Five editorials have appeared, thus far, on the unrighteous and painful schism in the PRCA. The first editorial simply lamented. Next, we recognized that the schism is a great threat to us and our children. The reality of this threat has been confirmed by more recent actions and writings. The horror of this threat is evidenced in broken marriages, parents divided from their still-athome children, and young people leaving the spectacle in disgust. One man described it as “ripping the entire denomination apart in every way—congregations, mission fields, colleagues, friends, families, parents, children, and marriages, causing destruction and unspeakable grief.” Who does not feel this grief?
The next two editorials addressed the contended doctrines and the disorder taking place among those dissatisfied with assemblies’ decisions. Finally, the editorial of May 15 addressed an old question that has newly become a further source of contention and alleged reason for schism: Is the Christian totally depraved? I carefully showed from the Scripture and confessions how a Reformed Christian must answer the question.
In this editorial we treat a more fundamental question regarding the very definition of schism. Readers of the SB may benefit from a careful consideration of this sin. The Church Order calls it one of the chief sins on account of which an officebearer will be deposed from the ministry. It would be wise to teach your children and young people of these matters. Your children must understand the issues as they see friends depart.
On the one hand, those who have left the churches, led by former PRCA ministers and a few elders and deacons, reject the charge of schism. They claim that they must leave the PRCA because the PRCA impenitently deny God’s truth and therefore are on the path to destruction. Among other accusations, we are guilty of trampling the truth of Jehovah with idolatry, polluting the churches with the filth of conditional theology, willfully twisting the Word of God, shrewdly deceiving the unwary, and allowing the will of man to prevail. The PRCA’s sin is so serious that the new church’s founding document calls all PRCA members to come out from the PRCA lest they perish in God’s soon destruction of us. From the viewpoint of those who departed, therefore, leaving is not schism but reformation.
On the other hand, two consistories declared that these ministers were guilty of the gross sin of schism. Classis and synod concurred. The ministers were not charged with the sin of false doctrine but the sin of schism. Not heretics, but schismatics. Why?
The deposition case of one of these ministers came to Synod 2021 via protests against the charge of schism. Synod showed how the minister and, by implication, others were guilty of schism. The schism was by the minister’s public slander of his own consistory (they were “rebellious children”) and another consistory (“they minimize the error and strengthen the hand of evildoers”); by his slander of a fellow minister (“leading the listener to believe that the [other minister] does not confess salvation by grace alone”); by his slander of the church visitors (publicly misrepresenting their advice, saying that “they are prophets of Egypt,” and that they “will not counsel you to your profit, but to your shame”); by his gross mischaracterization of Classis East’s actions (Classis East “willfully defended false doctrine”); and by his refusal to heed his consistory’s advice and by public criticism of the consistory’s decisions (by which he “promotes insubordination among the members toward the consistory”). All these sins created sharp division in the congregation and denomination. That should not be difficult to see.
Nevertheless, in the process of answering the protestants, Synod carefully explained the sin of schism, in part to correct the misperception that schism can be created only by teaching false doctrine. So, what is schism? And how is one guilty of it?
Schism is sin against the unity of the church
Schism is not merely division in the church. There may be division without sin. The Great Reformation was division but was not schism. Schism is sin. The Dutch Afscheiding (Secession) of 1834 was division in the State Church but was not schism. These reformations of 1517 and 1834 (and others) were necessary separations because the church had corrupted herself. Division was necessary in order to separate from evil. It was not sin.
Schism is sinfully dividing the church of Jesus Christ. Schism is sin against the real and precious spiritual unity of Christ’s church.
Church unity is one of the most precious blessings of our ascended Christ. The church’s unity is the Spirit-created oneness we all have in our Head, Jesus Christ. Believers are one as they all partake of Christ Himself and agree in true faith. Theologians have at times described this unity regarding several realities:
1) Unity in Christ as Head (Eph. 1:10, 22, 23);
2) Unity of Christ’s Spirit (Eph. 4:3; I Cor 1:16);
3) Unity of our one faith, the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:5, 21);
4) Unity of love that binds (Col. 3:14);
5) Unity of a common hope (Eph. 4:4); and
6) Unity in the Fatherhood of God (Eph. 4:6). “There is one body,” says Paul in Ephesians 4. The body is Christ’s. We are united in Him.
More poetically, we confess: “Elect from ev’ry nation, Yet one o’er all the earth; Her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name she blesses, Partakes one holy food, And to one hope she presses, with ev’ry grace endued.”
Precious to us, unity is also precious to Jesus Christ. What could be more precious to Him than the unity of His own body, the one, holy, catholic church? So there ought to be little more precious to us as well than the unity of the body and bride of Jesus.
Although the church’s unity is not first a calling but a fact (“there is one body”), nevertheless, with the fact of unity always comes a calling to unity. “Manifest the unity!” and “Guard the unity!” are the ways the church has expressed the calling. And with the calling to “guard” is the warning: “Do nothing to damage unity.”
In both epistles that most clearly teach the reality of church unity, it is the calling to unity that receives the emphasis. Ephesians 4 begins with this calling and in I Corinthians 12 Paul only briefly states the reality before extensively urging upon the divisive members at Corinth the calling to maintain it, an urging that continues through the great chapter 13 on charity—the “more excellent way” of living out the unity. Calvin uses some hyperbole when he says, “…it is the main article of our religion that we be in harmony among ourselves.” With less exaggeration, he says, “…on such agreement the safety of the Church rests and is dependent.”
Teaching our children about unity ought to start with these two epistles. Unity is a reality; unity also has a calling.
The calling is to manifest unity and maintain unity, to show unity and to guard it. Individuals: Manifest the unity of the local congregation by membership in her. Guard that unity by confessing truth over against the lie, by living peaceably and hating strife. Congregations: Manifest that unity in denominational bonds with those of like faith, and then strive to maintain it in biblical manner. Denominations: Manifest that unity by contact with other churches that exhibit the marks of the true church, allowing nothing but essential matters to keep us apart. The Church Order, Article 85, warns, “Churches whose usages differ from ours only in non-essentials shall not be rejected.”
Just because unity is so important, schism is so offensive to our Lord Jesus. It’s also the devil’s specialty. The church is always threatened by schism.
Referring especially but not only to unity in the local congregation, Synod 2021 stated, “schism is a sin-caused division among members in the church.” Then, addressing the specific issue before her, Synod declared: “A person can be guilty of schism not only by the sin of preaching false doctrine, but by other sins.” Synod’s declaration was addressing the misperception that schism can only be caused by false doctrine. From Scripture Synod showed the churches that one can be guilty of schism in many ways. Most PRCA members have received Synod’s explanation from their consistories. If you have not, you may ask for it from your elders or our editorial office.
In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the sin of schism in three different places. First, some Corinthian members sinned against unity (were schismatic) by following certain preachers rather than others (chap. 1). They were guilty of a party spirit. Rebuking these followers of men, Paul says, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions (the Greek is schisms) among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Second, other Corinthian members sinned against unity (were schismatic) when they came to the Lord’s Supper improperly (chapter 11). “…when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions (the Greek is schisms) among you; and I partly believe it.” Paul uses the word “heresies” in the next verse, which is not a reference first to false doctrine, but to factions. Schisms and heresies were two different ways of describing the same reality: sinful division in the body of Christ. Third, others caused schism by their pride or jealousy over spiritual gifts in the church (chapter 12). Some were proud of their own gifts. Others were jealous of their neighbor’s gifts. Paul uses the analogy of the human body to point out that all the members were necessary—the visible and invisible, the great and the small, the comely and the uncomely. “… there should be no schism in the body.”
To show that Synod’s views were not novel, Synod pointed out that Reformed theologians and Reformed churches have always understood that schism is committed not only by false doctrine but also by other sins.
Prof. H. Hanko: “The sin of public schism is the sin of dividing the congregation or the churches into factions, arousing the people of God to discord or mutiny. The motives may be those of self-justification or defiance of authority in the church or desire for personal self-advancement” (Notes on the Church Order, Art. 80). Prof. D. Engelsma: “Schism is self-willed, self-seeking separation from the covenant community of God in Jesus Christ, that is, the church, with agitation that brings strife and division into that covenant community. Schism is sin against the unity of the church” (Standard Bearer, May 15, 2003). “The minister who publicly agitates against the decision of his consistory will be censured for schism” (Standard Bearer, April 15, 1992). VanDellen and Monsma speak of schism being caused by “minor differences in doctrine or church government” (The Church Order Commentary, p. 331). The Church Order itself says that a man may be guilty of schism when he enters the ministry without a lawful call (Art. 3). No false doctrine there. And Herman Bavinck: “Guilty of schism are those who, though leaving the foundation of doctrine intact, nevertheless break with the church on subordinate points of worship or church government” (Reformed Dogmatics, 4:319).
Men and women have been guilty of gross sin against the unity of the church. Please read and re-read the Synod’s careful explanation in answer to the protests of the deposition. But the schism continues. As the days proceed, the slander escalates and the disorder becomes more chaotic. More are carried away in the division.
May the gracious Lord prevent the fissure from extending further into the churches. May He grant repentance unto restored unity. In the July issue we published the prayer of Synod: “We earnestly seek reconciliation in the biblical way of confession and forgiveness…. The very gospel of Christ demands that we try to reconcile…. [W]e attempt to begin a healing of the breach between us.”
May God also give renewed love for the truth of one of the most precious Psalms: Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.
With your children, ponder the last stanzas of “The Church’s One Foundation”:
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed;
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, How long?
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won;
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace, that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee!