by Nick McDowell
“We’re leaving the church.” This is what my dad had just been told by a family over a change we were making. While I had been a pastor’s kid since I was 3 years old and this was hardly the first time someone had left a church I was attending, I was somewhat shocked at the reason. The church and its leadership had just gone through a year-long process of prayer, vision-casting, and planning to chart out a new direction. We needed a new direction. Our leadership knew it. Our people knew it. But there was disagreement as to what precisely that should be. For this family, the direction our leadership felt led to go meant they needed to break from a body that they had been a part of for over 20 years. We were truly sad to see them leave.
Disagreements will happen. They happen in friendships, marriages, and within organizations, including local churches. We even read about sharp disagreements in Scripture (see Paul and Barnabas). Disagreements aren’t wrong, but a failure to reconcile and unify in the midst of disagreement is nothing to celebrate. While we hated to see that family go, they at least left peacefully. It was better for them to leave than to stay and sow discord. Unfortunately, some people did stay and sow discord. That is where disagreement turns into a nastier word…division.
Division is a tricky word when it comes to discussing the Kingdom of God. Division IS going to part of the walk of a follower of Christ. It isn’t optional. We will be divided from the world. We should be divided from sin. We can have no unity with sinful behavior or beliefs that are contrary to Scripture. We firmly stand against that and against those that would align themselves with those beliefs (while still praying for their eyes to be opened and to turn from their wicked ways). Jesus told us that He will bring division even within families (Luke 12:51-53). It’s an inevitable division. If you are a follower of Christ, you unify around Christ and His word, and if something or someone won’t follow Jesus, the Jesus that we clearly see in Scripture, then there will be a barrier that divides the faithful Christian from them.
The enemy will tempt us, puff us up, and deceive us (that’ll be a later post) in order to DIVIDE us. Not a division between the world and Christ, but division within the body of Christ. This is not healthy and it is something we should be on guard against. Division in the church is something that can cause a LOT of damage and the repercussions can have a long-lasting impact.
There are many times in the New Testament that we are exhorted to strive for unity. Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
~ John 17:20-21 ~
Paul was adamant about unity and being patient with others if disagreements arise:
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 ~
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
~ Colossians 3:13 ~
Try as we might, there are those in our midst who just cause trouble. Paul and Jude both shared their thoughts on this:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.
~ Romans 16:17 ~
But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
~ Jude 1:17-19 ~
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.
~ Titus 3:10 ~
The truth is that sometimes we can fall into the trap of being that divisive person. No one wants to be divisive, but before you know it, if I have the wrong attitude and mindset, I become the one causing the problem. What can we take from Scripture to help us understand what real division in the church is, how to avoid it, and discern when division becomes something else entirely?
1. Choose the right hills to die on. There are times when we must take a stand on something. Jesus being both divine and human, His death & resurrection, atonement, sin, hell, God-inspired authority of Scripture, and clear sexual boundaries are areas that have major spiritual implications. We cannot veer away from Scripture in these areas. There are things foundational to the Christian faith. But what about the type of music? Full-immersion vs. sprinkling for baptism? The time of the worship service? We might have disagreements on things we view as important, but they aren’t hills worth dying in. Remember, there are foundational truths. There are certain interpretations on things (which bring about different doctrines), and then there are simply preferences. Don’t allow the enemy to take root and cause division when it’s not necessary.
2. Unity does not mean uniformity. Even the most unified group of people carry differences. Peter and Paul seemed to have different approaches to ministry. People can agree to disagree on method and approach and it does not mean there is division at the foundation. A speaker I heard one time put it this way (paraphrasing): ‘Unity in belief does not mean uniformity in expression.’ So yes, we have different denominations with different doctrines who still agree on foundational truths of Christianity. This should not be equated with being divided.
3. Practice kindness, respect, and patience. When we do have disagreements, be kind and understanding toward others. If you differ with someone on a ministry approach or idea, especially if it is with leadership, talk to them privately. If it is a major issue in your opinion, tell them why you believe it is so important. Attempt to see the other side and the big picture. Take time to pray and self-reflect. Is your heart in the right place? Is the disagreement something you truly cannot get past to be able to worship alongside brothers and sisters in Christ? The enemy loves to convince us that we are justified in acting disrespectfully if it’s for a “good cause.” Be wise and patient. Don’t sow discord for personal preference.
4. When disagreement becomes heresy. There are times when a disagreement becomes division. Perhaps you have tried to keep the peace or had discussions with leadership detailing your concerns about the direction of the church. Know that you can and should respectfully walk away from a church if leadership embraces anything opposed to the foundational truths of the Christian faith. At that point we are called to hold leadership accountable. That is not being divisive, but it is a necessary call to repentance. If leadership and/or the congregation is heading a direction that is heretical, then we are not called to be a part of that. It is no longer Christ’s Church if and when a local church separates from Christ Himself. The division has already happened at that point. Kindly call for repentance and if nothing changes, it is time to leave.
The world is watching us. How we treat one another serves as a testimony to our relationship in Christ. If we fail to reflect Christ to other followers (let alone those outside the Church), what should we expect the world to think of us?
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
~ John 13:35 ~
In the midst of the chaos around us, may we seek and find unity in Jesus Christ, committing our lives to prayer, Scripture, service, and submission to the Holy Spirit’s direction. It is only in all of us putting to death our sinful nature and allowing God to transform us that we can experience the unity Christ desires for His people. Don’t allow the enemy to divide us!