2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity in 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter of schism or divisions between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on schism. However, his charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism was decidedly un-Owenic.
John Owen was a leading voice of the Independent Churches. In the 17th Century the Independents were dogged by the charge of schism. They were Protestants who had separated from Rome. Schism number 1. They were Puritans and then Nonconformists who had separated from the Church of England. Schism number 2. They were Independents who allegedly had separated from the Presbyterian churches. Schism number 3. Understandably Owen didn’t find being labelled a 3-fold schismatic much to his liking. ‘schism scwism” might be our response, ‘so what?” For one, causing needless divisions among the people of God is a serious matter. John 17 for instance. For two, didn’t Evangelical Churches (whatever their ecclesiastical polity) face a similar charge when we refuse to get involved in Churches Together and the like? We’re splitters and no-one like a splitter.
Owen’s response to the charge of schism that was leveled against the Independents was a novel one. In Of Schism, Vol 13, published in 1657, he didn’t start with things as they were in his day with the Popery/Protestant divide and the splintering of Protestantism. Neither did he simply rehearse the denunciation of schism on the part of the Church Fathers. Augustine and the Donatists and all that. He took a rather novel approach. “Right” he said, “what does the Bible have to say about this?” Crazy, eh? Going back to the Bible’s he discovered that in the Good Book the word schism is only used of divisions within local churches. Never is it used of people who leave one local church and join another, or set up another, for whatever reason. Some in the church at Corinth were guilty of schism because they lined up behind their favourite preachers, or allowed social distinctions to rend the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. There’s schism for you.
But what of Christian unity on a bigger scale? Well, there’s the Universal Church. At that level, union consists of all who are chosen in Christ and saving united to him for salvation by the Spirit. That unity cannot be shattered because it is spiritual and organic, not organisational. No schism there, then. Then there’s the unity of the Visible Catholic Church. That is the church worldwide that professes the gospel. To split off from the Catholic Church so defined is not schism, argues Owen, but heresy and apostasy, 1 John 2:19.
Hang on a minute, Dr. Owen. What about the Roman Catholic charge against Protestants? As we have seen, for Owen, the Roman Catholic Church was no true Church, having apostatised from the Visible Catholic Church by defecting from the gospel. What about the Puritans and Non-conformists who left the Church of England? Owen argued that believers are not in any way obliged to align themselves with a territorial Protestant State Church. There is no biblical justification for such an institution. Owen confessed himself a member of the Church of England in the sense that he was united with the Visible Catholic Church in England composed believers in the nation who professed the gospel. But that did not mean he was guilty of schism for not being a member of the Church of England Established by Law by Henry VIII and his heirs and successors.
Believers are duty bound to gather themselves together in churches where the gospel is preached and godly discipline applied. When a local church of whatever denominational stamp refuses to reform itself according to the Word of God, it is the duty of believers to separate from it. Doing so was not to be regarded as schism. Neither was the fact that Independents differed from Presbyterians on certain points of church government and wished to put their beliefs into practice in their local churches.
One Daniel Cawdrey, a Presbyterian minister at Great Billing, Northamptonshire took it upon himself to offer a response to Owen’s Of Schism in a pamphlet with the less than reconciliatory title, Independency a Great Schism. Suffice to say, the carping Cawdrey was no match for Owen in terms of theological acumen. Not to mention generosity of spirit. Owen penned a Vindication. Reading it you sense his hurt at having his views and person traduced so roundly, even to the point of occasional tetchiness. Who can blame him? Owen felt himself reviled from one end of Cawrey’s work to the other. He was vilified as, ‘Satan, atheist, sceptic, Donatist, heretic, schismatic, secretary, Pharisee, etc”. (13:214). But the controversy also brought out the best in Owen in terms of his generous catholicity of spirit. He was certainly no sectarian Donatist and made it clear that he did not believe as Cawdrey had alleged that Independents were the only true churches.
Owen responded to a further critical rejoinder from Cawdrey. It is obvious that he found the controversy rather a chore. But he felt obliged to respond at length and with his customary thoroughness. This is Owen at his most cumbersome, taking pages and pages to say what could have been said much more succinctly. Eventually he called an end to what he called “this tedious debate” (13:269). For which his poor readers ought to count themselves grateful.
The main point as far as Owen was concerned, is that schism is a local church issue, not inter-church issue. But even if it was permissible for the term ‘schism” to be used of divisions between local churches, it wasn’t the Independents that were at fault. It wasn’t them that insisted that all local churches should belong to the Established Church of England. It wasn’t them that refused to reform the government of the church after a more biblical pattern. It wasn’t them that failed to exercise church discipline to weed out the notoriously ungodly from the flock. It wasn’t the Independents who imposed ceremonies, a fixed liturgy and canon law upon churches, all contrary to the mind of Christ. And then persecuted those who would not conform. That was the Church of England.
Owen did not write off the Church of England altogether, however. Writing, now in response to Dr. Stillingfleet on The Unreasonableness of Separation (1681), he said, “We do allow those parochial assemblies which have a settled, unblameable ministry among them to be true churches, for far as they can pretend so to be”. Then comes a lengthy, paragraph-long string of qualifiers. Parochial assemblies may be regarded as true churches although they had no power to choose or ordain their own ministers, or reform themselves according to the word of God, and that they neglected evangelical discipline and the like. Owen waspishly concludes, “Whatever can be ascribed to such churches we willingly allow to them.” (15:376-377). Where reforming such “parochial assemblies” proved impossible, peaceable withdrawal was not schism. Even then, Owen was not proposing total separation, just that Independents could not conscientiously engage in full communion with an unreformed Church of England. That was not what Scripture described as schism because it did not invoke stirring up divisions within a local church.
What, then do we make of Dr. Lloyd-Jones” charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism because they failed to separate from their error-tolerating denominations and come together as churches? He argued “that for us to be divided - we who are agreed about everything that really matters…is nothing but to be guilty of the sin of schism.” (Knowing the Times, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 254). Strong words. But if Owen is right, the charge of schism is a category mistake. Schism is local church issue, not an inter-church issue. Lloyd-Jones was aware of Owen’s work in this area. He devoted his 1963 Westminster Conference address to John Owen on Schism, in which Lloyd-Jones very much commended Owen’s attitude and approach. (The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p. 73-100).
According to New Testament as demonstrated by Owen, schism is the sin of causing needless divisions within a gospel church. Divisions between gospel churches are another matter entirely. If a gospel church is in fellowship with a church grouping in which the the gospel is denied, and the situation cannot be remedied, that is a grievous disorder. We should separate from error. But Lloyd-Jones was wrong to say that Evangelicals were guilty of schism simply because their churches belonged to a 'mixed' denomination.
When it comes to the contemporary church scene we are often the ones accused of schism. Ours may be the only church in town not in Churches Together. But Churches Together has no biblical mandate. We are not obliged to be in it. It is no schism to be out of it. Especially as the grouping obscures clarity of gospel witness and is in danger of violating the unity of the Catholic Church by having Roman Catholics and unreconstructed Liberals involved.
We are schismatics, however, if we are the cause needless divisions within our local churches. We are failing in our duty of Christian love if we shun fellowship with other Evangelical churches because of differences over secondary matters.
* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16