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The Great Papal Schism

Watch Week Four Day One

Have you ever seen or been in the middle of a struggle for power? Due to our human nature, we may at times find ourselves fighting for power in roles of leadership, whether at church, between two separate ministries, in the workplace, or even among friends and family. This struggle for power negatively affected the church in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in what is known as the Great Papal Schism. At one point in this schism, or division, there were three popes running around!

The Cause

How did the church find herself in a crisis of authority with three different popes claiming to be the true pope? In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France, due to the struggle of power between the pope and the Roman Emperor. This was an example of the classic clashing of church and state, secular and sacred. Who has more power, the church or the state? For nearly seventy years, the papacy resided in Avignon and was greatly influenced by French government, which created much resentment toward the papacy in those living in other countries.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI finally moved the papacy back to Rome. Unfortunately, Gregory XI died shortly after this move. Who would be the next pope? With a papal election at hand, tensions rose and riots broke out, as citizens of Rome feared that the next pope would move the papacy back to Avignon. Due to these tensions, an Italian (instead of a French) pope was elected — Urban VI.

The Schism

Shortly after Urban VI became the new pope, he abused his power and corruption infiltrated the church. The same cardinals (priests of the Catholic Church) who elected Urban VI then decided his election was not valid and elected a new pope—Clement VII. But Rome still pledged her allegiance to Urban VI, so Clement VII moved back to Avignon. For the first time in history, there were two elected popes. This was the Great Papal Schism. France and Scotland supported Clement, while England and Germany supported Urban, which created great division and disunity among the Western church. Not only would neither pope step down, but the rival papacies even elected successors upon each pope’s death in order to maintain power. This schism highlighted the negative effects of a combined church and state; these rival papacies were not only fighting for power in the church but also in the government. Put yourself in the shoes of those living through the crisis in the church at this time. Can you imagine how confusing and di cult this scenario must have been? Who would you give your allegiance to? How would this affect your view of God? This was a time of conflict in the life of the church, and much reform was needed.

The Resolution

In 1409, a conciliar movement was formed and a council came together in Pisa. This conciliar movement decided, “that a universal council, representing the entire church, had more authority than the pope.” Now the papacy did not have the final say, authority, or superiority; instead it belonged to this general, universal church council. With this settled, the council claimed the two rival popes unworthy and elected a new pope—John XXIII. Due to the fact that neither of the rival popes were willing to step down, the church now found herself with three elected popes.

With the church at her breaking point, another council was called to the German city of Constance in 1414.105 This council elected Martin V as the new pope, and finally the Western church was unified under one pope for the first time in about forty years.106 The schism had finally come to an end. Of course, the Papal Schism did not bring an end to God’s church. He is faithful even when we are not. His truth lived on and overcame the disunity created by the schism. Be reminded of Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17; He prays for unity among believers several times. Unity within the body of Christ is near to Jesus’ heart. Unfortunately, division and power struggles have played themselves out within the church time and time again. Let us be steadfast in praying for unity within the body of Christ. In what ways, have we contributed to a struggle for power among fellow believers, and how can we not allow these things to divide us?

It is possible that we even pledge our allegiance to leaders in the church more than we do Christ? In 1 Corinthians 1:10–13, Paul clearly instructs against this. How can an unhealthy allegiance to a leader within the church cause division among us? Do we bad-mouth leaders and teachers whose theology we slightly disagree with, rather than pray for them as brothers and sisters? Do we hide behind our computer screens, typing unkind, even hateful words, instead of engaging our brothers and sisters in humble discussions face-to-face?


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Daily Question

How can we learn from history and not allow a struggle for power to distract us from Jesus and His gospel?

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