Schism and Spiritual Unity

In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity.  As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.

For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith.  However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land.  This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity.  Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this.  Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism.  Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):

We may take an instance in those of the church of Rome.  No sort of Christians in the world…do at this day more pretend unto unity, or more press the necessity of it, or more fiercely judge, oppose, and destroy others for the breach of it, which they charge upon them, nor more prevail or advantage themselves by the pretence of it, than do they; but yet, notwithstanding all their pretences, it will not be denied but that the unity which they so make their boast of, and press upon others, is a thing utterly foreign to the gospel, and destructive of that peace, union, and concord among Christians which it doth require….Herein, therefore, lies the fundamental cause of our divisions; which will not be healed until it be removed and taken out of the way.  Leave believers or professors of the gospel unto their duty in seeking after evangelical unity in the use of other means instituted and blessed unto that end, – impose nothing on their consciences or practice under that name, which indeed belongs not thereunto; and although, upon the reasons and causes afterward to be mentioned, there may for a season remain some divisions among them, yet there will be a way of healing continually ready for them, and agreed upon by them as such (ibid., 111, 113).

For Owen, if imposing external unity is not the answer, the church’s spiritual unity that stems from our union with Christ is best expressed rather simply in Christians of various denominations loving and looking out for one another, praying for one another, and the like.  As long as a church subscribes to the fundamental tenets of the faith and abides within the house of catholic Christianity, they ought not to be bullied into liturgical or ecclesio-political conformity.  There is room for theological debate about the worship and order and discipline of the church, but, at the end of the day, one must let other believers do according to their understanding of Scripture and according to their conscience in such matters.

Any thoughts on this in relation to contemporary Christianity?  Thoughts in relation to evangelicalism, ecumenism, or well-meaning but often ill-conceived laments about denominational diversity hindering our credibility before the world?


6 thoughts on “Schism and Spiritual Unity

  1. This is great stuff from Owen, thanks Steve. I’ve been thinking about the visible/invisible unity of the church a lot. I guess for me while this makes a hugely important corrective to “over-zealous” and “imposed” unity, I also wonder about another form of falsified unity — a conflict-avoiding false peace where the unity is so spiritual and invisible as to make the visible, tangible exercise of that unity not worth the effort. I am curious how to describe the church’s core or genuine unity in a practical way without reducing it to a (presumptuously proposed) balancing act between zeal and lethargy, truth and love.

    It is hard to argue with the suggestion that genuine unity is in “loving and looking out for one another” and “praying for one another” within “the fundamental tenets of the faith” and “the house of catholic Christianity”. But at the same time it shows exactly where we have our problem, doesn’t it? Aren’t our efforts at “liturgical or ecclesio-political conformity” often really our best efforts to solidify what we’re after; to pitch out a common ground and keep a common dynamic? But what I think your use of the Owen excerpt alerts us to is the fact that unity will likely slip through our fingers right when we think we’ve got it formalized. This is disconcerting, especially for pastors, but maybe in a good way.

  2. I believe that at the very least the church must have a visible physical commitment to practicing baptism & eucharist/lord’s supper/communion. Churches being aligned in unity around the “fundamental tenets of the faith” is somewhat reductionistic as it presumes (in this context) that there aren’t physical/visible elements of Xty which are indispensable, and inherently core to what Christ handed onto his disciples and apostles. It focuses on propositions alone. Are there not physical/tangible/visible practices which were handed down as well?

    Eastern Orthodoxy defines “orthodox” as “proper glory,” not “right belief.” This shows a fundamental distinction b/t how churches approach unity. To have a spiritual unity, one that is based on “tenets” alone is, I think, to gnosticize [not sure if that is actually a word : )] the bonds that unite us. Your thoughts?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Clint. I’m not sure if ‘gnosticize’ is a word either, but it might be worth having around!

      I think the danger of doctrinal reductionism is a significant one (one that comes especially from attending a ‘non-denominational’ church or seminary). However, Owen is careful to guard against it: ‘Yet is not this so to be understood as though Christians, especially ministers of the gospel, should content themselves with the knowledge of such fundamentals, or confine their Scripture inquiries unto them’ (Works of Owen, 15:108). He goes on to say more along these lines. He also has a robust doctrine of the visible church (worship, sacraments, order discipline, and so on). It would be really difficult to accuse him of truncating or over-spiritualizing church doctrine and praxis. Here his point is basically this: It’s wrong to try to make every church or minister, say, use a certain prayer before every Lord’s Supper in hopes of preserving the unity and catholicity of the church in that manner. That churches should gather around the sacraments is a non-negotiable for him. He would just say that it’s wrong to impose uniformity in the liturgy and then turn around and accuse those who disagree of being schismatics. Believers are free to debate about this and seek to persuade others of their view, but ultimately the unity of the church doesn’t hang on whether you and I would officiate the Lord’s Supper in the same way.

      In relation to your point on doctrine being an insufficient basis for unity, Owen would agree and say that church unity consists not just in doctrine but in certain practical items as well.

  3. Two questions, firstly: is spiritual/invisible unity compatible with Jesus’ high priestly prayer that his followers would share the same unity that he does with the father? I doubt it. We must ask not only in what sense the church is unified (ie: as if it were simply one characterisitc and that whatever constituted this claimed ‘unity’ was all that we had in common) but in what sense is the church a unit, i.e.: a singular entity. I think that Owen’s definition is only dependent on it being claimed, and not demonstrated; accordingly there is no way of distinguishing between (claiming to be a part of) the one body of the one Christ and (effectively functioning instead as) multiple bodies of plural Christs.

    Which leads to the second: the irony of congregational government is that each congregation is a self-governing unit which demands a certain level of liturgical and political uniformity or else disciplines the member. Yet above or even between congregations, no such discipline is exists, nor is seen as desirable. How is this double standard justified that congregations can and should demand a different, more visible type of unity to which they themselves submit?

  4. I guess we have a big, loose tent. Where members are unified, if they say they are. Or first at least very, very basic outlines.

    Parts of the Bible almost justify that; whoever says Jesus is Lord, etc., is good enough.

    While we are to avoid disputes about words, etc.

    Though surely Theology violates that rule constantly : ).

  5. The church is both visible and spiritual in nature. Therefore our preservation of unity must be as such also. It’s easy to attack the overly oppressive tactics of Anglicans and Catholics to reign in schismatics (whether in doctrine or practice) but no one denies it is the responsibility of every shepherd to protect the flock from error (in doctrine and practice) in order to preserve the unity of the flock. What applies to the local flock applies much more to universal collective flock. Thus the church, to maintain orthodoxy unity, must, in love, strive for visible unity expressed in a unified preaching of the gospel, unified worship (in liturgy and sacrament) and unified leaders.
    Anyone who feels forced to break the bonds of visible unity will in turn define the church’s unity as invisible. Otherwise they would return and seek reform from within.

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