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?
Craig, So do we protestants return to the Catholic, Orthodox, or some other church that has apostolic succession? How do we know we are in a church that is not in schism? Was Luther in schism? I’m totally serious with these questions. I’ve been mulling over them since 2011.
Luther was in schism. Jeff please email me at craigtruglia at gmail. I can give you advanced copies of articles I am unavailing on this. I believe the answer is Orthodoxy historically. But I would recommend reading into the arguments of Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. I would be happy to speak with you whatever I know.
I find this intriguing. Are you suggesting a return to Orthodoxy?
I agree with you about the seriousness of schism, but I do not agree that once a schism has happened and taken root – Protestantism is the clearest example in my context – that the answer would be to return to the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodoxy. Biblically we see God dealing with the division in Israel – itself a judgement from God – not by immediately raising up a king to unite them, but by recognising the division, and working with the two together and separately. That division is only healed by Jesus, the true and forever King.
But, you may argue, Jesus has now come. Therefore, his Church should be united. Clearly that is the Biblical expectation. However, when we think of the division between Paul and Barnabas, leading to them operating separate missions due to sharp disagreement over John Mark, unity was not a given, nor was it immediately reconciled. Praise God, Paul reconciled with Mark, but there is no record of Barnabas and Paul reconciling (though I trust they did).
Historically we can see the blessing of God on various groups after – and even during – schism. The horror of the Protestant Reformation and it’s legacy of people changing and setting up new churches at the drop of a hat is all too real. However, God has also brought numerous people to Christ through the Protestant Church by means of mission work, revival and a strong emphasis on the Bible for the common man. While God works through reprobates, I think we’d be too quick to consign even the leaders of the Protestant Reformation to hell for the division they caused. God is gracious enough to work despite our sinfulness, and even through our sinfulness. I do not believe that schism is the unforgivable sin.
In all, it is right to warn against it, and it is right to bring the seriousness of that sin to prominence again, but given where we are and how God works through messy history, I believe moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy is not a foregone conclusion.
“I find this intriguing. Are you suggesting a return to Orthodoxy?”
This is the argument I am building towards, yes.
“I agree with you about the seriousness of schism, but I do not agree that once a schism has happened and taken root – Protestantism is the clearest example in my context – that the answer would be to return to the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodoxy.”
While God can return lampstands, the gates of Hell cannot prevail against His Church. So this means two things–either the gates of Hell will not prevail against an invisible Church, or the visible Church if an invisible Church does not exist. For reasons I already argued, the invisible CHurch is lacking in Scripture, and is CHristologically wanting (the Church is Christ’s body, and Christ has a physical body, so therefore the Church must be physical and visible, not invisible.) The Fathers all rejected the idea of the invisible Church. It is literally the innovation of two heretics that refused communion with the ancient Church (Tertullian and Tychonius.) Being that the Reformers never cited these men, I do not even think they were aware of their reasonings, which means, they were innovators of their own right.
“Biblically we see God dealing with the division in Israel – itself a judgement from God – not by immediately raising up a king to unite them, but by recognising the division, and working with the two together and separately.”
Again, can God recognize several churches on the theoretical level? Of course. The question is whether we should normatively expect this. If we go by the NT Scriptures and the Fathers, the answer is no.
“However, when we think of the division between Paul and Barnabas, leading to them operating separate missions due to sharp disagreement over John Mark, unity was not a given, nor was it immediately reconciled.”
But this was not schism. Paul was not appointing teachers in Barnabas’ churches and vice versa. People, in a unified Church, sometimes do not get along because we do sin.
” Praise God, Paul reconciled with Mark, but there is no record of Barnabas and Paul reconciling (though I trust they did). ”
I think he did because in 2 Corinthians he is mentioned in a positive way, and 2 Corinthians was very likely written after Galatians.
“However, God has also brought numerous people to Christ through the Protestant Church by means of mission work, revival and a strong emphasis on the Bible for the common man.”
All of this is true. The same can be said for Constantine, who for whatever reasons, endorsed Christianity. I think COnstantine introduced a Concilliarianism that was not emphasized the same before the fourth century. So, what we see is a lost of what the Apostles originally intended. I think God is merciful with us but that does not mean we should presume upon it. The often quoted, and never followed slogan of the Reformation is Semper Reformanda. If we have now more access to the fathers, and can isolate all the Greek of the Scriptures, and have already made a big enough stink that the Rcc and EO have reformed themselves (neither are forbidding bible reading now, selling indulgences, etcetera), then shouldn’t we realize we should ahve not divided to begin with but also see that the schism, and its evils, produced fruits within Apostolic Christianity? God was punishing the Apostolic CHurch for its sin with schism, even going back to the great schism in 1054. We must not continue in sin, no matter God’s good purposes in permitting such evil. We must return to the CHurch if our love for unity and love for neighbor is anything. How can I divorce myself from my brothers because I prefer this or that doctrine? Isn’t love the fulfillment of the Law?
“While God works through reprobates, I think we’d be too quick to consign even the leaders of the Protestant Reformation to hell for the division they caused.”
I am not saying this, though the whole ancient Church would have. However, permit me to make a Pascal’s Wager…do I want to take the chance that Protestantism is not damnable when the Scripture clearly says that division is damnable? I personally do not want to take that chance.
“I believe moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy is not a foregone conclusion.”
It isn’t. This is why when I realized their view of justification was not predicated upon merit, that all my objections disappeared. The question became did my view of baptism, or double predestination, or original sin (I’m a tranducianist) reign so supreme that I would continue with a schismatic body when I know that the only non-schismatic body whose ecclesiology is identical to the fathers still exists and teaches a well-rounded, biblical view of justification?
Please pray for me, a sinner.