I took a survey asking Christian leaders and laity why they believed churches split. I received more responses to this subject than any previous subject. From my best analysis, about five percent blamed pastors, saying that the pastors were in serious sin, heavy handed, weren’t in “the river” or refused accountability to anyone (sadly, this is true among a minority of ministers). Twenty percent wrote simply to encourage us to write the book. However, amazingly, 75% spoke of being “deeply devastated” by a split, some calling it “hell on earth.” These people usually wrote long and obviously painful emails. They grieved for their pastors, the loss of friends and the “death” of their church. These individuals said the division arose from a subordinate leader or group within the church.
Judging from those who wrote, the main problem does not seem to be with the pastors. Clearly, though, there is more to this subject than a couple preview chapters can reveal, including mistakes pastors make. In the book we will discuss a vital insight the Lord revealed about “Satan’s hour,” that time when hell advances into a church. We will also seek to remove the oppression on a church when its pastor sins; we will address healing for wounded churches and the deception surrounding ambition. Finally, we will look at how divisions affect children, as well as how to become unoffendable, and much more. I may even intersperse some of your profound and passionate comments so others may understand this hellish pain and seek to avoid it.
I will offer no political solution to divisions. Ultimately, if attaining Christlikeness is not enough for you, I have no other remedy. I am a man in quest of the character of Christ. I write to people who share my passion. If you are reading this, but do not care passionately about becoming Christlike, I truly have nothing to offer you regarding splits. Becoming Christlike is the only way to avoid them or be healed from them.
Let the Word Be True
The Bible has a great deal to say about unity. However, I have yet to find one New Testament example where the Scriptures encouraged born again Christians to divide from or split a church. I have heard many Scriptures taken out of context and twisted to suit the purpose of division, but in context I do not see the Holy Spirit anywhere telling His people it is right to divide from other imperfect Christians.
Therefore, let’s look at some of the Scriptures people have used to justify splitting a church. Frequently quoted is Paul’s admonition, “Come out from their midst and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17). However, the apostle was not speaking of being separated from other Christians. Rather, his purpose was to warn Christians about being “unequally yoked” with pagans or “unbelievers” (see 2 Cor 6:14-15 KJV). Interestingly, the name “Pharisee” literally translated means “the separate.” Among them we see the perfect example of when pride and self-righteousness cause us to think of ourselves as more spiritual than other people.
Another historic misinterpretation comes from 1 Cor 11, where Paul seems to concede that splits and divisions were almost necessary. He wrote: “. . . I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you” (1 Cor 11:18b-19). Certainly, isolated by itself, the idea that there “must also be factions . . . that those who are approved may have become evident” adds legitimacy to the idea of splits and divisions. Of course, those who split from others always identify themselves with “those who are approved.”
However, the actual context of the verse reveals the apostle’s true perception. Here’s the complete eighteenth verse: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.”
Listen carefully to Paul’s overriding, prevailing context: “When you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist. “Don’t rush past his opening address. They hadn’t split from each other. They were still united. Paul wasn’t justifying the divisions among them; he wrote specifically to correct their divisions. But even though one identified with Paul and another with Apollos or Cephas, they still came “together as a church.”
Every week all the Christians in Corinth met together in worship. At this meeting they also had a love feast and shared weekly communion. It was here, in the administration of food, that they had broken into cliques and factions. Some, indeed, tried to keep their focus on the significance of the Lord’s supper while others were eating as much as they could during the community meal (see 1 Cor 11:20-22, 33-34). Paul wasn’t sanctioning their divisions; he was acknowledging that the more gluttonous Christians had become a separate group within the church as they rushed to eat before others. In contrast, the Christians who reverently waited became a group as well – but they were all still united, meeting together as Christ’s church.
Throughout this entire letter, Paul’s focus has been unbending toward eliminating divisions and disunity. It is utterly inconceivable that he would sanction division among them. In the very next chapter, Paul communicates again his theme of unity, using the analogy of a body interdependently united. Everything he has written to this point is captured in his summary-thought in verse 25. Listen again to his heart:
“That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (1 Cor 12:25 KJV).
Beloved, this word translated ‘schism’ in the King James (rendered ‘division’ in the NAS), means ‘split’ in the Greek language. Translated literally, Paul is saying “there should be no split in the body.” What part of “no” don’t we understand? Unity is the central theme of First Corinthians. How could one honestly ignore entire chapters about unity and take one half verse out of context to justify a split? This is willful deception.
The Goal is Unity
In all that the New Testament declares for Christians – in all of the epistles and pastoral letters of Paul and the other apostles – the call is clearly, unmistakably toward unity, not division. There is a hurricane of spiritual wind blowing and bending the church in the direction of oneness with Christ and, because of Christ, oneness with each other. The repeated rebuke comes because of disunity and sectarianism.
What about Jesus’ admonition, that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword of division? Jesus does indeed divide us from the world (Lk 12:51). However, He eternally unites us to Himself and one another. As I searched through the New Testament on the subject of Christian unity, there were literally hundreds of verses pointing toward oneness in the born again church. After years of study on this subject, I have yet to read one verse that instructed a group of Christians to slander, divide and split from another group of Christians in a city, just because that other group was imperfect. If the truth of God calls us to unity throughout an entire city, how much more does the call to unity apply in relationships in a local fellowship?
Part of unity means we can accept that people in our church may desire to function differently than the rest of the church. This diversity needs to be defended, yet it must find its expression without contention or strife. The test is to find a creative ways to facilitate diversity while remaining united. If unity of purpose cannot be maintained, a church plant born of love and done with wisdom is a possibility.
Several years ago I approached one of our associate pastors at River of Life, Marty Boller, and asked if he was praying about moving out of state. He said yes. Marty had been a Vineyard pastor who merged with us and now, seven years later, he wanted to return to the Vineyard. Yet Marty did not want to sow division in our community, so he planned on moving to Canada to start his church! Because he was an honorable man and very committed to unity, I suggested he take a few months and explain his vision in a weekly class with those interested from our church. When Marty started a new work in our city he did so with a dozen or so ROL families, and others. Today, we remain great friends and serve together in many citywide projects. We are closer because he was patient, wise and nondivisive.
There are many ways to multiply a church as long as we stay Christlike. It’s when pride or ambition enter that division soon follows.
A Purer First Century Church?
The argument arises that the church was much purer in its early years than it is now; so today we need to separate from others because of sin in the camp. The church in Jerusalem, in its inception, certainly set a standard for us all. However, as the church expanded to other cities and cultures there were many problems; in some cases, their failures were worse than our own. Yet, the apostles who served Christ’s church still called for unity in spite of the churches’ imperfections.
Even in Jesus’ address to the seven churches in the Revelation of John, though sin existed in the churches in five cites, Christ never instructed the innocent to break from the sinners. Rather, He commended those who walked in purity and left them in the midst of the sinful as an example of His righteousness.
Another argument used to justify splits has to do with doctrinal interpretation. Let me make it clear that our doctrines are very important; they define our belief systems and open the door to spiritual realities and levels of blessedness of which we would be otherwise ignorant. Having clear biblically based doctrines also provide boundaries to keep us from deception and half truths.
However, there are both core truths and peripheral truths to our faith. There are precepts that we must be willing to die for, yet there are other instructions that good Christians interpret differently. Because we are all learning, we must be willing to yield and stay humble.
In practical terms, we cannot be united with those who do not hold the deity of Christ. Yet, we certainly can maintain the unity of the spirit, for instance, with someone who has a different view about the timing of the rapture. We cannot dilute God’s truth concerning the new covenant, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the centrality of Jesus Christ; the atonement of His cross, His bodily resurrection; His physical return; salvation by grace through faith; the Trinity and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. But we are still learning about spiritual gifts, effective church government, signs and wonders, styles of praise, and various programs that train youth and make disciples of adults.
When Jesus defined the requirements for unity in John 17, He refined unity to three core realities. These fundamental truths, if adhered to, He said would unite His people. He said spiritual oneness would come as we believed in His name, His word and glory (Jn 17:11, 20-21,22). Unity is pretty simple if we sincerely desire it.
However, to split a church because of a disagreement concerning peripheral doctrines is a smoke screen. It is a deception. There are those who argue they are taking their stand in defense of God’s word. Yet, how can they divide a church in defiance of God’s word? A person who will split a church over a nonfundamental doctrine or over a spiritual gift or style of worship is deceived and seeking to deceive others.
Lord, forgive us for accepting divisions. Heal Your church, O God! Bring us into Christ-centered unity, that the world would believe in Your power. Amen.
Used by permission.