Saturday, July 14, 2007

Church Unity and Schism

Although in our day some people have little time for the unity of the Church and do not worry about questions of schism, they are vitally important. The New Testament does not speak of lots of competing denominations. As Thomas McCrie put it: "The unity of the Church is implied in the most general view that can be taken of its nature, as a
society instituted for religious purposes. True religion is essentially one, even as God, its object, is one." "The unity of the Church, in profession, worship, and holy walking, was strikingly exemplified in the primitive age
of Christianity". "The original word in the New Testament translated schism or division, signifies any rent or breach, by which that which was formerly one is divided; and when applied to the Church, it is always used in a bad sense. Christians are reprehended for giving way to schism, and exhorted to avoid those who cause it. It is a relative term, and cannot be understood without just views of that unity and communion of which it is a violation."

McCrie states that to accept a variety of denominations is to adopt "a principle of difformity which, however congenial to the system of polytheism, is utterly eversive of a religion founded on the unity of the divine nature and will, and on a revelation which teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us."

McCrie's work on this subject can be found at

McCrie reflects the historic Scottish biblical position also found in James Durham and James Walker in his book Scottish Theology and Theologians.

We ought to have a love for the unity of the Church. "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21).

There are comments that McCrie makes which reflect helpfully on the current divided situations where denominations seem to spring up so easily:
"I need scarcely add, that if in providence we can find a church already constituted to which we can conscientiously accede, regard to the communion of the saints, and aversion to unnecessary division, ought to induce us to prefer this course to the formation of a new society".

There is a lawful separation as McCrie acknowledges:
"When the public profession and administrations of a church have been settled conformably to the laws of Christ, and sanctioned by the most solemn engagements, if the majority shall set these aside, and erect a new constitution sinfully defective, and involving a material renunciation of the former, the minority refusing to accede to this, adhering to their engagements, and continuing to maintain communion on the original terms, cannot justly be charged with schism." The Disruptions of 1843 and 1893 would be in harmony with these principles.

McCrie does not look favourably on litigation in Church matters.

"The subject of litigation among Christians, and even the relation which they stand in to one another as such, render the adjustment of their differences more delicate and embarrassing. It is always a work of difficulty to reconcile hostile parties, whatever the matter of strife may happen to be. Once involved in litigation about civil rights and property, men, not of the most contentious or obstinate tempers, have been known to persevere until they had ruined themselves and their families. When unhappily discord and contention arise between those who are allied by blood, or who were united by the bonds of close friendship, their variance is of all others the most inveterate and deadly. "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle" (Prov. 18:19). If "love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave" (Song 8:6). Of all the ties which bind man to man, religion is the most powerful, and when once loosened or burst asunder, it is the hardest to restore. Religious differences engage and call into action the strongest powers of the human mind. Conscience comes to the aid of convictions of right, and zeal for the glory of God combines with that jealousy with which we watch over everything that is connected with our own reputation.

Feelings of personal offense and injury form no inconsiderable obstacle in the way of removing divisions in the Church. In one degree or another these are unavoidable, when religious differences arise and grow to a height. They are no proper ground of separation, and the recollection of them ought not to be allowed to stand in the way of a desirable reunion. If in any instance personal injury has been combined with injuries done to truth, those who have been the sufferers need to exert the utmost jealousy over their own spirits. Self-love will lead us insensibly to confound and identify the two; and what we flatter ourselves to be pure zeal for religion and hatred of sin, may, in the process of a rigid and impartial examination, be found to contain a large mixture of resentment for offenses which terminated on ourselves.

How ready are we to associate our own honor with that of the religious society to which we belong, and under the influence of this compound feeling to forget the paramount homage we owe to that "Name which is above every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come!" (cf. Phil. 2:9; Eph. 1:21). How much does this enter into our public contendings! What regard is often shown to it in negotiations for union! Victory, not truth, is too often the object of litigant parties, and provided they can gain this, though it should be achieved by over-reaching one another, and by practicing the low tricks of worldly policy, they will boast of a religious triumph.

Every candid and observing person will admit, too, that, in those religious denominations which have truth and right on their side, there are persons whose choice has not been determined by enlightened views of the importance of the cause which they have espoused, and who stoutly resist every conciliatory measure from attachment to certain venerated names, from early associations, and preference of some external forms, which have varied in different periods and places without any infringement of the laws of Christ or any real injury to Christian edification. Even those who are not averse to sacrifice truth to peace often show themselves keen sticklers for the credit of a party, and rather than compromise it in the slightest degree, or admit the most distant reflection on themselves or their associates, would break off or endanger the success of the most promising and reasonable overtures. With them the question is not, "Can we make such concessions and accede to such terms, without relinquishing truth, and acting unfaithfully to God?" but, "Can we do this without constructively confessing that we have been so far in an error, and acknowledging that others have been more righteous, or honest, or intelligent than we?" "My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (Jam. 3:10). So long as a spirit of this kind prevails, every attempt at healing divisions in the Church will prove abortive, or will lead to such general, ambiguous, or contradictory arrangements, as merely cover the disease, while they plant the seeds of future disquiet and disunion."