Schism or Purity?

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Puritan Board Graduate
I realize that there have been a few threads dealing with schism, and when it is proper to leave a church, but I really need some interaction at this point.

A true church has been defined as on that:

1. Preaches the true gospel
2. Administers the sacraments rightly
3. Performs church disciplne

How far off can a church be on these three, before seperation is necessary? For example:

1 - A ten or fifteen minute sermon?
2 - Grape juice instead of wine?
3 - No discipline for memebers who attend mass and other atrocities?

What about blatent violations of the RPW? What if the vows you made during membership agreement are no longer true, and you can no longer fulfill them with good conscience?


Puritan Board Graduate
Webster\'s 1828 Dictionary

SCHISM, n. sizm. [L. schisma; Gr. to divide, L. scindo.]

1. In a general sense, division or separation; but appropriately, a division or separation in a church or denomination of christians, occasioned by diversity of opinions; breach of unity among people of the same religious faith.

- Set bounds to our passions by reason, to our errors by truth, and to our schisms by charity.

In Scripture, the word seems to denote a breach of charity, rather than a difference of doctrine.

2. Separation; division among tribes or classes of people.


Puritan Board Graduate
In discussing this with another, the issue was raised that people today can leave a church and join another for the sake of vocation (i.e. if they get a job in a different state), but if they go to another church over doctrinal issues, it is often looked upon as schism.



Puritan Board Graduate

17. When any church imposes sinful requirements for membership; when its constitution or creedal statements are fundamentally unscriptural; when its administration is corrupt; or when sound preaching and proper discipline are neglected, it is the duty of Christians to attempt its reformation. Then if such efforts prove ineffectual, it is their duty to separate from it, and to unite with a sound church.
Rev. 2:20-23; Acts 19:8-9; 2 Cor. 6:16-17.


Staff member
James Durham defines heresy, schism and division and how they differ below in a section from his classic work on the subject.
James Durham, A Treatise Concerning Scandal (Naphtali Press, 1990). Part 4, Chapter 1: How Heresy, Schism and Division Differ.
For the first, we take it for granted that there is such a thing as division in the church; which is not to be looked upon as any new or strange thing, for the Scripture makes it clear, and the history of the church puts it out of question. Concerning which we may premit these few things:

1. That the division which is intended here is not every contest, and alienation of mind, and difference of practice incident to men, but that which is proper to the church concerning church affairs, and so is to be distinguished from civil debates and contentions. We would advert also, that there may be church differences that fall not under the charge of scandal, as when in some things men of conscience are of different judgments, yet carry it without any offense or breach of charity, or when in some practices there is diversity with forbearance, as was in Polycarp´s days, and the time of Irenaeus (about Easter matters); these we speak not unto.

2. Although sometimes titles and expressions may be used more generally and promiscuously, yet, in this discourse we would distinguish between these three: Heresy, Schism, and Division, without respect to what other[wise] useth to be done.

And, first, Heresy, is some error in doctrine, and that especially in fundamental doctrine, followed with pertinacy, and endeavor to propagate the same.

Again, Schism may be where no heresy in doctrine is, but is a breaking of the union of the church, and that communion which ought to be among the members thereof, and is either in government, or worship.

As 1., in government, when the common government, whereto all ought to be subject, is rent, and a government distinct set up. This may be either when the government is altered, as suppose some should set up Episcopacy in opposition to Presbytery, yet keeping still the fundamental truths; or it may be, where the same government is acknowledged, but there be difference concerning the persons to whom the power belongs. So sometimes men have acknowledged Popery, yet followed diverse Popes. So often, Sectaries have not disclaimed Councils and Bishops, but have set up their own, and refused subjection to these to whom it belonged. The first kind implies a doctrinal error concerning government. The second may consist with the same principles of government, but differs in the application of them, and becomes a schism when men act accordingly in acknowledging diverse supreme independent governments; because so, when there ought to be but one church, it becomes as it were, two. And this is exclaimed against and regretted by the Fathers, under the expression of erecting altare contra altare, that is, altar against altar, whenas the Lord allowed but one, even in reference to his own worship.

Schism may be in worship, that is when, it may be, both the same doctrine and government is acknowledged, yet there is not communion kept in church ordinances, as in Prayer, Word and Sacraments, but a separate way of going about these is followed. It seems that this was in part the schism of the Corinthians (whatever was the rise thereof) that they had a divided way of communicating, and of going about other duties, and other ordinances (as may be gathered from 1 Cor. 11:18-21, with 33). This kind of schism has been frequent in the church, and has flowed not so much from dissatisfaction with the doctrine and government thereof, as with the constitution of the members, or failings of the governors. Thus it was in the case of the Novatians, Donatists, Meletians, Cathari, and others, of whom it is recorded that their fault did not consist in setting up any strange doctrine, or in rejecting of the truth (at least at the first) but in breaking the band of communion, as Augustine has it often. For says he, Schismaticos facit non diversa fides sed communionis disrupta societas. Again, he says of the Donatists, Nec de ipsa fide vertitur quaestio, sed de sola communione infaeliciter litigant, & contra unitatem Christi rebelles inimicitias, perversitate sui erroris, exercent. And this sort of schism often draws with it the former, there being no way to maintain this without the other.31
[size=-2]31 Not a fellowship dissimilar in belief, but one broken in communion brings about schismatics. contra Faustum, lib. 20. Again, ._._._And the investigation has not been conducted about faith itself, but they are unhappily disputing over their own communion, etc., in opposition to the unity of Christ they are busying themselves, in the perversity of their error, at rebellious hostilities. Ad Bonifac. Epist. 50.[/size]

Of this schism there are many kinds, according to its several rises and degrees, and also according as it extends to breaking of communion in whole, from ordinances, or in part only from some, or in some ordinances, as appears to have been in the Church of Corinth, where there has not been a total schism, though it has been in that ordinance of the Supper especially. And it is like[ly] also that that schism had been occasioned because of the corruption of some members, with whom others have [been] scared to communicate, and therefore had not tarried for them. For the Apostle particularly condemns this, and exhorts them to tarry one for another. And to attain this, he clears them of what was necessary for right partaking, to wit the examining of themselves (v. 28), and declares unto them, that whoso did eat unworthily, and did not prepare himself, did eat and drink damnation, but to himself, and not others. Wherefore, says he, you need not be so anxiously solicitous how they are prepared, or of what sort they are that are with you, but examine yourselves, and tarry one for another, that there is not a schism amongst you. And this he speaks, even when he has been reproving drunkenness among the communicants, yet will he not admit that as an excuse, why private persons should communicate separatedly, which was their practice. This was spoken of in the first part.

This Schism, however it is understood, has ever proved exceeding hurtful to the church, and has been an inlet and nursery to the greatest errors. It is most pressingly condemned in the Scriptures, even with as great weight as corrupt doctrine and heresy are, and it is attributed to that same original, to wit, the flesh, with witchcraft, idolatry, heresy, etc. (Gal. 5:20). It has ever been most weighting to faithful ministers, most offensive to people of all sorts, most advantageous to the enemies of the truth, and has made the church most vile and contemptible before the world, as we may see in the sad complaints and writings of the Fathers, in reference to the Novatians, Donatists, and others of that kind. It has also proved most dangerous to these who have been engaged therein, and often has been a snare to bring on some spiritual desertion, deadness of spirit, security, self-confidence or some other spiritual evils of that kind, or to dispose for receiving a more gross temptation, as was formerly marked. Also it may be observed, that such schisms have spread very suddenly in some places of the world, but have not been easily removed. For these schisms of the Novatians and Donatists troubled the church for several generations, which might be enough to make men think the breach of unity, in that respect, to be no little evil, and to make them fearful to fall in the same. But because every schism properly implies some error in doctrine, although it does not arise from the same, therefore we shall forbear to speak anything particularly to this, because what has been said of errors in doctrine, may in part be applied here.

For we will find that schism implies one or all of these:

(1.) That such apprehended corruptions either make such a society to be no church, or communion with that church in other ordinances to be unlawful, because of such corruptions, or of such corrupt members.

(2.) That there may be a distinct erected church beside a church, which yet may not be of communion with that other church.

(3.) These or such consequences: that either the church of Christ in the earth is not one (which truth of the unity of the catholic visible church is the main ground of all church-union and communion), or that that one church may be of such heterogeneous or dissimilar parts, as the one of them ought not to have communion with the other; or at least this, that a person ought to seek his own satisfaction and consolation, though to the prejudice and renting of the church, and to the general offense and stumbling of all others. The fairest schism and separation must imply one of these, for it cannot be conceived that otherways men would act so directly, according to these principles, if they did not take them for granted.

It is to be adverted, that as there is an unjust schism, that is a separation without any cause at all, so there is a rash and scandalous schism, that is when it is beyond the ground given, or when the ground given is not such as will warrant such a separation. Which may be, (1.) when the separation or schism is upon some occasion, which is indeed a defect in the church, but not such as makes communion therein sinful, as that in Corinth.

Or (2.), when, it may be, the schism is extended beyond the ground: that is when suppose one could not communicate in the Lord.s Supper in such a church, because of some sinful corruption in that ordinance, if, upon that occasion one should separate from communion in all ordinances, that were to exceed the ground given.

Or (3.), when no professed schism is owned; yet when really and indeed it is practiced, so as men can neither justify a schism or separation upon such a ground, nor yet altogether vindicate their practice from inferring the same; in which respect, the schism and rent flows from affection, or inclination, and not from well grounded light, or reason, and so cannot be but rash and unwarrantable.

(4.) It may be in the manner precipitant, when either means have not been used to remove that ground if it is just, or when men so heighten some lesser defect in a church by aggreging it with such circumstances as may make it appear to themselves or others, a ground sufficient to bear and warrant separation; or in such a way, to vent their dissatisfaction with things, or persons, as thereby to hurt the unity of the church, or to occasion a rent, or division, or schism in the same, when, it may be, others beside their intention may thus conclude: .A church so corrupted, etc., is not to be kept communion with (and, it may be, the proposition is sound and so qualified, as it is acknowledged by all Divines). But this or that particular church is such.. This, again is offered to be made out by the too vehement aggravation of some lesser defect, which may seem to confirm that assumption. And in practice it may be observed that as some will lay down premises concerning a schism, who yet dare not act according to the conclusion, and actually separate, so others will keep the conclusion, and actually separate in practice, who yet dare not in These absolutely maintain schism to be lawful upon such a ground. It is to be adverted that schisms and divisions are so nigh in nature and names, that we may use instances for illustration of either promiscuously.

The third word is Division, which does not at the first view differ from schism; yet we take it here as different, and to agree to such divisions and dissensions in the church as are consistent with communion both in government and worship, and have not a divided government or worship following them, as in the former case. Of such there are many instances in scripture and church history, as we may observe by considering these distinctions thereof:

(1.) There is a Doctrinal Division, as when the matter is not fundamental, nor yet is it pleaded for as such, to the breaking off of communion among these that differ; yet possibly being a mere indifferent matter, is followed with too much eagerness, vehemency, bitterness, etc., by these who own the same respectively. Thus contentions were hot in the primitive times for meats, and such things which were neither of themselves destructive to the foundation of faith on either side, at least in that time, and so were not heretical. Nor did they break off communion in church ordinances, and so were not schismatical. Yet was the church troubled therewith by division among her members. Of this sort are the divisions that may be among godly and orthodox men in some points of truth, when they too vehemently press their own opinion to be received with a kind of necessity, or load the other with too many absurdities beyond what will follow from the nature thereof.

(2.) There are some divisions that may be called Practical, and indeed imply some difference of opinion, but also infer some[thing] in practice. Of this sort was the division about Easter in primitive times, before it came to a schism, some keeping one day, some another. And in after times it abounded, when some acknowledged the ordination of such a Bishop, and others not; when some acknowledged the authority of such a Council, and others not, and so had divided practices.

(3.) Some divisions are between particular men; some have influences upon Churches, and are, as it were, one party against another. The first is more properly a difference, and may be between eminently godly and zealous men, such as was between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), and is called a contention. Such also we will find in church history between Augustine and Jerome, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, which indeed has a contention with it, and, if the Lord prevent not, is apt to make parties, and to rent the church. But the other, to wit, the acting of one party against another, as has been seen in many councils, and appears to have been among the Corinthians, when one adhered to one person, and one to another: this I say, looks like faction, and is properly division.

(4.) Division may be considered in all these respects as it is in judgment, or in affection, or in practice. [1.] It is in judgment when they are not of the same mind, but have diverse apprehensions concerning truths. [2.] It is in affection when upon that difference of judgment alienation follows, whereby that love, and affection, and charity that one owes to another, is somewhat cooled or discomposed. [3.] It is in practice when they speak and act differently and oppositely, as if it were an advantage to truth for the one to cross and undermine what the other does. This distinction is clearly insinuated [in] 1 Cor. 1:10, I beseech you brethren, that there be no divisions among you; which is branched out in union in these three, to wit, speaking the same thing, that relates to action; of being perfectly joined together in the same mind, that relates to affection; and of being one in the same judgment, that relates to opinion: which supposes that there were divisions opposite to all these, which also often go together.

(5.) There are some Divisions, which (to say so) are negative, and are in the manner and circumstances of doing some duties. Thus men may differ and take diverse ways, yet both of them be endeavoring the thriving of the work of the gospel, and no way laboring to cross each other, or to make one another less weighty and successful. Thus Paul and Barnabas, after their contenton, indeed differed in their manner of prosecuting the work of the gospel, yet both of them continued faithful therein, and neither of them counter-ploted, nor counteracted to others. Again, some divisions are positive (to say so), when men not only differ from each other, but oppose each other, and do not set themselves singly to prosecute the work, which possibly their opposite may be prosecuting with them. But there is an endeavor to lessen the authority and mar the actings of the other, and to engage men in the approbation of that particular wherein they do differ, which favors of division and faction properly, and is more hurtful and intolerable; when as the first is more tolerable among men who have their infirmities. And it.s like[ly], that such were the divisions of Corinth when there was an endeavor to cry up one, and down another.

(6.) Some are in doctrine for difference of judgment. Some are in government for precedency: as sometimes was among the disciples a contest who should be greatest; which is not so much for government abstractly, and considered in itself, or about what should be done, as it is for the persons who should be the governors and doers thereof. As among the disciples, it is not the question, .What kind of government shall be?,. but .Who should be chief and have the main hand in ruling?.

(7.) Sometimes divisions are more stated and deeply rooted, when some way men.s designs are cross, though not in the main, yet in the manner of carrying them on. Sometimes again, they are more occasional, and arise from some particular act or circumstance, wherein men may differ, and may be when neither side draw-on a division. So that particular of taking or not taking John Mark in the company was the occasion of that contention and division between Paul and Barnabas (Act. 15), when otherways there was an harmony in the series and strain of their whole way.

(8.) Sometimes divisions are between godly and orthodox men upon the one side, and corrupt men upon the other, as were the divisions of the church with the Arian Heretics, and others of that nature. Sometimes again, they are among godly and orthodox men on both sides. This is a main ingredient in, and aggravation of, the scandal of division, when it is among Christ.s own disciples; and this is that which we would especially speak to. Concerning which we say:

[1.] That there is such a thing incident to the church as division among godly, able, and orthodox men, as between Paul and Barnabas (Act. 15), the disciples of Christ and the disciples of John, yea, oftentimes between the disciples of Christ among themselves. And afterward the instances of Augustine and Jerome, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, with many others of later times, demonstrate it. In the Old Testament we find Job and his friends keeping up a long dispute right sharply. And [in] Numb. 12, something is recorded of a division between Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

[2.] This division may continue long, and come to a great height, that is it may be very sharp, although it may be the rise thereof is small. For contentions are as the letting out of waters (Prov. 17:14), and they often grow, even among good men, so as to provoke much sharpness against each other, and that with much confidence, as the instances given clear.

[3.] Though it is frequent to them to come to an height, yet they are not easily removed, even among the best; this being true (Prov. 18:19), that a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and that their contentions are as the bars of a castle, they are so strongly rooted. Hence we see that there is no breaking off between Job and his friends, till the Lord interposes. There is no composing of the matter between Paul and Barnabas, but their contention continues so hot that they must separate. Neither is there anything expressly recorded of their meeting together again, although they had long been of most intimate fellowship as nearest colleagues in their journeying and traveling in the Lord.s work, and that appointed thereto, even by himself extraordinarily (Act 13). It is recorded that Chrysostom and Epiphanius sundered so embittered one at the other, that Epiphanius did wish that Chrysostom should not die a Bishop. He again wished, that the other might not see his home, to wit, Cyprus, to which he was then making his voyage; both which accordingly fell out, which is a dreadful instance of this evil, and looks like the Lord.s making use of their passion to signify his displeasure against both their distempers.

C. Matthew McMahon

Christian Preacher

A 5:3 Ecclesiastical liberties (including acceptable parameters in G4:3) are forbidden to be used as a means of dividing the church. The Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly is seeking biblical unity in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, and not conformity, which often shapes the character of the church as a sectarian, schismatic body.

B 10:14 Congregations which fail to get proper release from presbytery, may be charged for violation of membership vows and causing schism in the church.


Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by webmaster
B 10:14 Congregations which fail to get proper release from presbytery, may be charged for violation of membership vows and causing schism in the church.

Thanks Matt. I looked this up in their BCO, but must have overlooked this sentence. That seems to hit the nail on the head.

Chris - I printed off the article and will read that as well. Thanks.


Staff member
For more, see also a chapter from John MacPherson's The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology entitled Unity of the Church: The Sin of Schism at this link.
Also see the articles referenced in the left column, Wood and Boston on Schism and Rutherford on Separation from Corrupt Churches.


Puritan Board Graduate
Jeff: Check out Greg Bahnsen's How to Choose / Leave a Church.

As you are a member of the PCA, I am not sure if your decision to move to another church would technically be schism. Entry into membership of a PCA particular church is by way of covenant. The BCO spells out the vow:

. . . The minister may then address those making a profession in the following terms: (All of) you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

This covenant does not address duration - ie. when and how a person may leave. Other parts of the BCO do. Except in cases involving discipline, the BCO simply directs the Session to note the transfer on the rolls so long as the member is transferring to another body recognized as a visible church by the PCA. While the BCO does not expressly state that members are allowed to dissolve their covenant with a particulat church for discretionary reasons, presumably this is intended. The BCO provides that entire congregations can leave the denomination for discretionary reasons and no coercion is to be applied against them. It would be odd to place a higher duty on individuals than is placed on entire congregations.

Further, the BCO does provide certain procedures (such as warnings and reminders of church vows) for members leaving when under discipline, leaving for a body not recogzined as a part of the visible church by the PCA (eg. Mormon), or members who are going to be erased form the rolls for lack of lack of attendance for a year. The absence of such procedures for members transferring to a recognized church suggests the matter is within their discretion.

That said, I would counsel that not leaving except for reasons more extreme than those you listed. In 1 Corinthians, for example, the church was not exercising discipline for a man taking his father's wife to bed. Indeed, they were praising him and were even worse than the heathen on this point. Paul did not recommend the church fragmenting and the pure ones setting up their own body. He expected everyone to saty unified. We should have a similar aspiration.

Have you seen Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthian and the duty to stay a part of a church? Very helpful.


Larry Hughes

Puritan Board Sophomore
Luther would say (in his commentary on Cor.), at least the man himself, that all schism arises when faith, which should remain infinitely high, is lowered & then men begin to even raise otherwise good gifts above faith. Hence, raising works above faith even under the cover of "the faith". This is where all men begin to raise themselves above other men in an effort (a false one) to please God over other men. No matter what the work or gift it is being used in the flesh which seeks itself in God's sight. If men would keep in sight that all come to heaven but by the same way, Christ alone and truly see their evil (even post conversion) then no room would be made for this lowering of faith & raising of self. Hence, the milk maid milking cows in faith is glorious to God because of faith's Object; while the man who even gives his life for another outside of faith (though he may think he is in) stands condemned & worse THAT very work witnesses against him.

This is the source of all schism & break off by all groups & individuals, esp. indepedants.

Luther was right.


[Edited on 9-7-2005 by Larry Hughes]


Puritanboard Librarian
Has anyone ever read Roy Atwood's Ten Easy Steps to Church Purity? Humorous and sadly true at the same time.

In conclusion:

It's as easy as that. Order your 10 Easy Steps books, cassettes, or videos today. If you act before your next congregational meeting, we'll include a free copy of "Precious Moments," a durable, vinyl-clad album that will preserve the memories of your church splits for a lifetime. Guaranteed. But wait, there's more! You'll also receive a free copy of our latest obligation-filled catalog of products and services. So call 1-800-SCHISM now.

[Edited on 9-7-2005 by VirginiaHuguenot]


Puritanboard Librarian
More resources:

John Bunyan, An Exhortation to Peace and Unity

Jeremiah Burroughs, What We Are to Bear with in Others

Robert Dabney, What is Christian Union?

John Flavel, Gospel Unity Recommended to the Churches of Christ

Matthew Henry, A Brief Inquiry into the True Nature of Schism: or, A Persuasive to Christian Love and Charity

B.B. Warfield, True Church Unity: What It Is


Staff member
I suppose so, though I don't think the original society ministers that remained at the time of the Revolution settlement would disagree with it. There are some good defenses of the Revolution settlement church and of those covenanter ministers that came back into it by Matthew Winzer at the Covenanted Reformation discussion group. Normally I'd advise steering clear of that group but they are allowing Rev. Winzer to defend his position against the Steelite view, which he is doing quite well in my opinion.
Originally posted by puritansailor
I should also add a commentary note, if you're a Cameronian, then you will hate that sermon :)


Puritan Board Graduate
Does the concept of schism even make sense in the context of a heavily fragmented American protestantism? It seems that the writings on schism were mostly from an era of when the government of the church was universally uinified (eg. 1 Corinthians), or at least unified regionally through established state churches (eg. the writings of the early reformers). It is hard to understand how to apply it in our modern context.


Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by Scott
Does the concept of schism even make sense in the context of a heavily fragmented American protestantism? It seems that the writings on schism were mostly from an era of when the government of the church was universally uinified (eg. 1 Corinthians), or at least unified regionally through established state churches (eg. the writings of the early reformers). It is hard to understand how to apply it in our modern context.



Puritan Board Graduate
I should clarify that I firmly believe that we should aspire to the sort of governmental unity envisioned by the New Testament. It also believe that schism does have relevance today, but it is just hard to apply given this crazy fragmentation. For example, does it make sense to say someone is in schism from a denomination that is in schism? Or if a church in a denomination in schism leaves the denomination, is that church's leaving really schism?

In his book The Old Religion in the New World, Mark Noll observed that American religious institutions are characterized by an impulse to split. Sadly I think he is right.

TO me the visible church is like a beautiful vase that has been cast on the ground and broken. Some fragments are large (Roman Catholicism, for example, is 1 billion people worldwide), some are medium to small (eg. Anglicanism is about 70 million people as I recall, while mainline liberal US denominations are in the 2 million range and the PCA is only about 300k), and some are the tiny specks and dust that always result from a break (these would be the independent churches with no governmental connection to anyone outside themselves). How does one put this back together? Surly a task only God could accomplish.


Staff member
Originally posted by Scott
How does one put this back together? Surly a task only God could accomplish.
Yes, most surely. One can at least endeavor a greater amount of unity in the Reformed churches by having interchurch relations, observing the church discipline of sister churches, etc. And of course we can all endeavor to observe the application of the principles involved at the congregational level.
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