Is Church Schism a “Necessary Tragedy”?

Consider this a post for “church geeks” which is unusual for me. But it’s part of my work-in-progress, and you can feel free to read or not, as you desire! This past week I heard a talk by Dr. Joseph Small, who has spent his career at the denominational offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s my summary of his talk, which does not include my own thoughts or responses, which I may post later. I like a bit of time to digest his points first.

The fractures and divisions within the Christian church are a great tragedy. At present there are 1,000 Protestant denominations in the USA, 35,000 globally.

Our Presbyterian structure shows “the democratic captivity of the church,” meaning that we have imitated the US government, believing that we could settle disagreements by taking a vote.

However, votes inevitably create winners and losers. Our most recent 70 year history traces no less than 4 schisms:

  • 1930s — Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OP)
  • 1960s — Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
  • 1980s — Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
  • current — Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO)

“It takes two to schism.” Schism shows our ecclesiological deficit. We should be in repentance. The gathered congregation is the basic form of church. But this is not a sufficient form of church. In order to be “one holy catholic and apostolic church” every congregation must be part of something larger. How do we handle this?

During the 16th century, in Bern, Switzerland, the reformers held 10 theses which said that the church is not its own, or something we construct or shape according to our own desires. “The church is a creature of Christ and listens not to the voice of the stranger.”

John Calvin said that the church exists “wherever the Word is purely preached and heard, and the sacraments are celebrated.” Dr. Small emphasized and heard?as the language that shows the Word embedded in the life of believers. This is the presence of the Living Christ.

Presbyterians are proud of our “connectional church” but Dr. Small is not fond of this language, it reminds him of plumbing. It is an indirect connection. He prefers the early reformers’ model, which was more direct. He described the role of the Deacons in Geneva, Switzerland. There was a wall around Geneva, and through a gate came refugees from France. The Deacons helped the refugees with food, clothing, lodging, job placement, education and free healthcare. This is the presence of the Living Christ. This is a form of communion.

“Ruling Elders” (which is what elders are now called in contrast to “Teaching Elders” which are clergy) rule — in the meaning of “measure” as a ruler does. What do they measure? The health of the congregation.

What is the role of a Teaching Elder? It is to refuse to be a CEO. We need to create a different ecclesial culture.

Dr. Small reviewed the history around William Kenyon, a minister candidate who came up for examination (early 1980s?) but did not think women should be ordained. He was not accepted as a member of the denomination, and went on to be a founder in the PCA. In hindsight, Dr. Small calls his vote against Kenyon “his greatest mistake” which led to the “Kenyon-izing” of the church. By which he means: “the practice of imposing on a person a behavior that leads that person to violate his conscience.” (sic)

Yes, some would say, but aren’t all Protestants heirs of schism? Indeed, the Protestant Reformation was really “The Great Western Church Schism.” It was a necessary tragedy and calls into question the credibility of the gospel. The church has become a series of competing organizations asking for loyalty. No wonder we lose our ability to effectively bring the gospel to the world.

Q&A period followed, and here are a few nuggets:

Don’t assume we’re preaching to Christians. The church thrives when it is in a minority position. Proclaim the gospel and celebrate the sacraments.

“The Church Reformed and Always Being Reformed by the Word of God”

Dr. Small calls for an end to:

  • 1. democratic proceduralism (Roberts’ Rules of Order)
  • 2. simple majority votes

Both of the above lead to an “exchange of self-righteousness” in which each side (winners/losers) sees itself as the faithful remnant.

We must instead ask ourselves, “How am I responsible for every other minister? How am I accountable to every other minister?” Congeniality is not enough. We must move into true koinonia, which is created through patterns of responsibility and accountability.


8 responses to “Is Church Schism a “Necessary Tragedy”?”

  1. […] This post from my Writing Revs sister Ruth Everhart about the problem with making theological standards by voting. […]

  2. “The gathered congregation is the basic form of church. But this is not a sufficient form of church.” I no longer buy this second assumption. Are we to seek a universal connection? Yes, but I don’t believe this means a denominational connection; rather a spiritual one. And practical ones, when serving in mission is better done collectively. But that does not require a denomination. Just a strong non-profit. Schisms go back as far as we have a history of faithful people trying to co-exist. I agree with Wimberly’s reminders of the varieties of experience and that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and I would add that those churches I have most admired over the years have not been denominational. Take Church of the Savior, for example. By focusing on a small, nimble, accountable congregation, the ability to move with the Spirit is kept alive and not bogged down in structure. Or if denominational, such as the Quakers (who are well-known for their history of schisms, by the way), then more congregationally focused. For years I was a true believer in the connectional church; now I see it offering less in the way of encouragement of spiritual risk-taking and more in the way of bureaucratic constipation.

  3. Gordon C. Stewart Avatar
    Gordon C. Stewart

    Jo Small’s lament offer a mature sense of the nature of the church, a community at once justified and sinful. In some respects, we are the victims of righteousness theology, our own variation of the theology of works. The Preliminary Principles of Church Order (“preliminary” in the sense of “first” or “primary”) begins with God alone as Lord of the conscience, but it doesn’t end there. A church where individual conscience is the measure is a “righteous” church, not a gracious church. Therefore, the Preliminary Principles, in their commitment to truth (which is always the servant of goodness), declare boldly that “there are forms and truths with respect to which men (sic) of good conscience may differ, AND IN ALL SUCH MATTERS IT IS THE DUTY OF INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS AND SOCIETIES TO EXCERCISE MUTUAL FORBEARANCE.” How, then do we live both by conscience and by mutual forbearance as a people who are on the way? As a people who declare that the Word in preaching and in Sacrament is what binds us together? Schism is a Little Jack Horner exercise of “What a good boy/girl am I” when the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, speaks an altogether different word. There is more love in God than there is sin in us.

  4. john wimberly Avatar
    john wimberly

    I have never been bothered by “schisms” in our tradition. First, our first principle is “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” It is that principle, not democratic votes, that leads to schism. When we make the individual rather than the church the authority, people are going to gather in new denominations based on their agreed upon interpretations of Scripture. Second, as William James said, there are a variety of religious experiences. Why should they all be bound up in the same ecclesiology or theology? So I have never agreed with those, like Dr. Small, who think schism is a negative reality. I think it is a sign of people following their consciences and expressing the varities of religious experiences that God has placed in our hearts.

  5. Thank you for this. “What does it mean to be connectional” is a critical question for us. We are prone to using democratic proceduralism as a tool for widening schism sometimes but I’m not sure it’s the problem. I look first to our shared goals and the quality of our relationships. I look forward to hearing more discussion.

  6. I would like to better understand Dr. Small’s experiences with and warnings against “Kenyon-izing.”

  7. J. Heckerman Avatar
    J. Heckerman

    I see nothing valid in Dr. Small’s analysis or recommendations. In each instance he cites a change in understanding which resulted in a broader perspective or greater inclusion office holding and decision making in the Presbyterian Church. In each case those who could not accept the change withdrew and the majority continued on. I find his proposition that our church needs less democracy and should not rely on majority votes to make decisions as both offensive and ludicrous. For me, his thoughts rank right alongside the propositions the ECO folks have made that they be allowed special bodies within our denomination where they could make their own rules and pick and choose which parts of the PC(USA)’s Constitution they will or not honor.

  8. Robert Braxton Avatar
    Robert Braxton

    Superb and crucially important. Jonathan Sachs, too, “The Dignity of Difference”

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