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Heresy/Schism/Division

Religious societies are especially vulnerable to discord, protest and demands for change. Reform can take the form of reform from within the community or secession from the community.  The concepts of heresy and schism only be understood as part of the larger issue of protest and reform within a religious community.  We will thus begin by briefly considering the ways that reform takes place within a religious organization.

Reform from within

Historically, there have been two ways that religious traditions attempt to reform from within.
1. The Ecclesiola in Ecclesia ("little church within the Church"). This type of reform grows from a small group that is concerned about the community's "laxity" or carelessness with regard to doctrine, discipline or worship. The protestors do not want to secede from the larger community; they only want to devise a means of correcting its shortcomings. This means of correction often took the form of small groups whose members were committed to study, worship and a disciplined way of life. Examples of these groups include the Pietists and the Methodists. The Pietist movement was led by Philipp Jacob Spener in the 17th century in an effort to correct what Spener perceived to be shortcomings within Lutheranism. Neither movement ever intended to separate from the larger group.
The Methodist movement was led by John Wesley in the 18th century in an effort to correct what Wesley believed to be shortcomings within the Anglican church.  Wesley was an ordained priest in the Church of England.  Doctrinal differences as well as concern that the Church was not including the average person led Wesley to establish a number of "societies" throughout England.  Members of these societies received instruction, committed themselves to a disciplined life and supported one another through weekly "class meetings." During his life, Wesley expected members of the Methodist Societies to participate in the life and worship of the Church of England.  His goal was to bring about reform, not to create a new church. 

John Wesley
John Wesley


2. A second type of reform from within the larger community is monasticism. This type of reform movement calls for a fundamental rejection of the world and a disciplined adherence to spiritual ideals. Monastic movements are often accepted by the larger community to provide a means for those who wish to pursue a more disciplined devotion. For example, the Benedictine rule which most Roman Catholic orders follow requires a far more demanding way of life than the average member of the larger community could follow. Rather than expect everyone to follow the Benedictine rule, the Church sanctioned the establishment of monastic communities within the church.

St. Francis in Ecstacy
St. Francis in Ecstacy
By Giovanni Bellini

One of the best known monastic orders within the Catholic Church is the Franciscans. This order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.  Part of Francis' motivation seems to be what he perceived to be the Church's lack of regard for the poor and failure to follow the its teachings of Christ about serving those in need. In 1208 he heard a call telling him to go out into the world and, in obedience to Matthew 10:5-14, to possess nothing, but to do good everywhere. Francis eventually established a monastic order devoted to the poor, and in time, this order was accepted and sanctioned by the Pope. Thus, the monastic order corrected what was perceived to be a shortcoming of the church by reform from within rather than secession from the church.