Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy

Oct 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Michael Horton

Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation, co-host of the White Horse Inn radio program, and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Recently on the White Horse Inn blog Michael Horton wrote about the nature of schism.

He wrote a post titled “Have Denominations Had Their Day?,” in which he responded to a post by Christianity Today contributor Ed Stetzer titled “Do Denominations Matter?.” Stetzer thinks that denominations are important for pragmatic reasons, namely, that by working together Christians can accomplish much more than by working alone. Horton agrees that denominations matter, but not merely because working together is more efficient or useful. Horton writes:

Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.

Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

Horton’s point is that there is only “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” not because Christians thought it would be more useful and effective to work together, but because “of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel.” However, merely electing, redeeming and [covenantally] uniting persons to Christ does not entail the existence of a Church; it merely entails the existence of persons elected, redeemed and united to Christ. So Hortons’s “Therefore, there really is one church-catholic” does not follow. (See “Why Protestantism has no “visible catholic Church”.”) Christ did something in addition to offering Himself on the cross, and sending His Spirit; He founded a Church, and gave its keys to St. Peter. Cf. Mt. 16:18-19.1 Because Horton’s conclusion does not follow, this makes Horton’s claim irrelevant to the question of denominations. If by “church-catholic” Horton simply means all the elect, this has no implications regarding whether there should be only one denomination, many denominations, or no denominations.

In his statement Horton makes use of the Lutheran/Reformed notion of simul iustus et peccator [simultaneously justified and sinful] to defend his claim that “there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it.” In other words, just as in Reformed soteriology a believer is perfectly justified by extra nos imputation even while that person remains full of wickedness and eternally damnable sins, so in Reformed ecclesiology the “church-catholic” is perfectly united spiritually and invisibly even while visibly divided into thousands of factions.

The problem with the claim of simul iustus et peccator is that it makes God capable of self-deception or schizophrenia, as I have explained elsewhere.2 It also allows us to believe a falsehood, by appealing to the power of God to declare to be true what is simultaneously in fact not true. But that would not be a power on God’s part; that would be a weakness, i.e. an inability to speak only the truth. Moreover, this position devalues and dismisses the physical and material actions of men, and of sects, since the only thing that counts is the invisible and spiritual. What follows from this position is that sin in our heart and body does not matter (i.e. does not affect our salvation in any way), because in no way does it detract from God’s immutable forensic declaration proleptically revealing His declaration concerning us on the Day of Judgment. Of course this theology stipulates that good fruit should follow, just like it stipulates that visible unity should follow. But no length or severity of visible division falsifies the posited invisible union, because according to this ecclesiology visible union is not essential to the invisible [covenantal] union with Christ all believers possess, just as according to this soteriology holiness of life is not essential to the invisible forensic extra nos justification enjoyed by all believers.

For this reason, this position entails that schisms between believers are not in themselves sinful or evil, because they do not detract from the invisible unity between Christ and every believer; they only (sometimes) hurt the Christian cause in the pragmatic ways Stetzer notes. According to this notion, the truth is in the invisible realm of the divine declaration, even when the condition in the material, visible world is exactly the opposite. The same nominalism that leads to a gnostic conception of justification leads likewise to a gnostic ecclesiogy in which the visible and material is unimportant and ultimately irrelevant. Because merely electing, redeeming and [covenantally] uniting persons to Christ does not entail the existence of a Church, what Horton refers to as the “church-catholic” is impervious to any condition on earth, nor does this ecclesiology entail any condition on earth, so long as one or more persons are [covenantally] united to Christ.

But I wanted to understand how Horton conceives the “church-catholic” to be both one and united, and yet visibly divided. His statement reduced the unity of the Church to something purely invisible. So on his blog I asked him the following the question:

You say that the catholic Church is united (in certain respects) even though “its visible shape now seems to speak against it.” It seems to me that one could look at the present situation and see not a problem with the Church’s “visible shape,” (as though the problem is only a problem between branches within the Church) but rather *schisms from* the visible Church, as were the Donatists in the fourth century. So, what is it, exactly, in your opinion, that distinguishes a *branch within* the catholic Church, from a *schism from* the catholic Church? That is, how does one rightly determine whether a particular denomination is a *branch within* the Church, or a *schism from* the Church?

Michael then replied:

With our confessions, I’d say that this is determined by proclamation of the true gospel and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution. While no church exhibits these marks with complete purity, bodies that reject the gospel or anything essential to it and substitute their own dogmas, duties, and discipline for Christ’s institution have separated themselves from the visible Church.

I appreciate his reply, but I think it reveals a fundamental flaw in Reformed [and Protestant] ecclesiology. Horton’s reply defines schism from the Church as synonymous with heresy, and in this way eliminates the very possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from as treated in the Church Fathers]. For the traditional sense of schism from the Church, see, for example, what the third century bishop St. Cyprian says about schism in “St. Cyprian on the Unity of the Church, and what the fourth century bishop St. Optatus says about schism in “St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of Rome.” Similarly, St. Jerome wrote:

Between heresy and schism there is this difference, that heresy perverts dogma, while schism, by rebellion against the bishop, separates from the Church. Nevertheless there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church. (In Ep. ad Tit., iii, 10)

St. John Chrysostom similarly wrote:

I say and protest that it is as wrong to divide the Church as to fall into heresy.”3

In St. Augustine’s work titled “Of Faith and the Creed” which he delivered to the bishops assembled at the Council of Hippo-Regius in AD 393, which was the “general assembly of the North African Church,” he wrote the following:

Inasmuch, I repeat, as this is the case, we believe also in The Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic. For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe. Wherefore neither do the heretics belong to the Church catholic, which loves God; nor do the schismatics form a part of the same, inasmuch as it loves the neighbor, and consequently readily forgives the neighbor’s sins, because it prays that forgiveness may be extended to itself by Him who has reconciled us to Himself, doing away with all past things, and calling us to a new life. And until we reach the perfection of this new life, we cannot be without sins. Nevertheless it is a matter of consequence of what sort those sins may be. (Of Faith and the Creed, 10)4

St. Augustine later wrote concerning the Donatists:

How many, believing that it mattered not to which party a Christian might belong, remained in the schism of Donatus only because they had been born in it, and no one was compelling them to forsake it and pass over into the Catholic Church! … Others say: We thought, indeed, that it mattered not in what communion we held the faith of Christ; but thanks to the Lord, who has gathered us in from a state of schism, and has taught us that it is fitting that the one God be worshiped in unity. (Letter 93, para. 17-18)

This notion extends back even to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote:

He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Epist. to the Ephesians, 5)

Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. 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. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.] (Epist. to the Philaldelphians, 3)

To the best of my knowledge, St. Ignatius, St. Optatus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and all the Church Fathers who wrote about schism wrote about schism from as something conceptually distinct from heresy. Yes, any schism from the Church would invariably fall into some heresy, at least in order to justify its schism from the Church. But, nevertheless, schism from the Church referred to a particular Church’s (or smaller group’s) visible break in communion with the Catholic Church (even where that particular Church or group had not embraced any heresy), whereas ‘heresy’ always referred to a departure from the Apostolic faith, even if communion had not yet been visibly broken.

So, it seems to me that Michael has departed from the Church Fathers in this respect, by defining schism from the Church as heresy, and thus eliminating from his ecclesiology the possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from]. And when schism from the Church is defined out of existence, one loses the possibility of recognizing whether one (or anyone else) is in schism from the Church; it becomes a meaningless question, a question that evokes a blank face, or an attempt to translate the question into the only definition of ‘schism’ one knows, namely, a question about heresy, which is then answered with an assurance that one is holding on to the biblical gospel and sacraments, and therefore that one is surely not in schism from the Church. Hence the Protestant inability to make a principled distinction between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church.

When terms in the Tradition are redefined in a way that replaces (rather than develops) the essence of their meaning, then not only does this lead to ecumenical difficulties, but it also leads communities who adopt these redefinitions to a different way of seeing, in this case, a way of seeing in which schism from is not even conceptually visible. By redefining schism from the Church as heresy, the community that adopts this redefinition essentially goes blind to schism from the Church and to the very possibility of schism from the Church.

What has happened, when a fundamental patristic concept is no longer even accessible or intelligible? This concept of schism from the Church dropped out of Protestant theology because the justification of the Protestant departure from the Catholic Church required an underlying radical change in ecclesiology, from an essentially visible catholic Church to an essentially invisible catholic Church with local visible expressions. This concept of schism from the Church is therefore no longer available (and has to be redefined as heresy to cover the semantic hole its absence would leave) in Protestant ecclesiology because the conjunction of (a) the denial of the ministerial priesthood and Holy Orders and (b) the denial of an essentially unified divinely established visible principle of unity entails that the Church is not essentially visible, and therefore that visible unity is not essential to her. But schism from the Church is impossible unless the Church has visible unity. Hence the Protestant move from a visible Church ecclesiology to an invisible Church ecclesiology (even though the language of ‘visible Church’ is retained by Reformed persons) eliminated conceptually the very possibility of schism from the Church, and thus required redefining schism from as just a synonym for heresy.

For this reason, even if Horton wanted to hold to the possibility of schism from the Church by claiming that the visible Church is, say, NAPARC (or some other association of Reformed denominations), he could not do so. That is because if some denominations which held to the same doctrines affirmed by NAPARC denominations were not in communion with NAPARC denominations, nothing would make those denomination the ones in schism from the Church, rather than the other way around. Without a divinely established visible principle of unity that serves as the defining point of reference for the location of the Church, schism from the Church must be redefined as “not holding to [my interpretation of Scripture regarding what is] the gospel and [my interpretation of Scripture regarding what are] the sacraments.” For Catholics, by contrast, that divinely established principle of unity is St. Peter to whom Christ entrusted the keys of the Kingdom, as St. Ambrose said: “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”5

Moreover, to justify redefining schism from as heresy, one must assume that all the early Church Fathers who addressed schism from the Church were deeply mistaken, having departed from the Apostolic faith regarding the nature of schism from the Church. In that sense, to justify departing from the Church Fathers regarding the nature of schism from the Church, one must presuppose some form of ecclesial deism. Otherwise, if in their teaching concerning schism from the Church, the Church Fathers were faithfully preserving and defending the Apostolic faith they had received, those who are now redefining schism from as heresy are departing from the Apostolic faith, and thus ironically (given their own their definition of ‘schism’) in that respect separating themselves from the visible Church.

  1. See “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” []
  2. See comment #83 in the “Habitual Sin and the Grace of the Sacraments” post. []
  3. Hom. xi., in Epist. ad Ephes., n. 5. []
  4. There St. Augustine implicitly distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. No believer on earth avoids all venial sin, but no one can be at the same time both in mortal sin and in a state of grace. []
  5. For the role of St. Peter as the Church’s principle of unity see “The Chair of St. Peter.” []
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  1. Great points Bryan.

    I would also add, that many Evangelicals would balk at his statement that “the Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament.” Because they do not believe in sacraments or that whatever he is calling a sacrament is part of one’s salvation.

    So even when he is trying to come across as generically and un-divisely as possible, as he is in this statement, he still says things that huge swaths of Protestantism would reject as false.

    Hopefully this is not too tangential to your main point.

  2. We see, I hope, in posts like this one from Horton a recognition of the truth and value of a visible Church. Though the final implications may be askew, I am encouraged that a Protestant theologian seems to find the basic concept of one, united Church (from whom it is possible to be in schism) to be a necessary component of Biblical Christianity. Once this common ground is well established, it may prove to be fertile soil for planting Catholic seeds.

  3. This is one Lutheran who in large part agrees with you.

    No time to talk, but you can see more about my views here if you are interested:


    + Nathan

  4. I’m surprised by the lack of comments in response to this article. How one defines heresy and schism is founded directly on one’s definition of the church and the means by which true doctrine is defined and defended. I am curious to hear more Reformed voices offering a response, and specifically how Reformed teaching defines these concepts.


  5. I agree with Burton. I am surprised at the lack of response to this article. It seems as though Horton’s response does entail the reduction of the term schism to heresy. Given as much, ISTM that our Reformed brothers and sisters should acknowledge at least two things for sake of clarity in dialogue. First, that their notion of “the church” is substantially different from that held by the Fathers, because the Fathers’ understanding allowed for a real distinction between schism and heresy (even if one typically leads to the other), which the Reformed notion of “the church” does not support. Secondly, Reformed theologians ought to consider removing the term “schism” from their theological vocabulary since it has (apparently) the same referent as heresy. Use of these two terms as interchangable only leads to confusion when in dialouge with other Christians (i.e. Catholics) who attach distinct meanings to the two terms.

    Pax Christi,


  6. After reading the article I can understand why the protestant “churches” do not recognize a schism. They do not have a central authority other than the bible for their “invisible church”. All of the various denominations no matter what they believe in take their teachings from the bible as they interpret it. Thus there is no rebellion against church authority, therefore no schism. They may however, consider each other as “heretics” although for the life of me I could never figure out who would have the correct interpretation of Scripture in the first place

  7. Great article. Thank you.

  8. In his understanding of schism Michael Horton might be closer to the post-apostolic church than the third- and fourth-century fathers who were reacting to Novatians and Donatists. According to church historian David F. Wright, “In the early centuries no clear distinction obtained between schism, an offense against unity and love, and heresy, error in doctrine. Heretics were assumed to be, in reality and tendency, outside the church (i.e. schismatics) and vice-versa.” (David F.Wright, “Schism,” in New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, 1988)

  9. Adam, (re: #8)

    You wrote:

    In his understanding of schism Michael Horton might be closer to the post-apostolic church than the third- and fourth-century fathers who were reacting to Novatians and Donatists.

    “Might be” is entirely insufficient as a justification for schism from the Church, for rending Christ’s bride. (The purpose here, in this conversation, is not theological speculation, but Protestant-Catholic reconciliation.)

    According to church historian David F. Wright, “In the early centuries no clear distinction obtained between schism, an offense against unity and love, and heresy, error in doctrine. Heretics were assumed to be, in reality and tendency, outside the church (i.e. schismatics) and vice-versa.” (David F.Wright, “Schism,” in New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, 1988)

    Heretics, by denying the faith of the Church, separated themselves from the Church’s doctrine, or were excommunicated, and were therefore visibly outside the Church. Schismatics, by separating from the bishops of the Church, were therefore visibly outside the Church. So both heretics and schismatics were outside the Church, but in different respects, although persons could be outside the Church in both respects, as when heretics were excommunicated, and as when schismatics drummed up a heresy. As St. Jerome explains in the quotation above, schismatics usually fall into heresy of some sort, because they want to attempt to justify their separation from the bishops, and therefore have to maintain that the bishops are in some doctrinal error. St. Augustine makes the distinction between schism and heresy in multiple places. Here’s just one example. In a letter to Crispinus, Donatist bishop of Calama, St. Augustine writes:

    I’m sure you have not forgotten that in the times of the former people (i.e. Israel of old) the sacrilege of idolatry was committed and a prophet’s book was burned by a scornful king. The evil of schism would not have been punished more dreadfully (atrocius) than these two cries unless it was judged more serious. Of course you remember how the earth parted and swallowed up alive the authors of schism and how flame from heaven consumed those who agreed with them. Neither the making and worshipping of an idol nor the burning of a holy book earned such a penalty. (De Unitate, 33)

    St. Chrysostom, in his eleventh homily on St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, draws the distinction between heresy and schism when he writes:

    If therefore we desire to have the benefit of that Spirit which is from the Head, let us cleave one to another. For there are two kinds of separation from the body of the Church; the one, when we wax cold in love, the other, when we dare commit things unworthy of our belonging to that body; for in either way we cut ourselves off from the “fullness of Christ.” But if we are appointed to build up others also, what shall not be done to them who are first to make division? Nothing will so avail to divide the Church as love of power. Nothing so provokes God’s anger as the division of the Church. Yea, though we have achieved ten thousand glorious acts, yet shall we, if we cut to pieces the fullness of the Church, suffer punishment no less sore than they who mangled His body. For that indeed was brought to pass for the benefit of the world, even though it was done with no such intention; whereas this produces no advantage in any case, but the injury is excessive. These remarks I am addressing not to the governors only, but also to the governed. Now a certain holy man said what might seem to be a bold thing; yet, nevertheless, he spoke it out. What then is this? He said, that not even the blood of martyrdom can wash out this sin. For tell me for what do you suffer as a martyr? Is it not for the glory of Christ? Thou then that yieldest up your life for Christ’s sake, how do you lay waste the Church, for whose sake Christ yielded up His life? Hear what Paul says, “I am not meet to be called an Apostle 1 Corinthians 15:9, because I persecuted the Church of God and made havoc of it.” Galatians 1:13 This injury is not less than that received at the hands of enemies, nay, it is far greater. For that indeed renders her even more glorious, whereas this, when she is warred upon by her own children, disgraces her even before her enemies. Because it seems to them a great mark of hypocrisy, that those who have been born in her, and nurtured in her bosom, and have learned perfectly her secrets, that these should of a sudden change, and do her enemies’ work.

    I mean these remarks for those who give themselves up indiscriminately to the men who are dividing the Church. For if on the one hand those men have doctrines also contrary to ours, then on that account further it is not right to mix with them: if, on the other hand, they hold the same opinions, the reason for not mixing with them is greater still. And why so? Because then the disease is from lust of authority. Do you not know what was the fate of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram? Numbers 16:1-35 Of them only did I say? Was it not also of them that were with them? What will you say? Shall it be said, “Their faith is the same, they are orthodox as well as we”? If so, why then are they not with us? There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” If their cause is right, then is ours wrong; if ours is right, then is theirs wrong. “Children,” says he, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind.” Tell me, do you think this is enough, to say that they are orthodox? Is then the ordination of clergy past and done away? And what is the advantage of other things, if this be not strictly observed? For as we must needs contend for the faith; so must we for this also. For if it is lawful for any one, according to the phrase of them of old, “to fill his hands,” and to become a priest, let all approach to minister. In vain has this altar been raised, in vain the fullness of the Church, in vain the number of the priests. Let us take them away and destroy them. “God forbid!” you will say. You are doing these things, and do ye say, “God forbid”? How say ye, “God forbid,” when the very things are taking place? I speak and testify, not looking to my own interest, but to your salvation.

    In comment #311 of the “I Fought the Church and the Church Won” thread, you appealed to St. Chyrsostom in hope that he might hold a Protestant conception of imputed righteousness (though he did not). So will you accept his distinction between heresy and schism, or do you appeal to the Fathers only when and where they happen to agree with you? It seems intellectually dishonest, from my point of view, to pick and choose from the Fathers in this way. If you think that the third and fourth (and following) century Fathers who distinguish between schism and heresy are untrustworthy, why then do you appeal to those same Fathers when you want to support your position on imputation? Why not at least be consistent, and not appeal for any reason to any Church Fathers you believe to be untrustworthy? If you were consistent in this way, you could confront face to face the fuller implications of ecclesial deism.

    Before St. Augustine, St. Optatus, bishop of Milevus, made the same distinction in his fourth century work Against the Donatists. I won’t quote it here, but you can read it on pages 23-25 of that work.

    In that same century St. Athanasius wrote:

    At this time [i.e. Easter] the altogether wicked heretics and ignorant schismatics are in the same case [i.e. situation]; the one in that they slay the Word, the other in that they rend the coat [i.e. the seamless garment]. (Festal Letter VI.6)

    Again, in comment #315 of the “I Fought the Church” thread you appealed to St. Athanasius regarding the schismatic status of Arians, and in #290 you also appealed to St. Athanasius in support of a “sola scriptura” approach to distinguishing between councils. So, will you accept his distinction between heresy and schism, or do you just pick and choose from the Fathers, as it happens to be convenient to your position?

    Prior to St. Athanasius, St. Cyprian, in his third century work Testimonia writes,

    Schism ought not to be made even if he who departs remains in one faith and in the same tradition. (III, 86)

    But, from your quotation from David Wright, you seem to distrust even the third century Fathers regarding this distinction between schism and heresy. It seems that that for you ecclesial deism kicks in at the end of the second century (except when it doesn’t, as with your appeals to St. Athanasius and St. Chrysostom).

    But the distinction between schism and heresy can be found in the second century as well, as St. Irenaeus writes:

    Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God— namely, strange doctrines— shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud. Leviticus 10:1-2 But such as rise up in opposition to the truth, and exhort others against the Church of God, [shall] remain among those in hell (apud inferos), being swallowed up by an earthquake, even as those who were with Chore, Dathan, and Abiron. Numbers 16:33 But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did. (Ad. haer. IV.26)

    All the schisms St. Irenaeus refers to involved heresies (gnostic heresies), but the distinction between schism and heresy is nevertheless present in his work.

    Even at the end of the first century St. Clement of Rome writes of the Corinthian schism that is not a heresy:

    Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continues. (c. 46)

    Will you accept this from St. Clement, since you have appealed to him in support of a Protestant understanding of justification?

    This distinction between heresy and schism was not made up out of whole cloth in the third century. It is found even in Scripture, when the Holy Spirit speaking through St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:10:

    Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, διὰ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε πάντες, καὶ μὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑμῖν σχίσματα, ἦτε δὲ κατηρτισμένοι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νοῒ καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ γνώμῃ

    That they all agree pertains to sharing the same doctrine, and thus avoid heresy, or being of a different mind. That they avoid schism requires that they accept the same judgment, and thus requires that they submit to the same government.

    The denial of schism as something distinct from heresy is a denial of the visibility of the Church, and is in that respect gnostic, in its rejection of matter, and its spiritualization of the Church. In that respect, it is ecclesial Docetism (see “III.A. Denial of Visibility is Ecclesial Docetism.”)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  10. Bryan,

    I would love to take up the challenge and answer your questions one-by-one (just like your response under the other thread). I simply don’t have the time anymore. It is frustrating, but none of us should neglect our duties.

  11. Mark Hausam –

    In the other thread, you linked to an article you wrote called, “So where’s the Catholic Church?” In it you asserted that Michael Horton did not correctly distinguish between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church. You offered what you believe to be the correct distinction.

    You said,

    A branch within the church is a part of the church that is in full communion with the rest of the worldwide de jure catholic church, while a schism from the church is a church which, however orthodox it might be in other ways, is divided from full communion with the catholic church.”

    Assuming your distinction here is correct, how can anyone be sure that they are in communion with the catholic church? How do you know you are in the catholic church and not in schism from her? What are some examples of “branches within the church” and schismatic denominations who are not in full communion with this church?

    I read your post, but didn’t see a clear answer to these questions. If I missed it, please excuse me and point it out.

  12. Hello Fr. Bryan,

    My view is that we must examine the claims of the various denominations that exist in the light of the evidence in terms of doctrine and history to determine which denomination has the best claim to de jure authority, and then we should join that denomination. Such evaluation would take place according to the rules of God’s Word.

    Of course, my view assumes Sola Scriptura, which is obviously a controversial point in this venue!



  13. A few months ago, Toby J. Sumpter, Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, ID, wrote a post titled, “In Defense of the Protestant Reformation or How the New Eve Got More Lovely.” There he wrote:

    In so far as the Reformers uniformly cried ad fontes and sought the recovery of the true church which had sought obedience to Jesus’ commands for a thousand years, it was the Romanist movement that was schismatic.

    Regarding that claim, I submitted the following in a comment under that thread:

    There are two problems with that statement that make it self-contradicting. First, such a notion of schism is nowhere to be found in those early sources. Only the Reformers conflated schism and heresy. So the statement contradicts itself by imposing a novel conception of schism while claiming to return to the roots. Second, the idea of “recovery of the true church” is not the same as reform of the Church Christ founded, and that’s no slip of the tongue. It presupposes that the Church does not exist, and needs to be recovered (in which case one can do so outside the existing institutional Church, by simply leaving, and re-starting the “true church”), as opposed to the notion that the Church Christ founded exists, and needs to be reformed from within, even if that involves personal sacrifice, suffering, etc. The invisible church ecclesiology in your notion of “recovery of the true church” is not the ecclesiology of those early sources, for whom the Church Christ founded was essentially visibly one. And for this reason too the statement is self-contradictory.

  14. Of course it is good to recognize both a common faith in Christ (and hopefully a common baptism), as well as wisdom in other traditions. But nevertheless, this is another example of treating schism as a branch by reducing schism to heresy, and then defining heresy as apostasy:

    We believe that all who truly profess faith in Christ and try to live by His Word with God’s help–are members of the Body of Christ: even those within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. There is a lot of spiritual wisdom in many of the other branches, such as the Moravians, Lutherans, Congregational, and early Quakers. Not to mention the Baptists and the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.).


  15. Today is the feast of St Isidore, bishop of Seville (570-636). What did he tell us about the nature of heresy, and the difference between heresy and schism? See comment #714 in the “How John Calvin Made me a Catholic” thread.

  16. Bryan,
    “Schism” in the very early church meant causing division. Both Paul and Clement warned their local churches not to unseat good overseers. All Christians ought to be against strife and sectarianism within their churches. My pastor recently gave a sermon on 1 Cor. 1:10 – we get it.

    You seem to have an implicit assumption that everyone needs to agree with Rome. And this leads you to conclude anyone not in communion with Rome is therefore in schism. This type of thinking is not found in the Apostolic Fathers nor most importantly in the Holy Scriptures, but is an accretion that developed when the hierarchy and institution began growing in strength after the last Apostles and those they taught died off.

    You seem to let the 4th century Church Fathers influence your view of the Church, more than perhaps you should. By that time, the institutional incubator for Christians was already assumed great power, just as the executive branch did early in American history.

    Nevertheless, the way I see it is God still uses institutions that veer off for good too, because He is focused on the individual believer more than the visible institution this side of Paradise.

    It seems the earliest records of ecclesiology present a confederation of many local churches planted by Apostles or maybe even the 70 disciples and other new believers who naturally wanted to be in communion with the other new believers the world throughout. Apostolic succession only later became one way to quickly discount the gnostics. But the concept then became used as a sort of convenient “be all, end all private guest list” weapon one could quickly wave against the various confederation of churches that eventually fell into disagreement with Rome such as when Victor tried to excommunicate the Eastern Christians in the late 2nd century.

    The earliest ecclesiology is perhaps best described through St. Ignatius’ view of a confederacy of local churches in a roundtable with a chairman “which presides over love”.


  17. David,

    In response to Bryan, you state,

    “Schism” in the very early church meant causing division. Both Paul and Clement warned their local churches not to unseat good overseers. All Christians ought to be against strife and sectarianism within their churches. My pastor recently gave a sermon on 1 Cor. 1:10 – we get it.

    Now, in that paragraph, your first sentence is ambiguous: You are stating what “schism” meant as if you were stating a different position than Bryan’s own, but offering no immediate clarification as to how that view differs from Bryan’s own, nor any evidence to support your own view over and against Bryan’s. Using the sentences which follow as context, I guess that by “causing division” you mean, to state it more precisely, “causing negative feelings among the members of your local church/parish by disagreeing with another member of your local church/parish about what orthodox Christianity is and requires.” But I can only guess, based upon your reduction of Paul’s admonition to, “All Christians ought to be against strife and sectarianism within their churches.”

    Presuming for the moment that I’ve guessed correctly, then I can only point out that modern liberal Episcopalianism is the only likely outcome of never “causing division” according to that definition! And of course someone following such a course would never initiate church discipline according to the Matthew 18 model: That would be “causing division.”

    And I know that you don’t believe that Calvin and Luther were wrong to cause strife and sectarianism within their Church. Apparently you think sometimes schism, so defined, is warranted? If we are to take Paul’s admonition seriously even by your definition of “schism,” it is hard to see how the Protestant reformers don’t stand condemned.

    Anyway, I thnk the Matthew 18 model is instructive: Here we have an obligation, if initial exhortations fail, to “take it to the Church.” What Church did Jesus mean?

    The Lutheran Church? Perhaps the Anglican Church? Was it the Mennonite Church? It’s got to be some identifiable body, otherwise we don’t know how to find the Church that we’re “taking it” to. And that body must have identifiable leadership, otherwise we don’t know which person in that church we’re supposed to “take it to.”

    You would presumably say that this only refers to the local congregation; but Jesus (the new Moses, who accomplished the new Exodus at Jerusalem as He discussed with His predecessor on the Mount of Transfiguration) chose 12, and then 70. Now in the People of God, when the 70 found a case too difficult to judge, they appealed to the appropriate one of the 12; and if it was still too difficult to judge, it came before Moses. Surely the People of God under the New (and Better) Covenant would not have a lesser system of tribal/kingdom unity? Surely the antitype which fulfills is not less capable than the type which foreshadows?

    And of course we know that the Church is the People of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ. Is Christ divided? A Hindu god with one head and five hundred arms is surely less monstrous than the Christ of denominationally-divided cclesiology with one head and thirty thousand bodies. And Christ is not a bigamist. And the Father prefers His kids eat around one table. And “a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”

    No, I think we can be sure that in Christ’s system of adjudicating disputes in Matthew 18, a dispute between two local church pastors can be appealed to the next higher authority, and the next, and end ultimately with a final arbiter where “the buck stops.” That way, there’s One Church we can “take it to.”

    (Otherwise, the verse would have read, “Take it to your local church; and if you can’t get agreement there, leave that church and join another with doctrines more to your liking.”)

    Another reason we can be sure of this is because Matthew 18 clearly presupposes that the decisions being made in these judgments will sometimes include binding decisions about doctrine, and these binding decisions will somehow be made infallibly correctly: What is bound on earth is bound in Heaven (and Heaven never makes incorrect bindings, nor does Heaven disagree with itself).

    Imagine a situation where two Christian women attend two local churches. One is contemplating having an abortion. The other exhorts her not to do it; but the first woman says she thinks it isn’t wrong. The second woman brings another woman or two along to talk to her a second time; still, she doesn’t budge. So, the second woman is now supposed to “bring the matter to the Church.”

    We can clearly envision a situation in which the first woman’s local church pastor and elders agree with her that the unborn are not people and that abortion is not a sin, but the second woman’s local church pastor and elders hold that the unborn are people and that abortion is murder. What then would be the outcome, if Matthew 18 were discussing only the local church? “The Church” (understood purely in a Congregational sense) would have “bound” and “loosed” abortion simultaneously, meaning that Heaven both agreed and disagreed with it!

    In your second paragraph, you say,

    You seem to have an implicit assumption that everyone needs to agree with Rome. And this leads you to conclude anyone not in communion with Rome is therefore in schism.

    Well, yes: That does indeed seem to be the Scriptural model, after all.

    When Korah disagrees with Moses about centralized authority roles in the People of God, it is decidedly not okay for him to march off and start a new People of God on the opposite street corner.

    When 10 tribes of Israel got fed up with the Son (technically, the spoiled-brat grandson) of David, they split the kingdom. God even allowed it, and did not forget them, and blessed them for a time. But I ask you: Did God’s promise of an eternal kingdom come through Samaria, or Jerusalem? Did the scepter depart from Judah and go to the Northern Kingdom? Or were there two “scepters?” When it was time to restore the people to the land, who got restored, and who was scattered?

    God provides a locus of unity for His people. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. So where is the locus of unity for the Kingdom, today?

    Jesus, of course! …but He is in Heaven, at the right hand of the Father. The flock need a shepherd they can see. Did Jesus give no thought to that?

    Of course He did. He did what the Davidic Kings always did: He had stewards in every place in the Kingdom, with specific territories or zones of authority. And when the king was away, the chief steward (who had a robe and throne of office, and who held the Keys of the House of David) was the person who kept the kingdom unified until the king returned. The “Al Bayith” had various functions: He was “like a father to those in Jerusalem”; he could “bind and loose” with stewardly authority on behalf of the king like the other stewards (but as chief steward, he could loose what others bound and bind what others loosed; and what he bound, none could loose, and what he loosed, none could bind).

    That office was the locus of unity when the king was absent, under the sons of David. Is Jesus the rightful heir, the “Son of David,” or not?

    He is. So the matter becomes simple: We look for Christ’s stewards, and let them adjudicate disputes; and if there is ever a dispute that the stewards themselves disagree about, then the chief steward will resolve it. Once that happens, he who rejects the authority of the chief steward is rejecting the authority of the King. If a large group does so, it becomes a rebel province separating from the Kingdom.

    To determine to whom Jesus granted the office of chief steward, we need only ask: To whom did Jesus give the Keys of the House of David? (But of course, the Old Covenant type is the Davidic Kingdom; the New Covenant fulfillment is the Kingdom of Heaven. So whereas a Davidic king might assign his chief steward “the keys of the kingdom of David,” Jesus will naturally assign His chief steward “the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.”)

    Protestant scholars generally agree with Catholic scholars about Matthew 16: Jesus here makes Peter the chief steward. Isaiah 22 is the background in the Old Covenant for this conferral of authority in the New.

    Now the stewardly offices could increase or decrease in number as the kingdom grew; but when one steward died, a successor was always chosen for his office. We see a successor chosen for the office of Judas Iscariot in Acts 1, so we know that this stewardly succession was not merely an Old Testament practice, but continues in the New.

    Does it not follow that Peter, as Al Bayith, would have successors also? Does it not follow that when following the Matthew 18 process, if stewards disagree the best practice is to appeal the matter to the chief steward who can bind what others loose, and loose what others bind, and thereby settle the matter for the whole Kingdom? “Roma locuta, causa finita est.”

    It’s all deeply Scriptural, and it makes church discipline according to the Matthew 18 model possible.

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