This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

We should split — and unite

I like diversity of points of view. I think it’s normal and valuable.

I like that there are different religions and that within Christianity there are many denominations. We need each other, because none of us is capable of seeing everything.

So logically I have to affirm church splitting, because all of these different forms of Chris­tianity emerged by splits. Biological species often split, otherwise we wouldn’t have the vast array of different forms of life.

But at the same time I want to forge communion with those who see the world differently than I do. I need them, and they need me. We need to struggle over our different conclusions, otherwise we’re no use to each other. The church doesn’t just exist between people who agree but between people who disagree — and who struggle with that disagreement to bring something new into the world.

So I think we should sometimes split. We want a community that speaks the same language. It’s not only more comfortable, it’s the only way to become fluent in that language.

But in splitting, we must forge a higher union, on another level. We must create a space for regular struggle together over our differences. Maybe it’s twice a year — pick your own interval — but we must acknowledge that we can’t be ourselves without the other. We are incomplete without the other. The confrontation of our differences is valuable and will keep us from our hubris.

This means we do not cut off communion with each other. Our communion is not based on our agreement on common beliefs. It is based on our commitment to God’s spirit, who wants to make a covenant with God’s offenders. We have to live in dangerous vulnerability to each other. That is our calling.

So there are times for a parting of the ways. For a pragmatic separation. A lessening of the frequency of our interaction. But not a breaking of communion. We commit to a regular interaction, without which we cease to exist.

This is a spiritual discipline without which we are not the church. Hospitality counts, and it is not always comfortable. Every time we celebrate our hospitality to each other within our congregation, we should also be hospitable to the outsider, even to our enemies.

We could change our rite of communion to give us some regular means of being accountable to our sisters and brothers who consider that what we are doing is wrong. In separating, we would pledge to send delegates to each others’ communion services, to celebrate our deeper union and to keep up the conversation in a disciplined, sustainable fashion. It’s a middle way, a way of muddling through, that suits our humble status.

Imagine that every communion service were followed by a conversation time for listening to each other as trespassers, as offenders. We make a simple announcement like: “Welcome to this communion. Please partake with us. If anyone is offended by us or by anything that we do, please bring it up in our conversation time after this simple meal. It is meant for that; you will do us a favor. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The conversation does not precede the communion, for our reconciliation is not based on arriving at a common opinion but on our love across our offending opinions.

This would stand the common understanding of communion on its head: What used to be a boundary marker based on uniformity of belief would become a rite of hospitality reaching across differences. In this we would follow Jesus, who sought offenders to eat with so that he could call them to repentance.

John Fairfield is a research fellow at the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. His book, The Healer Messiah: Turning Enemies into Trustworthy Opponents, can be downloaded for free or purchased at printing cost at

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