Division in the Church: When is it Appropriate?
Anyone who knows me on a personal level knows that my topic of interest concerning biblical matters is primarily the area of unity. I’m not certain why that is. Maybe It is because of my former unbelief and the fact that division in the Kingdom was one of my biggest stumbling blocks. I would ask myself, “How could it be, God perfect as He is, that so much mess progresses out of His Creation?” Maybe unity is such an important topic to me because I was raised in a religious environment that claimed unity when it really desired uniformity. But I suspect that the reason that unity stands out to me the most is because, in some of our Lord’s last words, Jesus passionately prayed, “Father, let them be one as you and I are one so that the world will know that You have sent Me” (John 17:21).
Some of you reading this might find it to be ironic that I am so passionate about unity. Some of my readers claim that I am divisive and provocative. They say that because I publicly question some “sacred cows” in the movement with which I am associated. I get messages and emails from people (occasionally with unfortunate language, funny enough) saying that I am putting a stumbling block in the way of the Kingdom. And they would be right if the Kingdom worked how they understand it to work. But nothing breaks my heart more than when people assume my motives, especially when their assumptions involve me being divisive. The only reason I mention the things they claim to be divisive is because these are the same things many of them divide the kingdom over. My intent is never division, but to humbly look at the things we believe and ask ourselves if said things merit division. I am not bitter towards these individuals. In fact, I respect them quite a lot. If you REALLY believe that something someone says/does/thinks is wrong, and you don’t say something about it, then do you really believe it? And where is the integrity in silence?
No, I am actually thankful for the honesty because it has provoked a question that I have been chewing on for the last couple of months. When is division in the church appropriate? I can think of 4 reasons. I will mention 3 of them briefly and then move on to my main point in the following paragraphs by talking about the 4th reason. First, it is appropriate to divide over the essentials of the Gospel. There are three different types of doctrine: primary, secondary, and preference. Preference would be matters of opinion that the church should be sensitive about (Rom 14). Secondary would be things that are true, but a Christian learns over time and growth. Primary would be doctrines that are essential for being called “Christian.” Jesus said He came to divide the godly from the ungodly (Luke 12:51; John 14:6). By definition, one is not a follower of Christ (Christian) if one doesn’t believe in His Gospel and commit to Him. Now we might have different understandings as to what is essential, but whatever is “essential” must be a clear division between Christians and the world. If one doesn’t consider another a Christian he is being divisive, but it is essential and appropriate, assuming he is correct in his understanding.
Second, it is appropriate to divide over blatant and willful disregard for God’s will. If one is a follower of Christ, then she will have a heart that tries to obey God and understand His will. Yes, she will be imperfect, but continual and willful disobedience without any change requires division (1 Cor. 5:5-8). This division is to hopefully provoke repentance from the accused for his/her own good. But the division is also so the accused will not influence the church in a negative way or blaspheme the church among the nonbelievers. Nobody is perfect, and nobody has perfect understanding, but the heart matters in Christianity. This would be appropriate division.
Third, it is possible to be physically divided while not being spiritually divided. This is not preferred, and it is the last resort, but it is possible. One individual might feel very strongly about some program (or whatever) and the ability it has to help others and bring them to Jesus. Another individual might find said program (or whatever) to be unbiblical or against their conscience. The 2 should talk, pray, and study about the issue and compromise if possible. If still there is the intense disagreement, it is appropriate (not ideal) to have a separate place of meeting if the issue in question is hurting someone else’s conscience. That said, the “stronger brother” (Rom 14) should really pray about the “necessity” of said issue before letting it get to such a point. It could be that he is just wanting to use his liberty despite the conscience of his brother. The 2 should still be willing to see each other as spiritual family even if it comes to worshipping in different locations, God forbid (See Acts 15:36-41).
Last, and this is where I really want to make my point, it is appropriate to divide when someone binds an opinion or understanding as salvific when it is not. A committed trust in Jesus alone saves us. Anything beyond that is adding to the Gospel. It is a different Gospel that isn’t the Gospel at all (Gal. 1)! It is legalism, and legalism has no place in Christianity. Paul became all things to all men that he might win some (1 Cor. 9:22). Paul did anything he could do to make the Gospel easier to hear. Even as far as having Timothy circumcised even though it wasn’t a Christian doctrine (Acts 16:3). This would have been a matter of preference and conscience, but Paul didn’t want there to be a stumbling block for the Jewish converts, so he had Timothy follow their customs.
The strange thing is, however, in Galatians we see that Paul was also with Jewish converts but commanded Titus NOT to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3-5). Why did Paul care about their opinion in one place but not in the other? Because “false Christians” (verse 4) wanted to take away their liberty and Have a Gospel for themselves (Gal. 2:6-9). Paul didn’t yield or compromise the true Gospel of Jesus Christ even for a moment! Matthew Henry says “to the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews, and all things to all men, that he might gain some. He was against those who made circumcision necessary for salvation but used it himself when it was conducive to edification; nor was he rigid in opposing it, as they were in imposing it on others” (An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testaments, Volume 5: The Acts, Pg. 120).
Man is not justified by perfect “law-keeping” but by genuine and active faith in Jesus Christ. That faith, by the Holy Spirit, will produce Christ-likeness (Gal. 2:16-21; 5:16-25). We are not to be subject to the slavery of others binding their own Gospel to us (Gal. 5:1). In fact, Scripture tells us that if one binds their opinions and/or understandings as if it were Gospel when it is not (1 Cor. 15:1-14) that individual is himself severed from Christ. He has fallen from grace (Gal. 5:3-4). We have 2 options for salvation. 1) perfect law-keeping (which nobody can do, Rom. 3:23 & 6:23). 2) Salvation in Christ, by grace, through faith (Eph. 2). If you have made the Gospel anything other than the news of and commit to Jesus, then you are not in grace. And if you are not in grace, you are severed from Christ. And if you are severed from Christ, you are divided from Him. And if you are divided from Him, you are divided from His people. This is legalism. This is self-righteousness. We must understand that we are saved by grace and through our commitment to the Gospel. Everything else is either a matter of preference or spiritual growth. If we bind our preferences or the secondary doctrines as essential, then we make another Gospel.
Don’t misunderstand me for saying that secondary doctrines aren’t important and shouldn’t be done. If someone is taught secondary doctrines and ignores them or turns their heart away from God’s will then that person is divided (as discussed earlier). But they would not be divided because of moral or intellectual imperfection. They would be divided because a heart that consciously and purposefully rejects God’s will is not a heart that is committed to Christ.
I suppose I am occasionally divisive. But, ironically, sometimes division is appropriate so that unity can be discovered the way the Lord intends. I love my religious background and have dozens of reasons for continuing to be a part of this heritage. And I know that not ALL from my heritage view things the same way. If you disagree with what I consider essential and would draw your circle a little smaller than I would, then I respect you for being honest and a person of integrity, even if that means you don’t consider me a brother. If the churches of Christ are the only Christians, then I am being divisive in a negative way. But if they are not the only Christians and I disagree with your “essentials” and welcome others in as brothers and sisters in Christ who you would not, that is only divisive in a positive way, not a negative one. By dividing from what I understand as legalistic and/or unbiblical teachings of the “essentials” I would be unifying the Kingdom as a whole, not just our sect. We should all seek unity, not division. It was in our Lord’s last breath. But yes, there are certainly times when division is appropriate in the Lord’s church. – Jesse