizer of no little ability. Consider his standing before a bishop of his church and refusing to accept episcopal restrictions on where he could preach. Out of this clash came the now-honored Methodist dictum, “The world is my parish. ” We forget it was born out of intense polarization between the Gospel and the self-preservation urge of a church establishment that wished to avoid rocking the boat (which always happens when the Gospel is preached and believed).

Last year, some laymen met with their bishop and cabinet. They came to speak of their concerns for the church. Especially, they urged the importance of laymen having the right to designate · their money for support of special causes and/or institutions, rather than just giving to the conference. At one point a superintendent said that if the laymen could not go along with the conference program, they could “go to hell, ” as far as he was concerned.

Naturally, it was the laymen who stood accused of polarizing. …

Today, strong currents of polarization are running. Not only in United Methodism, but in other churches-and throughout the world. Young are polarized against old; black power against white power; tradition against innovation; new morality against old morality. The local church, in United Methodism, is increasingly polarized from its annual conference-making the classic Methodist connectional system harder than ever to maintain.

To deny polarization is futile as soaking up the ocean with a blotter. The truth is, polarization has already torn to shreds the fiction of church unity and brotherhood. The popularity of these slogans cannot conceal their absence in wide areas of church life today in ours and other churches.

Increasingly, the polarization is between the Institutional Church and its Program, and Christ and His Gospel. The two should be synonymous. But unfortunately more and more people perceive a wide difference. For example, a leading denominational official tells his annual conference that the only relevant part of the Gospel today is Christ’s call to social service. On the basis of this serious distortion the annual conference built its official program.

Thus, the Institutional Church abdicates as the Body of Christ by radically altering His Gospel. This is reinforced by a bishop declaring that his pastors’ supreme loyalty should be to the church. It is further reinforced by another bishop declaring this a time to proclaim the glory of the church. (Has “church” now replaced Christ as the object of United Methodist witness and devotion?)

Such developments accelerate polarization of the church. They force people with a serious commitment to Christ to “choose ye this day whom you will serve.” And so the polarization grows more intense.

An interesting polarization myth is that we evangelicals are largely responsible. Those quickest to condemn us seem to overlook the polarizing influence of the radical Left.

Who cried, “Polarization!” in the late 1960’s when cadre groups spawned by the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago set up revolutionary “cell groups” in annual conferences across the country?

Who cried, “Polarization!” when United Methodist seminaries started producing ministers primarily dedicated to social change and openly scornful of historic Christianity? Who cried, “Polarization!” when the denomination’s Board of Education started producing church school materials casting doubt on the Biblical miracles?

Let’s be honest—polarization is caused by no single group or ideology.

But is polarization necessarily harmful to the cause of Christ? This depends upon the issues or principles which form the poles around which people are drawn.

Acceptance of denominational programs is increasingly stressed by the Establishment as a “must.” Thus, conformity is rapidly becoming the major point of polarization. Conformity is urged, not only for programs, but for whatever interpretations of theology are in vogue at the moment. The organization’s full power may be exerted against ministers and laymen who fail to conform. Thus, the United Methodist system [ too often] breeds subservience—a quality strangely lacking in prophets!

Conformity is perhaps the most powerful polarization point for the church institution. But different groups within the church choose other points around which to polarize: [ free choice abortion, ERA, boycott of selected companies, support of terrorist groups, quota systems, or social action of the church, etc.] Both Left and Right polarize oppositely in regard to these and other basic issues.

Scripturally, however, there is only one proper point of polarization. It is around Jesus Christ. To unite with Him is good polarization which will surely work the purposes of God. But polarization around any other person, principle, or program will cause unproductive chaos within the church.

Let all United Methodists be very sure we are polarized around Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. And let us be careful it is not our private interpretation of Christ, but that which is revealed by the full Gospel and by authentic experiences of His resurrection power and His Holy Spirit. Only this can lead us toward the ideal Church, “in all its beauty, pure and faultless, without spot or wrinkle, or any other imperfection.” (Ephesians 5:27)


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