The Great Schism in the American Church

The Great Schism in the American Church

In 1054, an event took place in the history of the church known as The Great Schism, which signified the official break in fellowship between the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Though this conflict occurred in the distant past, it is surprisingly apropos in conversations about the schisms of our own day, particularly with regard to the racial divide in the American church. 

The reasons for the split were complex, resulting from theological disagreements, as well as cultural distinctions and political differences that gave way to the exchange of both personal slights and large scale injustices. 

At the center of their theological differences was the filioque—one Latin word that the Western church added to the Nicene Creed, which had served to summarize the core beliefs of the entire church from the time of Constantine in the fourth century. 

To be sure, the addition, which was made by the Western church in 589, represented a nuance in trinitarian theology of which most American evangelicals would fail to appreciate the significance. The Western Christians, who emphasized the unity of the Godhead, saw the divine person of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the persons of the Father and the Son. The Eastern Christians, who emphasized the distinct personalities and functions of the persons in the Godhead, believed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. 

For our purposes, more important than the theological nuances is that this overt delineation in beliefs represented a growing relational tension. 

The Eastern church felt that the Western church had added the word casually and without consulting them. The Western church felt that the Eastern Church—whose “headquarters” was in the Byzantine Empire’s newer capital of Constantinople, whereas the Western church’s seat of power was in the old capital of Rome—had been dismissive of the opinions of Western leaders. 

In the centuries following 589, the unity between the Western and Eastern churches waxed and waned, with several episodes of conflict and subsequent reconciliation. 

More broadly, the two churches were divided by both language and culture. The Western church was Latin-speaking while the Eastern church spoke Greek. The West was more legally minded, whereas the East was more philosophical, and this difference in thinking led to differing (though complementary) theological musings. 

As time went on, the two became more isolated from one another. 

During this same time, Islam was founded and spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean by way of military conquest, making travel and communication between Rome and Constantinople more difficult. From a geopolitical perspective, the empire officially split into two, giving rise to the “Holy Roman Empire” in the West. 

The conflict between East and West came to a head in 1054, after a failed attempt to create a military alliance between the two empires and the untimely death of a pope trying to foster reconciliation. Leaders of the Western and Eastern churches excommunicated one another—official pronouncements of judgment that remained on the books until 1965.

The division only grew more resolute after 1054, perhaps most dramatically in 1204 when Western crusaders violently sacked Constantinople on their way to capture Jerusalem “for Christ.”

Remarkable to me about the slow motion implosion of the relationship between these two groups is the fact that while the divide took on an increasingly theological shape through the centuries, none of those disputes were originally irreconcilable—certainly not as irreconcilable as the personal slights ended up being. 

While we are nearly a millennia removed from this historic split, examining the way it unfolded can be instructive as we look at the American church today, specifically with regard to the longstanding partition between white evangelicals and Black protestants. 

The Great Schism and American Evangelicals

An obvious shortcoming of this analogy is that when it comes to the racial divide in the American church, we are not discussing two groups that were at one time equally powerful, with one edging the other in any given decade for the place of prominence until the relationship eroded completely. Rather, we are talking about one group that unilaterally caused such a divide with the other by its complicity in the sins of slavery, segregation, and racism, for generations undersigning the cruelty and human rights violations that came with those institutions. 

Nevertheless, I still believe the analogy to be fruitful. While we cannot change the past injustices that led to the divide, we can be a part of an effort to mend them rather than further entrench them.

Regardless of how our historic differences formed, as we look at the landscape of the American church today, we can easily see the same ethic of suspicion that led to The Great Schism present in the American church when it comes to how white evangelicals currently interact with Black protestants and vice versa. 

Remarkably, when we look at the doctrinal beliefs of white evangelicals and their Black counterparts, there exists far more commonality than divergence. With regard to the centrality of Scripture, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, an emphasis on service, and all the essential doctrines of who God is, white evangelicals and Black protestants are on the same page. 

Instead, differences in theology often arise in the form of emphases. By and large, Black protestants place a far greater emphasis on group identity and issues of structural justice, whereas white evangelicals place a central emphasis on viewing sanctification as a project in personal piety and individual faith. 

As with the pre-Schism church, these distinctions are complementary and ought not to be dealbreakers. 

Where it gets more thorny is in the political realm. (And please keep in mind that I’m speaking in terms of the broad brushes of these communities, and I understand that personal exceptions exist.) For example, whereas Black protestants are baffled by the inability or unwillingness of their white counterparts to acknowledge the enduring effects of historic racism in America, white evangelicals cannot conceive of why Black protestants are not more politically animated on pro-life legislation. 

These differences can be explained in part by the disparate social locations these two racial communities have inhabited throughout the course of American history, which have resulted from white supremacy having been woven into the nation’s founding and much of its history. They have also been exacerbated by partisan differences, as Black protestants are more likely than not to vote for Democrats, whereas white evangelicals largely align with Republicans

Further, these differences with regard to culture and politics are visceral enough that the link of fellowship between Black protestants and white evangelicals is anemic at best. In many cases, it is nonexistent. So much so, that many often muse about whether members of the other side are actually saved, or if they are, whether they understand anything about Jesus at all. 

But, again, if we look at our doctrinal beliefs, we are not terribly different. It is largely historic relational wounds that divide us. Black protestants want their struggle, which has resulted from white supremacy, acknowledged. White evangelicals feel attacked for something their great-grandfathers did. Communication breaks down, and the schism deepens. 

The issue isn’t doctrinal. 

This reality is further illustrated when we look at, for example, efforts by largely white evangelical influencers and institutions to create a “larger tent” of Christians for the purpose of evangelistic mission or Christian education, such as with Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition. Such movements bring together church leaders with deep and genuine theological disagreements over things such as church polity and baptism

When we look at the scope of protestant history, it is no small feat that a paedobaptist (who believes infants should be baptized) and a credobaptist (who believes Christians should be baptized only after they make a profession of faith) would occupy the same space, count each other as united in the same mission, and be a part of the same movement. 

To be sure, this is a good thing. 

But it does illustrate that while we often hide behind our theological distinctions as the reason for our disunity with Christians from other traditions, at the end of the day, unless those differences constitute a departure from the traditional Christian faith itself, they are never so large that we can’t overcome them. It’s just that we tend to be more willing to cross those boundaries for someone who looks like us culturally than we are for someone who does not. 

In other words, we often mask our unwillingness to do the work of reconciliation in concerns about “doctrinal purity.” 

Maybe we should rethink that. Maybe it’s time to seek reconciliation. 

The Cost of Reconciliation

When it comes to reconciliation, a prerequisite is always the willingness of each party to fully, without reservation, own up to, repent of, and apologize for the wrongs they have committed against the other. 

With regard to the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, historians can (and do) argue endlessly about who wronged whom. But when it comes to the relationship between white evangelicalism and Black protestantism in America, it is not a radical thing to say that the problem has been almost exclusively one sided. 

So, to my fellow white evangelicals, we must be willing to fully, without reservation, own up to, repent of, and apologize for the wrongs our people have committed against our Black brothers and sisters. No more making excuses for evangelical theologians who owned slaves or fought for segregation, arguing that they “were a product of their time” or that their individual offenses “weren’t the worst among their contemporaries.” We can’t keep our idols and be fully united with others in Christ at the same time. 

Further, we must be the foremost advocates for reversing the ongoing effects of our forbearers’ complicity in such evils and injustices—injustices that were too often perpetrated in the name of the very same God who is living and active in the Black church. 

In the same way the onus was on the Catholic Church to make amends for their historic and brutal violence against the Eastern Orthodox Church, which happened 761 years prior, before a modicum of reconciliation was possible in 1965, the same onus rests upon the white evangelical church to take seriously the grievous and inexcusable sins of our theological forefathers—which were far more recent. 

May it not take a millennia more before we are willing to do so. 

For this article, I relied heavily on Chapter 6 of Mark Noll’s “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of the Church,” which provides a detailed overview of The Great Schism. 


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ronald

    The way I see it is I do believe the the Lord is going to be very lonely in the end of times. Whether you are white red purple or green or anywhere in between we were all created by the same God.

  2. MollyB

    Amen. Thank you for speaking God’s truth

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