"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Branches or Schisms?

In July of this year I wrote about the possibility of schism as a test of ecclesiology. Recently I came across Keith Mathison's "branch theory of the visible Church" in his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura. His branch theory is the notion that "the one invisible Church is found scattered throughout numerous visible 'fragments' or 'branches'." The problem with Mathison's theory is that it seems to eliminate the possibility of schism. All schisms are now just "branches". We know it is wrong to be in schism* (see below), but being in a 'branch' seems quite innocuous, even natural and organic. So what is the difference, for Mathison, between forming a branch, and forming a schism? Between forming a branch, and forming a division or a faction? Between remaining in a branch, and remaining in a schism? If in Mathison's ecclesiology there is no possibility of schism, that suggests that something is seriously wrongly with his ecclesiology. But if 'branches' are actually schisms, then they should not be called 'branches'; they should be called what they are: schisms. Neither forming a schism nor remaining in schism should be euphemized or treated as innocuous. Schisms should be healed by way of reconciliation, and those who are in schism should be striving daily to effect and achieve reconciliation. One of Satan's chief ways of preserving schisms is by deceiving us into believing that we are not in schism. And the easiest way to do that is to redescribe schism with a pleasant euphemism. Then, blinded by our euphemism into believing that there is no more schism, we see no need to seek to restore unity. Schism, apparently, was only something that occurred long ago; now there is just branching.

But when our ecclesiology has no room for the possibility of schism, Scripture's many warnings about schism should raise a red flag that we have defined unity down:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions..." (Romans 16:17)

"Now I exhort you brothers through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that all of you confess the same thing, and there be no schisms among you, but you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose." (1 Corinthians 1:10)

God has composed [the body of Christ] ... that "there should be no schism in the body". (1 Cor 12:25)

"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:, ... disputes, dissensions, factions." (Galatians 5:19-20)

"In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts. These are the ones who cause divisions ..." (Jude 1:18-19)


Tom B. said...

Thanks for this. You said this implicitly, but to drive the nail in: while we must seek to return to unity if we are in schism (as you said), a branch never grows back into its trunk. If we are branches, we should continue to branch so that the tree has a full crown on it, filled with leaves, maximizing photosynthesis. So not only does a branch/tree metaphor excuse divisions, but it would seem to encourage them!

Peace in Christ,

Dave Hodges said...

Bryan, I have to commend this post. I actually made a similar argument myself some time back based on the writings of St. Ignatius:

Non sint in vobis scismata

Great blog - I'll be visiting back on a regular basis.