Unity and Schism in the Early Church

August 1st, 2012

To what extent was the body of Christ unified during the first few centuries of its history? Sometimes, we are presented with an overly optimistic, perhaps mythical, view of the early church, characterized without dispute or disagreement. Of course, this myth is just that…a myth—and one that does not correspond to the way things actually were. The New Testament itself records disagreements between leaders. Debates with the Gnostics (a group that held that true Christian faith was handed down via “special” or “secret” knowledge from Jesus though his followers) started very early, as did the Arian controversy (a movement that rejected a fully divine nature in Jesus). In fact it was the early church’s confidence that these other belief systems were dangerous and destructive that contributed significantly to the development of a canon of Scripture and official church doctrine. In what follows, though, I want to distinguish movements the church successfully fended off as heresy from larger institutional schisms that resulted in a fragmented body of Christ and competing traditions of faith under the broader Christian banner.

With this understanding, for roughly the first 1000 years of church history, there was essentially one, united church. The first major institutional split between followers of Jesus did not come until 1054 when the Eastern church and the Western church divided over a question about the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A relatively subtle theological difference arose when the later Latin version of the Nicene Creed contained the term “filioque,” which was not in the original Greek version. After an extended period of dispute, the Eastern church divided from the Western church in objection to the term’s inclusion in the creed, believing that the term established a hierarchy within the Trinitarian persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

About 500 years later, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, launching the Protestant Reformation. What was intended initially as a discussion between scholars regarding what Luther saw as certain abuses, particularly a practice which basically allowed a person to purchase forgiveness for their sins, led to the second major rupture in the church. In addition to objections to certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther argued for the “priesthood of all believers.” The idea was that every individual had direct access to God without the need for a priest as mediator, making every person essentially their own priest. Closely connected was the idea that individual believers could interpret the Bible for themselves without the mediating work of the church in determining what constituted acceptable and valid interpretations. While certainly not intentional, these moves opened the door to contemporary denominationalism.

You do not have to see the Protestant Reformation as a bad thing in order to see that these changes in beliefs have had both good and bad consequences. Both the move to the priesthood of all believers and the defense of every Christian’s right to interpret the Bible represented a movement in the general direction of individualism. The bonds of church authority diminished and the period after these changes saw a rapid growth in the number of different believing bodies, or denominations. Initially, Luther had taken action to correct what he saw as serious papal and clerical errors. Sadly, an unintended outcome was the release of individuals to form whatever kind of church they believed appropriate based on their own reading of the Scriptures. In correcting serious errors connected with the centralized power of the papacy and priestly system, Luther’s work also opened the door to the plethora of denominations and sub-denominations we see today.

Do you realize how fractured the body of Christ is today? In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of non-believers being able to identify Christians by their love and unity. I wonder how those words fair in a world with so many different kinds of Christians. Do you know the number of different Christian denominations? The number runs into five figures, with higher estimates running in excess of 30,000 different denominations and sub-denominations . In other words, the church that Jesus said would be characterized by love and unity has now fractured to the point that, frankly, we do not look united at all. With up to 30,000 different identifiable Christian denominations, can we even consider using the term “unity”? The early church was quite willing to exclude those who were not able to make the appropriate doctrinal affirmations, but that was a move to keep church unity by expelling those who would upset that unity. And, it is critically important to note that they saved this move for only a handful of what they took to be critical doctrines. What they were not willing to do, for the entirety of the first millennium, was allow disagreements to result in multiple independent church bodies and hierarchies. The images they used to describe the effects of allowing divisions within the body of Christ were often graphic. Images of “rending the body of Christ” or severing body parts from our Lord by virtue of schism were common. In what follows, we consider some of those statements and see what insights we, as contemporary 21st century readers, might find.

Excerpted from the author's The Right Church: Living Like the First Christians., coming Sept. 1 from Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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