Protestantism’s Catch-22: Schism or Heresy?

The Protestant Problem

A Presbyterian and a Calvinist Baptist, after months of carefully studying Scripture, and maybe even extra-Scriptural sources, become convinced that the other person’s church is correct on the question of infant baptism. That is, the Presbyterian concludes that the Baptist view is right, and vice versa. What should they do? Split from their church, or submit to teachings that they now believe to be false?  Or put another way, should they conclude it’s their church or themselves that’s wrong?

Between Presbyterians and Calvinist Baptists, this is almost the only issue dividing the two.  We’re not talking about a liberal v. conservative Christian, or a nominal v. a dedicated one.  We’re talking about two groups of serious, God-fearing Christians who strive to obey God, and who hold each other’s denomination in generally high esteem.  In fact, Calvinist Baptists are in many regards closer to Presbyterians than they are to other Baptists, but this question of infant Baptism has proven a real sticking point.  And rightfully so: even if it were the only issue which divided them (and it’s not, at least, not quite), it’s a huge one, on the level of “is my kid a Christian?” and “do I need to be re-baptized, now that I’m an adult?”  The importance of the second question is enormous.  If you’re supposed to get Baptized and don’t, that’s a soul-imperiling sin, while getting repeatedly Baptized is also dangerously sinful.

So that leads to the catch-22 I referenced in the title: do you choose heresy, submitting to a false doctrine you know to be wrong, or schism?  Scripture damns both: 2 Peter 2:1-3 makes clear that false doctrine is damnable, while Galatians 5:19-21 condemns schism: namely, “discord,” dissensions,” and “factions.”  So whichever choice you opt for, you’re potentially imperiling your soul.  A Protestant seminary student I’m friends with sort of threw his hands up about this issue a couple nights ago when I asked him about it.  His original feeling was that, “I think schism, as bad as it is, better then adherence to wrong theology.”  But when I pointed out that Scripture says that schismatics won’t inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, he replied: “So then what is the option? To live under and accept wrong theology?”

Catholicism offers a way out of this Catch-22, and to my knowledge, the only way out of this Catch-22.  Catholicism claims of the Church that She’s the final arbiter of Truth, and has the Authority to settle controversies dividing the Body of Christ, when necessary. She claims to be both infallible and protected by the Holy Spirit, and freely speaks on His behalf.  In this, She follows closely the example laid out in Sacred Scripture in places like Matthew 18:17-18, 1 Timothy 3:15, Acts 15, along with a litany of other verses.  She says to Her followers, in short, “When in doubt, trust that I have the answers and will never steer you into heresy.”  But Protestantism rejects all this, and the result is an utter disaster.

Protestantism has no such institution or organization that anyone can look to and say, “This body says the Bible means x on this point, therefore it HAS to mean x.”  At its best, when Protestantism is healthy, you have the best guesses of holy men based upon their careful reading of Scripture. That’s good enough much of the time, but on a handful of issues, including some incredibly important ones, even holy and brilliant Christians disagree.  At worst, you have something much worse: denominations changing to keep up with the times, jettisoning timeless truths to seem relevant.  And the appalled believer is left with a terrible choice: to leave his denomination for another (one he perhaps doesn’t agree with, either, but is right on whatever issue strikes him as particularly important), or to simply go with the flow, even when he sees the waterfalls ahead?

This has lead to a disturbing phenomenon, one from which the Catholic Church has not been immune: namely, individuals decide that Christianity teaches, or ought to teach, a certain doctrine.  If their own church doesn’t teach it, they then quit that church and finds one that does (or give up on organized Christianity as a whole, or start their own church).  Rather than submitting to the shepherds God placed over us (Jeremiah 3:15), the laity are demanding that the shepherds submit to them.  The whole balance of authority laid out in the Bible gets flipped on its head.  But while Catholics and Protestants have both suffered from this, the Catholic Church can at least sanely declare: this is schism, and it’s sinful.  A similarly-situated Protestant can’t say that.  Perhaps it’s sinful schism, or perhaps the person leaving is simply the next Luther.  After all, either the Baptist or the Presbyterian Church is seriously and dangerously wrong on infant Baptism.  They have to be: their positions being opposites, they can’t both be right.  So at least one of the two men discussed above is right in contemplating jumping ship.  Trouble is, how can you tell which one?

The Catholic Answer

Catholicism provides a clear answer here: both men should “jump ship,” and get to the nearest Catholic church.  Both the Presbyterian and Baptist churches are man-made creations, and weren’t set up by God – thus, the sin of schism doesn’t attach.  On the other hand, Catholicism isn’t man-made, it’s Son of Man-made.  That’s why it’s a sin to leave Catholicism, because rejecting the Church is rejecting the manner in which God asks to be worshiped and followed.  Or to approach the question from a different direction: Christ set up a Church in Matthew 16:17-19.  While Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants disagree on much in this passage, I think we can all agree that when He says, “I will build My Church,” He means He’s going to build a single Church which is elsewhere called both His Body and His Bride.  He called His followers to complete unity within the Church (John 17:20-23) so that there would be “no division” within His Body (1 Corinthians 12:24-25), and His followers, particularly Paul, repeat that call to oneness in the Church (Philippians 2:1-2, Romans 15:5-6, Galatians 5:19-21, etc.).  And the early Church was called to be One: the Apostles never say in their epistles, “Maybe it’s best we just separate, and worship God in our own way.”  Rather, they condemn this approach, telling us instead to look out for the rest of the Body, and to be as they were, in “one accord” and “with singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46).  John 17:20 makes clear that this isn’t just something for the first generation Church, but for all of us who come to believe in Christ through the teachings of the Apostles.

So was Christ, and the rest of Scripture, commanding us to obey a sometimes-heretical Church, or a perfect One?  I mean, we’re told in no unclear terms in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” If the Church sometimes teaches heresy, how could this passage possibly be true?  Look at the example of much Protestantism: when a Presbyterian decides his church is wrong on infant Baptism, he becomes a Baptist, and vice versa, submitting to the church only insofar as the church agrees with them (which is to say not submitting at all).  Hebrews 13:17 becomes null.  But Catholics, the verse is, along with all the others I cited before it, very much alive.  There are times we feel the Church is erring, yet we know that it is She, and not us, protected by the Holy Spirit. 

So Church infallibility has to be true.  If the Church can fail, She eventually will.  And when that heresy comes, believers will have to choose mortal sin (schism) or mortal sin (heresy).  Fortunately, infallibility isn’t just the logically-necessary result of Christ creating One Church we’re bound to obey (as seen in these last few paragraphs), but it’s also both directly promised (John 14:26; John 16:13), and demonstrated in the early Church (Acts 15:28). 


  1. Thanks, Teresa! I enjoyed what I read of your blog. I have been in a similar situation to the one you described at the Olive Garden.

    “Do you pray to Mary?” is a question that is answered misleadingly if you just say “Yes,” since most Protestants understand that to mean worship. “Yes, but I don’t worship Her” is a good short answer in my opinion, but you can bet that it’ll lead to more questions. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course.

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