Monday, May 06, 2024

Anonymous Asks (301)

“What causes church splits?”

Let’s start with this proposition: God is gracious, and may continue to bless the efforts of his people even when they make mistakes, often in spite of them. But I think we can safely say the Lord is never behind factionalism. Even Martin Luther worked to reform Roman Catholicism from within for fifteen years before settling for the alternative.

In short, there is no such thing as a good church split. Some other outcome is always preferable, and something irreplaceable is lost in every fracture of a local testimony.

Defining the Problem

The New Testament makes room for excommunication in extreme circumstances. But excommunication is not the same as a church split. It’s a man or woman being put out of fellowship for their own long-term good. The local church excluding the erring brother or sister from fellowship remains intact. If anything, the unfortunate circumstance of having to put away a fellow believer brings God’s people together. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

Again, the New Testament contemplates individuals who leave a local church because they disagree with what it teaches (“they were not of us”). John calls them antichrists, because they went elsewhere with their false doctrine. If they had ever been on the same page with the apostle, they would have stayed, but their departure shows they were never of one mind with the believers they left behind. Even so, there is no church split involved in such an event, even if a number leave at the same time. For the local church from which false teachers depart, it’s a case of addition by subtraction.

Yet again, we have the example of men leaving a church (Antioch) to go out, preach the word and build other churches. This too is not a church split, even though 2/5 of the church’s prophets and teachers left Antioch indefinitely. It was initiated by the Holy Spirit in full agreement with those left behind, to whom Paul and Barnabas later reported. Harmonious restructurings in order to do the work of God do not harm God’s people. All they do is increase the size and reach of a local church.

In our day, families occasionally leave one local church and go to another for reasons of preference or convenience. These too are not church splits, though some are wiser and more successful than others.

But “church split” is an extra-biblical term, which makes it difficult to define scripturally. We don’t have any New Testament examples we can point to, let alone successful ones.

An Undesirable Outcome

A church split describes a situation in which some disagreement considered fundamental leads a significant bloc of believers to depart a local church to set up their own, distinct fellowship. In every case I have ever witnessed, both groups are weaker for it in the long term.

The new group may gather with enthusiasm for a while, but the initial momentum generally peters out over time, especially when the reason they left is actually not a core biblical value, as is often the case. Departing over some lesser issue — the style of music played in church, for example, or a personality conflict — has the effect of elevating a secondary or tertiary concern to an article of faith. Few real disciples of Christ are attracted to gather to a distinctive that doesn’t really matter with fractious folks who may be inclined to do it again the next time they have a disagreement.

As for those in the church left behind, they are almost always disheartened by departures, left wondering what they were doing so wrong, especially when the number leaving is large or young. In some church splits, those left behind never figure out what the real issue might have been.

My Church

The church belongs to Christ. It does not belong to us, and the New Testament sternly warns against corrupting the temple of God in this age, which is the gathered saints. Paul wrote that, to the individual who corrupts the church of God, God will do to him exactly what he has done to the church. The punishment very much fits the crime. He wrote this in the context of Corinthian factionalism.

The first few chapters of 1 Corinthians are Paul’s critique of public divisions. I say “public” because the divisive individuals were not content to quietly enjoy specific teachers, but were vocally expressing their loyalties to them above all others, as if they were the be-all and end-all, or as if they were somehow opposed to one another when they were not. (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Christ” and so on.) This is factionalism. It tries to draw away others to agree with you. The divisive person is not content to quietly make his church home where he can do so in good conscience. Instead, he makes his views known in hope of gathering sufficient disciples around him to constitute a power bloc that will either intimidate the local church into following his views, or form the basis of a new local church that agrees with his way of thinking.

Fighting Factions

This is not the way a man of conviction does business. Sometimes a local church is in a major mess. We have several examples of such situations in the later books of the New Testament, where a local church is afflicted with a Diotrephes or a Jezebel who corrupt others and leads them astray. Even in such dire circumstances, there are no commands to the local church to up sticks and leave.

The Lord’s remedy is to refuse to tolerate the false teacher. Serious public error requires public correction, not papering over a problem in hope of maintaining a false unity. John says something similar about Diotrephes: “If I come, I will bring up what he is doing.” The factionalist could expect a stern response. To those not in a position to deliver a public rebuke in the presence of the congregation (godly women, for example), the Lord’s command is to “hold fast what you have” and “keep my works”. Those who do so have the Lord’s solemn promise he will deal with the unrepentant factionalist.

In that scenario, the mission of the faithful is to resist those who would harm the church, not help them in their cause by running away in large numbers so they can take over and run the show. If someone is going to leave, let it be Diotrephes or Jezebel, and woe to those who follow them out the door!

What Causes Church Splits

Not all church splits are ignited by self-will and rejection of authority God has raised up, but these are underlying factors in many. In any case, we can say with certainty that there is no biblical basis for deliberately dividing a church and leading off a group to start your own new work. Those who do so, even with the best of intentions, are acting outside the revealed will of God.

If you cannot resist such impulses, better to slip quietly out the door than to find yourself in opposition to the Lord.

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