Thursday, September 28, 2006

When Schism is Unjust

Schism has been considered perhaps the second most griveous sin in the history of the Church, second only to heresy. No other mortal sin is as dangerous as these two. Yet as it pertains to schism the Protestant Reformation has instigated a variety of opinions and evaluations of what it truly means to be schismatic.

Schism, broadly defined, is breaking away from the Church. The ominousness of such an act is that one who is involved in schism is broken off from the vine; they are not connected to the nourishment of the vine. The Church is God's primary means of grace to the world, and she conceives, births, and nourishes Christians. There can be no "power of the keys" outside of the Church, for Christ entrusted the keys to Peter and the apostles, and the power is retained within the Church. In short, one who commits schism finds oneself in a very deleterious position.

The Church, being the body of Christ, becomes in a sense the very person of Christ. The Church truly is the visible presence of Christ on this earth. There can be no division within Christ, therefore to leave the Church is to leave Christ. However, one must wonder if there are any justifiable reasons for schism. Are there extreme cases or circumstances in which schism may be necessary?

The only potential justification for schism is heresy. Specifically I am thinking here of the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church at the time was teaching some things which cannot be considered Christian. This Protestant split could be justified by one saying that due to the heresy promulgated by the Catholic Church, schism was necessary. However, even in this case an argument could be made that due to the heresy, at this time the Catholic Church could not have been considered the Church in all its fullness. In this sense, the Reformation would not as much be a schism as a return to orthodoxy.

Regardless of how one chooses to view the above, most would agree that at least to some extent the Protestant split can be justified (although this could move into area in which we have to discuss whether even this schism can be justified due to the split from the Church as institution; we won't address that at the moment). While we may be able to justify the Protestant schism, I am left to wonder if there are any true grounds upon which we can justify any subsequent schism. Protestantism is defined by its innate affinity with division. The thousands of denominations present in our world represent the slippery slope that was opened when the Reformers put forth their critiques. While ameliorations have been made to some divisions, and some denominations have even merged, there still remains the autonomous rights for Protestants to divide if need be.

BUT....if it's true that the only justifiable grounds for schism are heresy (in which case one is not truly dividing the Church but realigning her), then can any Protestant divide following the initial split be justified? I'm not convinced any can. If this is the case then it puts Protestants in a very precarious position. Has Protestantism, to an extent, put itself in danger of being outside of the fullness of the Church? Are there parallels between Protestantism and the Novatian schism?

This is a very troubling thought and the ramifications are worthy of consideration. I am not implying that any Protestant denomination which finds its origins after the initial reformative split is not part of the Church, or that the grace of God is not flowing there. But I am somewhat concerned about the unjustifiable nature of Protestant schism. Have we, to an extent, forced God's hand to work in unordinary ways?

I don't know. What do you think?

8 comments:

Tommy said...

Hi Ben, being raised a Baptist fundy, I was taught from an early age that the baptistic (is that even a word?) roots could be traced to the apostles and that each church was to be autonomous and independently govern itself by her congregation. As I got older and focused more on the bible and eventual was introduced to the early church fathers, this concept became troublesome for me. The Baptist history didn’t seem to jive with church history. Their excuse was that the “Catholic” church killed and suppressed the early “Baptists” by driving them “underground”.

I have always heard that Luther wanted reform from within the Church and his intent was never to split, but eventually he had no choice and I'm sure peer pressure probably got the best of him as well. (I could be totally wrong; I not very versed in the Reformation history)

The problem I have with Luther was his battle cry of sola fide and sola scriptura , both IMO foreign to the Early Church and could be…gulp…heresy…(my Baptist mom would burn me at the stake…lol). Seriously though, those two doctrines have done the most damage and have caused the most confusion among Protestants. I’m one of the products of this confusion! Too many Protestant denominations all are claiming to be preaching the truth…My question is, who’s right when everyone’s wrong?

Personally I feel that God will not judge the leaders and those that choose to continue to split and divide the body of Christ. All I can do is study and pray that God will lead me into the Church were I can grow in the likeness of Christ.

Ben asked: Are there extreme cases or circumstances in which schism may be necessary?
What is your opinion on the Great Schism between the Western Church (Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Church (the Othodox) in the eleventh centry?

Tommy said...

Personally I feel that God will not judge the leaders and those that choose to continue to split and divide the body of Christ.

Edited to say: ...God will judge the leaders...

Blessings
-Tommy

Scott David Hendricks said...

Ben, the current situation of Christianity could lead me to despair, if I weren't charged by God to believe, hope and love.


1) Who/where/what is the source of truth/theology (God is the cop-out answer)? How are we to understand and interpret revelation?

2) I don't want to be minimalist, but I would also rather not say that everybody is mostly right and we should just examine what everyone agrees upon, and believe that. In short, these kind of feelings make me NOT want to be a theologian (gasp!).

3) How do we understnand/interpret catholic truth as protestants?

These are serious questions for me right now, and very troublesome.

RightWingWesleyan said...

So if the reformation shism is all you accept, what would the options be for denominations today? I challenge you to list the options for denominations if the reformation were the last break. And then, which one would YOU be in?

Ben Robinson said...

Sorry for the major delayed responses; it's midterm week and things have been building up to this point.

Tommy,

What is your opinion on the Great Schism between the Western Church (Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Church (the Othodox) in the eleventh centry?

Ah, what a question. To be honest I would like to spend more time studying the split before I make an educated response. However, I tend to find agreement with the EO Church in some things over against the Catholic Church. But for now, I will plead the 5th and assert ignorance.

RWW,
So if the reformation shism is all you accept, what would the options be for denominations today? I challenge you to list the options for denominations if the reformation were the last break. And then, which one would YOU be in?

To be fair, I didn't say the reformation schism is all I accept. I simply was ruminating whether or not we can actually justify any subsequent schism. I thought the post was formatted more to elicit response from the readers as to what they thought about schism.

Nonetheless, I don't suppose speculation about the reformation being the last break will do that much good. I have no idea what would/could have happened. I suppose it's possible that there would still be three branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism), but Protestantism would not be divided into factions. It would be unified analogously to the CC, and EO.

Where would I be? Oh brother, I really don't know. I think it would be easier to be a Protestant if Protestantism was not internally divided. And perhaps I could convince myself of the justification of reformation schism (which I have not yet done). My guess is I would be in the place I am now, attempting to sort out whether I ought to be in one of the many Protestant divides, or whether I should consider the other two great traditions.

Maybe you could help. What do you think?

Tommy said...

Hi Ben: Seems you and I are in the same boat, sorting it all out. I’ve studied a little of both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths and each have their little quirks that I’m not totally comfortable with and I attribute that to my fundy upbringing.

My wife on the other hand is confused in my sudden theological 180 and I am becoming more Orthodox in my faith. We used to agree on all points and now, we simply disagree. I guess I’ve learned how to think and not what to think. If my wife was 100% behind me I would probably seriously contemplate Greek Orthodoxy over Roman Catholicism, but I’d take it prayerfully slow.

But in the mean time my wife and I are happy attending a United Methodist Church and I’m enjoying studying the theology of John Wesley. My only complaint is that we don’t celebrate Holy Communion weekly as service should be centered around Communion and I wish there was more to our liturgy.

I was wondering if you have ever heard of the author and pastor Thomas Oden or Paleo-Orthodoxy, and if you had any thoughts on this.

Ben Robinson said...

Tommy,

I have in fact heard of Thomas Oden and recommend his works quite highly! I am an Oden fan (I really like his methodology). I am not familiar with Paleo-orthodoxy, at least not by name but perhaps I am by content. You'd have to let me know what exactly paleo-orthodoxy is.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

My name is also Ben Robinson. I am the Editor-In-Chief of the Evangelical Christian. www.evangelicalchristian.ca

Ben Robinson