Schism and the Local Church

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Although the Great Schism occurred in the eleventh century, dealing with schismatic people in the local church has been a problem since the days of the apostles. Writing to the church at Corinth around AD 55, Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported … that there is quarreling among you, my brothers” (1 Cor. 1:10–11). The word the apostle used for “divisions” is the Greek word schisma, from which we get our English word schism.

Schism is a division within or split from a church. It occurs in a congregation or denomination when a faction is formed on the basis of something other than the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is distinguished from heresy, which is false teaching about doctrine. While heresies can (and often do) lead to schisms, most schisms in the local church do not involve heresy. They usually erupt from some “quarrel over opinions” (Rom. 14:1) in matters not essential to the faith.

Although Christians have liberty to differ in their opinions about things such as, say, the age of the earth, healthcare, and the best school for their children, any attempt to base Christian unit y upon such opinions is illegitimate and schismatic. Our consumer preferences, cultural practices, or political convictions do not unite us in the church, and we have no right to divide over them. To do so is an attack upon the unity that the Spirit has given us.

What are the problems caused by schismatic people in the church?

First, schismatic behavior causes unnecessary tension in the local church. In the case of the Corinthians, their personal preferences for particular teachers led to quarreling and brought division to the congregation (1 Cor. 1:12–13). Instead of rejoicing in the one faith that Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ all taught, the Corinthians were splitting up into factions on the basis of their consumer choices.

Second, schismatic behavior gives unnecessary offense. In Corinth, some members allowed their cultural practices to take precedence at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–22). They were doing at the Table what they were accustomed to doing in the world, namely, eating and drinking for personal satisfaction without regarding others. Consequently, the poor members of the church were offended. The sacrament that was given to manifest the church’s unity had become the occasion of division between those who had much and those who had little.

Third, schismatic behavior in the church is a poor witness to the world. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). But how can we manifest that love if we divide over the same things that divide the world into factions: our consumer preferences and cultural practices?

How do we admonish those who are schismatic?

Those who engage in schismatic behavior must be reminded that God commands us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). If the schismatic person persists, the elders must get involved. Paul told Pastor Titus: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11). Schismatic behavior warrants church discipline, and church discipline is the responsibility of the elders.

Of course, this highlights the importance of the historic creeds and confessions. They not only protect the church against heresy, they also help to preserve the church’s unity by summarizing the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This is why many Reformed churches call their confessions the Three Forms of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort). They keep us “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27b). Without them, the elders have no clear boundaries of Christian unity to which they can point the schismatic person. But when a church is confessional, that is, when it subscribes to the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions (for example), the elders can admonish the schismatic member for his attempt to make his personal opinion an article of the Christian faith.

How do we guide those having to deal with such behavior?

Because the church consists of sinful people, the reality is that we will be faced with the challenge of dealing with schismatic behavior from time to time. While it is usually an unpleasant experience, we should not despair. By being vigilant in our confession of faith and “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2), we can protect the unity that the Spirit has given us.

And we must remember that we will not always be the church militant, whom the world sees “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies, distressed,” as Samuel Stone said in his hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.” We can take comfort in Christ’s promise that He will preserve His church until His return, and that “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

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