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Religion Library: Christianity

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The two churches also developed different positions on a variety of leadership issues. The western Church discouraged marriage of priests and bishops, while the eastern Church allowed it. The western Church insisted that the pope was the first among bishops and the supreme authority, while the eastern Church encouraged more autonomy for local churches and their leaders, including the patriarch at Constantinople, and attributed supreme authority to the councils of bishops.

Pope Urban II, Source: Public DomainUltimately, what came to be referred to as "the Great Schism" divided Latin Roman Christianity (in the West) from Greek Byzantine Christianity (in the East). The formal or official schism of 1054 resulted not from one specific event or argument, but from powerful differences in geography, culture, politics, and Christian doctrine. The geographical, linguistic, and theological distances between the two churches, their different ways of worshipping, and their different styles of internal organization and authority, resulted in two very different churches.

At the local and regional level, there was varying awareness of these differences, but the Crusades made the differences apparent on all levels. In March of 1095, Pope Urban II, with ambassadors from Constantinople at his side, made a passionate appeal for Christian soldiers to help free formerly Christian lands from Muslim rule. Siege of Constantinople (1204) Source: Public DomainThis invocation launched the first crusade. Pope Urban II was able to maintain harmonious relations between the Christian soldiers from the west and the Christians of the east. But after Urban's death in 1099, bishops from the western tradition were appointed to the traditionally eastern patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch.  The introduction of western-style worship and hierarchy made the differences between the two churches immediately visible. The differences were made more painfully clear in 1204, when Christian soldiers sent from Rome to Egypt diverted to Constantinople, sacking it and driving the Byzantines into exile.

Ottoman Empire in 1663

Efforts to heal the schism and reunify the two churches continued throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, but when the Ottomans, led by Muhammad II, conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul, all possibility of reunion was lost. From this point forward, Christianity would be divided into an eastern Church and a western Church.

Church door in Wittenberg, Germany onto which Luther nailed his 95 theses Source: than a century passed before a teacher and monk named Martin Luther famously nailed his list of ninety-five propositions or "theses" to the castle-church door at Wittenberg in Saxony in 1517. Luther's list addressed Church practices and the nature of faith. Luther believed passionately that truth should be sought in scripture, and that Church teaching is to be based on and accountable to scripture. His ideas echoed those of Jan Hus and John of Wycliffe, two 14th-century theologians who protested Church corruption and the abuse of authority. John Wycliffe Source: Public DomainMoreover, Wycliffe wrote that Christians need nothing more than the example of scripture, and that they should be able to read the Bible in their own languages.


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