“he who loves his brother tolerates everything for the sake of unity,
because brotherly love exists in the unity of charity.”
Augustine of Hippo – First Homily on 1 John
It is a readily observable fact that the children of divorce are themselves more likely to divorce, and I should imagine, given a few more years evidence, that the further down the line we go, those who are the offspring of a line which has seen frequent divorce will be even more prone to take this path.
Thus it is also with Schism in the church. In 1967 the Anglican John Stott, used his position as chair of the Evangelical Alliance conference in Keele, England to argue against a proposal of the Presbyterian, Martyn Lloyd Jones – that Evangelicals should separate themselves from theologically compromised churches. Stott, being of the offspring with only two ‘divorces’ in its history – (Agreed, some of her ‘husbands’ walked out 🙂 ) – was keener to call for remaining integrated, than the great preacher Lloyd Jones who belonged to a root with considerably more separation in its DNA.
Yesterday at Morning Prayer we remembered the Puritan, Richard Baxter of Kidderminster, author of The Reformed Pastor. Now to some it may come as a surprise to hear that Baxter was himself an Anglican. There will be some who are surprised because they have forgotten that the Anglican church is both Catholic AND Reformed – but for most the label ‘Puritan’ would suggest that Baxter was amongst those who left for New England. However Baxter was only 5 when the Mayflower sailed and his writings show him to be far from a separatist. Rather he argued strongly that Presbyterians and Congregationalists should stay within the Church of England following the 1662 Act of Uniformity which made life exceedingly difficult theologically, not only for them but for Baxter himself.
And, theological difficulties proved of far greater consequence for dissenters than ever they do in the Western church nowadays. Late on in life Baxter found himself persecuted greatly, banned from preaching and at the age of 70 imprisoned on a charge of libeling the church in his writings. Yet he never declared ‘a plague on your house!’ and departed.
Now it must first be admitted that Baxter was not absolutely against Schism. As he writes to persuade Congregationalists and Presbyterians to remain within the fold of the Church, he does make reference to circumstances under which perhaps one might consider such a move, but of course Baxter is living in the early Post Reformation era, one in which the unthinkable has become thinkable. On the whole his writings are marked by a far firmer call to put the unity of the church first than one would find in many writings of our era, and therein there is a faint echo of the remembrance that for the first thousand years of the churches history Schism was unthinkable, indeed Augustine refers to it as The unforgiveable sin.
Baxter was not at all alone in the history of the church in remaining within the flock of Christ whilst undergoing fierce persecution. One need only think of the decades of persecution suffered by the Eastern Christians over icons, or the example of Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius lived in the 3rd Century at a time when 90% of the church were Arians, that is they were out and out heretics. He suffered greatly for upholding the Trinitarian faith and was exiled on several occasions – but many many years later we give thanks for him, and the creed that bears his name is a jewel of theology, still on occasion to be recited upon Trinity Sunday. In the light of these great Saints it seems perverse in the extreme that nowadays people think we preserve the faith through Schism, when in the past the faith was contended and cemented into the core of our being precisely by staying put.
Augustine’s writing is of particular note in this regard – for it is produced in the light of the Donatist heresy ( a reminder that the judgement of History is that schismatics are recorded as heretics . . . ). The Donatists were so eager to preserve the holiness of the church that they separated themselves because some Christians under persecution had made public renouncement of their faith under persecution, and had been restored to the body of faith. They could not countenance being part of a church where such a thing occurred. And thus cutting themselves off from the Vine, they withered and are no more. The part of England where I grew up and indeed ministered in the church was littered with tiny, closed chapels of one sect or another. All of them products of the Donatist Spirit. Agreed the Spirit of Donatism is alive and well, but those who drink at its well, would be advised to consider the consequences of such separation on purely historic grounds, even before we consider the matter on theological grounds.
So if Schism is so very wrong – from whence does it come? Well as always the root is inadequate Christology, a failure to apprehend the Gospel, which is the source of all Light and Truth, a failure to behold Christ. This in turn leads to inadequate secondary theologies, in this case ecclesiology. Ironically, those who seek to preserve the truth by separating from the Church reveal that they do not know the Truth – they have not heard the command of the Good Shepherd to love one another ‘as I have loved you’. Or as Augustine would have it, they cannot bear this word.
[Interestingly, Augustine uses as another example of inability to bear the Word of Christ the incident where some of his disciples turn away because they cannot bear his word about eating his flesh. Is it entirely co-incidental that the Spirit of the Donatists is primarily alive and well amongst Protestant churches (or the Protestant elements within the Anglican Church) – is it not in truth a failure to discern the body?]
Those who seek separation may well argue that Truth is at stake and that this must be balanced by Love, but the Love we are commanded to is a Love which is revealed to us in Christ, ‘as I have loved you’. The Only one who is Pure, the Only one who is Truthful in and of himself does not withdraw from us – Never. We withdraw from him. This is revealed throughout Scripture as being the character of God, taken on flesh in these last days in the Person of his Son. The God who patiently Loves disobedient, faithless, untrustworthy Israel. The God who is Always calling his people back to himself. The God who even takes the one who blatantly denies him three times and restores him. The Donatists revealed they were not of Christ, for they could not bear the command of Christ made flesh in the restoration of Peter.
Above all, a God of Patience, for Love never fails. Athanasius and countless others knew that the Gospel required Love, year after year after year, through marginalisation, ridicule, scorn, even to the point of death for our enemies, let alone for those who are of the household of faith. Athanaisius had such a burning vision of God, put into words in his creed, that he lived it and thus it was preserved.
Thus the Church is called to costly unity. It has Never been utterly united. Two thousand years have seen the church always at a degree of disagreement from Corinth to the modern Western Church. Indeed there are nothing but ‘theologically compromised churches’.
There is No rest to be had ahead of Christ’s return, purely the costly command to love one another as He loved us and thus to be known as his. To love as He loves is to refuse the path of separation, for he bound us to himself in Love. And thus the Truth was made manifest.