The church is fractured. Over the past couple years, we have experienced a lot of division among Christians at the levels of networks and denominations, but also inside local churches and among friends, too. So is all this division a good thing? Is it only a bad thing? Will division work for the church’s greater purity and final good? Or will division work to the church’s final detriment and the lessening of her testimony in the world today?
It’s a relevant question, and it comes from a listener named Connor. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this encouraging podcast! I have heard a lot from fellow Christians recently about the sadness of the church being so divided with all its disagreements splitting local churches and denominations and even old friends. Division is everywhere. While there is much to be sad about in much of this, especially given Jesus’s emphasis on his desire that his disciples be unified in love, I have been wondering whether some of the divisions in the church today are good, even necessary as a means to distinguish the sheep from the wolves, something Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11:19. But can we distinguish healthy from unhealthy divisions in the church? Some ‘big-issue’ divisions seem obvious and good. But other divisions seem petty and insignificant. What do you think of the disagreements in the church today?”
Well, there are so many ways to come at this, let me come at it like this. The point that I would like to emphasize about the divisions in the church is this: Don’t make light of it, and don’t make death of it. It is tragic, but it is ordained.
Don’t Make Light of Divisions
It is possible to speak about disunity and division as though they were a small thing, which would be a mistake. Making light of it is a mistake. Just listen to John 13:34–35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That’s a very convicting text. Lovelessness among Christians is not a light thing.
- In John 17:21, Jesus prays “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.”
- Ephesians 4:1–3: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:10: “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.”
“Lovelessness among Christians is not a light thing.”
So, just a few texts — and there are so many more. We simply must not make light of our divisions, especially those that are unnecessary for the sake of truth or that are maintained with unloving attitudes and actions. Three things stand out from those passages of Scripture.
The deepest unity among God’s elect is a given. It’s a given. We don’t create unity. Man doesn’t make it happen. When we come to Christ, we are grafted in by the Spirit to one body, Jesus Christ, and members one of another, so that the command in Ephesians 4 is to “maintain the unity.” Don’t create it — show it to the world.
A second thing that stands out from those passages I just read is that the public effectiveness of our unity is not at the level of institutional oneness or collaboration, as though the absence of denominations would be a compelling witness to the world. Rather, the public effectiveness of our unity is when unbelievers see on the ground attitudes and acts of love among believers.
This is where the energy for unity should be mainly expended, I think. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32). That’s the level at which the miracle happens. That’s the level at which the unbeliever sees and says, “I’d like to be part of that kind of community.”
The third thing that all these texts either say or assume is that the only kind of unity that glorifies God is unity in the truth. He’s a God of truth. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” For Christ and his apostles, it was inconceivable that one could love another person by throwing away truth for the sake of peace.
“The only kind of unity that glorifies God is unity in the truth.”
Listen to Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). The only peace that matters is truth-based peace. So, when I pray for unity in the church, which I do regularly — little church, big church — I pray, “O God, grant us unity in the truth.” So Francis Schaeffer, at the end of his life, said that what the world needs to see is not the Christian church tearing down every fence that was built for the sake of truth — protecting truth, declaring truth. Rather, what we should do is stop throwing hate bombs over the fences, and instead love each other across genuine disagreements, genuine fences.
I don’t think the world stumbles mainly over doctrinal disagreement among Christians. It stumbles mainly over the way we treat each other in the light of those disagreements. So, all of that to say that we should not make light of the contentions and divisions in the church. But now let me say that we should not make death of these divisions either.
Don’t Make Death of Divisions
Don’t make light of them, don’t make death of them. That is, we should not have an unbiblical, Pollyanna view of what Jesus and his apostles said would actually come to pass as time goes by in the church. It’s not a rosy picture. Now, to be sure, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). There will be a completion of the Great Commission, and God will gather his elect from the peoples of the world. That is the triumph of this age before Christ comes.
But the conditions of the church, and of the world in which the church finds itself, while that mission is happening successfully, is not a pretty picture. One of the texts that Connor mentioned when he asked his question is 1 Corinthians 11:18–19: “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
Now, that is a startling statement. It assumes that there is underlying disunity in the church that needs to be exposed. He just seems to assume it. Why would Paul assume such a thing? I think that assumption goes back to Jesus.
Weeds Among the Wheat
Jesus did not paint a rosy picture of the climax of history. In God’s strange providence, Jesus stated a principle like this: “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation [the stumbling, the traps, the deceptions] comes” (Matthew 18:7). That’s amazing. This is divine necessity. When he says, “It is necessary,” he’s talking about the way God has ordained for the world to come to its climax. God has willed these kinds of troubles.
Jesus pictured this kind of inevitable trouble in the parables of the fishing net and the parable of the wheat and the weeds:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate evil from the righteous. (Matthew 13:47–49)
So, the kingdom, the visible church, draws into itself unconverted people that the angels will separate out in the day of Christ’s second coming. Same thing in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The workers, they wonder if they should go out and pull up the weeds that are growing among the wheat — false brothers. And Jesus says, “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30).
In other words, Jesus predicted that disunity and conflict would be built into the church from the beginning. It is necessary that such temptations come. These weeds are not going to keep their mouths shut. They’re not going to keep their opinions and attitudes to themselves as time goes by.
Love Grown Cold
Then, in Matthew 24, when the disciples ask Jesus about the signs of the end, Jesus says over and over in that chapter how torn the church is going to be with betrayals and apostasy. Listen to these words (I’ll start reading at verse 4 of Matthew 24):
Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name [these are people in the church, in the name of Jesus], saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. . . . Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death [these are ‘Christians’ putting Christians to death], and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another [this is not just trouble from outside the church]. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:4–5, 9–13)
So, we’re talking about Christians’ love growing cold and not enduring to the end. Now that’s a horrible description of the condition of the church. This is what the church will do to each other. Incredible. And the apostle Paul joined this bleak description of the condition of the church in the last days — and remember the last days began in the first century. First Timothy 4:1: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits.”
So, it’s part of prophetic wisdom in the first century that things are not going to end well on the earth. It’s going to be bleak. The mission will be done. There will be white-hot Christians to the end, risking their lives and laying down their lives to get the gospel to the ends.
Tragic and Predicted
So, I conclude, don’t make light of divisions, and don’t make death — that is, the death of the church — of divisions. They are tragic. We should give our lives for the sake of the unity of the church. They are tragic, and they are predicted. It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to those by whom they come.