Is Schism Ever Justified?

Is Schism Ever Justified? February 10, 2014

The other day I was reading and reflecting on the theme of schism in the New Testament. I read over the famous passage 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” Sad to say that the history of interpretation of this verse is really the history of Presbyterianism is Scotland and the USA.

Due to the theological and political machinations of the last hundred years, many congregations have been faced with the choice of stay or leave. The truth is that I’ve always thought that there were good arguments for both positions. A robustly biblical ecclesiology always compels us to stay and work for unity, however, the practical realities are that this is often simply impossible to do.

A good primer on the subject is Michael B. Thompson, When Should We Divide (Ridley Hall, CA: Grove, 2004). It is a short little booklet that deals with the topic of schism, particularly in light of the divisions that have consumed the Anglican communion in the last ten years. Thompson writes:

Some of the strongest words of condemnation in the New Testament are reserved for those whose actions hard and bring discord and divisions among God’s people (such as Matt 18.6; Luke 17.1f; 1 Cor 3.17; 2 Pet 2.1-3). These teachings should cause those who would innovate at the expense of church unity to ponder carefully whether their action is truly obedient, much less “progressive” or “prophetic.” It should likewise make anyone considering leading others away from the church in response to reflect on the danger of tearing apart the visible body of Christ.

Kenny Rodgers, in his song The Gambler, famously said, “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” That, sadly, is the question facing many orthodox congregations today within mainline denominations.

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