The Divided Church
It is inevitable that every Christian will, at some point in his or her life, be found in the middle of a difficult season of church life. On one hand, it’s understandable; we are sinful people trying to live in community with other sinful people, and that can get messy. We’re being sanctified day-by-day, and until we are glorified, we will continue to mess things up from time-to-time. We make bad decisions, we lack love toward one another, and we fail to think of others more highly than ourselves. On the other hand, we shouldn’t think that discontentment and division in the church are necessary, just because they often seem inevitable. There are undoubtedly many factors that cause quarrels and fights in the church, but each instance is likely to fall into one of four major categories.
1. Wanting The Church To Live The Christian Life For You.
God has ordained various means of grace (e.g. the reading and preaching of the word of God, prayer, worship, baptism and the Lord's Supper) by which God gives His people spiritual nourishment, strength, encouragement, and assistance. When quarrels arise among individuals within the church I pastor, one of the questions I am quick to ask the people involved is, “How are you making use of the means of grace?” It may seem like an "off-topic" question, but the heart of the matter is whether or not a person is communing with God. The puritan minister, Matthew Barker, explains well that communion with God requires an active pursuit of God on the part of the believer, “Which consisteth in the divine operations of our souls toward God, when the faculties of the soul are tending toward him, and terminated upon him; when the mind is exercised in the contemplation of him, the will in choosing and embracing him; when the affections are fixed upon him, and centre in him; when by our desires we pursue after him, by our love we cleave to him, and by delight we acquiesce and solace ourselves in him.”1
How will a Christian expect to have healthy communion with the people of God if they are lacking communion with God Himself? So often Christians are lulled into a notion that the Christian life requires very little of them, and all the religious goods and services they need are to be provided by the church. While they would never say it, many act as though the believe that the church is there to live the Christian life for them. But, while corporate life in the body of Christ is essential for every Christian, it does not negate the need for the cultivation of personal communion with God. When Christians expect the church to live the Christian life for them, there’s little hope of escaping discontentment and division within the body, because the church can never fulfill the individual Christian’s personal responsibility to keep their heart near to God. A drifting heart is a discontent and contentious heart, which will, in turn, seek to find others (often the pastor) to blame for their spiritual unrest.
2. Wanting Church Growth At All Costs.
With the right people and tools, church growth isn’t necessarily a difficult task in America. However, much discontentment and division arises when a church begins to grow by pragmatic means. A man who eats well and goes to the gym a few days a week can be said to be growing, but so can a man who eats chips every day and never leaves his couch. Not all growth is good growth. Unhealthy church growth has often come as a result of unbiblical means, thus producing undesirable results. If Christians are willing to compromise biblical truth and practice to see a church grow, there’s no hope of maintaining peace and unity. Church fads come and go, and so do the churches that use them. Eventually the model stops “working” and divisions inevitably arise. Someone must be blamed for failure, and when everything is built on a model instead of the Word of God and His promises, the body cannibalizes itself and its ministers.
3. Wanting Control.
While congregations are given the opportunity to vote on certain items within a local church, biblical ecclesiology is not democratic. Elders are called and appointed to make decisions for the spiritual good of the local church. But, in churches that are often riddled with discontentment and division, the prevailing notion is that everyone is called to have a vote on every decision. While it is wise for elders to understand the desires of the people they are called to shepherd, sometimes the most popular idea is not the most biblical or spiritually beneficial. When members of a church seek control and attempt to undermine the God-given authority of the elders in their local church, quarrels and fights are sure to prevail. Church members must remember that God has appointed as the shepherds of the church to keep watch over the souls of the members, and that they will be required to give an account for how they have done in that regard. The Scriptures exhort the people of God, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
4. Wanting The Church To Be Like The World.
Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of His people, “Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). If a church allows worldly desires to infiltrate the body, there’s no hope of being free from discontentment and division. The music, the preaching, the size of the church, the ministries, and a whole host of other things will never be good enough in any local church for those who are worldly, because their standard of judgment is wrong. The church is not called to replicate the greatest rock bands, preachers are not sophists, elders are not presidents and vice-presidents of a corporation, and our ministries don't exist with entertainment as a goal. The church is called to stand as a beacon of light and hope in the midst of a lost and dying world, and Christians are called to live faithfully as a people who are aware of, engaged with, and living in, but not overtaken and instructed by the world. Worldliness is a great enemy of unity because worldliness aims to gratify the flesh. If Christians ignore the Bible’s warnings about worldliness, they will never seek to live in the church for the advantage of others, but only themselves.
The prayer of every Christian ought to be that God would not allow us to be the cause of discontentment and division in their local church. Rather, it should be our prayer that we would die to self, strive for unity, and use our spiritual gifts for the advancement of the mission of Christ. The Apostle Paul exhorts us with these words: “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11).
1.James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 4 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 41.