Breaking Points—A Brief History of Church Conflict

This article was adapted from a lecture prepared for a course at Wesley Seminary.

Conflict has been an ever-present part of human life since the tragic fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden. Conflict continued to a devastating level when Cain murdered Abel. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we find countless examples of conflict. One of the most significant details about conflict is how it has permeated monotheistic Hebrew religion since its origins. We believe that people following the one true God might be able to rise above conflict, but conflict is still a consistent part of life. Conflict is not necessarily bad, but when not resolved properly, it can lead disunity, which is not the intent for the church.

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:20–23, NRSV

Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John was not some wishful petition—it was a desire and mission statement for the church he was establishing. Our conflict has often led to division, which dishonorable God. Church historian Mark A. Noll wrote a book called Turning Points, highlighting some significant moments in church history—turning points which defined the church. Unfortunately, conflict has often be a central reason for many turning points in church history. In particular, I see these moments as breaking points—a reference to Noll’s book. These events were not just turning points, but points of breaking the goal of a unified church. I will briefly highlight some conflicts which contributed to these breaking points.

Judean Religion
In the first century, Judean religion was already fractured among a variety of sects. While these first four groups are typically the most commonly referred to groups making up Judean religion, I thought it was important to include the Samaritans, Hellenistic Jews, and Christians with this list. Many people believe that Christianity was a schism from Rabbinic Judaism, but looking at these factions helps us quickly realize that followers of Jesus in the first century were simply one of several groups stemming from the Mosaic religion of the Hebrew people. After the diaspora that resulted from the destruction of the temple, the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes largely lost influence. While Sadducees do still exist today and the Essenes might have influenced the Gnostic Christians, these groups could not keep up with the Pharisees, who would essentially found modern Rabbinic Judaism.

Why did these groups develop and why did they never seek reunification? There were several reasons: theology, methodology, leadership, and culture. Theology is probably the greatest reason, especially as the Christian theology would have been outside the bounds of what other Judean sects would embrace. However, Pharisees and Sadducees could not agree on methodology of various rituals. Leadership would have been an issue especially with the temple having been destroyed. Culture was clearly a divisive issue among the Samaritans, who claiming to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, were not accepted by the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. Hellenistic Jews certainly had a different culture and thus were often likely to become some of the first Christians, as Paul and other missionaries focused on these communities throughout the Roman Empire.

One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church
In 381 AD at the First Council of Constantinople, the Nicene Creed had a line that stated:

“I believe in… one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

This line was an addition from the previous version of the creed adopted at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. I am uncertain why this line was added, but I will make the assumption that it was done to further endorse the importance of unity among the church. Within a few centuries after the development of the Constanto-Nicene Creed, the church was beginning to experience some significant breaking points.

Church of the East | 431 AD
The Church of the East disagreed with the theological changes adopted at the Council of Ephesus. Regarding the topic of Jesus’ nature, they sided with the Nestorian perspective—the idea that Jesus had two persons present in one being.

Oriental Orthodox Church | 451 AD
The Oriental Orthodox Church parted ways with the rest of the church because of the Council of Chalcedon. They believed that Jesus was one person with one nature. This differed from Nestorian theology, but also from the consensus of the Chalcedonian Council because the Council believed Jesus was one person with two distinct natures.

Eastern Orthodox Church | 1054 AD
There were many reasons that the Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church. There was definitely a political and cultural component to the division between the Roman and Byzantine streams. Theologically, the western church added the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed, which affected the theology of the Trinity, of which the Eastern Orthodox believed was wrong and not decided by a council. The last and perhaps most significant issue was related to leadership and polity. The growing power of the papal office in Rome was oppositional to the Eastern idea of equal metropolitans throughout the church.

Roman Catholic Church | 1054 AD
Many people do not believe that the Roman Catholic Church split from the catholic (universal) church. However it is worth noting that the Great Schism in 1054 AD was not just the Eastern Orthodox Church leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Some might even argue that the Catholics left Orthodoxy by embracing doctrine that was not agreed upon by a council. For this reason, this is the moment when I will begin to identify the Roman Catholic Church as a distinct entity.

Protestant Churches | 1521 AD
While many had attempted reformation prior to Martin Luther, only few had moderate success: Waldensians, Hussites, Lollards, etc. These groups remained largely isolated out of necessity. However, Martin Luther’s goal was to reform and transform the whole church, not break away from it. The issues were related to corrupted theology, methodology, and leadership structures, which had developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Out of this movement would come many different groups such as Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, etc.

Anabaptist Churches | 1525 AD
The Anabaptists were students of Zwingli, an early Swiss reformer. They believed that Zwingli had not taken reforms far enough and believed that church needed to do more. In particualr, they had a literal translation of Scripture, believing that infant baptism and state churches were antithetical to the Christian life. These groups were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.  The Anabaptists divided from the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches because of theological, methodical, and leadership disagreements. In some sense, culture may have played a role in the process, especially as Anabaptists sought to be separate from the world.

Anglican Churches | 1534 AD
While the Anglican Church had existed since the 6th century mission led by Augustine of Canterbury, it did not gain independence from Rome until King Henry VIII separated the church from papal power. This resulted in a tumultuous season of change. While theology certainly did play a role in this change, much of it had to do with leadership issues and the selfish ambitions of King Henry. The cultural identity of the English sought to be distinct from the Roman Catholic Church, while theology and methodology was definitely influenced by other Protestant groups.

Other Divisions
While there certainly are hundreds of noteworthy schisms throughout church history, I have selected these particular schisms because I personally find them to be the most interesting. In terms of studying conflict, these schisms help us recognize four common reasons for division: theology, methodology, leadership, and culture—the same four reasons that Judean religion likely could not unify.

Reasons for Division
There are many reasons for conflict throughout church history, but these four main categories help us connect the past to our present. These are issues that still have the potential of plaguing any church today. In fact, new churches and denominations are founded because of peoples’ conflict on these issues. Gangel and Canine, referring to a Leadership Journal article by Speed Leas, identify four reasons for church conflict:

“social action, liturgy and worship, theology (charismatic versus non-charismatic or conservative versus liberal), and the life-style of the pastor” (p. 179).

While these four ideas do not match up in complete synchronicity with my suggested categories, you can certainly see the parallels. Social action is similar to culture, liturgy and worship are specifi aspects of methodology, theology is exactly that, and the life-style of the pastor would be one subset of the larger topic of leadership.

Wayne Schmidt identifies four reasons for conflict: personal issues, priority differences, perspective variances, and principle offences (pp. 233–235). Issues of theology in a church generally tend to be related to perspective variances. Occasionally, conflicts can be related to priority of theological ideas or a sin issue interconnected with poor theology. However, I find that the priority and principle offence issues related to theology all stem from a variation of perspectives. Biblical interpretation can leave churches very divided. This is the kind of issue that historically led to the formation of new denominations.

Larry Osborne talks about the importance of philosophical unity, which means:

“…having a basic agreement about our priorities and methods of ministry” (p. 31).

He continues to indicate that “most church fights aren’t over theology or even ministry goals; they’re over priorities and methodology.” While methodology can often be linked to a theology, many times it is not dependent solely on theology. For example, open or closed communion for the Eucharistic sacrament is a methodological conflict that is rooted in theology. However, if a church begins to use alcohol-removed wine for consideration of a growing number of former alcoholics, conflict over using real wine or not is not really an issue of theology. Everything is theological, but not all methodological conflict is easily debated with theology in the modern church—it often comes down to preference.


“Research has consistently shown that strong pastoral leadership is a key ingredient in virtually every healthy and growing church… Most people actually want to be led. They just don’t want to be led by a hired mercenary who’s unqualified and who just might use his leadership position to take advantage of those he leads” (Osborne, p. 100).

Osborn ends this chapter with the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:26:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…”

Strong leadership is not a bad thing, but overbearing leadership is a problem. Throughout history, clashing leadership styles, differences in understanding of governance, and personal disagreements have created significant tension. Focusing on leadership issues is an important way of ensuring unity. However, this leadership must be grounded in the desire to be a servant. History proves to us that the leaders who stopped being servants often caused the greatest calamity in the church. While I am not a Roman Catholic, I have been inspired by the Pope Francis’ incredibly humble spirit. He and some other recent popes have reclaimed the papal office from centuries of abuse.

While it would seem wrong for churches to divide over culture, this is probably far more common than we realize. Culture can imply differences in language, ethnic groups, generations, geography, and possibly other ideas. In the United States specifically we are faced with a significant racial divide in our churches, especially due to centuries of the injustices of racism, segregation, and slavery. As the United States continues to become more beautifully diverse, the church has an opportunity to embrace cultural differences like the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 or be divided.

I am a strong advocate of the phrase:

“In necessary things unity, in doubtful things liberty, in everything charity.”
— Marco Antonio de Dominis, Archbishop of Spalato

This phrase has become the motto of several churches, but notably among the Moravians. While we will never be restored to a place of full ecclesial unity in this lifetime, we can further prevent splintering by being aware of the causes of conflict in our churches. When we seek unity, liberty, and charity in the aforementioned ways, we are making one step forward in fulfilling Christ’s petition for the church’s unity.

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