How to Stop Serious Church Division

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Millions of individuals make up the church. No two are exactly alike. Because of these millions of differences, the church is inherently diverse. Sometimes, these natural differences rise to the level of church division. I’d like for us to think about these differences and gain some understanding of when those differences become displeasing to Jesus.

Divisions in the church often focus on 1 Corinthians . A friend of this website inquired whether Paul was speaking of denominational differences or differences within the local congregation. He observed, correctly that the context of 1 Corinthians 1 is the local congregation. We must be careful when extrapolating from a localized context into a broader, even global, context of application. Let’s study this passage in this context and see if we can reasonably apply his teachings to the present world of Christendom. I think so.

The Context of 1 Corinthians

The apostle Paul planted the church in Corinth (Acts 18, 1 Corinthians 2:6) and worked with the Corinthian church for about 18 months (Acts 18:11). Some scholars believe that Paul made as many as three visits to Corinth and wrote as many as four letters. The apostle worried about the faithfulness, growth, and stability of all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28) and had numerous concerns about the brethren in Corinth.

As the first issue addressed in the Corinthian letter, the budding church division is serious. The apostle spends as much space discussing the problem as he devotes to the incestuous man of chapter 5. Members of the local church were so concerned that they wrote Paul for guidance.

The Nature of the Problem                                                

Brethren in Corinth were separating themselves based on their allegiance to their teachers. Even those devoted, at least in word, to Jesus had fallen into the divisions.  These groups were dividing or denominating themselves into discreet groups. There is no evidence that these groups deviated from the unchangeable doctrines of the faith. Hence the importance of reminding the brethren of their unity in Christ and their membership in the one body.

From time to time, I’ve termed the Corinthian division “incipient denominationalism.” The church is divided by those who believe in Christ but teach differently than He did. Protestants agree on little. Indeed, given the differing doctrines that divide us, it is no wonder that the world pays little heed to the gospel. Let us abandon denominationalism now. The ever-growing number of churches that cannot agree with one another hinder evangelism.

Let us all stand together on the foundation of God’s word alone. Let us reject any teaching that is not surrounded by and supported by the teaching of Jesus and his inspired writers.

But when does a grouping become a division? When does it rise to sinfulness? When does immaterial separation become material, the irrelevant, relevant?

How We Group

Shared Experiences

People group themselves with others who have shared similar experiences. Men tend to hang around men, women with women. Those who like to hunt and fish seek others of similar hobbies. Mothers of small children seek support from other women. When you travel and coincidentally meet someone from your hometown, you feel an association with them (c.f. Acts 18:13). Sports fans coalesce around others who hold the same team allegiance.

Shared Trauma

Suffering causes us to seek others who can truly empathize with our pain. Chronic illness, or the death of a spouse or a child, cannot be understood by those who have not also experienced a similar loss. As a minister, I try to understand, but I can only go so far. People need others who have passed through the same dark valley to comprehend their struggle.

For example, the grip of addiction has given rise to social groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as related support groups for families of the addicted. Shared trauma forges strong bonds between sufferers, hopefully for their betterment. The apostles clung to one another after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:12 – 14). They shared the terrible loss of Jesus in a way few others could understand.

Shared Faith

Peter writes to those who share the same faith with him (2 Peter 1:1). This “like, precious faith” (NKJV), binds individuals together into a kingdom of righteousness. Strength comes from association with others who hold the same beliefs. God, in great wisdom, brought his people together in the one body, the church (Colossians 1:18), because in the body, common blessings and a common strength are found. This union revolves around and is centered on Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is a moment of personal and shared reflection as we gather with one another and Christ (Luke 22:14 – 23).

Division as a Matter of Priority is Serious Church Division

Good things can become bad. There are at least two ways this can happen. Maybe you can think of others. If so, please add them to the comments.

Elevation is Serious Church Division

Good things become bad when we view our social group as more important than others. This superior viewpoint denigrates others who are not in the group while giving unwarranted praise to those in the group. For example, members of a Bible class might think they are spiritually superior because they attend the class, while others do not. Surely, those others are less Christlike!

Jesus taught us to affect the world positively. He called his followers “the salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13. We are to have an impact in every corner of life. That includes the home, the workplace, the school, and the public square. But a chosen candidate must never upstage our unity in Christ. All political candidates have serious failings. As we try to affect society as salt, we make choices. But it’s easy for those choices to become so rigid we allow them to cause church division. Shameful!

Sports rivalries may evolve into angry disputes over which team is better. What began as joking and good-natured ribbing after a victory may turn hurtful and generate anger. Our sports group is not that important. Whether my team wins tonight or loses, there will be no difference for me tomorrow. But the unity of the body of Christ has enormous implications now, tomorrow, and into eternity.

Any earthly issue that is elevated above unity with Christ is sinful. When we elevate the things elevated by Jesus, we stand on solid ground.

Exclusion is Serious Church Division

Things can become bad when we exclude others from the fellowship that Christ has added.

Historically, the church division has been caused by many immaterial things. We’ve divided between rich and poor, black and white, republican and democrat. We have saddened our Lord by these unimportant divisions.

The brothers in Corinth had coalesced into small groups around their favorite preacher. They may have been excluding others from their groups and shunning them. It’s not clear what the mechanics of the issue were, but whatever it was, Paul sternly rebuked them.

Still, The church must draw lines sometimes. We must exclude the divisive person (Titus 3:10; Romans 16:17; Galatians 5:20; 2 John 10). We defend the faith (Jude 3), and rebuke where needed (Luke 17:3). Our mission is to draw lines where Jesus drew them and nowhere else. No one has the authority to change the tiniest command of Christ. We must always stand for truth. What we must not do is exclude from our fellowship our fellow brethren in the Lord. We must not contribute to church division.

5 Ways to Stop Church Division

  1. Develop a sense of personal humility. When we elevate ourselves above others, we create seeds of division. Paul wrote, Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). A humble spirit is a key spiritual attribute that we should develop. It will help us, but it will also help stifle division from self-elevation.
  2. Actively associate with many different people. You cannot learn about a woman from a man. You cannot learn about a black man from a white man. You cannot learn about a Republican from a Democrat. Jesus sought associations with all social strata. In John 8 Jesus showed true compassion to an adultress. In Luke 7:36ff, Jesus ate with a Pharisee. In Matthew 8:5ff, he enters the home of Roman Centurion. As we broaden our circle of friends, we learn to love.
  3. Be the Mixer. Ok, this one can be tricky, but create events involving people from all walks of life. Be the one who brings people together. Help others see the value in the strengths of others. Jesus’ apostles included a tax collector and a zealot. There’s an example of being a mixer.
  4. Refuse to Build Walls. We must learn to say “no” to divisive thoughts, plans, and actions. Help others tear down walls, but never hand a brick to a wall-builder. When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn apart (Mark 15:38). Division between God and man was removed. When Cornelius, a Gentile, was baptized, the division between Jews and the rest of humanity was shattered (Acts 11:18). Jesus was a wall-wrecker, not a wall-builder.
  5. Add Unity to Your Prayer List The prayer of Jesus in John 17, uttered moments before his betrayal and arrest, includes this precious plea: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:11). We should mimic His prayer every day to combat church division.

Blood really is thicker than water, especially the blood of Jesus. Let us stand together and stop church division! Will you tear down barriers between yourself and others? Will you be a builder?