Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Schism, properly defined

Matt Kennedy takes apart the absurd argument that the Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence, is "committing schism" by leading his flock out of an apostate organization which calls itself a church. It reminds me once again of the need to understand the actual, biblical meaning of the term "schism." Drawing on my Methodist roots, I continue to defer to John Wesley on this point.

"If there be any word in the English tongue as ambiguous and indeterminate in its meaning as the word Church," Wesley wrote, "it is one that is nearly allied to it, -- the word Schism." Although best known as the founder of the Methodist movement, Wesley himself remained a faithful Anglican all his life. In his sermon, "On Schism," he ventured where few before him and even fewer since had dared in addressing this most odious subject. In Wesley's day, as is so today, "schism" was a topic of much conversation. Then, as now, such conversations were exercises in missing the point. The term "schism" was thrown about carelessly in ways which exceeded its proper definition. Wesley sought to return the conversation to a proper context by pointing out the difference between "schism" as popularly understood and "schism" as biblically defined.

It is the more needful to do this, because among the numberless books that have been written upon the subject, both by the Romanists and Protestants, it is difficult to find any that define it in a scriptural manner. The whole body of Roman Catholics define schism, a separation from the Church of Rome; and almost all our own writers define it, a separation from the Church of England. Thus both the one and the other set out wrong, and stumble at the very threshold. This will easily appear to any that calmly consider the several texts wherein the word "schism" occurs: from the whole tenor of which it is manifest, that it is not a separation from any Church, (whether general or particular, whether the Catholic, or any national Church,) but a separation in a Church.

Let us begin with the first verse, wherein St. Paul makes use of the word. It is the tenth verse of the first chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. The Words are, "I beseech you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms" ( the original word is schismata) "among you." Can anything be more plain than that the schisms here spoken of, were not separations from, but divisions in, the Church of Corinth? Accordingly, it follows, "But that ye be perfectly united together, in the same mind and in the same judgment." You see here, that an union in mind and judgment was the direct opposite to the Corinthian schism. This, consequently, was not a separation from the Church or Christian society at Corinth' but a separation in the Church; a disunion in mind and judgment, (perhaps also affection,) among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before.

Of what nature this schism at Corinth was, is still more clearly determined (if anything can be more clear) by the words that immediately follow: "Now this I say," -- this is the schism of which I speak; you are divided into separate parties; some of you speaking in favor of one, some of another preacher, -- "Every one of you saith," (verse 12,) " I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas," or Peter. Who then does not see that the schism for which the Apostle here reproves the Corinthians is neither more nor less than the splitting into several parties, as they gave the preference to one or another preacher? And this species of schism there will be occasion to guard against in every religious community.

The second place where the Apostle uses this word is in the eighteenth verse of the eleventh chapter of this Epistle: "When ye come together in the Church," the Christian congregation, " I hear that there are divisions" ( the original word here also is schismata, schisms) "among you." But what were these schisms? The Apostle immediately tells you: (Verse 20:) "When you come together," professing your design is "to eat of the Lord's Supper, every on of you taketh before another his own supper," as if it were a common meal. What then was the schism? It seems, in doing this, they divided into little parties, which cherished anger and resentment one against another, even at the solemn season.
If Wesley is correct (and he should at least be given equal standing with William Palmer), that "schism" is properly defined as separation within a church rather than separation from a church, then it is the national body, not the local diocese, which has become schismatic. Separating from such an entity is not "committing schism." On the contrary, it is seeking unity with the wider faithful church.