The Sin of Division

Bruce Terry

This past year I have heard of several church splits. I wonder if the people in these churches have ever really considered the prayer of Jesus in John 17: "I . . . pray for . . . those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one . . ." (vv. 20-21). Certainly they were not thinking of Jesus and His prayer while they were arguing with one another. Oh, I'm sure there were plenty of quotes from His word before the split came. All kinds of scriptures are quoted during church splits, but God's will is rarely considered--I mean His will as regards division. I have never seen a church split result in true glory to God, and I doubt if I ever will.

People on both sides who contribute to a church split simply do not realize the seriousness of their actions: it will send them to hell! Paul wrote to the Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21). Notice that eight of the fifteen sins listed have to do with church splits. Verses 15 and 24 indicate that the Galatian Christians had the same kind of problems that we have today: "But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another." And "let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another." Paul is especially clear that this sin will condemn a man to hell in Titus 3:9-11: "But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned. " Jude describes people who split churches in this way: "It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit" (Jude 19). Paul makes it clear in Romans 8:9 that any person who does not have God's Spirit is not really a Christian. It is truly a severe censure; but when we realize that church division strikes at the very center of God's plan for unity (Eph. 4:3-6), we begin to understand that division is one of the worst sins there is.

The church at Corinth had a problem with church division. They had a lot of other problems--serious problems, we would say, such as incest and denying the future resurrection. But of all their problems, the one that Paul addresses first was their problem of church division. Perhaps this should give us some idea of just how serious God considers this problem. Paul begins the body of his letter to them with an exhortation to be united: "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions [or, divisions--KJV] among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Cor. 1:10-13)

Paul goes on to talk about the wisdom of this world and the true wisdom from God. Some have thought that this is a new subject. They have missed Paul's point. It was human wisdom that was the cause of the division. All church splits are caused by men thinking for themselves. Now it is certain that God wants us to use our minds; that's what He gave them to us for. But too often we use our minds to go away from God. Instead of thinking about the word of God, we use the word of God to support the conclusions reached by our thinking. The scriptures become the evidence used by our thinking, not the foundation of it. There is a difference. The Corinthians had the same problem: they were using the wisdom of the world. Paul reminded them that not many of them were wise in the eyes of the world and that the preaching that had converted them was not done in the world's kind of wisdom. He said, however, that there was God's kind of wisdom in that preaching, the kind that is understood by spiritual men. But they were not spiritual, they were fleshly, so long as they had jealousy and strife among them and were saying, "I belong to this man or that man." After all, these men were just servants of God; God is the One who really gives the increase. The person involved in splitting a church is no spiritual giant defending the faith; he is a fleshly babe using the wisdom of this world. And this is true even if he takes the right side of an "issue."

In I Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul says. ". . . you [plural--that is, the church] are God's temple. . . . If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him." Pretty strong words! We must learn to take them seriously. After Paul advises those who think they are wise to become fools (that they may be truly wise), he gives the correct view that permits no disunity. He says, "you [plural] are Christ's" (I Cor. 3:23). You see, even the "Christ-group" were involved in the disunity at Corinth. (Note that I Corinthians 1:11-12 says, "there is quarreling . . . . What I mean is that each one of you . . .") Instead of saying, "We all belong to Christ," those in the "Christ-group" were each saying, "Well, as for me, I belong to Christ." They held the right object of their faith, but they held it with a sectarian viewpoint. So this brings Paul's corrective teaching, "You all belong to Christ." That is the basis for all church unity.

Then in the next chapter Paul gives the secret of God's wisdom as regards unity. In I Corinthians 4:6 he writes, "I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another." If we will simply remember that we all are Christians and just stick to what the Bible teaches, and not press our reasonings from scripture on each other, we can learn to get along together, like the Bible teaches that we must.

But some will say, "But if someone is trying to press his opinions on you, or to teach false doctrine, then you have to split the church sometimes so that truth can be maintained. [Here they usually twist I Corinthians 11:19 to 'prove' their point.]" Such people have missed the importance that God places on unity. For you see, to split a church is false doctrine--false doctrine of the worst kind. God never commanded it; it is purely done in the wisdom of men. Have you ever noticed that among the seven churches of Asia to whom the book of Revelation is addressed, two were infected with false teaching: Pergamum and Thyatira. Christ calls on them to repent, but he never tells those who did not believe these false doctrines to split off and form a "true" or "loyal" church. In fact, in Revelation 2:24 he says, "But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold to this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay upon you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have, until I come."

We are not called by God to split churches to preserve the truth of God's word. That calls for teaching, exhortation, exemplary living, and sometimes even church discipline, but not church division. May God grant us the wisdom to follow His teaching on unity, so that Christ's prayer can be answered "that they may all be one; . . so that the world may believe that thou has sent me."

--Bruce Terry      
December 1982

This article originally was published as:
Terry, Bruce. 1983. The Sin of Division. Firm Foundation 100 (Jan. 18).

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