Says Scripture, never: the more churches
there are where Christians live, the
stronger Christianity is.
“How many Christian churches are within ten miles of where you live?”
10? 100? 1000?
If you live within the city lines of Birmingham, Alabama, you have your choice of over 1,500 this Sunday.
But that’s not all the churches in Birmingham – those are just the ones in the online Yellow Pages. You can also choose house churches, many church plants, and a lot of churches that don’t have a building and run on a shoe-string budget. The better number is about 2,000, or 1 church for every 112 residents.
Now, suppose a friend in town asks you, “Since all the Christian churches here profess one God in three Persons in unity, why don’t they worship Him together in unity?” How would you respond? Perhaps you could go into a 30 minute sketch of church history, but really, how many non-Christians will accept your sweeping interpretations of history?
So better, do you have an answer from the apostolic writings in the New Testament? I do.
In my early days as a Christian I was taught to deflect those questions. After all, I was told the person is bluffing in order to avoid the “real issues” of Christ and personal sin. Maybe so. But we are missing an opportunity to witness for the Christ. He wanted our unity to be true evangelism:
” that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me
and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that
the world may believe that You sent Me.
that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may
know that You sent Me, and loved them,
even as You have loved Me”
Jesus didn’t pray for our invisible unity in Christ, for how can the world see that? Hey, even we can’t see invisible unity!
“Clearly the unity among Christians for which our Lord is praying here is to be a visible unity, if, as he prays, the world is to learn from it that the Father has sent him.”Robert Reymond, New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 840, n. 5
Christ prayed that our unity would prove to all unbelievers that He Himself was sent from the Father. And from there, to reckon with His claims. Jesus prayed for a visible unity that the people of the world could see, a visible unity so powerful it would prove to them Christ is the Son of God.
Which is largely why Satan’s plan is always been divide and schism, and that’s what I tell non-Christians, straight up. Satan empowers, under the providential hand of God, what I call The Age of Schism.
The apostle’s lengthy letter of 1 Corinthians contains the longest reproof of Christians found in the Bible. It’s a rebuke to confront and shame the Christians out of schism.
It covers a lot of material, but there is a common thread running through it. Six times from 1:10 to 4:21, the apostle describes men who despise God’s power and wisdom in the cross of Christ. These men see no problem in keeping Christians separated from worshiping their common Lord on each Lord’s Day, but rather following themselves.
In 1 Cor. 1:20 Paul declares the debaters of this age despise the wisdom of God in the cross. Then, three times Paul says the rulers of this age could not esteem the wisdom of God and so Christ on a cross (from 1 Cor. 2:6 to 2:8). And in 1 Cor. 3:18 Paul commands Christian schismatics – men he calls “wise in this age” – become foolish with him so they might learn God’s power and wisdom in the cross.”αἰῶνος,” William Barclay, New Testament Words, 33.
Simply put, then, our practical, Sunday-by-Sunday unity comes from believing, embracing, and glorying in God’s wisdom in Christ’s cross, while the Age of Schism wants you to looking down your nose at others who live in your city, and for whom Christ most certainly died.
Schism, A Foreign Word
Let’s face it. We don’t have an honorable way to explain the “how come there are so many churches” question to the unbeliever. Schism is sin. Bad sin, in fact. But it’s hardly in our Christian vocabulary, and on the rare occasion its ugly head pops up, eyes glaze and ears shut. It’s so middle ages.
But the non-Christians see it all over, and by it think our religion is man-made. In fact, they probably see schism more than we do because unlike us, they aren’t embarrassed by it. It stares them in the face everyday as they drive by umpteen churches, practically screaming at them, telling them that Christians don’t worship one Lord, but rather worship the works of their own tribes. If we opened our eyes, even just a bit, schism and its satanic fruits would stare at us too.
We lack something precious the early Christians had. They pointed out schismed churches to the non-Christians around them, and grieved. They believed the apostles, not contemporary religious pundits.
In Corinth the whole church got together every Sunday, comprised of every single blessed Christian in that massive city (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV, 1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV, 1 Cor. 16:1-2). The exact same thing happened everywhere. All the Christians in a city got together in one church, no matter how many of them there were for worship capped off by mutual participation in the Lord’s Supper. When they almost schismed, the apostolic writings kept them unified as one (1 Cor. 1:10-13, Rom. 16:23).
When 150 AD came along, after Christianity in Rome had grown greatly in numbers, popularity, and influence, there was a massive emphasis on all the local Christians meeting together for worship as one church in every locale. Describing the one massive church assembly in Rome at that time, Justin Martyr wrote:
“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.”
(Justin Martyr, Apology, 1:67).
Today, the exact opposite is deemed best. We think the more churches there are in one place then the more Christians there are in that place, and the better the witness for Jesus Christ:
“The only way to be truly sure you are increasing the
number of Christians in a town is to increase
the number of churches.”Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird, Viral Churches, 199.
“The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations
is the single most crucial strategy for the
numerical growth of the Body
of Christ in any city.”Acts 29 blog post
“Church planting is the best methodology
of evangelism under the sun.”C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest, 11
Today’s church experts are re-writing church history. For the first time, the doctors of Christianity advocate the mutilation and amputation of Christ’s body for it’s strength and growth. Like the graphic on the right, they despise God’s wisdom in the cross and teach fragmentation is the love of Christ.
Schism and Heresy
It’s hard to say “schism” and be taken seriously. Words like “schism” are archaic and contrary to the tolerant spirit of our age. It’s exclusionary, and smacks of elitism, arrogance, and perhaps racism. Considered from our modern point of view it appears to be contrary to one of the purposes every church has in Scripture, which is to win people to Christ, so they may thereby gain heaven.
But to believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in exclusivity. His famous words , “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me,” exclude salvation in all others (John 14:6).
To those who disagree we appear aloof, and maybe arrogant, or likely deluded. But actually, Jesus Christ and His exclusive words are deeply comforting and full of wisdom. They assure us of life after death. To us who believe Him, they are the ultimate inclusivity.
So exclusivity, even in words like schism and heresy, is not a barrier to the gospel, but actually necessary to it. After all, the gospel when believed insures heaven, and heaven is exclusive. Jesus describes it this way:
“Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral
persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and
everyone who loves and practices lying”
So, the problem of seeming exclusionary, or being what is called “tone-deaf,” is one factor that keeps us from confidently declaring which churches are schismatic and which ones are heretical. But there is a larger factor than just that.
Branches, Trees, and Roots
Many have a clear understanding of the gospel and are effectively able to rebuke the many heresies and compromises of it. Conferences abound and books sell swiftly. But nothing changes. Schisms abound.
No one rebukes the root of all such damning gospels: schismed and heretical churches. Some people, thankfully, attack the false teachers, but that only attacks the branch. The aberrant teacher’s support system, his or her church, is left untouched. We are undiscerning that the institution that supports false teaching requires just as much judgment, denunciation, and resultant isolation.
This is actually a more critical endeavor than correcting an errant gospel since it is bad doctrine about the church that makes the false gospels look to millions like a true and saving gospel.
The Bible explains both schismatic and heretical churches, but as long as a vague and cloudy doctrine of church is preferred over clarity, all the conferences, books, and websites can only trim a bad teacher or two, but not their disciples. Meanwhile the evil tree that supports the branches is left intact and strong. No false gospel can be cut down if we do not lay the axe to the roots that support and nourish it – schismatic and heretical churches.
Making matters worse, some who have a clear grasp and call out those gospels that are aberrant to the word of God are themselves opposed to calling out churches that are aberrant to the word of God.
It isn’t that such persons believe every type of church is equally valid. They are more discerning than that. But their ecclesiology is so insufficiently biblical that they have no principled means, no toolkit, from the word of God by which to identify an obedient church from a schismatic church from a heretical church.
As a result they go around trimming branches instead of doing what the Lord did, identifying whole trees as evil (Mat. 7:15-20, 3:10). Without a clear understanding from Scripture on what makes a church disobedient from the roots up they are unable to protect Christians and their churches from the staggering number of specious teachings schismatic and heretical churches spawn.
This is why Christians in the Age of Schism can’t answer the simple question, “which is the right church around here?” No one has a clue how to.
In the Age of Schism, most churches have their own validity as long as they preach justification by faith, and calling any such church schismatic is itself, well, heretical.
Who Gives Birth to Whom?
Which gave birth to which – false gospels birth churches, or vice versa, churches birth false gospels? The answer is easy. Just as the chicken came before the egg (Gen. 1:24-25), so churches give birth to false gospels.
Whether you read Paul’s words to the elders of the church in Ephesus, or Jesus’ words to the false teachers of the churches in Revelation, false teachers always start in churches (Acts 20:29-30; Rev. 2:14, 20). At that point one of two things happen. The false teacher either takes over the church, or, strikes out and starts his or her own church. But never do false gospels arise outside of churches. After all, where do all the false teachers and their followers come from if not from churches?
Which means that if we who lead churches want to protect the flock of God from false gospels – as we’re commanded to in Scripture – and we want to expose error precisely because it is error and steals glory from Jesus Christ, then we must grow sufficiently in our doctrine of the church to call out schism and heresy, not just at the level of soteriology, but ecclesiology. Or to put it less technically, at the level of the doctrine of the church, as well as the doctrine of salvation.
We must evaluate churches at the institutional level based on the writings of the NT apostles. If we stay where we are ecclesiologically and dismiss the Bible’s own judgments of what makes a local church obedient to Christ, we capitulate to the false teachers on that which feeds and sustains their false and damning gospels.
The churches of the 1st and 2nd centuries were good at doing this. But who today offers a biblical critique and judgment on schism and schismatics? Only well-educated Roman Catholics and Orthodox talk about schism in a principled way, but to me it seems self-serving.
In the 1960s, awash in modernism, Vatican 2 claimed it was an ecumenical council! Then they modified their own councils – the 4th Lateran Council and Council of Trent – though they’ll disagree with me here. But whereas they once anathematized Christians who believe in justification by faith, we are now in their estimation ‘separated brethren,’ child wandering from home. Please! Along the same presumptive lines, the Eastern Orthodox communions seem adept at identifying schism, but in a remarkably self-serving way.
But for these religious entities, ending schism means submitting to their hierarchies.
The old RCC view of schism meant a level of separation from their deeply hierarchical multi-site religious institution and pronounced damnable threats for non-compliance with their organization, centered in Rome. You won’t find that definition of schism in the writings of the apostles.One Catholic theologian explains it this way, “..”heresy and schism also anathema the person, that is, separate that person from the Church, by the very nature of the sin.”
In the same vein, The Great Schism of 1054 is not a schism at all, at least, not in the biblical sense. It was the official removing of formal relations between vast religious institutions.
Christ’s Doctrine of the Church
Everyone’s doctrine of the church has to begin somewhere, and the right place is with Christ’s two teachings that mention “church.”
First, He teaches a Universal Church, comprised of all He saves – they all overcome death (Mat. 16:18). This Church exists on earth and in heaven at the same time and is thus not an institution. Then He teaches the local church, which only exists in a group of people who worship together and function institutionally (Mat. 18:17).
The rest of the New Testament (NT) provides detail to these two churches. Both churches meet, the local every Lord’s Day, and the Universal at the parousia.
The meaning of the Greek word for church was always, “gathering, assembly” in the First Century, and Christ and the apostles retained that sense in it’s over 100 uses in the NT. The local church, then, is to be a mirror and foretaste of the Universal. As it will one day meet together without schism, so too the local church is to be comprised of all local Christians meeting together, mirroring our eternal destiny together. When the local Christians are separated into different churches, Christ’s local church is schismed. It completely misrepresents the Universal Church we shall all enjoy in eternity.
Therefore, schism is truly regenerated Christians living in the same close area but who do not worship Christ the Lord together in one local church on Sunday. Or to sum it up in the teachings of the Apostle Paul, they are a schismed body of Christ.
When Paul warns the Corinthians not to divide into separate groups in 1 Cor. 1:10-13, he also defined what schism is:
“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you all agree and that there be no divisions (σχίσματα, schisms)
among you, but that you be made complete in the
same mind and in the same judgment.”
(1 Cor. 1:10)
To rightly interpret Paul words here, ask yourself, who is in threat of being schismed, broad ecclesiastical institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox communions, or simply, the body of Christ at Corinth? The answer is the latter:
“God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to
that member which lacked, so that there may be no
division (gk: σχίσμα, schism) 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)
Paul speaks not of the Universal Body of all Christians through all time and who do not know each other yet, but the local body of Christ at Corinth, for these are to “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). A quick read of 1 Cor. 12:12-27 quickly confirms this distinction.
A schism, then, is a divided body of Christ into two or more churches in any locale. Schism is visible every Lord’s Day the truly regenerate are kept away from worshipping their common Lord with each other, electing instead to worship apart from each other in separate churches. Such churches may contain some or many truly regenerate Christians, yet, none comply with the many commands of Jesus Christ to love one another and to maintain the unity of the body in the bond of peace (John 13:34-5, Eph. 4:3, 16, 1 Cor. 11:29).
Schism is all you and I have ever known, but it has never been Christ-honoring. It grieved Paul the apostle, who saw to it that the many schismed churches on Crete were pulled together into one church in every city by Titus. In the NT every local church was also the local body of Christ, created by Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Today, none are.
Paul strongly admonished the Corinthians against schism because not only were they one church, (1 Cor. 1:2, 11:18, 14:23), but they were also one body, the body of Christ: (1 Cor. 10:16-17, 12:13, 12:12-27). When he questioned the Corinthians, he asked, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). John Chrysostom, the great early church exegete and preacher, explained Paul’s meaning with these words, “You have cut Christ in pieces and distributed His body!”Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 3:5
A schismed church is neither a separation of two persons (i.e., Barnabas and Paul),Although few writings on ecclesiology today even address schism and heresy, such was not the case in the past. Benjamin Keach equates the two in “The Glory of a True Church” in Polity, ed., by Mark Dever, 75-76 (as does P. H. Mell, “Corrective Church Discipline,” 425), but regards it equivalent to church discipline, and not the separation of two church bodies. However, schism is never treated that way in the NT. nor a group of churches separating from each other (i.e, the Great Schism of 1054, the Protestant Reformation, a denominational split), but a single local body of Christ existing in two or more groups.The phrase “local body of Christ” instead of “local church” is important because it preserves the integrity of what Paul taught was being schismed in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-13, 10:16-17, 12:27). This is where I believe the great John Owen missed his opportunity in his debates with both Anglicans and Presbyterians by writing of schism only in terms of nonconformity, vis-á-vis a “true” state-church or a non-conforming church. Thus his spiritual teachings on the evils of schism have not softened the hearts of his affectionate followers to this very day, but that they routinely experience the scourge of schism (Works, 16:365-68). At least he took up his able pen to decry schism as he understood it, but today, his work on schism is ignored, being irrelevant. Thus, the following theologies have no mention or discussion of schism in their texts: Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition (Presbyterian); Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Evangelical); Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Reformed); Daniel Akin, A Theology for the Church, (Baptist); Gerald Bray, God is Love (Church of England); Greg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers (Baptist); Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Baptist); John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Baptist). Protestants and Evangelicals are ecclesiologically bankrupt in this matter, having no contemplation or categories for either ecclesiological schism or ecclesiological heresy, though it stares their theologians squarely in the face every day.
So little is the regard for Christ and His body in the Age of Schism that church leaders see no biblical reason to address schism or fix it.
In 1 Cor. 11:18-19 Paul uses the words for both schism and heresy, showing the apostolic distinction between the two terms:
“… when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions
(σχίσματα, schisms) exist among you; and in part I believe it.
For there must also be factions (αἱρέσεις, heresies)
among you, so that those who are approved
may become evident among you.”
(1 Cor. 11:18-19)
Schisms can be fixed, but heresies must take place. Thus says Paul.
Which is exactly what he did in the church in Corinth and the churches on Crete. But heresies must produce church splits, resulting in heretical churches. Those who followed Hymanaeus out of the Ephesian church fit into this heretical group, as well as those in Philippi who used to walk in the ways of Christ as exemplified by Paul, but “now walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18-19, cf. 1 Tim. 1:20, 2:8, 2 Tim. 2:17-18).
Paul lists heresies (gk: αἱρέσεις) as one of the fruits of the unredeemed flesh in Gal. 5:20. Peter also prophesies using the same word, “there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).This text answers Bray’s question of whether the Bible’s own definition of heresy includes doctrinal deviations, see Gerald Bray, God is Love, 447. The answer is “yes.” The apostle John says,
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if
they had been of us, they would have remained with
us; but they went out, so that it would be
shown that they all are not of us.”
(1 John 2:19)
Concerning those who refuse to submit to the work of merging churches on Crete, the apostle Paul commands Titus:
“Reject a factious (αἱρετικὸν, heretic) man after a first
and second warning, knowing that such a
man is perverted and is sinning,
Such men, unwilling to submit to Titus’ choices for eldership in the reformation on Crete , were not merely passed over for office, but removed entirely from being a part of the churches on Crete. Why? Because they were self-condemned as evidenced by all refusal to submit to Paul’s mandate for all Christians on Crete: to merge into one church in each city under one set of qualified elders.
Such men were almost certainly the “many rebellious” existing church leaders on Crete prior to Titus’ arrival (Titus 1:10). They rejected Paul’s eldership centered ecclesiology which forcefully placed one set of elders in every city. His words, though Scripture, meant little to them and they kept right on having heretical church services Sunday after Sunday.
They are like those Paul warned the church in Rome about:
“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause
dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching
which you learned, and turn away from them.
For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but
of their own appetites; and by their smooth
and flattering speech they deceive
the hearts of the unsuspecting.”
In the Age of Schism such churches are often the experts on growth and integrating Christian theology into contemporary philosophies. While their leaders are often called out for teaching pragmatics in the guise of Christian theology, their church’s are considered valid both in form and function. But they are rejected by the word of God.
Case in Point: Ephesus
Travel back in time to Ephesus for a minute, back to an ancient city with an estimated population of 500,000. By the end of the first century, Ephesus has both schismed churches, heretical churches, and one church, different than all others, that the Lord Himself addressed in Rev. 2:1-7.
The schismed churches were begun by some of the elders who were with Paul at Miletus. He told them “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). These men were not heretics, nor even unbelievers, and those who left the church with them are called “disciples,” a word reserved in the book of Acts for true Christians. Paul spoke of multiple elders doing this in the future, not just one; therefore it is likely there were multiple schismatic churches in Ephesus forty years later when the Lord Himself speaks to His own church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1).
Paul also prophesied that heretical churches would exist in Ephesus: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). These were not started by disgruntled elders but by men who came in at a later date. Such “wolves” are schismatics and heretics who tear people away from the faith and gain their consent to trust in soul-damning doctrines. One such church in Ephesus was the church of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6).
Before Paul will die around 64AD, several heretics have been identified whose deadly influence spreads in the Ephesian church like gangrene (1 Tim. 1:18-20, 2 Tim. 2:17-18). John the apostle, who lived in Ephesus in his later years, wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
According to Jesus Christ, the only church He recognized in Ephesus is the one that had fended off a heresy when they “put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2). Jesus was honored by their loyalty and praised the church for it. This was a church that knew how to repel heresy.
They also shunned schism. Since every one of the seven churches in Rev. 2-3 are but a single lampstand (Rev. 1:20), and the church in Ephesus was a single lampstand (Rev. 2:5), then all the schismed and heretical churches could not be included in the single lampstand Jesus was threatening to remove unless they too had tested the exact same false apostles and responded with the exact same loyalty to Christ. Each would have performed the proper test Jesus refers to in Rev. 2:2 and each would have found the men to be false apostles. If true, that would have been remarkable.
Therefore, learning from Ephesus, the Lord of the churches does not speak to schismed churches, or heretical churches.
And to make matters worse, the church of Ephesus was in danger itself. Jesus was about to remove their lampstand (Rev. 2:5). If and when Jesus removed their lampstand it meant He removed their power, as a church, to give the light of the gospel.G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 206.
The early church martyr Ignatius also ignored the schismed and heretical churches of Ephesus. In 117 AD he wrote to the one church in Ephesus:
“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.'”
Not only was Ignatius clear in his ecclesiology, but taught the Christians to make valid judgments in line with it.
So, if you could travel back in time and to the 1st and 2nd century Christians in Ephesus and ask them, ‘which church here is the right one?’ you would have received a clear and unequivocal answer: “Ours, and ours alone. All others are schisms and heresies, for this is what Christ through Paul commanded in his letter to us.”
Why Do We Refuse to Heal Schism?
All who know Christ savingly have all grown up in the Age of Schism. This is more than simply an age during which churches split, for that occurred back in the 1st Century.
The Age of Schism is the age in which schism is deemed beneficial for the greater cause of Christ, and thus evidences God’s hardening judgment of blindness. It is an age of callousness to Jesus Christ, where church leaders call evil good and good evil. And the leaders may be some of you reading this article.
The greatest evil of schism is its Christological heresy. Blinded supporters of the Age of Schism believe it pleases the Lord that He should have multiple bodies in a single locale: that a single and unified body of Christ is unhealthy and dangerous.
But if we believe that Christ has but one human body (now glorified), and that He has but one universal body (all who will be saved), how is the local expression of His body the better for being divided into parts? When He has multiple bodies in each place (i.e., multiple churches) then these grossly misrepresent His single glorified human body (Rev. 1:12-20), His unity with the Father (John 17:20-23), and His single universal body (Eph. 1:22-23).
Multiple schismed churches in the same place testify not to a unified Christ but a chopped and divided Christ. Those who speak as if Christ has “many bodies” in their city or region need to let Paul’s words fall hard on the heart: “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). The apostle taught that even two schismed churches in Corinth are a tragedy of Christological proportions.
Christological heresy breeds ecclesiastical heresy. If Christ has multiple bodies then the schismed churches misrepresent His single glorified human body and His single universal body (Eph. 1:22-23). Thus multiple local churches in the same locale testify not to a unified Christ but a divided Christ, negating the witness to Him as the obedient Son of the Father (John 17:21-23).
Then ecclesiological heresy breeds gospel heresy. Multiple bodies show that Christians embrace a dis-unified Son who can’t be unified with His One Father, nor they themselves to the One Christ. Therefore, the gospel taught in the Age of Schism proclaims in results that His ascension did not unify Him back to the Father.
From here it is only a few steps back to claim He failed in both His atoning work on the cross and resurrection. This claim is the heart of all false gospels.
In an age of pragmatism this reality ought deeply cut each of us who worship Jesus Christ as the glorified Son of God, now sitting in triumph at the Father’s right hand.
So let’s kill it, working together to heal and reverse the Age of Schism.
What to Un-Learn
Have you ever heard of the The Invisible House Society?
Me neither ’til I looked them up, and they provide a fitting analogy to a the entrenched belief in the Age of Schism: that schism honors Jesus Christ.
Here’s what they say about themselves:
“The Invisible House Society was founded for the sole purpose of
training students of Magick in the grades of the Order
of the Golden Dawn whereby they propel
themselves into the Order of the
Magick… the Order of the Golden Dawn… Rosy Crosses…
Sheer fantasy, I say. And so too is the Protestant doctrine of the invisibile church.
The Invisible Church Society
There is a body of Protestant theology that supports the Age of Schism. It teaches the elect believers on earth form the invisible church.See this for an in depth defense.
It has no direct scriptural support, and offers none that actually explain how a church can be invisible. Is there an invisible number of elect on the earth? Of course! But is there an invisible church? No. A church is a gathering, an ecclesia. Every church on earth is visible because every church contains people with real physical bodies and rational minds (at least most of the time).
Bottom line: God has never gathered anyone in an invisible church.In spite of what Augustine may or may not have meant by a communo sanctorum. God alone knows the full company elect, that is, those who will finally be in heaven, but that’s for Him alone to know, and He does not call them a church in Scripture.
Is this really a big thing, though?
Ecclesiola, Ecclesia, and Evangelicalism
Indeed it is. Soon after the Reformation The Invisible Church Society tried to locate who the invisible church were within the churches, so as to teach them in a more concentrated way. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, himself a great lover of the Reformation, condemned this practice called ‘Ecclesiola in Ecclesia,’ or, ‘Little Church within a Church.’ It was the failed beginnings of the Invisible Church Society.
Undeterred, the Invisible Church Society lived on and is a major pillar in the schism of churches in almost every locale in Christendom.
The most popular name for this invisible society is evangelicalism – the supposedly truly regenerated believers. Evangelicalism is allegedly comprised of the truly born-again everywhere. Some attach a few doctrinal commitments to it, but the movement can’t truly be held by any, for it is united in experience not dogma.
An evangelical is anyone willing to say they’ve been born again and willing to come up with almost any way to explain what that means. The experience, not any scriptural definition, is the all-important criteria. To be an evangelical is, at root, a self-defined matter. Some people like to speak knowingly of the evangelical church, but it’s an oxymoron. For every criteria they might provide there are others claiming to be evangelical but opposing those same criteria.
How is the invisible society of evangelicalism rationalized? Mostly through repetition. Make a non-entity and non-thing big enough, and repeat it long enough, and people will believe it exists. As big as evangelicalism allegedly is, just try to get two people to agree on what evangelicalism is! It actually defies a biblical definition and always spirals down to each individual’s personal meaning.
The few who defend the term evangelical as necessary either cite post-Reformation theologians, or conform their thinking to the ether of the Bebbington quadrilateral.For example, trying to match up the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and their acceptance of homosexual bishops into any of his four points strains credulity to the breaking point. Some claim Jesus taught it in the “wheat and tares parable” in Mat. 13. Allegedly, the field in which both wheat and tares grow are the many churches of Christendom. In these churches are both some saved and some lost, which matches up nicely with a field in which both wheat and tares grow together. The wheat are the saved and the tares are the unsaved.
However, it’s all a mistake. Jesus said, “the field is the world,” not the church (Mat. 13:38).
So step back for a minute. Isn’t the whole idea of an invisible church as much hocus pocus as is an invisible house? After all, a church, like a family, is nothing else if not a gathering of people, and a gathering of people is always visible.
Every church is, in fact, flesh and blood people. If you know someone who is deeply vested in Invisible Church nonsense, ask them to try having a non-gathered church this Sunday.
No stream of Christianity suffers from this invisibility myth like the children of Protestantism and no group likes to call them on the carpet for it more than Catholics. Catholics argue that the church is always visible and never invisible. Indeed, Scripture is with them.
Every church in the Bible was real and visible. You could touch the people and talk to them. No letter was ever written to an invisible church and no apostle ever taught there ever was such a thing. Truth is, no hint of an invisible church ever surfaces on the Bible’s inspired pages.
A Narrative to Legitimize Schism
Protestants are yoked to a history that began in schism and needed a theological narrative to explain how Roman Catholic Churches were “non-churches” and “false churches” while those Catholic churches that became Protestant were a mixture of true and false Christians. For its part Roman Catholicism returned the favor.
Protestants found in Augustine’s 4th Century excoriation of the Donatists the invisiblity cloak they needed. Invisibility provided a paradigm that Protestants could leverage to explain their historical developments, while, swallowing hard, admitting that some Anabaptist churches could have true Christians in them too, however repugnant they might be.
The cost of invisibility has been high, though. Protestantism and her evangelical children are schisming in an ever increasing rate. Thousands upon thousands of denominations and likely over a million unaffiliated, independent churches (like mine) have divided Christendom into a bewildering maze of churches and theologies none can comprehend.
Worst of all, the unity mandates in virtually every book of the NT such as Eph. 4:3 have been reduced to meaning unity only in our own church, and never to all the truly regenerated Christians who live in our own region, a group the NT calls the local body of Christ, and whom the earliest church fathers called the catholic church..
Jesus prayed to the Father for visible unity among us so that the “world know that You sent Me” (John 17:23). But unity in the invisible church can’t even cross the street to the other Protestant church. It isn’t that Prots and Evangelicals don’t believe there are true Christians across the street. We just use excuses to cover-up our disobedience.
Just to survive, Protestantism and evangelicalism have made schism legitimate by a narrative unknown in Scripture, that of The Invisible Church Society. It is a fundamentally dishonest and flawed narrative, though.
Ask any knowledgeable Protestant or self-identified evangelical a simple question: “which church where you live is the right church?”
To be true to his theology he should answer “the invisible one.”
My Marks are Better than Your Marks
Knowing such an answer sounds more like a non-answer than anything else, he or she will have no choice but to go into a discussion on the marks of a true church. A true Protestant church, that is. He or she necessarily regards the more ancient marks cited in the Nicene Creed (We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church) as deemed wanting by reason of history’s crucible, or at least in need of serious reinterpretation.
So the Protestant movement developed its own sets of marks, allowing them to consider the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches false churches.For more on true church and false church ideology, please read Replacing the True with the Obedient
Whatever set of marks you like, both came out of schism. They’re like theological battle scars, the kind that never heal but cry out for vindication. And have you not noticed that every erstwhile reformer comes up with his own set of marks?
In the 16th Century the Magisterial Reformers declared the RCC a non-church and developed their own marks of the true church. They postulated two or three marks, depending on which reformer one reads. Calvin defined but two – the pure preaching of the word and proper administration of two sacraments (Lord’s Supper and baptism), while Luther held to a third – discipline for the ungodly.
But long before that schism produced two or three marks of the true church, a previous schism creedalized four.
In the 3rd Century some bishops denied that apostates could be restored to church fellowship. Other bishops claimed they could. The two sides split as some bishops refused to recognize other bishops that disallowed such restoration. The bishops who allowed restoration, such as Cyprian, are the likely authors of the well-known four marks of the true church: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Even the Roman Catholics and Orthodox are schismed over the words.
These four marks, solemnized in the 381 AD version of the Nicene Creed, is read every week during worship in many Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches, even though they do not believe any others but themselves to be truly one, holy, catholic, nor apostolic.
Such schisms are retained, sadly, on a philosophy of history rather than the determination of obedience to God through Scripture. Neither the Protestant nor Nicene marks were derived from an apostle’s teaching on the marks of the church. The reason is simple. They provided none.
Why are there no marks delineated in the NT? The Prot/Cat/Ortho marks (choose your number) were accommodations of NT teachings set to point-in-time ecclesial battles. They reflect men’s handling of ecclesiastical problems apart from the polity of church governance revealed in Scripture, to be explained later in this article.
But let me throw out this teaser now. When Scripture is obeyed and local churches are merged under apostolic polity, schism makes its own marks as all those who cling to ecclesial disobedience.
That’s why the marks of a true church aren’t necessary. They were non-existent in the 1st Century, and they never solved schism then or later. Instead, they hardened the hearts of men. Did they actually keep churches out of apostasy? To butcher the over-used adage, those who advance their own marks of schism are condemned to repeat them.
Even If I wanted to Believe You….
How silly is Protestant and Evangelical ecclesiology? When a non-Christian asks a Prot, “which church is the right church,” what ought the Protestant say to be true to his beliefs? “It’s invisible.”
Can’t the Prot justify his answer by explaining the marks ? Sure, but wouldn’t the non-Christian be justified to say, “So what? You Prots have your marks, and the Catholics have theirs.” The Protestant answer is a non-answer.
Oh, this isn’t to say there aren’t lengthy theologically-derived answers that can be trotted out. But how long can the non-Christian’s patience be trifled with before we dishonor the Lord?
The Protestant ought to own up to his theology and just tell the non-Christian, “The church of Jesus Christ is invisible.”
To which the non-Christian would be wise to reply, “I’m sorry, I’m just not seeing it.”
Myths Die Hard
It isn’t just wrong to ask non-Christians to believe in The Invisible Church Society. It’s wrong to teach The Invisible Church Society to Christians, too. It asks them to believe schism is Christ’s revealed will when it is not. It is a man-made doctrine that only arose out of schism in order to provide a narrative for schism.
It also provides justification for churches that intentionally mix non-Christians with Christians when the NT churches obviously were not designed this way by Christ’s apostles (i.e., 1 Cor. 1:2, Phil 1:1, 2 Peter. 1:1). The Invisible Church Society teaches Christians to separate reality from fact. Churches are very visibly to be filled with the saints, not the aint’s.
We enter the kingdom by becoming child-like and having our eyes opened, not by covering our eyes in order to enter a child’s make-believe world. God, who is invisible, makes Himself known through what is visible (Rom. 1:20). The 2nd Person of the Trinity was visible. And today the visible creation by which He makes Christ known to the world is the visible church (1 Tim. 3:15-16). Only a visible church makes known the ascended Christ in a visible world (cf. John 17:21, 23).
Protestants who claim Christ is made known by what is invisible play theological games that even children see through. By legitimizing schism, The Invisible Church Society shows that Protestantism is not built on the church’s one foundation of Eph. 2:20. It is a rich and complex historic development that has legitimized schism.
Getting Rid of the Age of Schism
The 1st and 2nd Century churches had a great answer to the question, “which church is the right one?” 1st Century churches weren’t allowed to hide under a cloak of invisibility. When schismed they were either unified by apostolic fiat, as was the case of Titus on Crete, or dismissed altogether, as in those rejected in Rome, Philippi and Ephesus (Rom. 16:17-18, Phil. 3:18-19, 1 Tim. 1:19-20, 2:8, 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Perhaps the largest church in the 2nd Century was in Rome, and it was one non-schismed church:
The early Christians didn’t justify schism by condemning others. They simply gathered together in one place in obedience to Christ (c.f. 1 Cor. 11:18-20, NKJV).
Why don’t we obey Christ and do the same? Because the Age of Schism has taught us to reject the the simple and clear truth. Jesus Christ has a single body in every place where He has baptised people into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). Those people are to gather together for His worship every week (1 Cor. 11:18, 16:1-2). As with all the churches on Crete, elder-qualified men are responsible to unify and shepherd the people of God, in every city (Titus 1:5).
So, what is the answer today to the question, “which church is right?”
It’s the obedient church, the only one in town pursuing merging with all other schismed churches, under eldership, per Tit. 1:5-16.
For further study:
How do elders and non-elders counteract the Age of Schism and merge churches? Go here.
I want to understand what the “local body of Christ in every place” better. Go here.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Robert Reymond, New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 840, n. 5|
|2.||↑||”αἰῶνος,” William Barclay, New Testament Words, 33.|
|3.||↑||Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird, Viral Churches, 199.|
|4.||↑||Acts 29 blog post|
|5.||↑||C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest, 11|
|6.||↑||One Catholic theologian explains it this way, “..”heresy and schism also anathema the person, that is, separate that person from the Church, by the very nature of the sin.”|
|7.||↑||Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 3:5|
|8.||↑||Although few writings on ecclesiology today even address schism and heresy, such was not the case in the past. Benjamin Keach equates the two in “The Glory of a True Church” in Polity, ed., by Mark Dever, 75-76 (as does P. H. Mell, “Corrective Church Discipline,” 425), but regards it equivalent to church discipline, and not the separation of two church bodies. However, schism is never treated that way in the NT.|
|9.||↑||The phrase “local body of Christ” instead of “local church” is important because it preserves the integrity of what Paul taught was being schismed in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-13, 10:16-17, 12:27). This is where I believe the great John Owen missed his opportunity in his debates with both Anglicans and Presbyterians by writing of schism only in terms of nonconformity, vis-á-vis a “true” state-church or a non-conforming church. Thus his spiritual teachings on the evils of schism have not softened the hearts of his affectionate followers to this very day, but that they routinely experience the scourge of schism (Works, 16:365-68). At least he took up his able pen to decry schism as he understood it, but today, his work on schism is ignored, being irrelevant. Thus, the following theologies have no mention or discussion of schism in their texts: Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition (Presbyterian); Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Evangelical); Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Reformed); Daniel Akin, A Theology for the Church, (Baptist); Gerald Bray, God is Love (Church of England); Greg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers (Baptist); Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Baptist); John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Baptist). Protestants and Evangelicals are ecclesiologically bankrupt in this matter, having no contemplation or categories for either ecclesiological schism or ecclesiological heresy, though it stares their theologians squarely in the face every day.|
|10.||↑||This text answers Bray’s question of whether the Bible’s own definition of heresy includes doctrinal deviations, see Gerald Bray, God is Love, 447. The answer is “yes.”|
|11.||↑||G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 206.|
|12.||↑||See this for an in depth defense.|
|13.||↑||In spite of what Augustine may or may not have meant by a communo sanctorum.|
|14.||↑||For example, trying to match up the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and their acceptance of homosexual bishops into any of his four points strains credulity to the breaking point.|
|15.||↑||For more on true church and false church ideology, please read Replacing the True with the Obedient|