The church today is known by her division. She’s gotten a reputation. Maybe social media makes it seem worse than it is, but that doesn’t matter.
That said, this doesn’t mean that all divisions are wrong. Paul, noting the divisions in ancient Corinth (1 Cor 11:18) pointed out that through divisions they would identify their true working Christians (1 Cor 11:19). Indeed, in Romans 16:17, Paul both warns about division and then encourages it in the same verse!
So, what should the church do? In seeking to be known by her love (John 13:35) should the church pursue unity at all costs? When, if ever, is it right to divide?
What Is Church Division?
Church division, or schism, is when the assembly of God’s people (the church) separate, breaking their unity, for some reason. Division happens for right or wrong reasons. This is important to know because it means that division isn’t necessarily evil. What causes church division can vary and that’s what must be examined.
Division Is Never the Goal
The repeated teaching of Scripture is that Christians are to aim at unity. The picture of a whole united body growing to the full stature of Christ the head of the church (Ep 4:13) is used several times in Scripture (Romans 12, 1 Cor 12). Christians are called to make sure that there are no divisions (1 Cor 1:10) putting on love as the perfect bond of unity (Col 3:14).
Christians are called to be of the same attitude toward one another (Roman 12:16; 15:5) putting aside selfish ambition (Phil 2:3), striving together in one mind, united in the spirit, intent on one purpose (Phil 1:27; 2:2), and loving one another (John 13:35). It’s no wonder then that Paul encourages believers in Corinth, who had problems with factions, by first telling them that they’re an entire unified body and then immediately reminding them of the primacy of love (1 Cor 13)—a fact we often forget by simply using the passage for weddings.
Division was and is never the goal of the local church.
Unity at All Costs Is Division from the Truth
Yet, unbelievers and believers alike charge Christians to act like Christ who was known (they say) by his universal acceptance. We hear things like: Christ wasn’t dogmatic; Christ loved; we should be part of Christ’s form of Christianity, not this dogmatic intolerant Christianity.
This is exactly where Paul offers a biblical reason for division.
In Romans 16:17 he says to divide from those who but obstacles to the true teaching that the Roman Christians had learned. To be a follower of Christ is to follow him and the teaching he has handed down through the apostles. It is so important that Paul draws the demarcation line as the teaching the early church had learned.
Because unity at all costs was never the goal. Unity at all costs is really a uniform idol in opposition to God. If it’s a question between this idol of unity and the true faith once delivered for the saints, then this idol must topple.
Divide from Those Who Embrace Division from the Truth
Christ, accused of casting out demons in the name of the Devil, pointed out that a house divided against itself can’t stand (Matt 12:25). It was a clear picture that has application when it comes to division in the church. If the church is to stand in the face of the enemy, she must stand united with the totality of the living Christ.
Christ claims that he is the only way, the absolute truth, and the distinct life and that no one comes to the Father by any means except through him (John 14:6). Christ later pointed out that he is the true vine and we Christians are the branches. Branches can only live when they are part of the living vine, but a dead lose branch tangled in a vine doesn’t do anything but eventually gets thrown into a fire (John 15:1-3). A living branch produces fruit because of the vine.
You Can’t Pick and Choose Truth
Standing with the Christ who loves sinners is also standing with the Christ who says “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Sitting with the Christ who has meals with sinners means sitting with the Christ who claims that all sinners are condemned already (John 3:18) and that he has the right to judge (John 5). Walking with the Christ who offers life to all that call upon his name means walking with the Christ who heads to the cross rejected by both Jew and Gentile alike. It means knowing that many will eventually call him Lord and do amazing works in his name, but Christ never knew them (Matt 7:21-23).
Those who pit a perception of Christ against his teachings have divided themselves from the truth. The only thing left is the lie (2 Thes. 2:11-12). In this case, Paul warns about these truth-dividers (2 Corinthians 2:11:1-5, 12-15) and calls Christians to divide from them.
Examples of Biblical Division from Truth-Dividers
Historically, folk who have embraced and teach a truth-rejecting doctrine have been called heretics. A heresy is a belief (or opinion or teaching) that is contrary to the historical and correct teaching. It is not a variation of historical and orthodox teaching—that is called heterodoxy—but rather an outright choosing to contradict the teaching that was delivered. In this case, the teaching from the foundation of the church was to turn away from these false teachers.
Paul, for example, divided Hymenaeus and Alexander from the church for blasphemy. They preached a doctrine that shipwrecked the faith of others (1 Tim 1:19-20). Paul also mandated that Christians mustn’t be proud in refusing to deal with sin (1 Cor 5:6) but must divide from Christians who are actively living a publicly sinful life (1 Cor 5:9-11): they’re living a heretical lifestyle by professing one thing but living in a completely different way. John pointed out that those who had divided away were never really part of the church to begin with else they wouldn’t have left (1 John 2:19). Peter has some very harsh words for those who deny the truth (2 Peter 2) then warns believers to be on guard (2 Peter 3:17). James, in his concern for this sort of thing, warns people about being teachers (James 3:1).
Separate from Dividers, Slanderers, and Gossips
Paul reprimanded the Corinthians for the factions formed around personalities—Peter, Apollos, Paul, and even Christ (1 Cor 1:11-12)! Each of these groups had pit a facet of Christ’s body against the rest of the body (1 Cor 12:15-26). Christ, says Paul, is not divided. And the church is Christ’s body.
This is a different type of division from heresy (as above) and it’s known by biting and devouring one another with words (Galatians 5:15). This isn’t division from the truth per se but rather factionalism over whatever (1 Cor 3:3). This is the reason that Paul warns about the wickedness of gossip (Romans 1:29), the sin of slander (1 Cor 6:9-10), and the danger of foolish controversies (Titus 3:9).
These folks aren’t called out for their doctrine (Paul, Apollos and Peter taught the same things after all) but for setting up their personal wants over against others (Jude 18-19; Romans 16:17; James 3:13-15). Paul says in 1 Cor 4 that Paul and Apollos are merely tools in the hand of God so as to burst the Corinthian boasting bubble that formed around the avatars of Paul, Apollos, Peter and even Christ.
What to do about it? Paul tells Titus to warn divisive people two times then, the third time, have nothing to do with them whatsoever (Titus 3:9-11).
Reject Division Over Unimportant Matters
When the Corinthians divided into factions, it wasn’t so much about core doctrine (nature of God, nature of Christ, the Gospel, the nature of man). It wasn’t even about secondary doctrine (the second coming, the nature of baptism). This division in the church was over their own selfish ambitions evidenced in what they wanted. They wanted a good drink (1 Cor 11:21), or to seem wise (1 Cor 3:18), or have a great meal (1 Cor 8:8-9). Common, every-day, and unimportant stuff.
They had taken some nonessential thing that they wanted and made it an issue thus unnecessarily causing division.
In Romans 14 Paul lists some things that fall into this area. Listed non-essentials (like food, drink, holidays, special holy days) wind up being an opportunity for those who know better (those who are not weak in faith) to bear with the scruples of the weak and embrace one another in love. Sinful dividers, on the other hand, take these unimportant issues, perhaps casting aspersions on others and in effect “destroying the work of God” (Romans 14:19).
Here’s what’s wild: Paul agrees with one side over against another in some of these topics. Paul writes that there is no unclean food in and of itself (Romans 14:14) and yet quickly acknowledges that some people do have a problem with certain foods, and, in this case, he won’t even touch the stuff. Because the kingdom of Christ isn’t about eating and drinking (Romans 14:17) but rather peace and joy in the spirit.
Beware Opportunities for Division
Romans 14 does not contain an exhaustive list of unimportant items that Christians can divide over. The Corinthians prove that we sinful people can make an issue out of anything: the style of preaching, when to start the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:21), someone’s speaking tone (2 Cor 10:10), what something looks like (2 Cor 10:7), and the conditions for married people to be intimate (1 Cor 7)—to name a few. This just proves there are plenty of opportunities for sinful division.
In many of these cases, it is also making an issue of something that is a legitimate good. I don’t mean a moral good but something that is a gift from God. The Corinthians managed to divide over which gifts were the best, deny the gift of marital intimacy over against chastity, and embrace the good of food over above any moral goods.
That’s a problem and a warning.
Prosperity as an Opportunity for Division
I’m reminded of a scandal from years ago when an organization that managed health costs for missionaries collapsed and a huge division in the church occurred over the remaining assets. Two sides, taking a position on how the funds were to be used for God began attacking each other how one side was more worldly or materialistic. Verses were quoted, accusations arose, and eventually the whole thing came collapsed with only rumors on what really went down.
This harsh lesson of sudden wealth destroying what God has given, and in some cases believers who stood in the midst of that storm, just underscores a cold fact. The harshest trials can come during times of extreme prosperity because we all underestimate pride, selfish ambition, and how we sinfully can take a good and perfect gift from God as a cause for division. We must constantly be on guard.
Elders and Deacons Must Not Take Sides
Leaders: be warned. The modern Western church is wealthy beyond any previous church in history. This means that there are plenty of dangerous lures for division—but they never look that way.
When it comes to non-issues, even about legitimate (yet not moral) goods, don’t take sides. By your actions, you are giving arsenal to gossipers and dividers to dig trenches in the local assembly. By your actions, you are drawing a dividing line which unnecessarily separates the believers based on their position on this non-moral issue.
In the extremely rare cases where you as a leader have to take a side on a non-moral non-theological non-essential issue (like Paul pointing out that meat isn’t clean in and of itself in Romans 14:14) it’s to be done in such a way that you’re not personally invested.
In other words, you must be willing to sacrifice your position in this issue for the sake of those around you. Paul would rather people continue avoiding meat, with the knowledge that it is clean, than have a division where people speak about that good as if it is evil. Then, he goes further, it is better not to even enjoy that common non-moral good than it is to have a brother or sister fall (Romans 14:21).
Concluding Thoughts on Division
It’s in this self-sacrificial Christ-centered way that the modern church would be known by the love we have for one another while simultaneously known by our unshakeable unity with the total truthfulness of the living Christ. Social media still might not like it but that doesn’t matter. This would be an undeniable testimony of what the true church professes to believe. The church would in this case never pit unity against truth but rather passionately embrace the truth and each other.
The church would therefore rightly divide against denial of the truth, abject sin, and those who cause division. At the same time the church would be a diverse group of people willing to interact and submit to one another about any countless non-moral good. This would come with the willing sacrifice of our own personal positions, always striving to be united in one mind and spirit, constantly working until we all together grow to the full mature stature of Christ our head.
In this effort, elders should help the congregation along to avoid division in the church over non-essentials. Be mindful to identify those who are taking advantage by generating the divisions or leveraging their supposed weakness while simultaneously rarely (if ever) taking sides in non-essential issues.