"There is nothing more grievous than the sacrilege of schism....there can be no just necessity for destroying the unity of the Church." - St. Augustine
("Branches and Schisms: 1" is here. "Branches and Schisms: 2" is here.) This third post on "Branches and Schisms" is a dialogue in which I look for a principled distinction between a branch and a schism. I consider two proposed candidates for the principled distinction between a branch and a schism: (1) schisms are within a congregation, while branches are between denominations, and (2) schisms become branches after a certain amount of time. I argue that both candidates do not provide a *principled* distinction between a branch and a schism.
One way that reality is hidden from us is by the use of misleading language. We know, for example, that those who support the legality of abortion typically call an unborn child a 'fetus', not a 'child' or 'baby'. And those who support euthanasia tend to call persons in a certain type of state 'vegetables'. Using such language changes our conceptions of what things are, and thereby changes our conceptions of how they should be treated. So likewise, if we are calling 'branches' what are in fact schisms, we are making use of a euphemism that takes something evil, and semantically presents it to ourselves as something either good or neutral, thereby removing in our minds the imperative to eliminate the schism, by being reconciled. Hence if we cannot find a principled distinction between branches and schisms, then we should stop calling schisms 'branches', and just call them what they are, i.e. schisms.
The dialogue takes place in the comments of Steve Wedgeworth's recent article titled "A Post-Protestant Model".
In the comments I wrote:
It seems like in order to understand ecclesial unity, we need to understand schism. But I don’t see any [conceptual] place for schism in your theory. What does it mean for a Christian to be in schism from the Church?
I would say that schism occurs within congregations.
Regarding schism, if the two conflicting parties within a congregation simply go their separate ways, then it ceases to be a ’schism’ and turns into two ‘branches’? I don’t see any principled distinction between divisions between denominations (which Reformed Christians tend to conceive of as branches), and divisions within a congregation. If divisions within a congregation are schisms (which are a sin), then it seems bizarre that the way to remove its sinfulness is to further the schism and start a new denomination, and then just call them branches. A fortiori, it seems the divisions between denominations would be even worse schisms than intra-congregational divisions.
Joel Garver replied:
Isn’t there a difference between causing or participating in an ecclesiastical breach (schism) and being born into or the heir of an already existing division? To view prior instances of schism as resulting in entities that are now considered merely branches seems to me to be a step in the right direction.
I agree that there is a difference between causing or participating in a schism, and being born into an already existing division. The difference, in my opinion, has to do with the moral culpability of the persons involved. But if a schism is wrong, then I don’t see how just waiting for a certain length of time makes the division itself (not merely the act of dividing) no longer wrong. If it were merely the act (of dividing) itself that is wrong, then as soon as the division had occurred, there would be no obligation to reconcile and reunite the divided parties. It seems that it is not only the act of dividing that is wrong, but also the state of being divided that is wrong. And if the state of being divided is wrong, then it seems arbitrary to pick a certain amount of time and stipulate that the division is no longer wrong. When I think of “branches”, I think of branches on a tree. And none of us thinks the branches on a tree ought to grow back together into the trunk, to form a branch-less tree. A schism or division, we know, should be healed and the divided parties reconciled in unity. So how we are justified in calling schisms ‘branches’ (and thereby conceptually removing the obligation to reconcile), just because they have been around for a while?
"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)