In some ways it would be an exercise in futility to argue, historically that the Church accepted schism at some level or would have recognized that the “invisible church” is better preserved by doctrinal, instead of institutional, unity. So universal were the condemnations of schism from men like Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, and etcetera it would incline the astute mind to only consider schism with the utmost trepidation or otherwise conclude that the testimony of history is next to useless. These Fathers, just like the literal admonishments of the Scriptures, made it clear that those who persist in schism are damned.
To quote two Early Church Fathers from the third century:
“Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved” (Origen, Homilies on Joshua 3:5).
“Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress [schismatic church], is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ” (Cyprian, Epistle 1, Par 6).
However, are the above third century teachings later developments in Christianity and therefore not proper interpretations and expositions of Apostolic understandings? Further, did the Early Church Fathers recognize the doctrine of the invisible Church? By answering both these questions we may surmise how the Church has always understood schism.
First and Second Century Denouncements of Schism. The denouncing of schism, even if it was “well-meaning” schism, was not a new development. The first letter written in Christian history sometime in the 70s AD, 1 Clement, denounced the Corinthians for trying to replace their Presbyters which were put in place by the Apostles (or the Presbyters appointed by those Apostles). From this, we may infer he would have disapproved of people naming their own leaders and starting their own church simply because they think they are doing things better.
Nonetheless, Clement is not addressing the issue directly. However, the denouncing of schism was unequivocal in the writings of Ignatius in the early second century. Some consider him to be the second earliest Biblical interpreter that we still have extant letters from.
Ignatius, in the Greek version of his Letter to the Ephesians writes: “that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind (breaking one and the same bread) which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ” (Chapter 20). Not being a schismatic and holding to communion is the medicine of immortality.
If the preceding was not explicit enough, he writes the following in his letter to the Philadelphians:
And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Chap 3).
If someone wants to be real picky and argue that these passages are lacking from an early Syriac manuscript, the same doctrinal stand is repeated elsewhere:
If any man is able in power to continue in purity, to the honour of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he become known [for his purity] apart from the bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in our Lord, and not in lust (To Polycarp, Chap 5, Syriac).
As we can see, pursuing “purity” (probably marriage) as a matter of personal devotion and faith divorced from the disciplinary authority of the Bishop is sinful. He did not understand it as acceptable for one to be faithful outside of the context of those who were established as authorities over the laity. Ignatius views pursuing faithfulness and obedience outside of the communion of the Church and those rightfully placed in authority as tantamount to self-destruction.
Later in the second century, Irenaeus also wrote against schism. Most of the time he is writings against loopy Gnostics, so it is understandable for one to say, “Well, he would not write so harshly against well-meaning Protestants.” However, we have reason to doubt this.
He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. Matthew 23:24 For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism (AH 4.33.7).
Perhaps Irenaeus was not saying no matter how well meaning someone is, unless he has Apostolic Succession, he can under no circumstance reform the Church. Maybe his words are hyperbole against the Gnostics.
However, the plain meaning of those words are categorical, much like Ignatius’ are. Those who give rise to schisms do not love God. No reformation, no matter how important, can be accomplished through schism. Interpret these statements as hyperbole at your own risk.
Did the Early Church Accept the Doctrine of the Invisible Church? There have been only two men I have been able to find who taught the doctrine of the “invisible church” in ancient times. Both men, perhaps not coincidentally, died being denominations of one, having divided themselves from the schismatic groups they belonged to.
- Tertullian, while still a Catholic, wrote: “Where three people are gathered together, there is a church, even if all three are laypersons. For each individual lives by his own faith” (quoted in p. 30 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume VI). The statement is not untrue. There have been Christians cut off from the Church due to geography, persecutions, and other extenuating circumstances. Christianity has never taught that such people, who through no act of their own volition, divided from the institution of the Church are outside the pale of salvation. However, Tertullian apparently took the idea to heart and applied it to its logical extent, which meant he soon found himself surrounded only by sycophants in Carthage, worshiping alone.
- Tychonius taught the same doctrine as a Donatist and was excommunicated as a result. Instead of seeking reconciliation with the Donatists or with the Catholics (perhaps for fear of his life as the Donatists were given to violence), he died alone but was remembered well for his allegorical exegesis of the Scripture.
Conclusion. Being that warnings against schism are among the earliest writings we have outside the Bible, and the Bible specifically says those who cause division are going to Hell, how do we ignore so great a witness? What justification can be contrived?