If you asked the average western Christian: “When did the big split in the Church occur?”, they would probably say that it was 500 years ago when Martin Luther’s objections to Roman Catholic practice led to the Protestant Reformation. Yet, there was an even earlier split that was every bit as momentous and has persisted to this day: that event was the ‘Great Schism’ that occurred when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity broke apart about 1000 years ago.
Given that the global number of independent Christian church bodies is today estimated as more than 30,000, it may be hard to conceive of a time when, at least in principle, all of Christianity held to the ideal that there was to be only a single authentic church body established on earth. But that was the operating premise for Christianity’s first ten centuries.
The Christian church began, of course, in Palestine where Jesus conducted His ministry. From there it fanned out through the Roman Empire as churches were planted throughout the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. But with this dispersal also came questions, which were resolved by gatherings of church leaders such as the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. But, it does not seem that any individual exercised ultimate authority, and even such a respected figure as the Apostle Peter sometimes needed to be corrected (Galatians 2:11-14).
The council of Nicaea (325 AD) produced the Nicene Creed and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD) expanded it to speak of the “holy catholic and apostolic church.” That word ‘catholic’ (with a small ‘c’) was from a Greek word that meant ‘universal’ and was the label used to state that there was only one authentic Christian faith. And though there were many internal disputes, sometimes resulting in the exclusion of ‘heretical’ groups, there was still the dominant assumption that all ‘true’ Christians were united in a single earthly organization that functioned cooperatively as a confederation of regional churches that held the same beliefs.
But, as so often happens in human affairs, politics and power struggles ultimately fractured this perception of a unified church. Some say that the seeds of a split were already planted in the 2nd century during the raging debate over the proper date to celebrate Easter (still disputed between eastern and western Christians) and lines were increasingly drawn along the question of who had the authority to speak for the entire church. For the eastern churches, with their ancient centers in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, etc. the original model of regional bishops exercising equal authority persisted, but in the west the Bishop of Rome (the ‘Pope’) began to claim ultimate authority over all Christians, everywhere. These tensions boiled over into a permanent split in 1054 when representatives of Pope Leo IX excommunicated the rival Patriarch of Constantinople (and vice versa). Ever since, these two bodies have gone their separate ways, each claiming to be the true ‘catholic’ faith, with varying degrees of mutual hostility. The Protestant Reformation subsequently fractured the unity of the western church, but the Eastern Orthodox church was unaffected and remains home to over two hundred million of the world’s Christians (a distant second to the 1 .2 billion Roman Catholics).
What are we to make of the disunity of the Church? For the two remnants of the Great Schism, both of which still assert ‘Catholic’ in their official names (Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic) this is regarded as a tragic deviation from Christ’s desire that His followers should be ‘one’ (John 17:20-23). For the myriad of Protestant bodies, however, the true unity which Christ sought is embodied in adherence to God’s Holy Scripture, not the authority of human organizations with their demonstrated susceptibility to human fallibilities. For Protestants, the ‘catholic’ church which we confess in the creeds is not a human organization, but the spiritual Body of Christ which transcends time and space and of which only He is the head. Though we may not understand His ways, we trust that Christ’s work of bringing the Good News of Salvation to all the earth will be accomplished despite (and perhaps even because) of our organizational diversity. However, our denominational disputes must never obscure the reality that all who are baptized into Christ are one in Him (Galatians 3:26-28).