There is no nice way to say it but in America we approach everything too much as consumers. This includes where we go to church. We treat church as if it is a product. Who has the nicest music, which building is the most welcoming, what pet doctrine does this church teach that I like?
For most of Church history, even after the Reformation, Christians didn’t have these sort of choices. If you were born in Norway you had to be Lutheran, if you were English you had to be Anglican, if you Armenian you had to be Armenian Orthodox. Perhaps the local church did not suit all of your desires but Christians trusted in Christ and made it work.
Today, in this article, my aim is to show that the Scriptures teach against us approaching church as consumers. Above even doctrinal purity* is the absolute necessity to avoid divisions over disputable matters. Ignore this plain teaching of the Scriptures at your own risk.
Schism: Division Over Doctrine and Greed.
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions [“schismata” in the Greek, i.e. schisms] among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor 1:10).
God admonishes us, through Paul, that we have “the same mind” and not create divisions between each other. So, why do we insist upon different denominations because of a different church government, different baptismal practices, or etcetera? What is worth tearing the people of God apart?
In order to answer these questions, we have to understand the nature of the schism in Corinth:
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions [schismata] exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions [“hairesis” in the Greek, i.e. heresies] here among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you (1 Cor 11:17-19).
Paul here condemns the creation of schisms (specifically within the Corinthian church), specifically because “there must also be ‘heresies.'” These heresies are not only “sects” (the most common translation of the term), but they are false teachings that are used by the wicked to enrich and magnify themselves (“those who are approved may become evident among you.”)
We find out in 2 Corinthians the character of these men. They are Judaizers who teach a doctrine that adherence to the Jewish law is necessary for salvation (2 Cor 11:4). They call into question Paul’s authority (2 Cor 10:10) and his worthiness as a teacher because he did not extract payment from Corinth (2 Cor 11:7). As Paul was the one who initially built the foundation by bringing the faith to Corinth,these men are adding upon Paul’s work in a deficient way (1 Cor 3:10, 2 Cor 11:2). In short, this is not a mere argument within a church. This truly is a schism–a profound division that is both ecclesiastical and doctrinal. Being that these men extracted payment and sought the approval of men (2 Cor 3:1, 1 Cor 11:19) it is safe to say that they were causing schisms with selfish motives.
Paul elsewhere speaks of those who cause divisions for the sake of self-edification in 1 Tim 6:3-5–
If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.
Paul alludes to the same again in Rom 16:17-18–
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites.
Peter also invokes a similar warning in 2 Pet 2:1-3–
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies [hairesis, or “sects”], even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words…
So, we may conclude from the Scriptures that schisms are motivated by greed and coupled with doctrinal error which parts with Apostolic teaching.
Schism Defies the Church Government God Has Established. We have more reasons to reject schism. The following quotation, also in 1 Corinthians, specifically says that God gives to the body of Christ all that it needs “so that there may be no schism in the body.” As we will see, by setting up one’s own teachers over the ones that God has appointed in the Church defies the Church order He has established. We can see this in 1 Cor 12:24-29-
But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division [schismata] in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another…Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they?
The following are ramifications of the preceding teaching:
- God supplies church leaders in the following chronological order: first apostles, then prophets, and third teachers. We only have teachers today.
- Even if the above interpretation (first elucidated by Irenaeus in the second century) is incorrect, the only other possible interpretation is that Paul is putting these leaders in order of importance. Apostles, teachers, and prophets are kinds of people, not gifts per se, because Paul would have immediately afterwards mentioned kinds of people (miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators, etc.) instead of gifts themselves if this were not the case.
- So, in short, we see that Paul is citing that Apostles, prophets, and teachers are appointed to the Church. In the Scriptures we see Apostles appointed by Christ and Presbyters (who teach according to the Pastoral Epistles) appointed by those Paul has appointed to the task. So, in short, Apostles appoint Presbyters and Presbyters appoint Presbyters. Men appointed in this way are appointed by the will of God.
- Because of the preceding, we are not to appropriate the position of a teacher, prophet, or apostle as each is made one not by his own will but by the specific design and will of God. This therefore disallows for any man, no matter how wise or well-meaning, from setting himself as a teacher in the Church apart from being ordained by an Elder/Bishop. No legitimate church body can exist when one appoints himself to the governing and teaching of the church body, because only those “appointed [by God]” may serve in this role.
- The Church body (“Christ’s body”) is not an invisible entity where people are merely joined by their common principles. To the contrary, it is as real as the individual members of the Corinthian church and the resurrected body of Christ Himself. This is not my opinion, this is the comparison Paul literally draws between real believers, in a real church, with a real risen Savior. This means that schism is the division of real believers from a real, institutional Church.
- In light of this, the doctrine of the “invisible church” borders not only on Christological heresy (as the Church body is physical just as Christ’s resurrected body is physical), it ignores the simple reality that schism is meaningless in an invisible church. What constitutes a division among real people if we are not to include that they literally divide themselves institutionally and have differing loyalties?
- How can Paul warn the Corinthian church about schism if the Cointhians were invisibly united by the belief in Jesus Christ? Obviously, any invisible unity the Corinthian Christians might have had was inconsequential–they were called to visible, institutional unity via not appropriating the work of God in appointing only a few to be Apostles, prophets, and teachers.
What If My Church Is Doing Something Wrong? People start churches for all sorts of reasons. Music, baptisms, foods, drinks, Sabbaths, etcetera. But, that’s no big deal, right?
Not if you listen to Paul.
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him (Rom 14:1-3).
In Paul’s time, people could not even agree on whether to eat Kosher and observe the Sabbath, and yet they all worshiped together and did not start new churches. This would never happen today. Even in the second century, the Church did not agree upon whether or not to still celebrate the Passover (something that apparently Polycarp and the Church of Ephesus, decades later, persisted on doing). Pope Victor I wanted to excommunicate the Ephesians over this disputable matter that did not pertain to salvation. Thankfully Irenaeus spoke him off the ledge, and he decided not to break communion with his brothers to the east.
But how about “matters of salvation?” Only the Gospel, the teaching that faith in Christ saves us from the wrath of God the Father, is non-negotiable. In Luther’s time, and shortly afterwards in the Council of Trent, the Roman Church specifically taught that man’s works did play a role, no matter how big or small, in meriting salvation for man. Further, the works of men other than oneself can be purchased or appropriated (via indulgences) and applied to oneself. This was obviously wrong, unbiblical, and directly contradictory to Eph 2:8-10 and so many other texts.
However, the Reformation broke with Rome on a plethora of issues beyond the issue of commoditized salvation. When Lutheran theologians approached the Eastern Orthodox only a short time later, they refused to back down from their view that God makes man righteous forensically. The Orthodox taught that God’s righteousness indwells man. Both affirmed that faith alone (properly understood) saves, but the Lutherans refused to compromise on their theological emphasis on forensic justification. And so their schism was complete, and irrevocable. Is this an obedient way to apply Paul’s teaching in the above? I have my doubts.
A Most Terrifying Warning. Can schism be a “tragic necessity” as Jaroslav Pelikan* and others have claimed? This may be hard to accept in light of the fact that Paul says it is a work of the flesh that will cause damnation:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions [hairesis], envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-20).
So, this begs the question: Did the Reformation need to be carried through? For example, the doctrine of Forensic Justification precluded union between Lutherans and the Orthodox. And, if no one in recorded Church History taught Forensic Justification, even if the doctrine is a clearer elucidation of Biblical teachings, how can one justify taking part in an act that the Bible specifically warns will damn you?
Brothers, “the faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (Rom 14:22). Cause no divisions and encourage no schisms, no matter the cost.
*This is not an endorsement of heretical doctrines that may cause damnation.
**Mr. Pelikan would convert to Orthodoxy before his death, showing that he realized the error of his own rationalization for the Reformation.