Schism and Heresy: There Is No Choice

My task here is not to comment on the present situation within ECUSA as to the formation of a new confessing network, and whether faithful should stay within the denomination or leave for other ecclesial groups.

Nor is it my task to comment on the issues which have been the most recent catalyst for these developments, as to whether or not committed monogamous homosexual relationshps are permitted by Scripture and Tradition, nor whether one or another partner in such relationships are valid candidates for ordination or consecration.

Rather, I want to focus most specifically on the comments made by Episcopal Bishop J Neil Alexander on schism and heresy:

Schism breeds schism. It always has. I hold in mind the great wisdom of the ancient church: if you have to choose between heresy and schism, choose heresy. For heresy is, in the end, just an opinion, and opinions come and go. Schism tears the fabric of the Body of Christ and it is irreparable. For those deeply committed to the Body of Christ, breaking fellowship is never a faithful option.


First of all, I note that Alexander does not provide any references to the Fathers to back his claim. Presumably, then, this “wisdom of the ancient church” is so uncontroversial as to need no support. And if it is, indeed, so uncontroversial, then presumably such references are innumerable. We’ll see about that.

Secondly, I want to give a tip of the hat to Athanasius for steering me in the right direction by giving me a good starting point for researching the Fathers on this. I freely use the citations he supplies in his post, as well as others I’ve come across.

So, what do the Fathers say about schism and heresy? Here’s a not very exhaustive list:

St. Jerome

Heretics bring sentence upon themselves since they by their own choice withdraw from the Church, a withdrawal which, since they are aware of it, constitutes damnation. Between heresy and schism there is this difference: that heresy involves perverse doctrine, while schism separates one from the Church on account of disagreement with the bishop. Nevertheless, there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church. (Commentary on Titus 3:10–11).

St. Lactantius

It is, therefore, the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth; this, the domicile of faith; this, the temple of God. Whoever does not enter there or whoever does not go out from there, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. . . . Because, however, all the various groups of heretics are confident that they are the Christians and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, let it be known that this is the true Church, in which there is confession and penance and which takes a health-promoting care of the sins and wounds to which the weak flesh is subject. (Divine Institutes 4:30:11–13).

St. Augustine

We believe also in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church. For heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God; and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor. (Faith and the Creed 10:21).

The apostle Paul said, “As for a man that is a heretic, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him” [Titus 3:10]. But those who maintain their own opinion, however false and perverted, without obstinate ill will, especially those who have not originated the error of bold presumption, but have received it from parents who had been led astray and had lapsed…those who seek the truth with careful industry and are ready to be corrected when they have found it, are not to be rated among heretics. (Letters 43:1).

St. Ignatios of Antioch

Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].(Philadelphians 3)

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it,–men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism. He shall also judge all those who are beyond the pale of the truth, that is, who are outside the Church; but he himself shall be judged by no one. For to him all things are consistent: he has a full faith in one God Almighty, of whom are all things; and in the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom are all things, and in the dispensations connected with Him, by means of which the Son of God became man; and a firm belief in the Spirit of God, who furnishes us with a knowledge of the truth, and has set forth the dispensations of the Father and the Son, in virtue of which He dwells with every generation of men, according to the will of the Father. (Against Heresies Bk 4 Ch 33.7)

St. Ambrose of Milan

The Lord then replies to the blasphemy of the Pharisees, and refuses to them the grace of His power, which consists in the remission of sins, because they asserted that His heavenly power rested on the help of the devil. And He affirms that they act with satanic spirit who divide the Church of God, so that He includes the heretics and schismatics of all times, to whom He denies forgiveness, for every other sin is concerned with single persons, this is a sin against all. For they alone wish to destroy the grace of Christ who rend asunder the members of the Church for which the Lord Jesus suffered, and the Holy Spirit was given us. (Concerning Repentance Bk 2 Ch 4.24)

Seeing, therefore, that men who agree not amongst themselves have all alike conspired against the Church of God, I shall call those whom I have to answer by the common name of heretics. For heresy, like some hydra of fable, hath waxed great from its wounds, and, being ofttimes lopped short, hath grown afresh, being appointed to find meet destruction in flames of fire. Or, like some dread and monstrous Scylla, divided into many shapes of unbelief, she displays, as a mask to her guile, the pretence of being a Christian sect, but those wretched men whom she finds tossed to and fro in the waves of her unhallowed strait, amid the wreckage of their faith, she, girt with beastly monsters, rends with the cruel fang of her blasphemous doctrine.

This monster’s cavern, your sacred Majesty, thick laid, as seafaring men do say it is, with hidden lairs, and all the neighbourhood thereof, where the rocks of unbelief echo to the howling of her black dogs, we must pass by with ears in a manner stopped. For it is written: “Hedge thine ears about with thorns ;” and again: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers;” and yet again: “A man that is an heretic, avoid after the first reproof, knowing that such an one is fallen, and is in sin, being condemned of his own judgment.” So then, like prudent pilots, let us set the sails of our faith for the course wherein we may pass by most safely, and again follow the coasts of the Scriptures. (Exposition of the Christian Faith Bk 1 Ch 6.46-47)

The Apostolic Constitutions

If therefore God inflicted punishment immediately on those that made a schism on account of their ambition, how much rather will He do it upon those who are the leaders of impious heresies! Will not He inflict severer punishment on those that blaspheme His providence or His creation? But do you, brethren, who are instructed out of the Scripture, take care not to make divisions in opinion, nor divisions in unity. For those who set up unlawful opinions are marks of perdition to the people. In like manner, do not you of the laity come near to such as advance doctrines contrary to the mind of God; nor be you partakers of their impiety. For says God: “Separate yourselves from (he midst of these men, lest you perish together with them.” And again: “Depart from the midst of them, and separate yourselves, says the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.” (Bk VI Sec II.4)

Be ye likewise contented with one baptism alone, that which is into the death of the Lord; not that which is conferred by wicked heretics, but that which is conferred by unblameable priests, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:” and let not that which comes from the ungodly be received by you, nor let that which is done by the godly be disannulled by a second. For as there is one God, one Christ, and one Comforter, and one death of the Lord in the body, so let that baptism which is unto Him be but one. . . .

Receive ye the penitent, for this is the will of God in Christ. Instruct the catechumens in the elements of religion, and then baptize them. Eschew the atheistical heretics, who are past repentance, and separate them from the faithful, and excommunicate them from the Church of God, and charge the faithful to abstain entirely from them, and not to partake with them either in sermons or prayers: for these are those that are enemies to the Church, and lay snares for it; who corrupt the flock, and defile the heritage of Christ, pretenders only to wisdom, and the vilest of men; concerning whom Solomon the wise said: “The wicked doers pretend to act piously.” For, says he, “there is a way which seemeth right to some, but the ends thereof look to the bottom of hell.” These are they concerning whom the Lord declared His mind with bitterness and severity, saying that “they are false Christs and false teachers;” who have blasphemed the Spirit of grace, and done despite to the gift they had from Him after the grace of baptism, “to whom forgiveness shall not be granted, neither in this world nor in that which is to come;” who are both more wicked than the Jews and more atheistical than the Gentiles; who blaspheme the God over all, and tread under foot His Son, and do despite to the doctrine of the Spirit; who deny the words of God, or pretend hypocritically to receive them, to the affronting of God, and the deceiving of those that come among them; who abuse the Holy Scriptures, and as for righteousness, they do not so much as know what it is; who spoil the Church of God, as the “little foxes do the vineyard;” whom we exhort you to avoid, lest you lay traps for your own souls. (Bk VI Sec III.15, 18)

Do you therefore, O bishops, and ye of the laity, avoid all heretics who abuse the law and the prophets. For they are enemies to God Almighty, and disobey Him, and do not confess Christ to be the Son of God. For they also deny His generation according to the flesh; they are ashamed of the cross; they abuse His passion and His death; they know not His resurrection; they take away His generation before all ages. Nay, some of them are impious after another manner, imagining the Lord to be a mere man, supposing Him to consist of a soul and body. But others of them suppose that Jesus Himself is the God over all, and glorify Him as His own Father, and suppose Him to be both the Son and the Comforter; than which doctrines what can be more detestable? (Bk VI Sec. V.26)

Let a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon who only prays with heretics, be suspended; but if he also permit them to perform any part of the office of a clergyman, let him be deprived.

We command that a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon who receives the baptism, or the sacrifice of heretics, be deprived: “For what agreement is there between Christ and Belial? or what part hath a believer with an infidel?” . . .

If any one, either of the clergy or laity, enters into a synagogue of the Jews or heretics to pray, let him be deprived and suspended. . . .

If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, receives a second ordination from any one, let him be deprived, and the person who ordained him, unless he can show that his former ordination was from the heretics; for those that are either baptized or ordained by such as these, can be neither Christians nor clergymen. (Bk VIII Sec. V.45-46, 65, 68)

St. Basil the Great

. . . . The old authorities decided to accept that baptism which in nowise errs from the faith. Thus they used the names of heresies, of schisms, and of unlawful congregations. By heresies they meant men who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith; by schisms men who had separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution; by unlawful congregations gatherings held by disorderly presbyters or bishops or by uninstructed laymen. As, for instance, if a man be convicted of crime, and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, and then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons leave the Catholic Church and join him, this is unlawful assembly. To disagree with members of the Church about repentance, is schism. Instances of heresy are those of the Manichaeans, of the Valentinians, of the Marcionites, and of these Pepuzenes; for with them there comes in at once their disagreement concerning the actual faith in God. So it seemed good to the ancient authorities to reject the baptism of heretics altogether, but to admit that of schismatics, on the ground that they still belonged to the Church. (Letter CLXXXVIII.1)

St. Cyprian of Carthage

But, beloved brethren, not only must we beware of what is open and manifest, but also of what deceives by the craft of subtle fraud. And what can be more crafty, or what more subtle, than for this enemy, detected and cast down by the advent of Christ, after light has come to the nations, and saving rays have shone for the preservation of men, that the deaf might receive the hearing of spiritual grace, the blind might open their eyes to God, the weak might grow strong again with eternal health, the lame might run to the church, the dumb might pray with clear voices and prayers–seeing his idols forsaken, and his lanes and his temples deserted by the numerous concourse of believers–to devise a new fraud, and under the very title of the Christian name to deceive the incautious? He has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity. Those whom he cannot keep in the darkness of the old way, he circumvents and deceives by the error of a new way. He snatches men from the Church itself; and while they seem to themselves to have already approached to the light, and to have escaped the night of the world, he pours over them again, in their unconsciousness, new darkness; so that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master. (On the Unity of the Church 3)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

For the godless system of the heresies is a road with many branches, and whenever a man has strayed from the one straight way, then he falls down precipices again and again. (Catechetical Lectures VI.13)

Episcopal Bishop Alexander says schism is a bad thing. Well and good. But heresy is not some benign opinion. The Church Fathers thought heresy a dangerous, damning thing. It may have been merely an opinion, but unrepentant heresy kept one out of the Church, away from the Sacraments, and cut off from the Life Christ gives. As another Episcopal Bishop has noted, heresy is cruel, because it promises that which it cannot give.

In short, when it comes to schism and heresy, there is no choice. Christians are to avoid both. Because both bring death and destruction.

11 thoughts on “Schism and Heresy: There Is No Choice

  1. So what do you suggest as the correct course of action when the Church itself becomes heretical? What to do when it adopts, promotes or openly tolerates heresy? Does one stay in or leave an apostate church?

  2. You and I may well have different views on the Church (note capital “C”). I would argue that it is not possible for the Church itself to become heretical, but that all heresies and heretics are departures from the Church.

    As to what to do? There seems to be two possibilities, in my view, each depending upon what you understand about the Church.

    a) Stand within the Church and oppose heresy with all one’s strength, as did Athanasios.

    b) Flee the heretics and find the true Church.

    Your mileage may vary.

  3. A+, Professor. I am absolutely staggered by the stunning stupidity and absurdity of Alexander’s statement. I cannot think of any time that the Church has EVER accepted heresy as a consequence of avoiding schism. Only in the present day would it even countenance the notion that truth could be played with so fast and loose, just for the sake of avoiding a tiff. The man is a bishop in a tradition that exists on the basis of schism, regardless of how it plays the apostolic succession card. Your assessment that the Church ceases to be the Church when it becomes heretical is spot on.

  4. This is an AMAZING collection of texts. Thank you for sharing it. You should, really, send it to the Bishop as well as to Episcopal Life. Not that either of them would acknowledge it. On the other hand, the Bishop may have one or two random fathers who he can quote as well.

    Of course, he is right: schism only causes more schism as in 1054 and then again in 1534.

  5. I think you might be missing his point. The quote actually reads “if you HAVE to choose between heresy and schism, choose schism” (emphasis mine). I don’t hear Bishop Alexander advocating knowingly and purposely choosing heresy. However, there are times in the life of teh Church when there are faithful disagreements. If, in those times, one cannot discern with absolute certainty whether a path is heretical, living with the disagreement is to be preferred over leaving and tearing the unity of the Church. After all, working for unity and reconcilliation is our Christian obligation, not at all costs, but it must be given more than mere lip service.

    The point also is some folks who are prone to uncharitably believe they are always, unquestionably correct on any given subject will always choose schism. Again and again.

  6. Robert:

    I’m certainly willing to give ECUSA Bishop Alexander the benefit of the doubt, but I’m afraid the argument he proposes still doesn’t work. Precisely because his comments have to do with matters of faith and dogma (human personhood, sexuality, marriage, and, frankly, the Incarnation) that have been clearly defined by Scripture and the Church. In this case, there is little room for uncertainty on these matters.

    So there is a choice that is clear: accept the teachings that have been handed down through the life and witness of the Church, or choose another Gospel. That’s what heresy is about, a choice.

    Augustine notes that for those who’ve been brought up in heresy and “don’t know the difference” as it were, but who would, if they did know, choose the pure Gospel, there is compassion. Though heretics, they are sincerely misguided.

    But Augustine could say that, living as he did before some of the later councils, and some 1600 more years of clear Church teaching.

    We Christians here in the U. S. in 2004, have little to no defense.

  7. Clifton –

    Thanks for your response. I agree with you that if you believe the Church (or, as I am sure you would say, a “church”) is proposing another gospel, then you must resist, and leave even.

    I don’t see heresy being proposed, so I know it is easier for me for urge forbearance than those who disagree. I believe that the Church can err (and has erred in the past), and although I am not anti-authoritarian, I am willing to recognize that our perception of certain details about the world might alter how we understand revealed truth. Much in the same way as your Trinity example in your subsequent post. We believe in the original and eternal existence of the Trinity, although it was not articulated in the form of current langauage until (relatively) late.

    Anyway, I know there are more complicated issues at stake here. I just believed that your original post in response to Bishop Alexander’s comment urged a simplistic (and perhaps unfair) interpretation of his statement that was a bit sensationalist. I have found many of your other posts more thoughtful (even if I often disagree), and wanted to offer a balancing perspective.

    Peace.

  8. Robert:

    Thank you for your kind comments about my “usual” blogging. I’m both glad you find my “normal” comments thoughtful and disappointed that you found my comments regarding Alexander’s comments “sensationalistic.” I certainly didn’t intend them to be. Indeed, I think what was sensational was the contrast between his viewpoint and that of the Church Fathers. Clearly in his whole message he is primarily against the present schism in ECUSA. And Alexander is right to deplore schism; the Church always has. So it is striking that Alexander does not also deplore heresy, after all, the Church always has. And that was the point of my post. I really did not mean to do more than that: contrast his view with that of the Church Fathers for which he claims his authority to say what he does about heresy.

    Now, it is certainly extremely likely that Alexander does not view the current debates in ECUSA in terms of dogma and heresy. So it may well be his comments might be better written “Choose ‘heresy’ [with scare quotes] over schism.” But he didn’t say that. The closest he came was to call heresy an opinion which one could change. But this is not what the Church called (calls) heresy. Or rather, heresy is more than just a mutable opinion.

    The backing of some 3500 years of Jewish and Christian Scripture and traditions, the consensus of the Church Fathers, the Church Liturgies and the Church Canons are united on many of the issues about which churches (including ECUSA) are quarrelling. One can perhaps approach these matters from the “simplistic” [though I would prefer “simple”] standpoint of receiving, accepting, preserving and passing on that which has been handed down to us over these dozens of centures. Or one can look at the real changes in Church doctrine that proponents of new insights and understandings espouse. Then one can compare and contrast these new changes with the “old” (though actually still currently lived and believed in our “modern” world) dogmas and ask: which is the real Gospel?

  9. wow, awesome post! found it when I was looking for the St. Augustine quote. I like this one too:

    Heresy is from the Greek word meaning ‘choice’… But we are not permitted to believe whatever we choose, nor to choose whatever someone else has believed. We have the Apostles of God as authorities, who did not… choose what they would believe but faithfully transmitted the teachings of Christ. So, even if an angel from heaven should preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema.
    -St. Isidore of Seville

  10. Regarding Abba Agathon:

    “It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper they said to him ‘Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?’ ‘Yes, it is very true,’ he answered. They resumed, ‘Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?’ ‘I am.” Again they said ‘Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?’ But at that he replied ‘I am not a heretic.’ So they asked him, ‘Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult.’ He replied ‘The first accusations I take to myself for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.’ At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.”

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