I hate it and it breaks my heart. Over the past six months I have witnessed up close the division in two churches unleashing emotions of sorrow and anger but for different reasons.
In the first situation, a church was searching for a new senior minister and one of the associates asked to take the lead role even though he had no formal Bible college experience. While the younger leader did have some great qualities, the eldership reasoned that this position required a more solid theological background than what the associate possessed. The request for the position was denied. Instead of choosing to accept the decision of the eldership, the associate first attempted a church coup to overturn the elder’s lead and when that proved unsuccessful, he initiated a church split and took half the people with him. There was no immorality on the part of the eldership or foreign doctrines; they simply required a higher standard of education for the lead role than what the associate had. Because he didn’t get what he wanted – he initiated a split.
In the second occasion, the church eldership asked the lead minister to resign. In this situation, there was no immorality on the part of the minister or practice of heretical teaching. Rather, he was working to take the church out of complacency toward a more aggressive and missional path. The eldership on the other hand was satisfied in playing life safe and controllable. But the real difference in the two situations was in how this leader responded to the decision of the elders. He had enough people who loved him in the church that he also could have initiated an eldership overthrow and if that did not work, could have launched a full church split. However, what he chose to do was humbly release it into God’s hands and step away.
In both cases, my heart goes out to someone. In the first situation, for the people of the church body that kept their cool and suffered the wrath and hysteria from those who split the church. In the second, for the minister and his family who cared more for the church even though they were the ones wronged. They could have staked their claim in pride. They however, humbly blamed no one, chose peace, and walked away leaving the whole situation in God’s hands.
In thinking again about the Bride of Christ and how we treat the church, these two real illustrations remind me of a very profound passage in 1 Corinthians chapter three dealing with divisions in the church. In verse 17 Paul warns the readers that “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him, for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”
Early on when I read that passage, I thought Paul was talking about persecution and that those who attacked the church would eventually receive God’s wrath and judgement if they did not repent. While there is probably some truth to this assessment, that interpretation does not fit the context. The section deals with divisions within the church at Corinth with various factions following different leaders. Some followed Paul and some followed Peter or someone else. Thus they ended up putting human leaders ahead of unity in Christ. This was not about differences in imperative doctrines, but personalities and possible preferences. They divided on what they wanted instead of what was really important and Paul made it clear this was no small deal. As noted in a blog post a few weeks ago, Jesus loves the Bride of Christ and so should we. From 1 Corinthians we should also glean a little bit of fear and trembling. Messing with the church for selfish reasons is not only destructive to people, but insulting to Christ and Paul indicates this can be a very costly mistake.
What about the church body that you are aware of or connected to? Are you working to put the mission of Christ and the local church ahead of yours? Are there times of clear heretical teaching, such as denying the deity of Christ or the clear teaching on sexuality in a world of confusion? Yes. Such issues should be dealt with and are worth going to the mat for. However, the sad reality is that many of the divisions in churches are usually because of personal choice rather than real doctrine. The results are both bloody and sinful.
We can, however, live another way. What can you do today to strengthen the unity of your local church?