Schism is a scary, serious word. We often think of a schismatic as someone who has caused a split in a denomination over a hot topic issue or walked away from the church entirely, and these never include ourselves. But John Owen’s teaching on schism reminds us that schism can be much less dramatic than this and thus much easier to fall into without realizing it. Owen’s view on schism was controversial in his time and there may be good reasons to expand his definition to fit other behaviours, yet we should still include his narrower definition since it gets to the heart of the issue.
According to Owen, Scripture defines schism not as separation from the church at large (which he identifies as apostasy) but as “causeless differences and contentions” that are “contrary to” or “interrupt” the “exercise of love” within the church. This means that “a schismatic,” or one who is guilty of the sin of schism, is a person who “raise[s], or entertain[s], or persist[s] in such differences.” To show what schism is and is not, Owen explains what it means to preserve love in the church, which can be defined in three ways: the invisible church, the visible church, and the local church.
The invisible church are the elect, who receive the promises of Christ as a group an as individuals. This group is united to Christ by the Spirit, which creates the consequential union of faith and mutual love. Mutual love in the invisible church is expressed by individuals for one another, as well as for the body as a whole, “exerting itself in inexpressible variety according to the present state of the whole, its relation to Christ, to saints and angels, with the conditions and occasions of the members of it respectively.”
The visible church includes all those who profess the gospel and obedience to God’s commands. This is not a uniform entity but varied. In fact, it is as varied as the world, because the visible church is seen all over the world. In Owen’s words, there is “in the world a great multitude, which no man can number, of all nations, kindreds, people, and languages, professing the doctrine of the gospel, not tied to mountains or hills, John 4:21, 23, but worshipping ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ, 1 Cor. 1:2, 1 Tim. 2:8.” They are not all elect, joining in one assembly, or under one church officer or council, but they have unity in their profession of the gospel and obedience worked out in love.
The local church, which is what the New Testament refers to most often, is a group of people in one place who have faith in Christ and worship God together. Though it is possible to be a true believer and not be joined to a local church, every believer is still obliged to join a local church because 1) many duties commanded in the New Testament can only be done in communion with other Christians, 2) Christ ordered the church this way, 3) the apostles planted churches this way, 4) the Spirit says it is disorderly to do it otherwise, and 5) it is a “natural principle in men, who are on many accounts formed and fitted for society.” Owen explains that Christians in the local church are internally united by love that is sincere, equalizing, and unifying. In his words, it is
without dissimulation which always is, or which always ought to be, between all the members of such a church, exerting itself in their respective duties one towards another in that holy combination whereunto they are called and entered for the worship of God, whether they are those which lie in the level of the equality of their common interest of being church-members, or those which are required of them in several differences whereby, on nay account whatever, they are distinguish one from another amongst themselves; for ‘love is the bond of perfectness,’ Col. iii. 14.
In light of this definition, Owen addresses tricky questions that were prominent in his own context. For example, he uses his definition of schism to settle a dilemma: if a church member wants to leave a congregation, what should the congregation do? He concludes, “Only, I say, let all by-respects be laid aside on the one hand, and on the other all regard to repute and advantage, let love have its perfect work, and no church, knowing the end of its being and constitution to be the edification of believers, will be difficult and tenacious as to the granting a dismission to any member whatever that shall humbly desire it.”
Owen also attests to his own love for those who were outside of the group he identified with, giving evidence that he searched his own heart to see if he was schismatic. Owen, like many other Puritans, did not agree with many of the Church of England’s rules regarding church practices but still considered it to be a true church. Yet, many accused him and the Puritans of committing schism. In response, Owen opens their lives up for evaluation. He says,
If we bear unkindness towards them in our minds and hearts; if we desire or seek their hurt; if we persecute them, or put them to trouble in the world for their profession; if we pray not for them; if we pity them not in all their temptations, errors, or sufferings; if we say unto any of them when naked, “Be thou clothed,” and when hungry, “Be thou fed,” but relieve them not according unto our abilities and opportunities; if we have an aversion to their persons, or judge them any otherwise than as they cast themselves openly and visibly under the sentence of natural reason or Scripture rule,—we may be justly thought to fail in our love towards them.
If you want to think more deeply about this topic, here are some questions inspired by Owen’s teaching on schism that you could journal about, discuss in family devotions, or use to encourage a friend who is struggling:
Do I stir up controversy about non-essential issues in my church?
Do I judge Christians/churches in different cultures and nations without reason?
Do I consider myself better than other Christians/churches around me?
Do I harbour unloving feelings in my heart against other Christians/churches?
Do I try to embarrass other Christians/churches in front of the world?
Do I hope for the downfall of other local churches or denominations, or am I happy when things go wrong for them?
Do I show disdain for other Christians/churches?
Do I neglect clear opportunities to pray for or practically help other Christians/churches?
Owen’s definition of schism sets a high standard, but we can take an honest look at our own thoughts, feelings, and actions without fear because we know that when we find something ugly and want to repent, God helps us and forgives us.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen (ed. W.H. Goold; Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 13:108, 109, 112, 119.
Ibid., 13:177. Owen echoes this point on love creating order in his sermon, “Mutual Care of Believers Over One Another,” by saying “All the order in the world will never keep a church together if the band of love be loosed.” Ibid., 16:479.