Sources of Schism

Sources of Schism June 9, 2015

In a study of American Protestant schisms between 1890 and 1990, John Sutten and Mark Chaves claim that churches don’t divide for purely doctrinal reasons, but rather “in response to attempts by denominational elites to achieve organizational consolidation” (171). The 1848 schism within the Plymouth Brethren, for instance, was about open communion, but Sutten and Chaves argue that “this issue was inextricably linked with the question of whether there would be more centralized control over this religious matter. . . .  Schism occurred as a result of an effort to enforce a uniform communion policy on all congregations” (175). 

They found too that “mergers and foundings sharply raise the likelihood of schism.” Thought “schisms lower the likelihood of subsequent schism modestly,” that only lasts a short time: “one year after a founding or merger, rates of schism are five times higher than they are one year after a schism” (185).

They recognize the irony of these findings: “At least since Niebuhr, ecumenically minded observers of American religion have presumed that large numbers of denominations represent the failure to bring together American Protestants under one organizational umbrella. By this light, denominational mergers were the organizational goals to be pursued, since each new merger would reduce the denominational Babel. The irony arises from our finding that denominational consolidation, including merger, has been a major source of schism” (188).

Pursuing unity or enforcing uniformity may be the quickest way to destroy whatever unity already exists.

Though they admit to limits in their data set, they also argue that membership in a trans-denominational federation reduces the likelihood of schism only if the federation is theologically liberal. Churches in the National or World Council of Churches were less likely to divide; membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (given their data) had a null effect on schism. Thus, while the congregations that result from dividing churches almost retain their denominational affiliation (Methodist schisms produce two Methodist churches), “theology becomes relevant in the form of federation affiliation” (187).

(Sutten and Chaves, “Explaining Schism in American Protestant Denominations, 1890-1990,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43:2 [2004] 171-90.)

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