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The split between Rome and the East is called "the Great Schism". But the church also split at Chalcedon when the Emperor Marcian demanded a quick decision, leading to the two branches "Eastern Orthodoxy" and "Oriental Orthodoxy".

Have there been other substantial splits in the church? If so, when were they? what was the cause?

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  • A good exercise, personally, to plot one's own origins within Christendom. A mammoth task for a historian, though . . . . . . . Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 18 at 10:09
  • @Traildude - For an excellent study of the "splits" in the Greek Orthodox Church (Orthodox Catholic Church, official name) see Wikipedia, "Greek Orthodox Church." It deals with the Coptic, Assyrian, Oriental, Syrian, Bulgarian, and Russian Orthodox schisms. These were usually based on differences that arose at the Councils concerning doctrines.----The Roman Catholic Church (speaking Latin in services, not Greek) is a totally different ball game (after the split of 1054), with its own history of schisms.
    – ray grant
    Mar 6 at 21:11
  • @raygrant Bulgarian and Russian weren't schisms, they were granted autocephaly; technically Russia is the Patriarchate of Moscow. Bulgaria has been autocephalous since the ninth century, Moscow since the fifteenth.
    – Traildude
    Mar 19 at 21:21

4 Answers 4

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Considering the history of Christianity as such there have been notable divisions throughout its history, following movements which asserted significant doctrinal, behavioural or church government principles.

To follow all the divisions and sub-divisions would be a mammoth task and of little interest to any individual, as a Christian, though no doubt professional historians and others would find interest in the vast amount of data available.

Each individual Christian will view the history in terms of the divisions which arrived at their own, present, situation within their own concept of what 'the church' really is.

I found it interesting to plot my own origins, as it were, in past divisions of the whole of Christendom.


For myself, there are several significant occurrences :-

Trinitarian doctrine was asserted in the Councils of Nicea establishing a definite divide, the first council being 325 AD.

The Protestant Reformation asserted another definite divide beginning in 1517 and progressing throughout the sixteenth century, separating 'mass'/memorial ; scriptural authority/church authority ; priesthood/ministry.

A further division has asserted Presbyterianism, the governance in the church by eldership locally rather than denominational hierarchy.

A further division separates adult baptism as an ordinance in the church as against 'christening' at birth.

A further division occurred in the 1800s splitting two major denominations, in the matter of the eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ (rather than sonship being a matter of incarnation).

Also during the 1800s was a division regarding the scripture, in the matter of the Textus Receptus being competed with (in 1881) by a Critical Text favouring two manuscripts above all others.

During the 1900s another division has occurred regarding conviction of sin, repentance and regeneration (as opposed to a 'decision').


This is very clearly a matter of my own perceptions as a Christian and my own personal experiences within my own soul. My view of the history is very much coloured by my present profession and my own stance within the very varied and complicated arena called 'Christianity'.

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How many great splits have there been in Christendom?

I would imagine that historians would agree that there are about three major historical schisms within Christendom. Of course, that would imply on how one interpreted the term ”great”?

That said, it seems that of all the schisms within Christendom three (3) stand out.

  • The First Major Schism (451 AD): The Chalcedonian Schism.

  • The Second Major Schism (July 1054): The Roman Catholic Schism.

  • The Third Major Schism (1521): The Protestant Reformation.

All others schisms pale in comparison to these three great schisms.

The Chalcedonian Schism

Chalcedonian Christology is upheld by Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, and thus comprises over 95% of all Christianity today.

The Council of Chalcedon with its dogmatic definition did not put an end to the controversy concerning the natures of Christ and their relation to each other. Many people in the East disliked the term person used by the council to signify the union of, or the means of uniting, the two natures in Christ. They believed that Nestorianism was thereby renewed; or at least they thought the definition less satisfactory than St. Cyril's concept of the union of the two natures in Christ (Bardenhewer, Patrologie, 2nd ed., 321-22). In Palestine, Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and other countries, many monks and ecclesiastics refused to accept the definition of Chalcedon; and Monophysites are found there to this day. - Council of Chalcedon

The Schism of 1054

The Great Schism came about due to a complex mix of religious disagreements and political conflicts. One of the many religious disagreements between the western (Roman) and eastern (Byzantine) branches of the church had to do with whether or not it was acceptable to use unleavened bread for the sacrament of communion. (The west supported the practice, while the east did not.) Other objects of religious dispute include the exact wording of the Nicene Creed and the Western belief that clerics should remain celibate.

These religious disagreements were made worse by a variety of political conflicts, particularly regarding the power of Rome. Rome believed that the pope—the religious leader of the western church—should have authority over the patriarch—the religious authority of the eastern church. Constantinople disagreed. Each church recognized their own leaders, and when the western church eventually excommunicated Michael Cerularius and the entire eastern church. The eastern church retaliated by excommunicating the Roman pope Leo III and the Roman church with him.

While the two churches have never reunited, over a thousand years after their split, the western and eastern branches of Christianity came to more peaceable terms. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the longstanding mutual excommunication decrees made by their respective churches.

Today, the two branches of Christianity remain distinct expressions of a similar faith. Roman Catholicism is the single largest Christian denomination, with more than a billion followers around the world. Eastern Orthodoxy is the second-largest Christian denomination, with more than 260 million followers. Eastern Orthodoxy includes national churches, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church. - July 16, 1054 CE: Great Schism

The Protestant Reformation of 1521

Corruption was widespread in the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe. Simony (buying priestly offices for money) was practiced. Some priests sold sacraments for money. Many of the clergy were publicly drunken, adulterers, and not worthy of their office. Some priests kept concubines openly and fathered illegitimate children without rebuke. Others committed major crimes such as murder and got mild punishment because of the privileges of their office. Popes bought their See with money and defended it with sword and poison. The people despised the pervasive corruption of the Roman Catholic clergy and resented the authority of the Pope. They cried out for reformation.

The Roman Catholic Popes used to raise large sums of money by issuing indulgences and selling them through the clergy for a variety of purposes—to finance Crusades, build huge cathedrals, etc. What is the doctrine of indulgences and works of supererogation of the saints that the Roman Catholic Church adheres to, while the Orthodox Church strongly opposes? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are two kinds of penalties for sins—eternal and temporal. Faith in Christ and Repentance lead to forgiveness and removal of the eternal punishment that Christ satisfied on the cross. However, accepting the atonement of Christ through faith and repentance does not remove the temporal penalty. The temporal penalty is satisfied in the purgatory because the span of man’s life on earth is not long enough to satisfy that penalty. However, the Church can satisfy the temporal penalty by drawing upon the treasury of superabounding grace emanating from the passion of Christ and the works of supererogation done by the saints. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the good works of the great saints far exceed what they need for their own salvation. So, the Roman Catholic Church Hierarchy distributes the grace of those excessive good works to the faithful that lack sufficient good works by indulgences. This is one of the major doctrinal differences between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Several men rose in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries attacking aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine and papal authority. They were the forerunners of the Protestant reformation led by Martin Luther in the 16th century. The most famous ones are: John Wyclif in England, John Huss in Bohemia (burnt alive at the stake in 1415), Savonarola in Florence, and Wessel in Northern Germany. - A Summary of the History of Major Christian Schisms

Here follows a lists of schisms from Wikipedia:

Lists of Schisms

Schisms in the early Church

  • Marcionist schism (c. 150)

  • Montanist Schism (c. 156)

  • Monarchianist schism (c. 100-200)

  • Sabellianist/Patripassianist schism (c. 200)

  • Novatianist schism 250 onwards. Novatianism survived until the 8th century.

  • Donatist schism (c. 300-500)

  • Arian schism (325)

  • Quartodecimanist schism (325)

  • Macedonian schism (342)

  • Luciferian schism (355)

  • Appolinarist schism (381)

  • Collyridianist schism (c. 376)

  • Nestorian schism (431)

  • Eutychian schism (451)

  • Monophysite schism (451)

  • Acacian schism (484)

  • Schism of the Three Chapters (553)

  • Armenian Apostolic schism (610)

  • Monothelitist schism (629)

  • First Iconoclast schism (787)

  • Second Iconoclast schism (814)

  • The Great Schism of 1054

Schisms in Catholicism before the Reformation

  • Catharism schism (1147)

  • Bosnian schism (1199)

  • Waldenian schism (1215)

  • Western Schism (1378)

  • Bohemian Reformation (1415)

Reformation

  • The Swiss Reformation 1516

  • The Anabaptist Reformation 1525

  • The English Reformation 1529

  • Schism of 1552

  • The Scottish Reformation 1560

Post Reformation schisms

  • Melkite-Orthodox Schism 1724

  • Orthodox Reformation 19th century

  • Restorationist movement begins 1850s

  • Bulgarian schism 1872

  • Old Catholic Church schism 1879

  • Philippine Independent Church 1902

  • Liberal Catholic movement 1913

  • Liberal Catholic Church schism 1916

  • True Orthodox movement 1920s

  • Old Calendarism schisms 1923

  • Church of the East Schism 1964

  • Montaner Schism 1967–69

  • Continuing Anglican movement schisms begin since 1977

  • Society of Saint Pius X Considered materially schismatic from 1988 until 2005, canonically irregular Apostolic Catholic Church 1992

  • Second Moscow–Constantinople schism 1996

  • Anglican realignment schisms begin since 2002

  • The separation of the Anglican Church in North America from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada 2009

  • Community of the Lady of All Peoples Quebec Excluded from the Catholic Church in April 2007

  • North American Lutheran Church, founded in 2010 by congregations that left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

  • Third Moscow–Constantinople schism 2018

  • Global Methodist Church formed by Conservative Methodist who left the United Methodist Church 2022

  • Diocese of the Southern Cross formed by Conservative Anglicans who left the Anglican Church of Australia 2022

Schism in Christianity

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I will add the there were many earlier splits. For example:

  • The split between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity. Jewish Christians continued to observe the Laws of Moses and some of the thought that Gentile Christians should do the same. The former eventually died out as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and the policy of the later church to declare Christian Judaism a heresy. The Ebionites are of identified as an of Jewish Christianity.

  • The split between Gnostic Christians and Orthodox Christians. There were numerous versions of Gnostic Christianity. In the early stages Gnostic Christians were part of the church but later formed their own congregations. They were all eventually condemned and faded away or went underground once Christianity became the state religion in the Roman Empire.

  • Montanism. This schismatic movement was based on the so-called "New Prophecy" that involved continuing revelations combined with a puritanical spirit of reform. It was popular in Asia Minor and north Africa. The Church Father Tertullian defended it and may have been an adherent.

  • Puritan splits. Novatianism and Donatism both spawned schisms based on the premise that the Church should be purified from the corruption of compromise with pagan persecutors. These movements were eventually suppressed, and the Catholic (universal) vision of the church prevailed, affirming that both saints and sinners were part of God's people and that sacraments administered by corrupt priests were still valid.

  • Various trinitarian splits. The most famous of these was the Arian controversy, which involved a see-saw battle with one of the other side prevailing depending largely on the policy of the Emperor. The finer points of trinitarian theology underlay several other splits in the next few centuries.

  • An important split that evolved after Chalcedon (see Ken Graham's answer) was the iconoclastic schism, which spanned several centuries. In part a response to the rise of Islam, this movement banned the use of icons and was supported by several eastern emperors.

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  • It's fascinating to me that both sides at Chalcedon quoted St. Cyril in support of their views. I've read a great deal of primary material having to do with the division and concluded that the two sides agreed on the matter, they just had different emphases due to facing different heresies (in terms of priority). Of course since then both sides have resorted to rhetoric against the other and the theology supporting that rhetoric has become at least as important as the theology of the Council itself.
    – Traildude
    Feb 26 at 3:41
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There's an interesting chart of the various Christian denominations over the last 2,000 years.

Unfortunately, the descriptions don't copy over, but click on link.

enter image description here

Based on the chart, the answer to OP is four.

Oriental Orthodox Church of the East Great Schism (Roman Catholic - Eastern Orthodox) Protestant

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