The church split

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Neither side is willing to yield to the other.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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?


3 Replies to “The church split”

  1. Enjoyed your article very much. I just wonder how some splits can be avoided when dealing with some brethren who act like Diotrephes, and want to have the preeminence? (3 John 9-10) If these brothers are not elders, it is a very difficult situation. Sometimes a split is unavoidable, even though we don’t desire it.

  2. I can only state what we all know. What is healthy and godly promotes unity. On the other hand, the devil’s work involves destroying all that is good. Can evil also use sincere but misguided hearts for its purposes? Sure.

    In the case of Diotrephes, self-pomotion is not compatible with dying to self. Hence, to the degree that evil influences someone that individual can become a pawn for ungodly purposes.

    If I am reading scripture correctly, it seems Paul reused his same strategy whenever addressing church tension, but he tailored the content details for each specific situation.

    We might begin by observing that conflict involves both obvious symptoms of division (“grumbling and quarreling,” “I am of Paul,” etc.) as well as the source for that divisiveness.

    1) To the church at Corinth:

    While acknowledging the existence of the symptoms (1 Cor. 1:10-12), Paul’s teachings focused on the root source. In 1 Corinthians 1-4 Paul repeatedly exalted God and God’s wisdom while simultaneously demoting human wisdom and the human messengers. Then, Paul called for the proper response to such truth (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). Finally, he prescribed a path forward (1 Corinthians 4:1f.)

    2) To the church at Philippi:

    While simultaneously acknowledging that divisive symptoms exist ‘out there’ (Phil. 1:15,17,28; 2:14), Paul’s teachings focused on root sources for divisiveness – primarily a preoccupation with self, selfish ambition, my welfare, etc. Throughout Philippians Paul repeatedly holds up the need for a selfless love that serves the needs of others. His use of stories about himself, Christ, Timothy and Ephaphroditus exemplify selfless love for others in service to Christ. To conform to the “mind of Christ,” (a lifestyle and attitude of obedience to God rejecting self-centeredness but rather finding expression in selfless service for others), promotes joy, rejoicing and peace (not division). Then Paul called for the proper response to such truth (Philippians 4:2-7 also 1:27-30). Finally, he prescribed a path forward (Philippians 4:8f.)

    Note – Usually in conflict people become preoccupied with thinking about “how I was hurt,” “what I suffered,” etc. instead of thinking about what is true, worthy of respect, etc.

    Of course, Paul’s approach assumes that those receiving the instruction actually do love the Lord and desire to conform to God’s ways, as opposed to exalting their own purposes, agenda, lifestyle, etc.

    In the end, God will judge each one. We can only control ourselves. We can promote what is true and good. 🙂

  3. Thanks Maurice for your thoughtful question. I hope that something from how Paul handled divisive situations might be suggestive of what we might do.

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