by Tom Ascol
When an atom is split, its overall mass is reduced and a tremendous amount of energy is released. The results, graphically demonstrated by the two atomic bombs that ended World War II, can be massively destructive, with effects that linger for generations.
The reactions that result from atom splits have their counterparts in the spiritual realm with church splits. When a congregation experiences division, the consequences are often devastating, widespread, and long lasting.
The sinful severing of relationships always breeds betrayal and disillusionment. In a church, where members relate to each other as interdependent components of one body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-30; Eph. 4:25), the pain caused by schism can also give rise to mistrust and cynicism, two emotional weeds that, if not uprooted, will prevent the kind of love and vulnerability that are essential to genuine gospel fellowship.
These negative consequences inevitably undermine a church’s mission to be a city on a hill that displays the glory of God to a lost and dying world. The message of reconciliation rings hollow when proclaimed by people who cannot get along with each other. Francis Schaeffer warned of the damning impact that divisiveness in churches has on evangelism.
The world looks, shrugs its shoulders, and turns away. It has not seen even the beginning of a living church in the midst of a dying culture. It has not seen the beginning of what Jesus indicates is the final apologetic—observable oneness among true Christians who are truly brothers in Christ.
No wonder the Bible places great emphasis on church unity and warns so strongly against church divisiveness. Nothing less than the glory of God, the spiritual health of believers, and the advance of the gospel are at stake when a church’s unity is threatened.
The Apostle Paul was once asked to help a church plagued with open immorality, arrogance, doctrinal error, and other problems. Though each of those problems is significant and has the potential to destroy a church, division in a congregation will prevent any of them from being resolved redemptively. That is why Paul gives it priority in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
After greeting them and expressing thanks for God’s grace in their lives, Paul directly confronts their disunity: “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 Cor. 1:10). Paul urges them to be unified in their testimony, understanding, and judgment in the things that pertain to Christ.
Paul’s admonition echoes Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His followers in John 17:11, 21-23. No church that seeks to honor Christ or heed Apostolic instruction can fail to make the pursuit of genuine unity an ever-urgent priority. Indeed, believers cannot live up to their high calling without walking in “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3; see Phil. 1:27; 2:2).
Despite Scripture’s strong warnings against schism and repeated appeals for unity, sometimes churches—even good churches—experience unfortunate divisions. Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” over the role of John Mark in their planned second missionary journey. Despite their genuine godliness and usefulness in the kingdom, their differences over this matter “separated [them] from each other” (Acts 15:39). Luke’s record of this sad event serves as a sober reminder that no fellowship of believers is immune to division.
When church unity is disrupted, how should members respond? Even in the most dire of circumstances, church members must always remember Christ, submit to His lordship, and obey His Word. Controversy is never an excuse to sin.
Our Lord was betrayed and abandoned by His own Apostles. Yet, He continued faithfully to do His Father’s will. Churches that bear His name and that exist under His authority and blessing can dishonor Him in many ways. Yet, He continues to love, nurture, and guide them while calling them to repent (Rev. 2-3). Like Him, His followers must continue to love the church—and particular churches particularly—even when division mars its witness.
When sorrows and disappointments tempt you to give up on the church, remember that our Lord shed His blood for His bruised and broken bride. Remember, also, that one day, because of His resurrection, every wrong will be made right and every sinful division will be healed. Sing often the words of Samuel John Stone’s hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” especially the lesser-known fourth verse:
Though with a scornful wonder Men see her sore oppressed, By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distressed: Yet saints their watch are keeping, Their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping Shall be the morn of song!
When a church splits, many people are inevitably hurt by sinful attitudes and actions. On such occasions, we must remember that our Master knows what this is like and has shown us how to respond (1 Peter 2:19-25). As those who have been forgiven, we must forgive. As those who may have participated in sin, we must repent, remembering that this is precisely why Jesus died.