The Orthodox/Catholic schism.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 June

History books tend to refer to the Orthodox/Catholic schism as “the Great Schism.” And history teachers have the bad habit of mispronouncing schism, which is 'sɪz.əm not 'skɪz.əm —as well as oversimplifying and underplaying what really happened.

So what really happened? Jesus’s church split. Not because one faction went heretic, so they needed to split: It’s over stupid, petty, political things.

I know: Both sides claim it was neither stupid nor petty, but vitally important. Of course it’s because they picked a side. They’re either pro-Orthodox or pro-Catholic, and wanna defend their team. But just like the Catholic/Protestant schism, there’s no defending the fruitless behavior both before and after the division. Both sides acted like power-hungry politicians, violated Jesus’s command to love one another, Jn 13.34 and seriously hindered the church’s growth in both maturity and ministry.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

As y’might know if you read Acts, Jesus’s church began with 120 people: The Twelve, Jesus’s family, and a few dozen other students. It rapidly grew to thousands, began to include gentiles, and spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond. Even though individual groups, or churches, met in homes throughout the Empire, it was all considered one body—Jesus’s body, one church, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Holy Spirit. One unit.

Of course other units began to crop up. Starting with the dispute between those who wanted the new gentile disciples to get circumcised before they could become Christian. The Council of Jerusalem was convened to sort this out, and ruled in favor of grace. Ac 15.1-31 Yet a number of pro-circumcision Christians felt the apostles went way too far, and persisted in teaching their legalist ideas. Which is why Paul had to write,

Galatians 1.6-9 NET
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7 not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!

Banning turned into excommunication, the practice of removing disruptive or heretic people from your church. And if you can’t get to Jesus other than through his church (an ancient Christian belief which many of today’s Christians totally don’t believe—as demonstrated by how they don’t go to church) it’s sorta like they doomed you to hell… which is why heretics would usually start their own churches, and excommunicate their excommunicators right back.

So when Christians began to ban pro-circumcision legalists, d’you think these guys went off and started their own heretic churches? Knowing humans, probably so. That would be the very first church split.

And there were others. Áreios of Alexandria claimed God created Jesus, and the Council of Nicaea had to declare Áreios and his churches heretic, so that’s another schism. Other heretics cropped up; other church councils dealt with them. Every denunciation of a wrong belief turned into another heretic denomination.

So what makes the Orthodox/Catholic schism such a big deal? Three things:

  1. It’s between really large bodies of Christians. We’re not talking a few heretic congregations scattered over a large geographic area. We’re talking entire countries and provinces.
  2. It’s actually not a split over heresy. Lemme repeat, in bolder letters: NOT OVER HERESY. It’s about the Catholics adopting a doctrine which the Orthodox didn’t sign off on. It’s the Catholics insisting they had every right to do so, and the Orthodox insisting no they didn’t. It’s about power. It’s political.
  3. Because it’s not a split over heresy, it paved the way for later church splits which are likewise not about heresy. Too many Christians feel we don’t have to accept diverse opinions and practices; we can simply leave, or drive out anyone we disagree with, and it’s all good. Who needs unity?

It set a precedent. A big, bad, destructive precedent.

Political reasons.

The Roman Empire was huge. Not as huge as China or the Mongolian Empire, but huge enough for the Romans to refer to the Mediterranean as “our sea.” Problem is, in those pre-telecommunications days, it was really hard to administrate. Various senates and emperors tried to divide it into sections; usually between the Latin-speaking western part, and the Greek-speaking eastern part. Sometimes they had as many as four co-emperors. And sometimes the co-emperors fought, which turned into civil wars, which turned into one emperor overthrowing all the others… and so much for administration.

Part of the reason for administration was the Empire’s enemies. You had Huns in the east, Goths and Vandals in the west. When these foreigners weren’t actually trying to conquer Roman territory, they’d raid the coasts and otherwise harass travelers and border towns. The Romans successfully fought ’em back till the year 476, when the western emperor was overthrown by Flavius Odoacer, who declared himself king of Italy. Which meant “the Roman Empire” no longer included Rome itself.

But a century before, Rome stopped being the Roman Empire’s capital. The Romans moved it to New Rome in 330, building it atop Βυζάντιον/Vydzántion “Byzantium,” today’s Istanbul, Turkey. Romans took to calling it “Constantinople,” after the emperor who founded it; western Europeans took to calling the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire “the Greek Empire.” Especially after Charlemagne began calling his kingdom the new Roman Empire, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Empire. (Wasn’t till the late medieval period when westerners started calling the eastern Romans “the Byzantine Empire.”)

Anyway. Before the Roman Empire receded, Christians had got into the unhealthy mindset of confounding the Empire with God’s kingdom. It’s something we Christians always seem to do; Americans love to claim our beloved homeland is God’s nation. To Roman Christians’ minds, the Empire was Christendom. And if the Empire shrank, so did Christianity. Hence the eastern Romans began to get it in their heads the westerners—the foreigners to the north and the ex-Romans in barbarian-conquered territories—couldn’t be real Christians. Probably God let ’em get conquered by Goths because they sinned, or went apostate, or something.

Some of this alienation was just plain cultural. Latin-speaking westerners, living in less-developed nations under feudal kings, had a very different way of life than civilization-dwelling, Greek-speaking easterners. They had to rely on God in different ways. When you lack resources, you tend to trust him more, ’cause you don’t have money to fall back on. When you lack education, nor the free time to really study the scriptures, superstitions creep in. Nationalism promotes the idea God loves your nation best; sectarianism gives you the idea your church leaders hear God better than other churches’ leaders. Little divisions grow into big ones.

And of course there’s power. Church leadership was structured under an ἐπίσκοπος/epískopos, “supervisor” or “bishop,” who was in charge of all the individual churches, pastors, priests, and deacons in a city or community. Those supervisors had their own supervision, or archbishops; and over all was a head bishop the easterners called a πατριάρχης/patriársis, “head father” or “patriarch.” Westerners just called their head bishop papa, which means the same as it does in English—but our English word evolved into “pope.” But while easterners had multiple head bishops, westerners only had the one, who didn’t appoint any co-equal bishops… and over time, got it into their heads they were the head head bishop. After all, wasn’t the Roman church founded by Simon Peter? And wasn’t he Jesus’s head apostle? And didn’t that therefore make them Jesus’s head apostles?

So whereas easterners would get together in councils to sort out major church controversies and doctrines in councils, westerners would leave the final word to their pope, who’d unilaterally decide stuff. Which isn’t wise—and most popes recognized this, and sought the advice of the bishops under them. But power corrupts, and not every pope bothered to do this.

The filioque controversy.

The issue which tends to get most of the blame for the Orthodox/Catholic schism is the filioque controversy. ’Cause whenever orthodox Christians recited the Nicene Creed, we say (as I render it in English):

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father.
He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified.

Problem is, around the 600s, westerners began to add the word filioque fɪ.li'oʊk.wi to the creed, changing this part to

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son.
He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified.

Lemme be clear: This alteration isn’t heresy. The Holy Spirit does proceed from the Son. Jesus said he’d send us the Spirit, who proceeds from his Father. Jn 15.26 In essence the Spirit proceeds from the Son too.

But biblical or not, it’s not what the councils put in the creed. And you can’t just change a creed because you feel like it, or because everybody else is saying it different, or because the pope says it’s okay. You gotta have a council and get a universal consensus on it. You get kicked out of church for skipping that! As the Chalcedonian Council put it:

No one shall bring forward a different faith. Not to write one, not to put one together, not to expound upon one, not to teach one to others. Those who put together another faith, or bring one forward, or teach one, or present a different creed to those who wish to convert from gentiles or Jews or any heresy whatsover: If they’re bishops or clergy, have them removed from office. If they’re monks or laymen, have them banned.

But westerners got away with saying the creed with filioque in it, for centuries. It was in their literature; it was preached in their sermons; they’d said it this way all their lives. Some westerners were even claiming it was part of the original creed, and easterners had removed it.

This was the theological excuse for the schism. The political reasons—the Roman head bishops refusing to work with the other head bishops—was far more divisive, but the filioque bit was just what the leaders needed to justify any formal split. So in 1054, that’s what happened. The heads of the Roman and Constantinopolitan churches formally excommunicated one another as heretics. Functionally they were already working as separate churches, but now they were officially separate churches. And have been since.

Do they still consider themselves separate churches? Yes. Do they still consider one another to be heretics? Not anymore. In the last century Orthodox and Catholic theologians have come together to analyze the reasons for this division and try to mend fences. The Catholics concede the Nicene Creed didn’t originally contain “filioque” and it wasn‘t legitimate for them to unilaterally add it. They can easily say the original creed along with Orthodox sisters and brothers—and consider them sisters and brothers. So what still divides them? The usual: Traditions, power structures, cultures, various misunderstandings between their laypersons, and other stupid petty stuff.

As for Protestants… well, too many of us ignorantly figure “these Catholics” are all heretics, and only we have it right. Which is a whole other problem.

In any event, as I said, it paved the way for all future church splits, and Christianity’s current divisiveness. It created a lot of hurt feelings and bad attitudes we need to overcome and fight. Jesus wants us to be one. Jn 17.21