Early on in its existence the church enjoyed a great deal of unity. You’re right, it wasn’t without controversy, heated debates and discussions as the early church endeavoured to hammer out the major tenets of its faith and practice. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the summer of the year 1054 before the first major division occurred. Quite frankly, it is rather impressive that the church endured almost a thousand years before its first major split.
The division in that year also seems rather understandable in retrospect. Over the first millennia of the church, a growing divide took place within it geographically, linguistically and theologically.
Two cities, languages and faiths
In the West was the language of Latin and the church capital of Rome. In the East was the language of Greek and the church capital of Constantinople. The foundations for this geographic divide within the church were laid as early as 395 when Emperor Theodosius the Great divided his realm between his two sons, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.
Earlier, Constantine, having been helped in battle by what he believed to be the Christian God, converted to Christianity and established the new capital of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. As Constantine established the use of councils at Nicaea to ensure the doctrinal unity of the church, there slowly emerged one doctrinal difference that neither East nor West could overcome.
For the West the church saw the Gospel as a legal matter that Christ remedied on the cross by paying for the sins of His people. Legally, sin had separated men from God and the just wrath of God against man’s sin and rebellion was seen to have been appeased by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.
Through faith and through the adherence to the sacraments of the church, a parishioner could find favour with God and be restored judiciously and reconciled relationally to God. The themes of repentance, faith, penance and justification became central to western Catholicism.
However, for the East the focus was on man being made in God’s image. Man was seen as carrying the very icon (image) of God within himself. Thus sin had merely tarnished that image before a holy and righteous God. The Gospel was seen as the way for mankind to restore the image (icon) that had been maligned within man through the fall. Salvation consisted of God’s restoration of this fallen image of God within man. So the themes of rebirth, recreation and the transfiguration of man became central to eastern Orthodoxy.
This theological difference came to a head over the use of images within the church. For the East the use of icons in worship became the centrepiece of reverence for God’s holiness. They were seen as a gateway or window into the realm of the holy and spiritual.
However, in the West the establishment of revering and reverencing holy men (saints) and holy objects (relics) became the centrepieces of worship. From the perspective of the West, the East’s use of icons (images) in worship was a form of idolatry that God’s Word strictly forbade in the Ten Commandments. The West became iconoclasts (image breakers) in their determination to remove idol worship from the church.
1054 and all that
The East refused to comply and in 1054 Cardinal Humbert along with two other representatives from Pope Leo IX delivered a Bull (an official papal document) of excommunication to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, and thus the first great ecclesiastical schism was established. The West and East were now officially divided.
In the West the Roman Catholics continued in unity unabated until the Great Reformation of the 1500s. In the East over the years the Eastern Orthodox Church grew into several different geographical namesakes including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Macedonian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc. Currently Moscow is the centre city for the Orthodox world.
A few years ago I visited a small Orthodox church near St. August-ine in Florida. (Ironically, St. Augustine is where the Catholic Church is said to have established its first parish in America.) While visit-ing this little church I ran across some Orthodox Church literature that defend-ed the Orthodox Church against Catholicism in general. Essentially, their claim to fame was: “We were the church before the Catholics were.”
Even though I think they meant this in all seriousness, I couldn’t help but smile. I tried to imagine how Jesus might have handled these two “sons of thunder” as He had handled the original “sons of thunder”, James and John, who rivalled to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in His new Kingdom.
Perhaps Jesus would have responded the same way he did to James and John: “You know that those who are recognised as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but who ever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church at large, East and West, could set its differences aside and begin serving each other as Christ intended from the beginning? Unfortunately, at this point it doesn’t seem likely until such time as Jesus returns.
We might not be able to find unity this side of eternity but we can still overcome our differences by serving each other. As the church, we still have a lot of serving to do.
– Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column, email email@example.com.