Divisions within Christianity

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There is little doubt that in apostolic times the word “Church” had a twofold sense, as it referred both to the local and to the universal Christian community, so that the unity of the Church existed within the pluriformity of local Churches. There was an awareness among Christians that they participated in a shared memory of Jesus and a common confession of faith. The word describing this unity was koinonia (communion), a word used in connection with the experience of Christian sharing during apostolic times, and which during patristic times came to designate the Church itself. The reality of koinonia implied that the local Churches had their particular identities within the one universal Church. What bound the various local Churches was the common sharing in the one apostolic faith. Over time, however, the unity of the Church suffered serious setbacks. The present article delineates the various stages which led to the frafmentation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The Nestorian Church

The first serious setback to the communion of the Church occurred in the early 4th century with Arianism which seemed to deny the true divinity of Christ and consequently of the Spirit. This view was rejected in the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). In the 5th century there emerged a trend of thought in the Church of Antioch whose teachings influenced the Church of Constantinople. This school spoke of a moral rather than a “hypostatic” union of the human and the divine natures in Christ. Consequently they wanted Mary to be called Christotokos, i.e., Mother of Christ rather than Theotokos, Mother is God. Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was thought to be propagating the above view though it is not proved that in fact he deviated hereticallay from the true faith. Nevertheless the above doctrine has come to be known with the title “Nestorianism” and Nestorius was condemned and deposed by the Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E.. St Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, with his formula “the one nature of the Incarnate God” spearheaded the opposition to Nestorius at this Council.

The Church in Persia known as The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East was thought by many to have accepted the ‘Nestorian’ christology at the Synod held at Beth Lapat in 486 C.E. because ir seemed to do greater justice to the dinvinity and humanity of Christ. With that decision this Church was considered as having separated itself from the ancient the christological formula put forward by the Council of Ephesus.

The Roman and Persian empires were not on the friendliest of terms, and since in those times therr was a close association of state and religion, the ‘Nestorian’ teaching took a firm hold in Persia while the conciliar decisions found ready acceptance in the Roman empire. Thus the Assyrian Church of the East came to be isolated from the rest of the Christian world.

Today it has come to be accepted that the opposition between the so-called ‘Nestorian’ christology and the ‘orthodox’ christology of the Council of Ephesus was rather a matter of confusion of terms, most especially with regard to ‘person’ and ‘nature’. Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, leader of the 40,000 strong Assyrian Church of the East has expressly asked that the term ‘Nestorian’ be no longer applied to his Church. On 11 November 1994 a Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East was signed in Rome by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, which declares that “the divisions brought about.. [in the past] were due in large part to misunderstandings”.


Eastern Orthodox Churches

Some time after the Council of Ephesus another school of thought emerged, this time in the Church of Alexandria. In oppsition to the ‘Nestorian’ stress on the diversification or duality of the divine and the human natures in Jesus Christ, this school stressed the oneness of Jesus Christ to the extend the human nature seemed to be absorbed into the devine, so that Jesus was no longer human. This school was fond of speaking of the “one nature of God, the Word incarnate” to designate the one Person of the Word. This was misunderstood. This teaching was known as ‘monophysitism’ (one nature), the immediate consequence of which would be to call into question the truth of the Incarnation and the ‘consubstantiality’ of Christ’s humanity with ours, specially with regard to his redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. The misunderstood teaching was rejected by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., which declared that in Christ there is ‘a single person in two natures, without confusion or mixture”.

However, some Churches did not accept the Chalcedonian formula on the plea that it goes back to the ‘Nestorian heresy’ of separation of the two natures. Instead, they preferred the phrase used by St Cyril of Alexandria, namely, “the one nature of God, the Word incarnate”. These non-Chalcedonian Churches were called ‘monophysite’ though actually they did not really deviate from the true faith because of their non-acceptance of the Chalcedonian formula. Today they are also called ‘Eastern Orthodox Churches’, and are not in communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

They are :

(1) The Armenian Apostolic Church,

(2) The Coptic Orthodox Church,

(3) The Ethiopian Orthodox Church,

(4) The Syrian Orthodox Church,

(5) The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church,

(6) The Eritrean Orthodox Church.

A common declaration between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Mar Yacob III of the Syrian Orthodox Church in 1971 declares : “there is no difference in the faith they profess concerning the Mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become really man, even if over the centuries difficulties have risen out of the different theological expressions by which this faith was expressed”.

Orthodox Churches

A third blow to the ancient communion of Churches was the rupture that took place about the beginning of the second millennium in the relations between the Eastern and Western Churches. The symbolic date commonly given to this event is 16 July, 1054 C.E., when the delegates of Pope Leo IX (who had died three months earlier!) and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other on the question of the unilateral acceptance by the Pope of the insertion of the Latin filioque (“and from the Son”) into the orginally Greek Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (In fact, a clarification by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity of 13 September 1995, explained that the Creed with the ‘filioque’ insertion was only a liturgical adaptation of the Nicene Creed, and that the Greek original without the insertion remains for all Churches the normative text of the Christian Trinitarian faith.)

But this question of the filioque was only the proverbial last straw in the grradual separation between the Latin West and the Greek East with different theological styles, which had already begun at least a couple of centuries earlier. The division had been influenced by the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the cultural and political distancing of the Eastern and Western parts of the old empire, the eruption of the germanic tribes in the North and of the Islamic power in the East. One marked feature, specially developed in the Byzantine circles, was the understanding of the Church as a “conciliar fellowship” based on the Eucharist as the source and centre of the unity of all local Churches which are ‘autocephalous’ (self-governing). In this conciliarity the Church of Rome or of Constantinople hold inly a primacy of honour and not of jurisdiction. On the other hand, the ecclesiology that was developing in the West was centred on the power of the Pope as the supreme head of the Church. This ecclesiological model gave less importance to the identiy and autonomy of the local Churches than to the primacy, infallibility and jurisdiction of the Pope as the successor of Peter.

Today the Patriarchate of Constantinople is called “Ecumenical Patriarchate” and comprises the following Churches which are designated as “Orthodox Churches” :


(a) ‘Autocephalous’ Churches :

(1) Constantinople,

(2) Alexandria,

(3) Antioch,

(4) Jerusalem,

(5) Russia,

(6) Serbia,


(7) Romania,


(8) Bulgaria,


(9) Georgia,


(10) Cyprus,


(11) Greece,


(12) Poland,


(13) Albania,


(14) Czech & Slovak Republics,


(15) America.


(b) ‘Autonomus’ Churches :


(which do not have full independence) :


(1) Mount Sinai,


(2) Finland,


(3) Japan,


(4) China.


(c) The following Canonical Churches which have a special link with the Patriarchate of Constantinople receiving the Holy Chrism and confirmation of their bishops from Constantinople :


(1) Carpatho-Russian Orthodox,


(2) Ukrainian American,


(3) Russian, Western Europe,


(4) Albanian American,


(5) Byelorussian in North America,


(6) Ukrainian in Canada,


(7) Ukrainian in USA.


(d) Some Churches have an irregular status :


(1) Old Believers,


(2) Russian Orthodox outside Russia,


(3) Ukranian-Kiev Patriarchate & Ukrainian Autocephalous,


(4) Byelorussian Autocephalous,

The Protestant Reformation


Much more than by the schism os the East and West, the unity of the Church was seriously shaken by the Reformation that took place in Europe in the middle of the second millennium. Not all the reasons were theological. With the invention of the press and the growth in education there emerged the humanism of the Renaissance and a new middle class, made powerful by the economic prosperity arising from commerce especially with the newly discovered colonies. There was also a growth of national consciousness all over Europe and a strengthening of the power of the royal houses as against the power of the clergy. Such economic and social factors explain in part resistance to the Roman influence in northern Europe. These factors need to be studied in courses on Church history. There was also a long-standing call within the Church for a reform of customs and specially those of the Papal Court. The proverbial last straw was the preaching and selling of papal “indulgences” to finance the construction of the Renaissance Churches in Rome.


(1) The Lutheran Church


In Germany, Martin Luther’s protest in 1517 against the scandal of indulgences dit not aim at dividing the Church but at reforming it. But when in 1521 he was both excommunicated by the Pope and outlawed by the German Emperor, the theological positions hardened. In the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” Luther saw a new understanding wherein the Church is not identifiabla through external acts of religion but was a community which has one mind and heart of faith. In other words, the Church is found where “the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administeted according to the Gospel.”


In such a Church the ministerial priesthood is not essentially different from the common priesthoood of the faithful. The episcopacy does not differ from the presbyteriate and the papacy is not required. The veneration of saints, penitential acts, popular devotions, pilgrimages, etc., are contrary to the New Testament teaching on “justification by faith alone and not by works.” The understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice and the concept of transubstantiation are repudiated.


Although Luther wanted only to reform the Church, the division became inevitable when the German princes backed the reform movement as a way of ridding themselves of the power of the Emperor and the political control of the Pope. Moreover, the Church’s hierarchy was not ready to implement the necessary changes. Thus we have the Lutheran Churches . In 1947 these Churches formed a Lutheran World Federation which now has more than a hundred member Churches and its Secretariat headquarters in Geneva.


(2) The Reformed Presbyterian Churches


The reform movement begun by Luther was carried further still by his contemporaries Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva. Zwingli did away with much of the ceremonial and extenals of religion and developed a new order of liturgy which consisted principally os scripture, sermon and prayer : the bread and wine were no longer placed on an altar but on a bare table in the nave of the Church. Whereas, in line with Catholic thinking, Luther had insisted that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist (the word “is” to be taken literally), Zwingli regarded the Eucharist as no more than a commemorative service in which a community shows allegiance to Chirst and remembers gratefully the event of the cross. He argued that the physical reception of a spiritual gift is impossible.


Later on, Calvin set out to write a definitvive treatise on the nature of the Church according to the Reformation principles : The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He taught that Christ imparted to the Church the gift of a fourfold ministry of pastors, teachers (or doctors), elders (or presbyters) and deacons. The doctrine of ‘predestination,” more characteristic of Calvin but actually developed by his followers, speaks of the “divine decree” to either eternal life or to death, based on God’s infinite forenowledge. Thus the teachings of Zwingli and Calvin took a distinct turn vis-a-vis Lutheranism.


The Churches subscribing to these teachings came to be referred to as ‘Reformed or Presbyterian Churches’. In 1875 a World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) was formed which today links close to 200 Churches from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition.


(3) The Radical Reformation


Still in the same sixteenth century, the Reformation initiated by Luther passed into the third phase which can be called ‘Racidal Reformation’. These radical reformers saw the identity of the Church as involving a complete break with anything suggestive of a ‘Roman and papist’ connection. They also emphasised a commiment to the pursuit of personal holiness leading to the believer’s baptism, (therefore rejecting the validity of infant baptism, accepted by most other Churches). Another distinctive feature is the separation of Church members from the world and its affairs, with small group gatherings for the study of the Word, prayer and the breaking of bread along the lines of the New Testament “house communities”. The Hutterites, the Mennonites, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Seventh Day Adventists and the Disciples of Christ were the first to begin the radical reform.


(4) The Anglican Church


The fourth of the Reformation was the change that took place in England in the same century. After resisting the influence of the Reformation for a number of years, Henry VIII decided for personal reasons to break his ties with the Pope. After this the Church of England has understood itself as a sort of via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, acknowledging the necessity of scripture, tradition and reason in oppositipon to the Protestant reliance on scripture alone. However, the Roman Catholic Church declared the Anglican Orders null and void in 1896. Today the Anglican Communion is made up of 37 autonomous national Churches, all of them in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.


(5) New Churches of Reformed Tradition


The fifth phase of the Reformation could be seen, berween the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, in the emergence of renewal movements within Anglicanism and the Reformed Churches, leading to new Churches like the Baptists, the Methodists, the Salvation Army, the Evangelicals and the Pentecostals.


Council of Trent


The story of the Reformation will be not complete without mentioning the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was called precisely to defend the Roman Catholic Church against the views of the reformers on scripture, justification, predestination, sacraments, authority, etc. It achieved that purpose but failed to present an ecclesiology that would answer the reformers’ questions on the nature of the Church.

A Divided Church


Thus by the end of the second millenium we are presented with a divided Church : the Eastern Church itself composed of a variety of autonomous or semi-autonomous Churches, and the Western Church divided inti very many different bodies, each claimi