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Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Brian: Are you the Judean People's Front?

Reg: Fuck off!
Brian: What?
Reg: Judean People's Front. We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front. Cawk.

Francis: Wankers.
Life of Brian

In the context of religion, a schism indicates a split between two or more movements or organizations within a larger religious body; the motivations for such a split are not necessarily any major differences of doctrine. In the development of religious practice as a part of cultural evolution,Wikipedia schisms offer an analog of speciation in biological evolution.[1]

Generally, one can distinguish schisms from apostasy and heresy because the resultant shards remain part of the larger, (though unofficial) body of the religion.


An overview of the evolutionary tree of Protestantism

The word schism has been used most in the context of Christianity. During the 1st and 2nd centuries, various churches were vying for the right to be the Christian Church. None could really be said to be schisms of another. However, once Paul's church got off and running as the church of the Roman Empire, schisms would define its future. In 431, the Assyrians broke off to form their own church; in 451, the Oriental Orthodox Church formed; the Great Schism of the 11th century brought the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church; in the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Martin Luther broke away to form the Protestant churches, while Henry VIII started the Church of England, and they have spent the last 500 years splintering into further denominations and sects (starting with Calvinism).

Some sects seem prone to schism (Anabaptists, most notoriously), while others manage to remain intact. Certain churches, like Anglicanism, can tolerate a wide variety of dissent without schism, while others punish minor doctrinal difference. In practice, schism almost always involves political and economic as well as doctrinal reasons: clergymen are reluctant to leave a church if it means losing their job and livelihood, unless a rich backer can be found. Hence the Great Schism, which initially seemed a minor theological disagreement, was exacerbated by a trade dispute between Italian states and the Byzantine Empire and political differences that culminated in the Fourth Crusade and sacking of Constantinople (1204 CE).[2] The northern European Reformation in the 16th century was closely linked to political struggles, with Dutch merchants, German dukes and princes, the English monarch, and Scottish landowners funding their various Reformations and stealing lots of church property. In contrast, in a low Protestant sect with non-professional preachers and few assets, it is trivial to set up a new church, needing little more than a new church sign.

Heresy vs. schism[edit]

In Christian theology, there exists some disagreement on the relationship between heresy and schism. While most Christians accept that heresy can lead to schism, beyond that opinion on the matter tends to differ between denominations. For example, Catholic doctrine holds that all heresy is accompanied by schism, because the heretic has by his beliefs severed himself from the Body of Christ, even if he has never in any way indicated those views to anyone save himself (well, himself and Skydaddy). The canons also take a somewhat murky position on those raised in certain other Christian churches, treating them not as schismatic but rather as something less than full members of the Church. On the opposite end, some denominations hold that any act of schism is heretical, as it wrongfully divides the Body of Christ, and yet others hold that all Christians are in communion with all other Christians. To add further complications, the growing trend of ecumenism has a habit of relabeling as schisms splits formerly considered (also) heresies.

Some apologists have claimed that there are actually no schisms and all Christians except presumably those with extreme doctrinal differences, such as the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses, are in the same church under the leadership of Jesus Christ, no matter their denomination, even if they're conveniently silent against the too many to count times where blood has been spilled just because of differences in dogma.


Because the Qu'ran states that a Muslim is a person who has submitted to God, the Islamic faith does not formally recognize any schisms as more than just political or human distinctions. There is one primary schism that arose out of the mystical tradition in the late 7th century CE, the Shi'a claiming that God does not give political power. The Shi'a do not recognize the religious and political leadership found in the Sunni traditions.


Chart of the major Buddhist schisms

There have been many schisms in Buddhism, including the major split from the strict Theravada Buddhism by the more welcoming Mahayana Buddhism. Though the date of this split is not agreed upon, it is thought to have happened between 100 BCE and 100 CE. From there, the Great Schools represent further schisms within Buddhism. Today there are hundreds of schools, following one of the two major paths, but each holding different views and seeing themselves as separate but complementary to the others.

Religions that encourage schisms[edit]

Some particularly mischievous religions actually encourage schisms. Two examples of this are Discordianism and theistic (traditional) Satanists, both of which refer to forming "cabals". Discordians (who arguably follow a parody religion) seem to take a more humorous approach to this,[3] as with anything, yet on the other hand traditional Satanists are serious about it. Their guy is pretty well known for causing a big schism of his own, after all.

See also[edit]


  1. Eller, Jack David (2014). "7: Religious Change and New Religious Movements". Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate (2 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 152. ISBN 9781317579144. Retrieved 2016-10-28. "[...] the consequence of religious processes may be schism or fission, the speciation or proliferation of religions as branches from prior beliefs and traditions, leading to '“sects' and 'denominations' and ultimately entire religions; a classic example would be the Christian schism of Protestantism from Catholicism." 
  2. See the Wikipedia article on East–West Schism.
  3. "Principia Discordia, or, How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her: The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger, wherein is explained absolutely everything worth knowing about absolutely anything". Loompanics Unlimited.