Schism in the Church

Drawing by Leonard Rosoman from the cover of Raymod Brown's Anchor Bible Commentary on The Epistles of John (1982).

Drawing by Leonard Rosoman from the cover of Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible Commentary on The Epistles of John (1982).

It was a difficult time in the congregation. After a period of solid teaching and achievement a split came about – a schism in the community. The schism hearkened back to the holy writings, and a divergence of opinion in how best to interpret, understand, and apply these teachings. It appears that in some ways the split was over how the church was to understand the nature of Jesus and his saving work. It also appeared to be about leadership. The ones left behind felt that the ones who left claimed to be followers of Christ, but in fact acted like hypocrites, saying one thing and yet doing another.   Now, you might think I am talking about some place very close to you. But this is not a description of any parish you have ever been a part of, or think you know. The church I am describing is  – let us call it  – the “Community of the Beloved Disciple”, the 1st Century community which produced The Gospel according to John, and the three short letters known as the First Letter of John, and the Second letter of John, and the Third Letter of John (and quite probably gave rise to The Revelation to John).   And because in its wisdom the church has determined that these writings are now scripture, and as “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that we may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” – we should ask ourselves what lessons might be learned from these letters which as part of the canon of the Bible present this schism frozen in time.   But first, a few reminders about these works. Everything I say is part and parcel of mainstream scholarship, and is derived from the scholarship of Raymond Brown (1928-1998), a Roman Catholic priest and New Testament scholar, and author of several books including the Anchor Bible Commentaries on The Gospel According to John (two volumes), commentaries on The Death of the Messiah (two volumes), The Birth of the Messiah (one thick volume of 752 pages), The Epistles of John (840 pages on seven chapters total), and a series of short popular pamphlets such as An Adult Christ at Christmas.   Let’s start with the major Johannine work: The Gospel according to John. Like the other three gospels, it is anonymous – nowhere in any of the gospels do the authors identify themselves by name. Later traditions ascribed two to apostles or people mentioned in Acts and Paul’s Letters, but this appears to be an attempt to claim apostolic authority for the writings when some people might have rejected them.  In the case of the fourth gospel later tradition ascribed it to the apostle John. Now the Letters are also anonymous, but the author identifies himself as a priest or elder (presbuteros), which does not sound very apostolic. The Revelation to John is delivered to someone named John, but John was a common name, and even ancient tradition was not unanimous in declaring that the author of Revelation was the same person responsible for the gospel – Revelation was thus attributed to St. John the Divine, who is differentiated from St. John the Apostle. But in the text of the gospel nowhere is it claimed that someone named John wrote it. A disciple is highlighted – but he is also anonymous, and simply called “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Brown speculates that this unnamed disciples was the person around whose preaching and example a church developed, perhaps one with its centre in the city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, with some outlying satellite communities. Thus Brown calls it “The Community of the Beloved Disciple”. Now, The Gospel of John has a curious style, in that it takes up a topic, seems to conclude, and then takes it up again in a different way. Brown suggests that there were two written editions of the gospel, and earlier one of which no trace is found, and a later expansion. The Beloved Disciple himself may have been responsible for both of them, or perhaps only the earlier one and then the expansion was done by  a successor who so imbibed the style of the Beloved Disciple that it may as well have been the same person. The whole of the gospel is in simple but powerful Koine Greek.   II John & III John are two short letters or epistles of one chapter each. They are that short because they were undoubtedly written on single sheets of papyrus – the norm for writing ordinary letters.. As mentioned the author describes himself as “the elder” or “presbuteros” – a priest. II John seems to be a letter sent out to a daughter church warning against certain antichrists – opponents of the author. III John is about a particular individual, Diotrophes, who challenges the authority of the author and is making false accusations against him. I John, seemingly by the same author, comes across as a kind of commentary on certain issues in the Gospel of John – how to understand the nature of Jesus in the incarnation, the importance of loving the members of the church. The author accuses the people who split apart of not acknowledging that they are capable of sin, of a failure of love, and that they are antichrists – opponents of Christ. The style is not as good as that of the Gospel, and Brown suggests that it was written by someone within the Community of the Beloved Disciple some years after – maybe ten? – who knows the gospel and echoes it in 1 John. Whereas The Gospel according to John has little to say about divisions in the church, the Letters of John seem to be about nothing else.   So what are we to make of this?   First, divisions happen in the church, and have happened since the very beginning. Even earlier than 1 John  we have the Letters of Paul: in 1 Corinthians Paul hears that there are divisions in the church in Corinth; in Galatians and 2 Corinthians he is opposed by men sent out from the church in Jerusalem, and in Galatians Paul describes a split between himself and Cephas/Peter. Splits are not new, and are to be expected in the Body of Christ because it is made up of fallible, sinful, broken people. Yes, we are the Body of Christ, and we do more than we can ask or imagine by the power of God working in us. But when we come to the church door we are not magically transformed into wonderful people. We are alcoholics and people with addictions, folks with mental health issues, persons who have been abused physically and sexually, and we may be the abusers themselves. We are bullied children and the bullies themselves. We bring our hurts, our grudges, our scars, our brokenness, our sinfulness. By the power of God we heal somewhat, and amongst the saints of God there are indeed some truly holy people. But for the most part our repentance is not complete, and our transformation is unfinished. We long for the resurrection to be made visible within us, but so often we encounter nothing but our old, decaying selves. And so the church is split and riven. There are supposedly 41,000 separate Christian denominations – not a great witness to the power of Jesus’ prayer: “May they be one, even you and I are one”. In Victoria BC alone there are over one hundred churches, and I dare say forty to fifty denominations. Even we Anglicans are divided: there is the Anglican Church of Canada, the Reformed Episcopal Church, the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada, the Anglican Network in Canada, the Anglican Mission in Canada, the Anglican Province of Christ the King, and the Anglican Ordinariate within the Roman Catholic Church. And that’s just Victoria.   So, yes, it is a tragedy and a scandal that there is division in the church. But it is nothing new, and to be expected in this broken and fallen world. I don’t say “Get over it” but I do say, “Don’t be surprised.” Second, long after the schism no one remembers who the people were – who seceded and who stayed, or whether their congregations thrived or perished. We simply don’t know. It becomes irrelevant. We don’t know what happened to the two Johannine communities – perhaps both carried on and forgot about the split, or perhaps the both died out. But their writings endured.   What seems so important to us, where our emotions become so deep and raw, in time looks so strange. Christians in the 19th century tied themselves up in knots on the two sides of the question about slavery. No one defends slavery any more. Anglicans in the 16th and 17th century had strong theologies on the divine right of kings. Now – who cares? The judgment of history often finds such controversies alien and bizarre. God looks on our piety, and is probably either sad or amused.   In the long run what is probably important is our relations, our love for one another and our love shown in mercy and care for others.   My third point is this: despite these tragic circumstances, God still manages to redeem the situation. But we do have these writings which gained greater circulation in the church in the 2nd century, and a few decades after their writing the Gospel of John was included on everybody’s list of canonical gospels, and a bit later, so were the Letters.   And we get these remarkable words: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.   We are a church which has experienced the profound trauma of schism. And yet, nevertheless, we seek to proclaim God’s love in word and deed with abandon and glee. May God continue to bless us as we seek to be beloved disciples.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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