The results show three categories of definitions: Historical, Dictionary, and Scriptural. At the end I’ll include a definition of schism that summarizes all the biblical data.
The idea here is, if you want to understand schism, study church history:
Richard Nestel “Protestantism.”
Bryan Frei “A divergence in Church governance, questioning the validity of Authority, and it’s thereof (See the schism of 1054) All the while preserving the bulk of orthodoxy as it is understood in it’s plenary of the tenets of historic Christian teachings.”
Josh Gray “Even Protestants agree more than disagree. It’s amazing how Protestants agree on the essential truths of doctrine and the gospel. Yes, there are exceptions, but that is the general rule. Not every church or group is truly Christian though. All rue believers are united with one another in Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). In focusing so much on the non essential disagreements, we a lot of times fail to see the amazing amount of agreement…”
Steve Nickell “Schisms occur when members within a single group have irreconcilable differences and separate into two or more discrete groups. The protestant reformation is an example of this, but other schisms have occurred outside of the religious scope. The American Revolution, for example, was a schism between the American colonies and the British Monarchy. The schism was irreconcilable by any means, including military action.”
Aaaaand, other friends say if you want to understand schism, think ‘dictionarily:’
Scott Tyler “A division or separation mostly due to wrong thinking.”
Jose Bergollo “When two parties believe in their own truth and strongly oppose each other, not knowing that they could be wrong in some points yet refuse to believe that they themselves could be miss understanding something.”
John Eckel “noun: a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.”
Getting warmer, others say schism is connected to the body of Christ (woot woot):
Josh Gray “A division between people or groups because both hold to opposing views. We are to avoid those who cause “schisms” or divisions contrary to biblical doctrine. “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:17 ESV). On the other hand, true believers in Jesus Christ are to have no essential differences between them (1 Cor 1:10) even though there is room for disagreements on non essential issues that do not affect the gospel.”
Peggy Jo Vanderbeck-Thomas “From our Churches recent foray into this topic I would say that schism, in the Biblical sense, is everything that is antithetical to Christ. Unity is what defines Christ’s relationship with His heavenly Father, and His relationship with His Church, and should be what defines the local body of Christ in each region, to Christ and to one another. So schism is one of Satan’s favorite tools to destroy the Church and is what Paul railed against in Ephesians 4. To paraphrase my favorite Pastor, if unity displays the ascension of Christ then schism displays Christ still in the grave. So, any church who puts into practice anything that goes against the Apostolic teaching of Scripture, is practicing schism. Schism is complete disobedience. It is open season/open rebellion on the Church. Sorry Ted, I know I have not done this topic justice. Thank you for delving into something that is close to my heart.”
Lyndon Wester “I’ll throw in my two cents. “Schism” is mentioned once in all of scripture. 1Cor 12:25. The Greek word means ‘gap’, ‘split’, ‘division’, ‘rent’…reading the verses around this verse and the entire chapter–it has nothing to do with disagreement or some discrepancy in theology. It has everything with being part of the body–which is what the entire passage is about. Paul is just dealing with this very carnal church over the issue of ‘what if everyone were an eye’ (He was a master of satire). We have this same issue in charismatic circles today and the gift of tongues–i.e., you’re not a Christian unless you’ve had some other ‘experience’. They’ve elevated the least of gifts to the literal experiential proof that one is ‘saved’. We need all parts of the body, as explained in 1 Cor 12:28-31 – — no one ‘part’ should be a exalted above another, in which a ‘schism’ is caused.”
Dave Clymer “Within the body of Christ I would define it as the division of the body within a region, through the holding of man made ideas or preferences above brotherly love and Christian unity (and therefore above Christ, because that is what He gave His life for).”
Bart En Ellen Aerts “Schism is everything that doesn’t reflect the unity all christians have in and through Christ. It is founded in a lack of love for Christ’s body on Earth and grows by pride. It is caused by a strive for uniformity, an outcome of inconsistency. It slams with the Bible from cover to cover and fails to live out Christ’s message. It is something every man, who is unknown to Christ’s path of humility, inclines to cling to. It makes the salt loose it’s taste, it forms a basket which hinders the light. It is a reason why others doesn’t give glory to the Father who is in heaven and people don’t believe He has sent His son. It makes believers fall short of the glory of God and therefore miss their purpose on Earth as image bearers of the triune God.”
Charlie Nason “Schism (verb-σχίζω, noun-σχίσμα) used 19 times in the NT. Biblical usage would define schism as disagreeing opinions about Christ by those outside the church (John 7:43, 9:16, 10:19). A disruption in the unity of a city or a group (Acts 14:4, 23:7). Of those in the church it is used when people follow human leaders rather than following Christ (1 Cor. 1:10). Paul expected them in the church to display who was genuine (1 Cor. 11:18) but expected genuine believers to not have any (1 Cor. 12:25). It is a mental action such as belief which allows believers who are variously gifted to live and work in harmony for the cause of Christ.”
Thanks to all who contributed their thoughts and time.
The Definition of Schism in the Apostolic Deposit
But then there is a definition of schism taken from all its ecclesiastical uses in the NT, and it is this:
“schism is the division of a local body of Christ
into two or more churches.”
Let’s flesh it out by going to the data. The word “schism” is employed ecclesiastically three times in the NT, 1 Cor. 1:10, 11:18, 12:25. Regarding the NT as the full word from Jesus Christ for the churches for all time, we learn three truths.
– 1 –
Schisms are Divided Groups of Christians
who Belong in the Same Local Church
“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you all agree and that there be no schisms (σχίσµατα)
among you, but that you be made complete in the
same mind and in the same judgment.”
(1 Cor. 1:10)
In the first instance of “schism” in 1 Corinthians Paul reveals that he is writing to prevent the the forming of separate groups in Corinth. He addresses all the Christians in Corinth in 1:10 as “brethren,” and four times as “you,” collectively.
Thus, all the Christians in Corinth met in one local church (assembly) at the time of Paul’s writing. Paul never refers to them as meeting in separate churches, but all together in one church (1 Cor. 1:2, 5:4, 10:16-17, 11:18, 11:22, 12:13, 14:5, 12, 23). He writes to prevent them from schisming into multiple churches in Corinth.
Paul specifically said the all met in “one place” for church (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV, 1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV), and consistently described them as those who “meet together” for church (1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34, 14:23, 26). But their physical and visible unity as one church was threatened by the forming of competing alliances (“I am of Paul, I am of Apollos”), alliances that if left to develop themselves would result in ecclesiastical schism – separate churches in Corinth.
Such schisms, then were local, not universal. Or to put it another way, they were not with Christians who lived in distant places, with Christians whom they could not have worshiped with on the Lord’s Day. Instead, as Paul writes, schisms would only be “among you,” that is, among the Corinthian church. Therefore, the “Great Schism” of 1054 between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is not a church schism, as defined by an apostle.
Paul knew the one local church comprising all the Christians in Corinth hadn’t yet occurred, and so wrote “that there may be no schisms among you.” As indicated, he employs the present subjunctive form of the verb “to be,” translated as “there may be.” This shows that Paul knew the schisms had yet occurred, but were a future possibility.”µὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑµῖν σχίσµατα” Linguistically, “the subjunctive naturally looks to the future for the resolution of the contingency.” In other words, no schisms in Corinth had yet occurred.
As a result, Paul intends to heal them of their growing sinful alliances before they divide into separate churches as seen in his words, “made complete” (κατηρτισµένοι). The word refers to the mending of fishing nets so they are without rips, tears, or holes (Mat. 4:21), and it’s etymology refers to restoring something back to its previously whole condition. Paul’s apostolic counsel, if obeyed, will heal them so they can be of “one mind and in the same judgment,” in one church.
So while at the time of writing the Christians in Corinth were moving toward several divisions, Paul’s labored to prevent it. And in fact, he did. Writing from Corinth six or so months later he closed off the letter to the Romans this way, “the whole church greets you” (Rom. 16:23).
– 2 –
Schisms are Christians who Ought to Take
the Lord’s Supper Together, but Don’t
Moving on, the next occurrence of schism makes several incredibly important contributions to the biblical doctrine of ecclesiology.
“First of all, when you come together as a church,
I hear that there may be schisms (schisms, σχίσµατα)
among you, and in part I believe it.
For there must also be heresies (αἱρέσεις) among you, that those
who are visibly approved may be recognized among you.”
Therefore when you come together in one place,
it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.
(1 Cor. 11:18-20, author)
Due to the repeated verb “come together” (vv. 18, 20), the apostolic definition of a church is limited only to groups of Christians that assemble for the worship of Jesus Christ. The apostle knew nothing of dispersed ecclesiastical organizations. Instead, churches are groups of people that “come together” for the purpose of worship. This definition of “church” is further strengthened by Paul’s statement that they all came together in one place. (v. 20, cf. 1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV).Indeed, the text from 1 Cor. 11:17-34 is tied together by the verb “come together” (συνέρχεσθε). Used five times in seventeen verses, it clearly and repeatedly limits the sphere of schism to Corinth.Therefore, only Christians who meet together for Sunday worship can actually schism from each other. Hence, the “Great Schism” of the Western and Eastern Communions in 1054 is not, biblically speaking, a schism. Nor, by Paul’s apostolic measure, is the Protestant Reformation a schism from Roman Catholicism. Nor is Christianity experiencing a “third schism” as claimed in one recent book.
Secondly, while Paul wants to prevent schisms, he recognizes that such might come to exist “among you,” that is, professing Christians (v. 18). But he asserts that schisms do not arise to exist in perpetuity, but that they might expose heresies, the harbinger of damnation. Schisms do not separate the saved from the unsaved, but heresies do.
While heresies arise to display the reprobate going off in their own churches, schisms arise in order to plainly show the regenerate by an opposite process. The regenerate don’t stay in schism as the reprobate stay in heresy, but come together in one place for the worship of Jesus Christ. By this coming together for worship they show forth the evidence of their being genuine that they are “visibly approved to be recognized among you” (οἱ δόκιµοι φανεροὶ γένωνται ἐν ὑµῖν). However, professing Christians in heresy refuse the “coming together” proof that heals schism, and thus will remain among themselves in their own churches. After all, heretics always refuse to submit to the authority and wisdom of Scripture.
Now while both schisms and heresies result in separate churches, only those churches that are schisms can repent. They alone have some, or many, truly regenerate members of the body of Christ in them. The heretics, though existing in greater numbers over time, are unable to be healed of schism by the Word of God without repenting of their heresy. Their ministers exist to keep them under heresy and from the body of Christ, and will receive a judgment appropriate to their ministry (cf. Luke 12:46).
To differentiate themselves, ministers of schismed churches must use the word of God to heal schism and bring together the local body of Christ. If they do not, not only do they leave Christ’s redeemed separated from Christ’s redeemed, but their fruit is little different than the heretics. They are men held in the grip of disobedience, who by their ministry hold others in disobedience as well.
– 3 –
Schism Creates a ‘Dis-Membered’ Body
In the last instance, Paul connects schism to its natural referent, the local body of Christ. Think of it this way: when a church schisms apart it doesn’t cease to exist. Instead, it multiplies into two or more churches. But when a body schisms, it doesn’t multiply and become two bodies. It amputates, and either limps, or dies.
Thus, schism dismembers the body God has composed to be unified:
“God has so composed the body, giving more abundant
honor to that member which lacked,
so that there may be no division (schism, σχίσµα)
in the body, but that the members may
have the same care for one another.
And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it;
if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.”
(1 Cor. 12:24-27)
Here again, we encounter a pinnacle text of Scripture, ecclesiologically speaking. In it, Paul teaches two foundational ecclesiological realities.
First, he teaches the local body of Christ is comprised of individual members who care for every other part of the body. Does your hand, or your foot, only care for some parts of your body and wish to be severed from others? No, it cares for every part of your body whenever it needs to.
By this phrase, “have the same care for one another,” we know Paul is not referring to the Universal Body of Christ in these verses. That Body is comprised of of all who will ever be redeemed in this age. Most of the members of the Universal Body will never know each other on earth, and therefore will never care for each other, as commanded here. Thus, we are dealing with the body of Christ in Corinth. Other bodies of Christ existed in other cities of the NT world (Rom. 12:4-5, Eph. 4:16, Col. 3:15).
The local body is the NT corollary to the local church, and it is explicitly found in Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:29, 1 Cor. 12:12-27, Eph. 4:12, 4:16, Col. 2:19, 3:15, and implicitly in many other texts, such as 1 Cor. 1:13. We know these are local body texts because they contain commands that can only be obeyed when the Christians addressed in those letters are physically connected together. Those commands are plain, such as, “love one another” and “pray for one another.” For more information, read my article on The Local Body of Christ.
Second, he teaches that God makes this local body in a unique way. It is composed of individual people who “fit” each other by their sympathies and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:11-12). God makes some members to lack and some to be honored so that the local body will be knit together and not be schismed. Hence, it functions as designed only when all the members, both those lacking and those in honor, are caring for each other.
Now, here’s the sad thing. Neither you or I have ever once experienced these sympathies or gifts in the measure designed by God. In their fulness they are unknown to us today, for schism has robbed us of their pleasures and sorrows. Such body life as Paul describes is only known when the local body cares for itself. But when the local body is schismed into separate churches it can’t care for itself in unity. One writer describes what we have lost this way:
“So close is the link between members of the community that what affects one necessarily affects all. Paul’s language must be carefully noted here. He does not say that experiences of individuals within the community, both pleasurable and sorrowful, should be shared by all the others who belong to it. He says instead that they are so shared, whether consciously experienced or not. The “body” has a common nerve. There is a common life within it in which each is identified with the other – all in one, as it were, and one in all (12:26).”Paul Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 60.
Today’s preachers exhort people to develop this body life, but Paul doesn’t because it would be like exhorting Christ. When the local body is un-schismed, this body life must happen because Christ, in His fullness, is the life of that body (1 Cor. 12:12). Compare this to your (or my) church, where we note malaise among many who are certainly in the Lord, but are disconnected from this type of life. They suffer from amputee-ism.
Yet, what God did through the preaching of the gospel in Corinth – the creation of a local body of Christ – He also does in “every place” (1 Cor. 1:2). He has done it where you live too, but schismatic men have cut apart what He made. At one time, there was a local body of Christ where you live that was specially composed and knew this 1 Cor. 12:26 common life. Each member shared in the “same care for each other,” not by their own efforts, but by their common composition in but one body. They had “one nerve.”
But schism dismembered the body where you live into lifeless pieces that can not know this spirituality so long as they are divided from each other. The local body where you live can’t function in a “care for itself” way, for it is separated from itself. Since its members don’t meet with each other for worship and mutual ministry where you live, they can’t suffer when one member suffers, or rejoice when one member is honored. They don’t even know each other, in most cases. These schismatic have carved up the body “God has so composed, ” that it can in no wise “cares-for-itself.”
How did this local body begin? Earlier in the chapter Paul locates the origin of the Corinthian local body in baptism. This is not a baptism performed by human hands, but the spiritual baptism performed in Christ’s Spirit:
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free,
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body is not one member, but many.
If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand,
I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this
reason any the less a part of the body.”
(1 Cor. 12:13-15)
Paul is clear. The body of Christ in Corinth that received this letter was a single church in Corinth, a group of persons who personally cared for each other solely due to their being formed solely by the power of Christ. The result of His sovereign work, says Paul, is “one body” (v. 14). Some of those in the body are feet while others are hands, ears, and eyes. But make no mistake. All are physically connected to each other in the same body. We were all designed to be in one body where we live, and thus physically connected to each other each Sunday.
Summing up the three instance of “schism” used ecclesiastically, the apostle Paul defines schism as the ripping apart of Christ’s physically connected local body formed by His baptism into separate churches. Only by putting the body back together again into one church that physically connects through every-Sunday worship can it be healed.
For more on schism, read The Local Body of Christ.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||”µὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑµῖν σχίσµατα”|
|2.||↑||Indeed, the text from 1 Cor. 11:17-34 is tied together by the verb “come together” (συνέρχεσθε). Used five times in seventeen verses, it clearly and repeatedly limits the sphere of schism to Corinth.|
|3.||↑||Nor is Christianity experiencing a “third schism” as claimed in one recent book.|
|4.||↑||Paul Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 60.|