What is Church Division?


Division in a church is a serious matter according to the NT. What is division in a church? Is it simply a divided opinion over the placement of the organ in the auditorium? Is it a difference of opinion over the long standing vision of a church? Is it a difference of opinion over the direction a church should move? Is a divisive person one who holds a different opinion on a matter (not gospel or theologically different) and votes differently than the elders and congregation in a church business meeting (yes, I am a congregationalist :))?

In this post I simply want to list out the relevant words used to communicate “division” in the NT. I then want to comment on some of them and conclude by asking some applications questions that will spur us on to study the matter more closely together.

First, the noun schisma (division) is only used 8 times in the NT, and only three of these occurrences are relevant to the NT church: 1 Corinthians 1:10, 11:18, and 12:25. The rest of the occurrences come from the Gospels. The verb schizo only occurs 10x in the NT, and none of these uses are in the Epistles. These occurrences are in the Gospels and in Acts and they mostly describe the divisions among the Jews over the gospel of the kingdom of the Messiah Jesus.

1 Corinthians 1:10 is the most important text in this discussion because it sets the context for the two other texts on division and factions in the book. This text initiates a long discussion on the matter, which ends in 3:23. Chapter 4 is related, but it functions as Paul’s exhortation for the people to change. Chapter 4 contains the imperative (“This is how one should regard us”; 4:1), while 1:10-3:23 is the indicative or the description of the root problem of division. The final diagnosis of division comes in 3:18-23. Particularly, in verse 21-23, “So let no one of you boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” The problem on which Paul has been teaching is divisions (1:10ff), yet these divisions come from “boasting in men.” Some of the Corinthians were aligning themselves with Paul, others with Appolos, and still others with Cephas, because they were concerned with the wisdom and power of each respective individual. However, Paul reduces the apostles down to the level of servants of Christ (4:1), who is our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification, and redemption (1:30). Therefore, we must boast in the Lord (1:31). Paul sets forth division as an action in which people divide over which apostle or preacher they should give their allegiance. The people were quarrelling over whom of the apostles was most worthy of following. Paul criticizes this reasoning because the very qualities they are boasting in men are only in Christ Jesus. The apostles are simply servant preachers or instruments which God used to save them. Hence the preaching of the gospel becomes the focus of Paul’s argument in 1:18-2:14. In chapter 3, Paul clearly lables this behavior as fleshly, not spiritual (3:1-2). He says that their behavior is like mere men. In the middle of chapter 3, Paul says that the people cannot predict in this age which ministry is more valuable. God will test the ministry of each one in the final day. Every person’s ministry will be tested by fire to see what value it holds. Therefore boasting in men and their ministries in this age is futile and foolish.

In this context, division is not over the color of the carpet or on the placement of the organ in the church auditorium. Division occured because the Corinthians were caught up in a party spirit. They were attributing false qualities to the apostles and they strayed from the view that Christ alone is the wisdom and power of God. They forgot that he is the focus of their faith. Paul lucidly says the apostles are simply performing different functions of the united gospel ministry. In essence, the Corinthians were in danger of compromising their unity in the gospel by their boasting in men and not Christ alone. Paul might define schism as that act of division that occurs when church members behave like fleshly men and boast in different men and in their respecitve qualities of wisdom and power and eloquence, rather than behaving as spiritual Christians, who boast in Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom and power of God and in whom all things are theirs.

The last comment on 1 Corinthians comes from Paul’s use of hairesis (see below) in 11:19. I would like to argue that Paul uses this word synonimously with schisma. Notice in 11:18-19, Paul says, “For, first, when you gather together in church, I hear that divisions (schisma) exist among you . . . for factions (hairesis) must happen among you in order that the approved among you might become manifest.” According to this text, Paul uses the words synonimously in 1 Corinthians. This usage of schisma and hairesis in this context will be helpful in determining Paul’s usage of hairesis in other contexts where he seems to assume the readers understand this term.

Second, the proper synonyms of this word are as follows: hairesis (faction; 8x in NT, 3x in Epistles [1 Cor 11:19, Gal 5:20, 2 Pet. 2:1]; the adjective hairetikos [-ikos is a morpheme which marks an adjective with the sense "with the characteristic of X noun root." In this case, the man has the characteristic of faction or division] occurs 1x in Tit 3:10), dichostasia (“dissension”; 3x in NT and Epistles; Rom. 16:17, 1 Cor. 3:3, Gal. 5:20), apodiorizontes (“ones who cause division” occurs 1x in NT [-izo is a morpheme that usually marks causative verbs; hence, those who cause division or splitting]; Jude 19). Along with these words, Louw and Nida list merizo, which occurs in 1 Cor. 1:13, but usually this word means “apportioning or “distributing,” not division in the church.

For the purpose of this post, I want to select two texts, which I think illumine the meaning of “division” or “divisiveness.” Titus 3:10 contains an adjectival form of hairesis, “faction.” Titus 3:9-11 says, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strifes and quarrels pertaining to the Law, for they are useless and futile. Dismiss a factious (hairetikos) man after one and two admonishments, knowing that such a one has gone astray and is sinning; he is self-condemned.” What is the meaning of “the factious man”? Well, this usage fits with earlier Pauline usage of the word in 1 Corinthians, where factions exist among them. In this context, Paul tells Titus to dismiss (insert church discipline process of Matt. 18 here) this person because he has gone astray and is sinning. Paul says the man is self-condemned by his own behavior. This is a very serious charge to make against a Christian. A divisive man does not simply disagree with church decisions and elder proposals, rather the divisive man has strayed from the path and is sinning. He is self-condemned. He is stirring up dissension by boasting in men, thus causing factions. Timothy must dismiss this person after two warnings.

The second text that I want to consider is Jude 17-19, which says, “But you, beloved, remember the former words spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ for they were speaking to you, “In the last time, mockers (deceivers?) will walk (live) according to their own sinful desires of ungodliness. These are the ones causing division, natural men, not having the spirit.” The divisive person is described with very strong negative language in this text. He is called a deceiver or mocker who lives according to his own lustful desires. He is decribed as psuchikos, “natural.” Paul uses this word in 1 Cor 2:14 to describe the natural man, i.e. the man without the spirit of God. Jude also makes this point clear when he adds, “not having the Spirit.” The context of Jude communicates that he is concerned for the church that they will persevere despite all kinds of trials that will come their way. One of these trials will be division. Jude wants to describe how these men will live so that the church will be able to deal with them appropriately.

In conclusion, the nature of divisions and factions in the NT is not what we expected to read. We expected divisions to occur over little happenings such as the decour of the church building. I imagine Eudia and Syntoche had one of these types of disputes (Phil. 4:2-3). They were not called divisive, but their behavior may have threatened preservation of unity (Phil 1:27-2:10). Instead the texts speaks of a much larger issue. Factions result from losing sight of Christ and the gospel. Division happens when the gospel itself is compromised. The nature of the divisive person was even more surprising. This person is not simply disagreeing with church decisions or disagreeing with proposals of elders, rather he is self-condemned, living according to lustful desires. He does not have the spirit of God. He boasts in men, not in the Lord. To call a person divisive is a serious charge according to the NT. Now, can a person be divisive without knowing it? In other words, can he deceive himself into thinking that when he disagrees with the elders’ proposal, he is not living according to fleshly desires? Absolutely! The member, who disagrees, must be certain that he is disagreeing on biblical grounds or he may actually be a divisive person without realizing it.

There are more questions to ask of this study. What is unity? The NT speaks of preserving the unity that already exists, how do we preserve unity? Furthermore, if the NT speaks of congregational polity, not to the exclusion of leading elders, how do individual members of the church function when some members think the proposal conflicts with the Scripture and/or the church constitution? Clearly, these members will submit to the will of the church after the vote, but what do they do in the mean time? These are difficult questions to which I do not have all the answers. What do you think?

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23 Responses to What is Church Division?

  1. PB and J says:

    john

    thanks for the lessons on division, very informative. question: is hairesis the word from which we get heresy? if so i think its interesting because we think heresy means wrong teaching, whereas if its root is faction, then it would mean causing division. therefore, orthodox people causing division would be heresy just as much as wrong teaching.

    shalom
    peter

  2. John Meade says:

    Peter –

    I had the same question myself as I was putting this post together. I think the two are related. Hairesis would be a divergence or separation from the truth (orthodoxy). Orthodoxy cannot be easily separated from orthopraxy (right living). Therefore we can cause factions by what we teach (which is normally what we think) and by how we live. The NT authors saw these matters as intertwined. 2 Peter 2:1-2 introduces a section on hairesis where Peter is explaining that those who deny the second coming of the Lord among other doctrines will also live ungodly lives.

    I think the NT writers would have called Arius et al heretics because his teaching diverged from orthodoxy. Of course the word “heresy” later on becomes a technical term for those who deny the foundational docrines of the faith by confession, and not by the way they live. Maybe we should teach more on what the NT says about heresy and factions so that people will not be confused over this matter. Furthermore, the people will understand how serious factions were in the NT, and they will be less likely to think that any petty disagreement is factious. Good points. Thanks.

    shalom

  3. Chase Vaughn says:

    Hairesis has the cognate hairetidzo, which means “to choose.” Hairesis can sometimes mean an “opinion.” So it may be related to heresy in that it emphasizes a self-chosen dogma or opinion not submitting to the dogma handed down from an authority(apostles or church). So maybe the term heresy is emphasizing autonomous choice, choosing differently than the established dogma, hence creating a division or sect.

    Just a thought…I read once an article by Michael Horton called “What is Heresy,” where he brought up hairesis. If you can find it, it is an excellent essay. it is probably in the online archives of Modern Ref.

  4. John Meade says:

    Chase –

    Thanks for the tip. I think I agree with your proposed etymology of the word. Again, I need to look into it a bit more. Thanks for the comment.

    John

  5. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for posting this. I always hear the Titus passage misapplied. I know certain persons who don’t like to talk about doctrine (Calvinism/Arminianism, Dispensationalism/Covenantalism, or eschatology) because they label this as “foolish controversies.”

  6. John Meade says:

    Jonathan –

    Thanks for the comment. I had not thought of that application before, but you are exactly right to make this point. This text has nothing to do with those types of conversations, nor is the person having these conversations to be considered as divisive. Thanks again for your input.

    john

  7. LC says:

    So one can be divisive and self-decived in one’s divisiveness…

    It would seem like a key practical question in all this would then be: how do we verify if we are or are not self-deceived divisive church members?

    What would be the indicators that one was? What would be the indicators that one wasn’t?

  8. John Meade says:

    LC –

    You ask a great question, and I do not have the answer to it. The only criterion I can suggest is as follows: is the perceived divisive person expressing disagreement and still within Scripture’s teaching and the local church’s confession of faith? The truly divisive person will continue to live a life of sin, which will match his unorthodox theology according to 2 Peter 2 and 1 John. In other words, if his disagreement leads him to move beyond Scripture’s teaching theologically and practically (immorally), then we should probe to see if this person fits the description of the divisive person.

    Does this point us in the right direction? Let me know your thoughts.

    - John M

  9. LC says:

    John,

    I like where you head with this initially–that we must evaluate the contention and perceived contentious person in light of Scripture’s teaching regarding both doctrine and practice. However, I would not want to limit “practical” error to immorality. Thare are many vices that we do not catergorize under “immorality” that would seem to play right into the sin of church divisiveness (for example, sins of the tongue or spiritual pride).

    While some times immorality or error in practice flow out of unorthodox belief. This is not always the case. Error in practice can also thrive in the lives of believers with pristine theology. Take for example, the church of Ephesus in Revelation, or the Apostle Peter when he was rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2). Paul, “rebuked him to his face,” not for compromise in any doctrinal statement, per se, but for the way he was relating interpersonally with the brethren.

    Since we see from Scripture that it is possible for divisiveness to be propogated by those who who are theologically astute and in many ways morally upstanding, the question still remains and seems to me a very important one. Especially, as we have already acknowledged, since self-deception is a possible component of this sin as it is with any other.

  10. John Meade says:

    LC –

    Thanks for carrying on this conversation.

    First, sins of the tongue and “spiritual” pride (we can probably just say pride because Scripture does not make a distinction here) are vices, about which Scripture speaks in James 3:1-11 and Galatians 5:16ff. They are immoral in the sense that they trangress the moral standards of the Kingdom of God and his Christ. When I used the term “immorality,” I was not trying to limit it to sexual sin or the like. I am using the term to indicate the opposite of moral behavior, which should characterize the members of God’s kingdom.

    Second, I must disagree with your next point for at least two reasons. First, the example of Peter and Paul is not appropriate in this context because Paul opposed Peter to his face precisely because Peter was unorthodox. In fact, if you glance at the Greek text of verse 2:14, Paul says, “But when I saw that they were not walking straight or rightly (Greek: ortho-podousin) with the truth of the gospel, I spoke to Cephas in the presense of all.” Paul says they were not “right-walkers” with the gospel. They were hypocrites, which is a serious sin. All of this behavior derived from Peter’s turning back from the truth of the gospel concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles. Paul calls this another gospel in 1:6, which is no gospel at all. So unorthodoxy does lead to wrong practice, and where wrong practice is present, one should investigate a person’s theological beliefs to see if the cause of wrong practice lays there. Of course you are right about this, a person may hold a very orthodox theology, but still struggle with sin. Second, I think you still need to investigate 2 Peter and 1 John because these books bring the concepts together. Wrong practice flows from wrong belief.

    The real question is, how does self-deception play into this? How does a person sometimes think that he/she is helping the church, when in reality they maybe causing division in a congregational church? I keep coming back to Scripture and the church covenant. However, let me add another component: the regenerate community. The church must take responsibility for its members. The members have responsibilities to one another and one of those responsibilities is to exhort one another each day “lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Hearts may be hardened, but we must continue to exhort one another to keep persevering in right doctrine and practice. Self-deception is a reality, thus the community must function properly to keep its members in the faith. Of course the community will have to measure the belief and pratice of the self-deceived by Scripture and the church covenant so all three components are necessary to the indentification of a schismatic, even one who believes one is doing good, though one is doing harm to the church.

    Does this move us forward?

    John

  11. LC says:

    This is good. I think we are in agreement.

    You were using “immorality” in a broader way than the more common meaning, but one that is entirely legitimate.

    I would also agree with you that our theology and practice are necessarily related, and error in one area will necessarily spill over into error in the other. This is perhaps where I could have been clearer. My intent was to emphasize the reality that we all live with (which you seem to acknowledge in your response): namely, that part of our sinful state is characterized by internal inconsistency. I may be exemplary in one area and yet at the same time deplorable in another… such is the complexity of fallen existence.

    So in summary it seems that, while submitting ourselves to the authority of Scripture, we would evaluate the alleged divisive person by the following three criteria:

    The orthodoxy of their doctrine
    The uprightness and virtue of their conduct
    The evaluation/feedback from the community to which they belong

  12. John Meade says:

    LC –

    Without having further time to refelct on the matter, I think you are right, and I agree with your three criteria. Thanks for pursuing this important matter with me.

    John

  13. I have published a book on the division of the Church and the title of the book is ‘The Division of The Church’ and it is available on the website link that I have provided.

    I have tried to outline the division and its causes as I see it in churches today. However, I have approached this question from a broader perspective where I look at the whole Christiandom as divided. I took this view looking at the Original Church which was united and were aware that there were people at the time who were keen on dividing the Christian movement. An example of this view by the original Apostles is seen in the Council of Jerusalem in 50-51AD where they agreed on vital points about the doctrine of the New Faith as it was called then.

    A few years later, there arose people like Arius who were keen on dividing the movement for selfish reasons and caused a lot of confusion which resulted in the Council of Nicene.

    Later on, the rise of Papacy brought the very first division of the Original Church as they claimed the word ‘catholic’ also used by the Apostles in the Apostles’ Creed, suggesting that the Roman Church was a direct and official version of the former Church.

    In my book, I am therefore trying to trace the division of the Church form as early as those days right up to the days of reformations, because reformation to us today, suggests that there was something wrong. As years passed by, we realised situations where people began to form ‘their churches’ mostly in the charismatic era and called them ‘ministries’ as we know them today.

    We have now a situation where division has been narrowed to individual people within a particular ‘church’ which is itself a product of division. It is therefore vey important to approach the question of division from the root, which is the present organisation of the Church. We must ask ourselves these questions; Why are we Christians divided against ourselves? Why are there so many churches in one street and they are not full and members or pastors do not work together? Why do we have The Roman Catholic Christains, The Lutherans, The Assembles of God Christians, the Faith Apostles, The Anglicans, The Seventh Day Adventists, The Later Day Christians, The Charismatic denominations?

    I think this is the real problem we Christians must deal with. Jesus said that we should be united so that world may believe (John 17 read the whole chapter). But thae way we are divided, the world is at pains to believe our message. The proof of that is the fact that there are only about 2 billion divided Christians out of 6 billion people.

    Let us think about that. These are some of the questions I am dealing with in my book. It is available as well for downloading otherwise the printed version can be ordered online through the same weblsitelink I provided.

    God real His truth to us all. Amen

  14. will says:

    Thank you for the insight into division, I do have a question. If the unity is harmed, for what ever reason be it the color of the carpet or paint on the walls, or scripture, would that not be divisive to the body. If the oneness of the church is divided, could you not also say that, that is division. Is it not the small foxes that destroy the vine?

  15. finder says:

    Hi, I would really like to download the book mentioned above. Could you please give me a link? Thank you.

  16. finder says:

    Found it.Tks

  17. M. Washington says:

    I recently got married and relocated to the state where my husband was residing, I eventually joined the church he was a member of. On Communion Sunday the Deacons served the members of the Church communion. After the congregation ate and drank in rememberance of the Lords Broken Body. The Pastor, Deacons, Deconesses and Mothers of the church then formed a circle, served themselves and took communion amongst themselves seperately after the other members had already taken communion. This is the way they have taken communion every since I have been there. It was very troubling in my spirit to continue to see this happening. As I read in 1Corintians when Paul addressed the Church about division. I asked my husband why did they take communion that way and he said he didn’t know. I didn’t want to offend the pastor or seem like I was trying to cause trouble by asking him. And at the same time I didn’t feel this was proper order concerning the body of Christ. So I did recently ask the pastor in private. And he told me that what Paul was saying about division was something else. I have searched, read and researched the scriptures and according to what I have read in the scriptures the way they are taking communion is not lining up! the way they are taking communion is dividing the church up into two different groups. I don’t feel right about it and it is quite disturbing in my spirit as I have recently accepted my call into the ministry. I have prayed about this and inquired from God and today I read your article about division. I was wondering if you can give me some insight to scripture concerning this matter. I don’t want to participate or be a part of something that may cause myself or someone else to stumble and God be displease with me! I just feel it is divsion!!

  18. M. Washington says:

    I forgot to include in my article post earlier about communion; in our discussion as I pointed a few things out to the pastor in scripture I was then told it was a ordinace of the church and that every church of that denonmination takes it the same way. But does that mean its proper according to scripture?

  19. Hi Nkosi Achim Maseko,

    Everything that you said made perfect sense to me! Are you on Facebook? There are only a few Christians that I know who believe like you–and I am one of them. There should NOT be any division in the Christian church like we see today with so many denominations! One should believe in Jesus, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but not in any man made religions.

    • Nkosi says:

      I am sorry for not constantly visiting this site, and so I missed your communique Tonya, yes I’m on facebook, invite me please or I will do so today.

  20. Mike Roberts says:

    My problem is that the congregation where I have worshipped for some years has begun a new way of having small groups led by one of the small group. The entire congregation is divided into small groups of 6-8 people who meet all around town with an outline sheet to use or not use depending on the will of the moment and whether one of the group wants to bring up a subject. This is not a division of wills or anger but on purpose to grow closer to one another but the members keep the same small group so there is little association among all the brethren. The meeting times are chosen by the small group and are not announced where or when so no one knows where or when any of the other members are worshipping…or what. Have you ever heard of such and what do you think of this?

  21. this topic is a very serios topic dat needs to be preach in all churches

  22. Nkosi Maseko says:

    I have written a volume of 631 pages on this question. Google books, Amazon and Lulu Books have this masterpiece as downloads. The title is: Church Schism & Corruption. Please download the book. You may want to download specific sections of the book as it has been re-published into 6 Parts as separate books.

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