At the beginning of this week we took a look at some e orts to reform the medieval church’s relationship with earthly political power. For the monastic reform movement launched at Cluny and through Pope Gregory VII, reform meant trying to protect the church from the control of the state. For the mendicant orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans, reform meant avoiding power structures all together, focusing instead on a simple life of poverty and preaching. Even Franciscans and Dominicans disagreed on the role that education should play; Francis worried that it would lead to a lust for power, but Dominicans encouraged learning as a way to protect the truth of the gospel against heresy.
Even when the church is clearly in need of change, her members don’t always agree on the best way to go about it. After all, as disciples we are called to follow a person, not a method. History shows us that reforms can start in wildly different ways. Gregory VII sought out reform as a pope, and Saint Francis as a preaching beggar. Saint Francis insisted on avoiding getting puffed up by learning; the Dominicans stressed learning in order to fight heresy. History also shows us that reforms aren’t perfect, and that they sometimes succumb to the very problems they sought to change. The monastery at Cluny eventually became too dependent on its wealth, Bernard of Clairvaux joined his voice to the crusades, and even Saint Francis came back from a trip to find his followers in disarray. That’s because even reformers are sinners. But as with all sinners, God still used them to complete His purposes. Throughout church history, God has used movements of reform to inspire His people to renewed faithfulness.
Later in the week we took a look at some of the differences between the Eastern and Western parts of the church that led to their parting of ways in 1054. Even today, the Eastern church preserves some of the same distinctive attributes that led to the split, such as the use of Greek language and emphasis on icons. Between the different reform measures and favors of tradition in the Eastern and Western halves of the church, we’ve seen that faithful followers can take different perspectives on matters that aren’t essential tenets of the faith. Sadly, sometimes we take our disagreements to the point of parting ways.
It can be easy for us, on this side of history, to look at the church and some of her more obviously corrupt moments and shake our heads. If it had been us, that would never have happened. But when we look at church history, we look at our own body. Even if church breakups occur on a less global scale than in 1054, they are certainly no less common. And as hard as we try, we can’t make ourselves pure by separating. We can’t separate ourselves from the sin of the church—not even the historical church. Thank God Christ came to save sinners. Even though seeing both past and present separations in the church can make us pause, there is nothing new about God’s people struggling with division. Almost all of Old Testament history narrates the story of Israel as two separate kingdoms; Paul parted ways with Barnabas in Mark after an argument (Acts 15:36–41) and wrote two letters to a factitious young church (see 1 and 2 Corinthians). How does Scripture help us understand our tendency to split? Instead of making our differences a wedge that drives us apart, how can we understand those differences in the church and follow Christ together despite them?