Email Author
Return to this issue
Return to Current Issue

Lest We Forget

Why We Are Still Divided
in the 21st Century
Ralph E. Price

The apostle Paul wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the saints in the first century as recorded in 1 Corinthians 1:10, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." We know this was in accordance with the desire of Jesus because of Christ's prayer that we have recorded in John 17. We read in verses 20-21 of that chapter these words of prayer offered to the heavenly Father by our Lord: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

The ancient psalmist, David, wrote of the pleasantness of unity when he penned the 133rd Psalm, which reads: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the LORD commanded the blessing — Life forevermore" (vss. 1-3)

Regardless of the facts that our Lord prayerfully sought unity among his disciples; that unity was enjoined upon the early saints; and that unity among brethren is both sweet and pleasant; the sad reality all too often is that division exists. The very existence of this division is evidence that someone is not "abiding in the doctrine of Christ" (cf. 2 John 9). Someone is failing to "be one" in both the Father and the Son. Simply put, this is the reason we are still divided in the 21st century. Someone is sinning! Whenever there exists a division between at least two parties, one of two circumstances is true: 1) One of the parties is right and therefore in the Father and the Son, while the other party is out of divine fellowship; or 2) Both parties are wrong and therefore out of divine fellowship.

Division among those claiming to be disciples of Christ is just as despicable and ugly as unity among brethren is sweet and pleasant. As we, therefore, consider through this brief article the sins that contribute to division, it should be our goal to recognize these sins in practice and deal with them as God would have us deal with them so that we might move closer and closer to the unity for which Jesus prayed; that we "may be one in" the Father and the Son.

Before going further the author would like to acknowledge that he does not have all the answers, by any means, and he recognizes that other good and meaningful contributions could most probably be made by each one reading this article which would be pertinent to the subject. However, in the relatively short time the author has experienced life he has witnessed a number of divisions and has seen firsthand a variety of sins which helped precipitate those divisions. Therefore, while not being as experienced as others may be, the author does have some degree of experience from which to draw authoritative conclusions based on certain scriptures which he intends to present in the remainder of this article and humbly submits the same for whatever benefit the reader may gain. Further, it will be the intent of this article to deal only with certain sins as set forth in scripture that promote division and not to deal directly with the "issues" of the divisions, themselves. Each reader has the responsibility to apply the doctrine of Christ properly to whatever circumstance he/she has obligation to handle. The principles that follow pertain to division regardless of the particular "issue" which lies at the heart of that division. It does not matter whether it be issues of institutionalism, premillenialism, marriage-divorce-remarriage, man-made tradition vs. the doctrine of Christ, etc. Certain conditions and attitudes can be common to any division.

Divided Loyalties

Perhaps the most prominent sin or category of sin that promotes division is people having divided loyalties. Other ways of phrasing the problem include: "People do not have their priorities right" or "People are not focused on the right thing." When a lawyer asked Jesus what the great commandment was, Jesus replied, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' "This is the first and great commandment" (Matthew 22:37-38). The fact that the apostles practiced and taught the same thing is clearly seen from a couple of scriptures. Acts 5:29 reads, "But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: 'We ought to obey God rather than men.'" The apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 1:10, "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ."

Many times it seems that division occurs (or remains in force) because there are some people who seek more to please other people than they seek to please God. Those who make it a priority to please God often oppose this group. When something is taught which people realize may offend "Uncle John" or "Aunt Mary," they may deride the preacher and others who stand for the truth in an effort to appease the relative or to prevent the church from taking action to correct sin in that relative's life.

Of course this same mindset works on a larger scale also. There are those who wish to promote doctrines designed to appeal to the masses and which do not convict the masses of their sins and their need to repent and turn to God. Such people would do well to consider the example of Jesus. Jesus taught the scribes and Pharisees what they needed to hear even though doing so resulted in the Pharisees being offended (cf. Matthew 15:1-14). There was no fault connected with Jesus in this instance. Rather, the fault rested squarely on those Pharisees who chose to be offended by the truth instead of being transformed by it.

We have example of certain people in the first century who promoted doctrine that a large portion of the Jews found desirable but which was not in accordance with the doctrine of Christ. It concerned circumcision and can be reviewed at the reader's leisure by reading Acts 15:1-35. Suffice to say for the purpose of this article that those false teachers met with "no small dissension and disputation" from Paul and Barnabas.

Loving Preeminence

Another sin that leads to division is the sin of loving to be preeminent, or desiring to be considered as superior to others; wanting to "hog the spotlight," in a manner of speaking. Jesus dealt with this mindset among his apostles. Mark 10:35-45 records an occasion when James and John asked Jesus to grant to them that one of them would sit on Jesus' right hand and the other on His left hand in His glory. When the other disciples learned of the request, they were "much displeased with James and John." Jesus then taught them that true greatness lies in being a servant to others. "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:43-45).

Another example of this sin and how it causes division is seen in 3 John 9-10. There John wrote, "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church" (3 John 9-10). John then instructed his audience how to treat such a circumstance when he said in the very next verse, "Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God" (vs. 11).

This same sin was responsible for a division between certain of the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia and Paul and his company. Acts 13:44-45 reads: “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul.” Verse 50 goes on to tell us that these Jews "raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region."

People today are not much different than people of the first century, in certain attitudes. People today who do not promote the genuine article of truth are often able to recognize those who do promote it. Rather than change, as they should, they often choose to persecute the promoters of truth to prevent them from enlightening those who follow the error they wish to promote.

Being Too Quick to Fight

Sometimes many divisions could be avoided at the outset of potential difficulties if people would simply exercise the patience God expects us to exercise toward one another and if we would approach the situation with the meekness God commands. The apostle Paul advised the young evangelist, Timothy, "Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people's sins; keep yourself pure" (1 Timothy 5:22). Paul advised the saints of Galatia on how to approach one who has been overtaken in a fault. He told them, "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). This author has witnessed many brethren who could be described as possessing a warring mentality. They simply seem ready to go to war immediately without any evidence of the love of peace that Christians are to possess (cf. Matthew 5:9). The scriptures are filled with admonitions for God's children to be patient, longsuffering, tenderhearted and kind (cf. Ephesians 4:32; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). If more people would develop these qualities more divisions could be avoided, but the lack of these qualities at the beginning of potential difficulties almost always ensures that the resulting division will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. At least that has been this author's experience.

Sometimes a potential problem could be little more than a misunderstanding of one another when people are from differing cultural backgrounds. The author realizes that many true and important differences may often be explained by some as being "a simple misunderstanding" when the reality is that the differences are doctrinally significant. However, consider this. Communication is something on which we sometimes need to work more diligently. If, for example, two people were discussing nutrition and one of them set forth the importance of having three "square" meals a day, while the other person stressed the importance of having "well-rounded" nutrition, a fight should not ensue because of the apparent incongruity of the terms, square and rounded. Yet, the author has seen some brethren who would pounce on something as minor as that and start a major disagreement on it. We should do better than that.

Love for Money

While this topic rightfully falls under the heading of "Divided Loyalties," the author believes this sin is so prevalent it deserves individual mention. The fact is that life in this world is greatly influenced by money and material, and those in the church are not immune to such influence regardless of how much we might like to think that we are. This author has witnessed the inordinate influence of money in a number of circumstances in several churches that resulted in the promotion of division.

Reference is not being made here to those good and honest people who are working hard to provide for their families. Rather, sinning brethren and false teachers make reference here to those who look at the amount of money possessed before they make decisions on discipline and fellowship issues. It is sin to make such discipline and fellowship decisions based on a brother or sister's wealth and/or social standing. Such respect of persons is straightforwardly condemned by the writing of James in James 2:1-9.

Further, there are those in the church who wield money as a tool inappropriately to coerce preachers to teach error or to avoid teaching all of the truth on particular subjects. Many preachers succumb to such treatment and promote teaching that appeals to the masses as has been mentioned previously. Peter described such people in 2 Peter 2:15, when he said such people "have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness."

We need to fortify ourselves against this pitfall by heeding the admonition of the apostle Paul recorded in Colossians 3:1-2, "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth."

Lack of Humility

This sin is probably one of the largest perpetrators of division that has already been allowed to get underway, which has ever been. Once people mishandle potentially division-bound circumstances and have metaphorically drawn the saber line in the sand and begun to set the opposing sides in battle array, pride takes over their minds. It then becomes an "issue" of "courageously standing one's ground and not backing down" rather than simply seeking to promote God's will in our lives and in our churches. This problem seems to have a tendency to build upon itself until it escalates beyond people's willingness to control it. It's a very real and a very great danger. It often begins with an individual or group assuming superiority over others. Quite often preachers and elders seem most vulnerable to this problem. The apostle Paul warned the saints of Rome, "For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith" (Romans 12:3). It seems that men who have, to some extent, distinguished themselves in the Lord's service have a tendency to assume they know more than others without similar distinction. Such is a grave error against which the apostle Paul repeatedly sought to fortify the early saints. Paul wrote to the Ephesians and encouraged "Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (Ephesians 5:21). Paul rebuked some in Corinth who thought too highly of themselves when he said to them, "Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached?" (1 Corinthians 14:36). The apostle Peter also encouraged humility when he wrote, “...Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

Prejudice is very much akin to the lack of humility and can result in a divisive spirit. There is a tendency among some people to become comfortable being around a certain set of other individuals and then decide that anyone not belonging to that particular group is unworthy of consideration. We might dare to use the word, clique, to pinpoint the meaning of this idea. Such a mindset inevitably results in division. We will not dwell long on this point since one reference is probably sufficient to demonstrate the ugliness of such an attitude. When the man who was healed of blindness argued with the Pharisees that Jesus had to be from God to be capable of curing the blindness, the Pharisees' response was, "You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?" (John 9:34).

Failure to Pursue Scriptural Fellowship Practices

As paradoxical as it may at first sound, division is actually promoted by individuals and churches failing to properly identify the boundary lines of fellowship. Just consider the circumstances we often see today. "This man is teaching false doctrine, but that church still fellowships him. Therefore, we can't fellowship that church." etc. etc. What a mess!!! We need to be wholly devoted to God's word rather than being devoted to men or churches who teach or practice error even if they do so with a "good conscience." After being very careful and cautious in determining whether or not the man or church is, indeed, teaching or practicing error, we need to patiently work to bring the man or church out of that error. Then, if it becomes clear that the man or church will not be turned back into the faith, we should clearly and unmistakably make it known that our fellowship has been broken with that party (cf. Titus 3:10-11; 2 John 9-11). This is the case for any sin, not just false teaching.

Why We are STILL Divided

This article would not be complete without addressing the idea that time, alone, does not correct the problems associated with division. 2 Peter 3:8 tells us, " day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." We cannot simply say, "Let's let bygones be bygones," and decide to restore fellowship between groups that have divided over issues in the past, if the bases for those past divisions have not been corrected. There needs to be a repentance of wrong teaching/action made manifest by some statement (confession) of wrongdoing before the righteous can fellowship the ones who went into error. Until such occurs, the division must remain in force (cf. 1 John 5:16).

While division is ugly and undesirable it is a reality. We dare not try to circumvent it by promoting a unity-in-diversity doctrine. We must continue to sound forth the pure word of God with love and patience but without apology, and those whom God calls will unite with His word and His people.