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Schism

History

Tensions between the Eastern and Western portions of the Church were not exactly uncommon in the Middle Ages. The West had added an important theological term to the Nicene Creed at the end of the 6th century at the Council of Toledo—and it was a term that the East thought (and continues to think) was misguided. There were also disagreements on the type of bread to be used in the Sacrament. The West had been using unleavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist and the East thought of this as a form of “Judaizing”—adding specific Jewish legal requirements to the faith. And the East said as much. In 1054 the Eastern Patriarch Michael I sent a letter to the Western Church expressing his concern and making the Judaizing accusation. A fight was about to begin.

The Pope in the West’s response was fairly simple and straightforward—although a bit off topic. He responded by asserting Papal supremacy. Representatives from Rome were sent to the East to attempt to resolve the issue. But after receiving a less-than-warm welcoming, they stormed out only to return to Hagia Sophia (the basilica of the Eastern capitol) to place a notice of the excommunication of the Eastern Patriarch by the Pope in Rome on the altar—in the middle of the worship service! Although subsequent tensions between the Eastern and Western portions of Christianity over the next centuries worked to solidify the split of these two halves of the Church, it is to this chain of events in 1054 that historians date back the Great Schism, the separation of Eastern and Western Christianity.

The split really is tragic. Going back to some of the earliest documents of the Church of the first and second centuries we see that the Church has been fearful of and on guard against schism from the start. But that early Church that was so frightened of schism more local and regional could not have imagined a Church that had taken hold worldwide, grown, flourished, and then torn in two. It really is awful.

But what may be even more awful is the fact that in the West we have largely forgotten about it. The East remembers. Later attacks on the Eastern Church by the Western Church have cemented the pain of the split in the Eastern mind. But the West—especially the Protestant West—has gone on assuming that Western Christianity is both normative and standard. And it is not because Western Protestants know Eastern Christianity and are convinced that the Western perspective is more faithful to the Gospel message. It is that we have moved on and largely forgotten that the Eastern Church exists.

And the Western Church has faithfully continued the long tradition of splitting. We find ourselves today in an almost endless sea of denominations with their nuanced sub-denominations and a whole host of non-denominations that are really either just in denial (if it looks like a denomination, acts like a denomination, and smells like a denomination, it is a denomination) or are a solitary church unto themselves.

There doesn’t appear to be much that a single solitary pastor can do in the midst of this obsessive splitting. The Church is big. But the congregation is fairly small. Remember that the early Church was continually concerned with schism locally in individual congregations. Read I Clement, one of the earliest Christian documents outside of the New Testament. There the church in Rome was threatened with a break in the church over leadership disagreements. And Clement comes out swinging with a scathing attack on those who would ever settle for disunity in the congregation.

The Church began finding schism even at the congregational level to be unbearable and we have ended up accepting it at a much larger—even worldwide—level. What to do? Maybe a place to start for the pastor who is a single individual in the enormous worldwide Church is to cultivate the even more ancient tradition of local harmony. I can’t count how many times I have been involved with large or small disputes between church members, family members within congregations, and small groups meeting in the parking lot after church quietly building up a base of dissatisfaction in the congregation. Historically, it looks like the larger splits start here—at least, this is where the Church started off being concerned. And this is where the pastor does have an effective role. We can continue the Western tradition of splitting, moving on, and forgetting what was left behind. Or, as pastors, we can work diligently and seriously within our congregations to foster the even more ancient tradition of unity and reconciliation starting with the immediate and local family of God to which we have been called.