Imagine my surprise while eating lunch at a table filled with preachers to hear one fellow brag to another about how many church splits he had instigated. I was horrified. As far as I was concerned, such an acknowledgement should be an embarrassment.
It does not take too much insight to understand how he thought, even though I have never experienced a church split. I wonder how deeply he considered the following observations and antidotes before triggering each division.
Some reasonable assumptions when analyzing church splits are:
- Both sides almost certainly think they are right. Everyone views themselves as rescuing the congregation from some sort of problem, whether doctrinal or perhaps stagnation, toward a godly goal such as faithfulness or vitality. This helps explain the conversation I overheard. A very divisive person might perceive himself or herself to be “saving” part of a congregation from a problem by instigating a church split.
- Neither side is willing to yield to the other.
- At least one party values something more highly than peace and unity. This might range from a preacher, who is convinced that a certain set of changes will yield substantial growth thereby establishing his legacy, to a conviction arising from among the pews that others are espousing heretical teaching. And let’s not forget how ego, hurt pride, or the need for power could be more precious to someone than pursuing the unity of Christ’s body. Carnal trappings undermine sanctification.
- During the rancor of division, often one or more individuals will become disillusioned leading them to abandon worshiping God.
If we are willing to take the medicine, scripture provides a number of antidotes for divisiveness.
- For starters, to be a disciple involves being crucified with Christ, that is dying to self (Mark 8:34; Romans 6:6). Since a disciple’s purpose demands serving the Lord, there can be no room in the heart for exalting one’s own agenda, beliefs or values.
- God’s plan involves working through Christ to unite the things in heaven and those on earth, as well as to bring both Jew and Gentile together within one body (Ephesians 1:10; 2:21-22; 14-18). This aligns with Christ praying for his followers to be unified (John 17:21).
- The church is instructed to preserve the unity that God has forged (Ephesians 4:3). Thus the Christian ought to be working with God to promote godly living and unity, not against him which would lead to grieving the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).
- The church is to avoid sitting in God’s judgment seat to make those determinations whether something is acceptable or not (1 Corinthians 4:5). God will judge the quality of each one’s ministry (1 Corinthians 3:12-17). Instead, God’s people are to follow the teachings and judgments God has revealed and not go beyond them (1 Corinthians 4:6). In this way, God is exalted instead of powerful personalities.
- Christian love for one’s brother or sister for whom Christ died causes the mature disciple to forgo liberty, rather than destroy a fellow Christian and sin against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:11-12). I can imagine someone coming before the Lord in judgment enthusiastically claiming how his splitting the church was worth the price to provide growth. And then a voice is heard, “I died for those whom you so easily dismiss.”
How many congregational divisions could have been avoided, if both sides would have embodied just these principles?