Why Church Schisms are Not Easy Matters: Tony Jones, Ideological Purity, and Sin

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Tony Jones says we need a church schism over the issue of women’s ordination.

Tony Jones is wrong.

Here’s why.

In his characteristic bold and bombastic way, Jones declared that we need to cut ties with those believers who don’t think women should be ordained or with those who believe in complementarianism. “Leave your church!” he declares. “Leave your publishing house! Leave your ministry! Withdraw from conferences!”

Easy to say for a pastor who runs his own publishing house and has a cushy job that won’t be threatened by such bold stands.

For about 18 months, recently, I worked for a Reformed ministry with whom I disagreed on numerous theological levels. But it was good work and I enjoyed it while I was there.

Before that, I worked for a Methodist University in Japan that had some pretty conservative views about women – in a country that has some pretty conservative views about women. When I asked female students in my classes what they hoped to do with their English degrees, two replies were common: be an international flight attendant or marry an American man. I admired their unabashed honesty about these goals, though I privately harbored a twinge of sadness that “marry an American” was their optimum choice.

Before that, I got my degree at a university that refuses to even have a conversation about the fluidity of human sexuality and gender, and leans conservative on many, many other issues.

I don’t regret any of those experiences, because they helped shape me and turned me into who I am – my time in Japan helped me become the feminist I am. My time at Baylor helped me to see how wide the world is. My time in Chicago helped me hone and develop my skills.

Ideologically, now, there are some places I will not work at and I don’t apply there. It will be a cold day in hell before you see me donning a blue vest at WalMart. But I also understand that many of us don’t have that choice – our careers, our lives, depend on making some ideological compromises in order to put food on our table. And we know our limits on what those compromises are and how far we can be pushed against them.

A friend of mine recently became a member of a church in town. She loves the people, and they’re a young, thriving congregation that has their hearts in the right place. I’ve met several of her friends from there, and I have to agree – they’re good people. They welcomed me into their homes, prayed for my mother while she was ill even though they’d only known me all of twenty minutes. I have been touched by their love and compassion.

But the denomination they come from doesn’t believe in ordaining women. They don’t think women should preach.

And there’s the rub, when we’re dealing with human beings and communities and relationships. Breaking fellowship is a serious, serious thing, and not something to suggest lightly or proudly or bombastically, as Jones did. Instead, it is something that carries a weight, a heaviness. “Schism” is not a thing we simply declare and tell others to follow suit.

Schism is a word of pain. It is a breaking apart of the Body of Christ. It is a deeply felt process – we still feel the pain from the Protestant-Catholic schism of hundreds of years ago. We’re still feeling aftershocks as denominations break apart and splinter. This breaking apart of the community is nothing less than sin.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling for unity here as so many oppressors have done to respond to objections from the oppressed. Unity that means conformity is hardly what we need. But what I am saying that Tony Jones’ call for schism here amounts more to a selfish call for ideological purity than it does to a pastoral, helpful approach to the church body.

Jones, here, has outed himself as an ideologue, searching for a mob to lead against the supposed Bad Guys.

This isn’t the work of justice – it is the work of selfishness, of not wanting to do the dirty work of helping people, one by one, out of oppression. It is a promise that demands more of those who are already oppressed than of the privileged – the financially unstable, the people who are the least in the pecking order of society: these are the ones who take the hits from this proposed schism.

I know this because I have made these same missteps in the past. In 2009, I started learning and reading and studying human trafficking. It’s how I got my blogging start. I became obsessed with buying fair trade and slave-free clothing. I thought that if I could just get my life to line up with this ideology of “no slavery,” then I could be guiltless, I could atone somehow for my ignorance. And in my ideological rampage, I pushed friends to do the same – regardless of their financial position or the feasibility. I was fervent in my quest, and demanded boycotts of major companies, convinced that if we could just get enough people to walk out, to “vote with their dollars,” it would be enough to change corporate culture.

I didn’t pay attention to the systems, in other words. I thought it was as easy as simply telling people to change. I thought that by declaring it, I could make it so.

And I was wrong. I was wrong when I told my friends that they should switch to shopping only at thrift stores for clothing and that they should pay for the more expensive fair trade coffee. I was wrong when I judged people for bringing Starbucks into class, and I was wrong when I turned my nose up at a tea shop in Austin, TX, because they weren’t “fair trade certified.”

I was wrong because I wanted the world to fit my narrative, to follow my lead, to conform to my violent fervor.

And Tony Jones is wrong because he wants the same thing. “If enough people just walk away, things will change,” he thinks.

But that’s thought that comes from privilege. Some people can’t walk away. Some people don’t want to. Some people are doing better work in the trenches and in the discussions and in the debates than they could from the outside. Failing to account for the individual contexts and individual situations and say “Just leave” is profoundly privileged.

Some people, like my friend and her church here in Sioux Falls, make those compromises because the community they find is awesome. We need to let people draw their own line in the sand, not demand ideological purity of their friends and churches. Everyone has a limit, everyone has a boundary, and I’ve definitely broken off relationships over ideological issues – and I’ve not always been right to do so.

But for Jones to command it of all of us, on the basis of his decision that it’s time for a schism? That is the command of an ideologue, not of a leader.