How the Great Schism Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

As the Christian church grew in influence and stature around the Mediterranean, there developed a few distinct divisions within the church. Most notably is the division between the East and West in the Middle Ages, often referred to as the Great Schism or the East-West Schism. While this split—or schism—took place in 1054 AD, its roots can be traced back for hundreds of years.

After the capital of the Roman empire moved to Constantinople (now modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), the Christian church was split into two administrative jurisdictions. When the western part of the empire fell in the 5th century, the two branches of the Christian church began to follow divergent paths.

great schismThese two branches of the church developed differently due to culture (Greek vs. Roman), language (Greek vs. Latin), and even leadership structure. The East was under the authority of the emperor in Constantinople, with patriarchs serving as spiritual leaders; the West was led by the pope—who often served as both spiritual and physical rulers—in Rome. The role of priest evolved in separate paths: Eastern priests could marry and wear beards, while Western priests could do neither.

Differences in theology increased as the years went on. The two sides disagreed as to the type of bread used in Communion. They also differed on when to celebrate Easter. More serious were the discussions on purgatory (which the East rejected) and the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The tension between the two branches of Christianity grew until it came to a head in 1054. Seeking to put an end to these arguments, Pope Leo IX sent emissaries to the Eastern patriarch Michael Cerularius. When discussions broke down, the Western leaders excommunicated the Eastern leaders. In response, Michael Cerularius excommunicated the Western leaders. This ultimately broke whatever union remained between the two branches, causing them to effectively become two separate entities.


While there were plenty of smaller splinter groups from the Christian church throughout the years, the Great Schism remains the first major division of the church. Essentially the global church was split in half, never to be united again.

The animosity between the East and West increased, especially after the West invaded Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The excommunication between the two churches was finally removed in 1965 by the leaders of each church.


A form of the Eastern church served as the main flavor of Christianity in Eastern Europe for centuries. Several ethnic forms developed, including Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches. Theological differences continue between these Orthodox and the Catholic churches, as well as Orthodox and Protestant churches. However, in America there are now a growing number of evangelical churches that are Eastern Orthodox in their worship.


Much is made of the Protestant Reformation and how it changed the global church forever. But the Great Schism of 1054 arguably impacted history to a greater extent. This event not only shaped all forms of Christianity to come, but also history of Europe from the Middle Ages on.

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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