What Is the Great Schism of 1054?
When talking about the splits and divisions in church history, you really have to specify which one. There was the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Papal Schism in the 14th century, and the East-West Schism in the 11th century, also known as the Great Schism of 1054. The schism in 1054 was truly great because it divided the Christian church, which at the time extended from the upper corners of Ireland down into Egypt. The once-unified church was split into:
- The Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire in the east and
- The Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Roman Empire in the west.
The Great Schism of 1054 was a single event in time, but it was also a long time coming, revealing years of tension between Christians in the west and Christians in the east. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was supposed to deeply unify believers from any nation, people, or language (Revelation 7:9-10). So how could Jesus’ church sever ties like they did during the Great Schism of 1054?
Today, nearly 1,000 years later, historians have enough hindsight to look back and notice some of the early signals and the lasting consequences of what happened without the confusion of being right in the middle of such a storm with a strong undercurrent of emotion. What happened leading up to 1054, and what can the church learn to avoid another split like that?
What Was the Great Schism of 1054?
By 330, the Roman Empire had already split in two: the Byzantine Empire and the Western Roman Empire. Latin was largely spoken in the west, and Greek in the east. But the church was still unified for the most part. What started as geographic, political, and language differences between the eastern church and the western church began to also include theological and eschatological differences throughout the years, culminating with each side calling the other heretics who were not to be trusted or tolerated.
In 1054, Leo IX, the Bishop of Rome in the west, excommunicated Michael Cerularius, the Bishop of Constantinople in the east. In return, Michael Cerularius also issued an excommunication. The Great Schism of 1054 resulted from a power struggle between these bishops and the differences in the ways they led Christians to practice church and view God. After they severed ties, the church became the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
Pinpointing the causes and results of the Great Schism of 1054 is like trying to make sense of church infighting today. You’d have to go back decades for context and have a grain of salt on hand while researching different perspectives about what and why things happened.
Three Causes of the Great Schism of 1054
1. A power struggle between bishops.
The Roman Empire was enormous. At its peak in the early second century, it spanned over 5 million square miles. To kindle your imagination, the entire United States is 3.8 million square miles. The emperors in Rome struggled to maintain power over such a large area, so in 330, Emperor Constantine split the empire in two: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire. He also made Constantinople the new capital.
After the invasion of barbarian tribes in the west and the fall of Rome in 395, the Bishop of Rome enjoyed increasing power. But from 537 to 752, the bishops, even the Bishop of Rome, weren’t official without the Byzantine emperor's approval. That check in power was removed in the 8th century as the Byzantine empire began to struggle itself, especially when a new religion, Islam, spread into the area. At that time, the Western Roman Empire was gaining strength again. The Bishop of Rome crowned Charlemagne as the new emperor. Since then, the Bishop of Rome gave the final seal of approval on the Roman emperors, not the other way around.
The Bishop of Rome steadily gained power and sought to extend it over the other four main Bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. By the time Leo IX was Bishop of Rome, Michael Cerularius, the Bishop of Constantinople, resisted Leo’s reach. In the Byzantine Empire, the eastern church had a more localized power structure, relying on a congregation’s priest and the area’s bishop. Church power and authority in the Western Roman Empire was more centralized, relying on the Bishop of Rome.
Beyond power structures, in the actual churches, the western way of doing church was different from the eastern way of doing church.
2. Differences and disunity in the church.
Geography and Culture: When the church lost political unity after Emperor Constantine split the empire in 330 into Western and Eastern Roman Empires and Rome fell to barbarian tribes, the western church was left to look to the Bishop of Rome for stability and security. Christians in the west and east were then politically separated and had different leaders and languages. People in the east spoke Greek, and people in the west spoke Latin. Fewer and fewer people spoke both Latin and Greek, so they didn’t talk with each other or learn from each other.
Theology and Eschatology: The issue of venerating religious icons had been a sore subject in the church for a long time. Leaders in the east went through a few periods of banning icons and replacing them with crosses and then allowing them in churches again. In the west, the church was always in favor of them.
The eastern and western churches differed on a few other points in the way they practiced church and viewed God.
- In the east, priests could marry, but in the west, priests had to commit to celibacy.
- Communion bread in the east must only be leavened bread with yeast in it. In the west, however, priests could serve communion with unleavened bread.
- Churchgoers in the east sometimes dipped their leavened bread into the communion wine, which the churchgoers in the west never did.
These differences in practice were enough to inspire some side-eye from both groups. But the breaking point for the church in the east was when the Bishop of Rome edited the Nicean Creed without collaborating with the eastern bishops. Disrespecting the other bishops wasn’t the only problem. The edit that Bishop Leo IX made indicated a significant theological difference.
- The Nicean Creed before: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”
- After Leo’s edit (as it remains today): “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
The eastern bishops saw this as diminishing to God the Father, from whom they said God the Son and God the Holy Spirit proceeded. Whereas, the Bishop of Rome edited the statement of belief to say that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. These differences in the way the two groups viewed God and practiced church resulted in deep disunity.
3. Jurisdiction of bishops.
Amid these differences, Bishop Leo IX and Bishop Michael Cerularius kept an eye on their territories, especially in the middle of their maps, where church customs and ideas were more likely to blend.
Eastern churches in Italy who spoke Greek were told to do things the western, Latin way. And some churches in Constantinople preferred to practice church the western way, which the Bishop Michael Cerularius of Constantinople did not approve of. Those churches were told to adapt or shut down. Bishop Leo IX sent letters defending them. Bishop Michael Cerularius sent letters in return to Leo, who then sent a delegation of people with another letter, which was ignored by the eastern bishop once he was offended to see that the letter had been opened and shared.
The tension grew with this back and forth. Then finally, the Bishop of Rome’s delegation burst into a church service at the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople and placed their final letter on the altar. This letter excommunicated Bishop Michael Cerularius. He retaliated with his own decree of excommunication.
Four Results of the Great Schism of 1054
1. A severed church.
After the leaders of the church in the west and the east excommunicated each other in 1054, they split into two separate churches: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Cries for reunion were never answered until 1962 during the Second Vatican Council when the Pope, also known as the Bishop of Rome, recognized the sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And then in 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch of Constantinople revoked the excommunications after 911 years of broken relationship.
2. Empowered papacy.
The Bishop of Rome was already powerful in the west, but after the Great Schism in 1054, he was the single legitimate bishop in the eyes of western Christians. The pope continually grew in power until the next schism in the 14 century — the Western Schism, also known as the Papal Schism. The eastern bishops in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria struggled with theological fights and the rise of Islam, both of which weakened their power
3. Weakened Byzantine Empire.
The Great Schism of 1054 was dramatic and consequential, but most of the fighting was between higher-ups — bishops and their delegations. On the day the church split in 1054, many everyday Christians may not have noticed. It might be like if church leaders nowadays had an irreconcilable theological disagreement at a convention or conference. The fight would be significant, but it might take a while to trickle down into the lives of most churchgoers.
However, enough differences and points of disunity existed for the two sides to see each other as “the other.” Western Christians may have lifted their noses up at those odd Christians in the east who dip their communion bread and had priests who were married. The eastern Christians might have had their own criticisms.
But in 1204, “the other” became “the enemy.” During the fourth crusade, Christian soldiers from the west were on their way to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim rule. On the way, they brutally captured Constantinople from the rule of Eastern Orthodox Christians. According to Britainnica, “Thousands of Orthodox Christians were murdered, churches and icons were desecrated, and undying hostility developed between East and West.” Surely, news of that attack spread faster and hit harder than the news about bishop excommunications.
After this devastation, the Byzantine empire recaptured Constantinople in 1261, but they weren’t nearly as strong as they once were. Not 200 years later (1451), Constantinople fell to Muslim rule via the Ottoman Empire. The Christian church once thrived in Turkey, the country where Constantinople was. The Apostle Paul was from there. The church of Ephesus, among other churches mentioned in the Holy Bible were there. But now, a remnant of about 171,000 Christians remain, their light burning faithfully in the shadow of Islam.
4. A diminished witness to the world.
Sometimes, church schisms happen over disagreements that are crucial to the gospel. As in the case of the Reformation, when the Protestant church resulted from splitting from the Roman Catholic Church, it was good that Martin Luther confronted corrupt church leaders to face their wrong, harmful doctrines, such as selling vouchers to the wealthy who tried in vain to pay for their own sins. But when Christians disagree about whether to dip or not to dip one’s communion bread, it’s good to remember that unity in diversity has always been God’s heart for his people. Throughout God’s Word, he urges the importance of unity.
- “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1 NIV)
- “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 CSB)
- “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” (John 17:21 NLT)
The church’s unity, centered on Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is so important to God because it’s a powerful witness to a lost world. It shows the world how true, powerful, and beautiful God is — because how else could a group of people from every nation, tribe, and language come together on anything?
Although there were divisions among God’s people before and since the Great Schism 1054, the future of God’s church is as certain as his Word. When the Lord returns to bring his bride home, Revelation 7:9-10 promises that a “great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” will worship him together.
This kind of unity will come to fruition in heaven, but it’s also possible right now because “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). Like all of Jesus’ seemingly impossible instructions on living a holy life, it’s possible not by the strength of Christians but by God’s grace. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
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Emily Hall edits for a living and writes for the thrill of it. She writes a new, monthly newsletter, Hindsight History, documenting the making of her upcoming novel, a historical biographical fiction novel about Lottie Moon, a Baptist missionary to China. Subscribe to Hindsight History here. When she’s not typing away, she enjoys taking long walks with her baby then rewarding herself with a nice scoop of cookie dough!