Protestants with a high theology of the church, such as myself, are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, we value and strive to further unity within Christ’s body; on the other hand we’re, well, protestants – and as such affirm that the church of Rome has gone astray in essential Christian doctrines which warranted schism. To the question “which is worse, heresy or schism?”, it seems the protestant answer must be that heresy, the offense against truth, is worse than schism, the offense against love.
But this does not, I hope, mean that protestants cannot hold to a doctrine of the church that treats schism as a grave and serious offense – despite the fact that the fragmented character of protestantism shows this has not been typical. The reformers themselves believed that the church was distinguished by just two things: the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments (a lot of good that did them, though. They couldn’t agree on what counted as administration of the sacraments).
I think I’ve found a metaphor to ground a high but still protestant view of schism. When asked about leaving the episcopal church over the liberal nonsense that has been making headlines recently, my priest, Fr. David, responded: “I can’t leave. I’m married to this church.” If this is so, then schism is divorce. It may be permissible under the direst of circumstances, if the church has been unfaithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it is always painful and destructive.
What is most painful for me is not my divorce from the Roman Catholic church (though there is plenty of room for sorrow about that), but my divorce from brothers and sisters with whom my differences are relatively insignificant. One of the sad consequences of the reformation was a breakdown of authority structures and an “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” individualism, which has led to a practically no-fault attitude toward the grave sin of severing oneself from the body of Christ.
This should not be so, and despite the fact that 500 years of protestant history suggests otherwise, it need not be so. The problem is that, having once chosen divorce over heresy, it is so much easier to do it again... and again, and again. After a while you’re so consumed with preserving Truth that schism seems like an appropriate response to just about any dispute. Well, it is not. This is a distinctively protestant outlook. The range of theological opinion within the Catholic church is astoundingly diverse; much more diverse than most evangelical churches are from each other. But there is only one Catholic church because they understand that doctrine is not what unites the church; Jesus Christ is what unites the church. Protestants would do well to remember that.