One of the respondents to Not Your Smallest Lutheran Church, Russell Saltzman’s report on the recent creation of a new Lutheran body, objected to the conservatives leaving the mainline body to form another one. “[I]t’s not a good thing to be willing to splinter” over “dogma and religious practices,” he wrote. Divisions between Christians seriously damage our ability to speak to world effectively.
Back when I was an Episcopal activist, both liberals who were busy gutting the Episcopal Church of its traditional beliefs and conservatives who didn’t want to challenge them were fond of intoning “Schism is worse than heresy.” It was a little odd to hear this from members of a tradition that began in a break with the Church of which it had been a part over what its leaders thought to be heresies.
But the real problem with the claim was theological: that heresy is itself an act of schism. It is a break with the tradition, a rejection of what had been the shared and official belief, a willful refusal to remain in unity with one’s brothers, a transfer of allegiance and obedience to a new and alien ideology.
And it’s a more fundamental schism than schism, so to speak. The man who believes that Jesus Christ is “God of God” etc. and the man who believes He was a notably god-conscious mortal are much farther apart than the man who believes the Nicene Creed and also that our Lord gave us the papacy and the man who believes the Nicene Creed and also that the Lord gave us presbyteral government.
So, yes, breaking up religious bodies is not, abstractly speaking, a good thing. But in many cases the body has already broken up — has been broken up by people who thought they could turn the institution to their own ends while retaining the loyalty (and the work and the money) of those who wanted it to be what it had been, and who were understandably slow or reluctant to see how fundamentally it had changed. Both sides are better off when everyone sees that and makes the appropriate institutional changes.
By the way, this was expanded a little about ten minutes after posting.