Head to Head
Throughout the history of the Church there
have been splits between different parties, each claiming to have access to
right teaching. At times these schisms have been pursued with relentless cruelty
and great bloodshed. But how important is it for the Church to be unified?
and Mick try to reach common ground.
Rick: Disagreement occurs in every sphere
of human life. Disagreement may cause discord that in turn may lead to
dissolution of relationships. As an American the first example that comes to my
mind is our Revolution that separated us politically from Great Britain.
Loyalists argued that our differences could be overcome by rational
discourse. Others felt the only solution was complete and final
separation. The fundamental disagreements between the Colonies and the
Crown were so serious and profound that no modus vivendi was
It was the extreme of sword and gun that would be the final arbiter.
Today I think that few would argue the separation was not ultimately
favorable for both parties.
The Church has not been immune from doctrinal disputes that have
occasionally resulted in schism. Witness the break between the Greek and
Latin Churches in the eleventh century and the Protestant Reformation.
Currently, large church bodies are in turmoil over social and doctrinal
issues that create potential schisms. Church officials struggle to
maintain comity between factions when the disagreements are so deep and
fundamental that this observer considers them unbridgeable.
Mick, my question is, why don�t these factions simply divorce and
establish new churches? It seems to me both sides would be happier and
more effective in their respective missions.
Mick: I think one answer to
your question concerns the concept of orthodoxy. My point is that
perhaps schism arises out of a false concept of the teaching and life of
Jesus. God belongs to all. Christians are those for whom Jesus is a
If a Christian group asserts that affirmation of certain doctrines is
a condition of membership then it is duty bound to insist that all its
members publicly affirm those teachings. And if anyone strays from the
party line, that person must either conform or be cast out. This is the
position of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Some admit the possibility that group teachings are not absolutely
definitive. In that case, orthodoxy is more difficult to enforce. This
is pretty much the stand of so-called "Protestant" or "Reformed"
But both insist that their members affirm certain teachings as a
condition of continued membership. They also insist that members conform
to certain behavioural norms. Expulsion may result from disobedience in
either sense. And any group which will do neither is expected to leave.
A dissident group may decide to leave its parent body because it is
coming under intolerable pressure from authority or fellow Christians .
More often, I suppose, such groups go into schism because they have
accepted and internalised the proposition that Christians who perceive
the world differently can't remain in fellowship.
Was not a pivotal point of Jesus' life and teaching precisely that we
are all acceptable to God? If he's correct, then one can't properly cast
out of a fellowship those whom God accepts. Nor is there any point in
choosing schism if all are accepted by God.
I don't feel entirely certain about my argument up to this point. I
wonder if you can bring more clarity.
Rick: It is common for social organizations to generate
what might be broadly called, mission statements. Among other
things, these statements include reasons for their existence, an
enumeration of principles and goals, rules for the conduct of its
members and qualifications for membership.
These mission statements give public form and character to the
respective organization. In addition, the statements give forewarning to
prospective members about what they are signing on to.
All who finally join a specific organization do not necessarily
ascribe to every point of the mission statement but join because they
believe, on balance, the overall mission corresponds with their
In the case of churches, mission statements are usually referred to
as doctrine that prescribes orthodoxy that is often the
cause of schism. Dissidents bridle at what they perceive as coercion and
loss of free agency imposed by orthodoxy. In response they develop their
Dissident orthodoxy is usually more simple than traditional church
orthodoxy. Perhaps they have only a few conditions for joining their
fellowship, one being acceptance of Jesus as the prime inspiration for
life. I doubt anyone who does not subscribe to this idea would be
Mick, you said, .."that perhaps schism arises out of a false
concept of the teaching and life of Jesus." This would imply a claim
for truth on your part and error or corruption on the other side. This
stance is as doctrinaire as that of the traditional church. Although
your doctrine is less complex it is not isolated from the possibility of
personal bias and interpretation. By what standard can you claim to have
truth and the traditional church is in error?
Mick: I take your point -
though perhaps you should give me credit for the word "perhaps". I hope
that my personal position in relation to Jesus is supported by reasoned
evidence. The difference between what I try to espouse and the orthodoxy
of the Church at large is twofold:
- Even though I may state my position as clearly and as assertively
as I can, I do not maintain that I have final answers. And even though
I try to live my life on the basis of what I arrive at as "the truth",
I recognise that this truth is always provisional. Nothing I adopt is
immune to change.
- Because I think truth is never absolute, I must allow others to
differ from me - even though they are part of a fellowship to which I
belong. Unity is not achieved through uniformity. I have concluded
(though I may be wrong in this) that Jesus lived and taught acceptance
of human difference.
In short, I can at this point see no reason why anyone should be
excluded from the fellowship of the Church. It is not a club.
Though it may adopt an institutional form, no particular form is of its
essence. If I'm on the right track, then both the schismatic and
the Church fail to recognise the generous inclusiveness of Jesus'
Rick: One of the sources of schismatic force is the very
issue of provisional truth you raise. I must press you a bit on
this. If the universe is a unity and all principles of it are constant
how then can truth be provisional? It is either truth or it is
Let me cite a brief analogy involving clothing. The animal skins
primitive man used to warm and protect themselves from the environment
look radically different from our modern apparel but the function is
exactly the same. There are general principles involved that are
universal and immutable namely the function of protecting the person in
the case cited. Clothing looks different from age to age but the
of its function is constant.
I have asserted in our previous debates there are bed rock moral
principles. They are often difficult to apply with clarity to all
current moral dilemmas. Nonetheless we should look critically for the
enduring universal and often subtle principles involved.
There are large constituencies on either side of this question. I
consider it unlikely that rapprochement will ever be reached. As
much as I value the idea of unity and comity within the Church, I think
schism can be a healing process as I suggested in the introduction to
this debate. I see no good reason not to establish a church that
prescribes no creed, that espouses no doctrine and demands no orthodoxy.
Wouldn�t that be a good solution?
Mick: The Church you suggest
tongue-in-cheek would have one merit - it would include everyone in
whose lives Jesus of Nazareth is central. This is the most fundamental
allegiance any Christian can ask or give.
The point I make is this: Even if a group sets up certain norms of
conviction and conduct, all it can ever have is verbal assent to
propositions. A person can say something a thousand times without that
making a whit of difference to his or her behaviour. So why have a
creed? Why set up doctrines to which people must assent? Why insist on
statements of orthodoxy? It doesn't make sense to me.
Or rather, it makes sense only if those who set themselves up (or are
set up) as judges of who has stepped outside theological or behavioural
boundaries are, wittingly or not, engaged in controlling others.
This is fine if one belongs to the club of those who go to church,
recite creeds, believe certain teachings, and follow certain absolute
moral principles. But think of the implications even of that. For if it
is wrong to say something, then it must be wrong to think
it. Thought-police are just around the corner. Witness the recent
attempts in the Church of England to muzzle theological dissent. Witness
also the centuries-old counsel of the Roman Catholic Church concerning
Who is to say that any decision to behave in a certain way is
wrong according to "bedrock moral principles"? For what reason? If a
moral choice is made for a reason, doesn�t it follow that there might be
other reasons which lead to entirely another moral choice? If that is
possible, then there can be no absolute. Absolutes exclude alternatives.
Doesn�t this absolute approach confine moral choice to a
straightjacket? Indeed, doesn't it jettison moral choice altogether? For
if I know without doubt that something is wrong, I must not
choose it. I may choose it. But I do so knowing that I do
"wrong". I suggest that truly mature choice happens only when I don't
know what is right, when there is no moral absolute. I may have
well-tested guidelines. And I may be foolish to ignore them. But only
when I work it out for myself can I be said to be truly human.
This of course requires that what I live my life by must always be
provisional. It doesn't mean that I have no principles or
fundamental assumptions guiding my life. Nor does it mean that I may not
sometimes have to operate according to those principles without thinking
things through - just as when I jump without thinking from the 'bus
that's about to run me over. Nor does it mean that I may not have to
defend my principles with my life or - more challenging still - with the
lives of others.
I hold (provisionally) that principles, even when espoused by people
with great authority and rhetorical powers, remain assumptions, to be
changed or even discarded when the facts or the situation demonstrate
that they no longer apply. And if our principles are provisional then
chasing away those whose principles differ will not do. There is no
point in schism.
Let me propose a test: Arrange for all your elders, or ministers, or
bishops to assemble in one room together. Then ask each in turn, out of
the hearing the others, to give a five-minute talk on "The Essence of
the Holy Trinity".
My hypothesis is that the resulting monologues will bear little
resemblance to each other - so little that it would be impossible to put
together from them a coherent "doctrine" upon which to base the action
of ejecting a heretic or moral renegade from the fellowship of the
friends of Jesus.
The Church's greatest sin today is the willful exclusion from its
hallowed halls of God's children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Schism exists only because we've invented it. It is neither necessary