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?