Aren’t there legitimate secondary or tertiary reasons to divide from a local church? That is essentially the first question I get asked whenever I talk about church divisions or that the Bible never calls Christians to divide. The only time it calls for division is when you’re dividing from the false teachers because the good news message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the grave is on the line. That said, Google tells me we have around 200 Christian denominations in the United States and 45,000 worldwide—surely, they can’t all be wrong?
Plus, I usually know why people are asking. They have left a church and are looking for grounds to further support the decision. Listen, I’ve dealt with this in the past but, to summarize that post, gathering with like-minded believers over a secondary matter of conviction is not necessarily a division. Read that again, real slow this time. In that earlier post, I didn’t mention what could be such conscience-sensitive cause for remaining dividing, but, in this post, I’m going to explore that a bit.
Denominational Distinctions Do Not Equal Division
Let’s say that you had two groups of Christians that believed the same things except for one topic: the purpose of baptism.
Group A firmly believes that baptism is a symbol that publicly professes belief and identification in Christ. Group B firmly believes that baptism is the current symbol of identification into God’s visible community on earth.
|Group A Believers
|Group B Believers
|God knows true believers
|God knows true believers
|True invisible universal church
|True invisible universal church
Both groups believe that true Christians are only known by God, both groups believe in the invisible universal church. Group A knows for a fact that there have been cases in the past where people who have been baptized didn’t really believe. Group B also knows that there are people who have been baptized as part of God’s visible community that haven’t grown up to become believers.
I think that ideally these groups can be part of one local assembly. As Mike Russell said in the original post linked to in this thread, the division over these lines winds up being comfortable within denominational walls. I also know the reality that this one topic can become a point of constant re-clarification, some confusion, and even unnecessary combat.
Now let’s say that Group A and Group B were one local assembly. Yes, they had the constant re-clarification, some confusion, and even at some points, unnecessary combat. Does the Bible ever encourage a division here? Well, no. Either both groups are wrong, or one group is wrong, but in all cases, there is no encouragement to divide. The gospel isn’t at stake. The church might have to figure out how to navigate these two perspectives but there is no real justification for the one church becoming two.
Integrity Demands Unity with Signed Denominational Confession
Though, let’s say a break happened anyway. Let’s say the break was so strange that they formed a second exact building right next door. Group A Believer Baptizing Church and Group B Covenant Baptizing Church.
If you are coming in from the outside and deciding which group to gather with, I believe you have the freedom to choose according to your beliefs. But, absent a signed statement of faith, if you’re within one of the two gatherings I think dividing over the topic leaves you back in the position of the original church split: you must go back to Scripture only to rediscover that there is no mandate for dividing for this reason.
You might be able to contrive a bunch of pragmatic reasons (example: teaching your children, best for your spiritual growth, encourages a community that practices all the—to your conviction—right beliefs) but none of those will properly justify the division.
Now, imagine that Group A and Group B formed a confession of faith. That confession of faith listed all the beliefs including the belief in baptism. To be a member of either group required signing that confession of faith. In that case, because a change of belief now takes the form of not adhering to your professed confession, I believe it is necessary to retract said confession and then switch to the place that has the adhered confession.
The reason has nothing to do with the division, but everything to do with integrity in light of the statement of faith. Proverbs 11:3 says that the integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that people shouldn’t make oaths rather their integrity is so sure that they’re spoken yes and no matches exactly what they intend to do—anything else comes straight from the evil one. That Statement of Faith that a person signs to belong to Group A or Group B is their “Yes, I agree” and a change in belief should now be reflected in the agreement so that the individual should go elsewhere.
No Signed Confession Means No Reason For Division
Absent a required agreement with a statement of faith, if the churches are biblically faithful, especially if both churches leave the topic of baptism as a non-essentially held doctrine in either position, there is no Biblical reason to divide. One might have to learn to love. One might have to learn to share their opinion without fighting. One might even have to learn to be convicted without trying to dissuade others. All of these have good Biblical grounding: be it welcoming those who we think are weak in faith (Romans 14:1), not judging fellow believers (Romans 14:10-13), careful in listening (James 1:9), even keeping the matter as a conviction before God (Romans 14:22-23), while striving for peace (Hebrews 12:14).
Okay forget the hypothetical now. We know plenty of gatherings that have unwritten rules (like suits must be worn on Sundays, or dark dresses by the ladies), but are they confessions of faith? In some cases, those things might be the elements of personal freedom that are sacrificed out of love for others (1 Corinthians 9).
Of course, none of this is to be taken as a stance against having a confessional statement of faith. I think it’s wise for a Christian assembly to look back to the ancient confessions to find the outlines of the non-negotiables (Check out the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicaean Creed as affirmed in Constantinople). Reading those creeds, Christians will find that outside of the non-negotiables, there is a ton of freedom.
With that ton of freedom comes very little room to just up and leave where you are.
Wise Questions to Ask Before Dividing From a Local Church
Usually, at this point, someone will say “okay, fine, there is no legitimate Biblical reason to go to another church, but in light of everything you just said, are there wise reasons to leave a church?” Absolutely there are wise reasons. I don’t think people will like my answers, though.
In today’s world, there is no Group-A and Group-B church which are identical in all ways except for one doctrine. There are gradations of concerns and topics that need to be considered.
Here is a slew of questions. These are all questions of wisdom and not doctrine. These questions are much more important than questions people usually ask (do they have a music style I like, is the preaching short and exciting, and so on). Some of these questions are never asked.
- How new is the church?
- How equipped are the church leaders to handle life’s problems? This is important. There will be times where local leaders have to be called because a baby has died or because a teen has been put in prison or because the husband just ran out of the home.
- How much life has been lived by these people? This is important because the church is comprised of a community that will bear each others burdens.
- If a church is two weeks old, why is it two weeks old? Is it a new plant? Are they missionaries? Are there no other churches with like beliefs? Why did this church have to come along and exist if there are similar churches?
- Do other people in the community know this church or the leaders?
- What is the population of the church like? Is it diverse (old and young, dark and light) or is it homogenous?
- “Will my kids have friends” is a valid question but be careful of only answering it in terms of “their age”. I’ve been in several assemblies. In one, we would lose almost all the young people every 8 years. I had friends that were several years younger. In other assemblies, I’ve seen children running up and hugging the elderly.
- How far is it from my home? I would always recommend a church that is closer to one’s home that matches most of one’s convictions than one that matches all convictions and is almost an hour away. The reason being that people will always find reasons not to go to church that is further away (it’s cold and raining tonight).
- Will I be able to help here (note I didn’t ask “Will I grow here” that’s a whole different topic that delves into the navel-gazing perspective of our society)? What can I be doing here in five years? Or ten? Or fifteen? This question isn’t about your agenda or your growth potential, but your ability to be an active member of the assembly and using your priesthood and giftedness to do things that helps the expansion of the gospel in your area while encouraging the saints.
- Are there people here that need to be loved? This isn’t a looking-for-a-spouse question but rather a question about how you can be an encouragement to the saints in the local gathering. A church that is full of struggling elderly is full of people that can be loved and helped while also being faithful examples that encourages our faith and the faith of our children!
Sorry: Conviction Is Not A Reason to Divide From a Local Church
“Okay, fine, I don’t like your answers or your wise questions but I do like the part of conviction. What if I’m meeting at a church where, to me, the matter of conviction is so great that I feel it would be a sin to stay in the church?” Or sin to not-leave the church, if you allow it. Throughout my life, I’ve seen plenty of folk leverage conviction in this sort of way. I heard an example of a man who was so convinced he was married to the wrong woman, that he felt that he was sinning remaining married. I know of another example of a person who finds sin in every church so, due to his conscience, he felt it was sin to be part of any gathering.
We will always come up for reasons not to commit to a local assembly and submit to local leaders. We are reason-generating machines. It can range from the style of preaching and music, through the way this or that person rubs you wrong, to what the building committee is deciding to do about the ugly carpet in the hallway. Or mask mandates. Or which side of the aisle folk are banking on. Or, well, you can insert just about any issue here and up the ante by moralizing it.
Being part of a local assembly for the Lord’s Supper and sitting under the preached word of God is not only a matter of wisdom or conviction: it’s a matter of obedience. If you are new to town and have not yet committed, do so. The Scripture doesn’t have any normalized picture of a churchless Christian. The Scripture doesn’t have any normalized picture of convicted Christians dividing and staying home.
If one is already gathering at a local church, they should be leaning into that local church as a fellow priest before deciding to cut all ties and go elsewhere. If one is moving out of an area, they should be working with their current leaders to find a church—they will listen to sermons, make phone calls, speak to leaders.
I’m sure there were plenty of people in Corinth who would go on a Sunday and sit there thinking “Is this good for my soul?” Paul writes the people in Corinth and tells them “stay on guard, stand firm, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love.” (1 Cor 16:13). Then, right after, he tells the people to keep working with the people who are working (1 Cor 16:15-18). Not to divide. Not to leave. Not to go home. Stay, keep working, and recognize the ones who are working.
Well, that’s a long answer but I expect further questions. Hey, let me end this by sharing this biting satirical piece by John Crist.