Unity and Division in the Church

by Tom and Sheila Smith

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Last update: July 25, 2006

There is a widespread belief in the church today which says that we, as members of the body of Christ, are to build unity within the church and within the body of Christ. We contend that the scriptural view is that there is time where division in the church is not only appropriate but mandated; and that unity within the church comes from God, and from obedience and adherence to his word.

The verses which are commonly quoted by those who say that we are required to create unity in the church are Philippians 2:2; and John 17:21. I will deal with each of this separately.

Philippians 2:2 make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;

Here, Paul is expressing the desire that they be of one mind and one accord. There is no argument that we are, as Christians to be of one mind and of one accord, but the question is rather around the source of that unity. Looking at the context of this verse, what does Paul have to say about that? Lets look at Phil 1:27-Phil 2:5:

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel;

28 and in nothing affrighted by the adversaries: which is for them an evident token of perdition, but of your salvation, and that from God;

29 because to you it hath been granted in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer in his behalf:

30 having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

1 If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions,

2 make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;

3 doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself;

4 not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

5 Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Paul emphasizes throughout this passage, starting in Phil 1:27 that the source of the unity is the gospel of Christ and that we are in one mind and one soul in striving for that gospel. In Phil 1:1 he states that the source is fellowship in the spirit, and states that we are to have one mind with Christ - it does not say that we are to create one mind with each other.

John 17:21 that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me.

This verse is part of the prayer that Jesus prayed not long before his death. Note that this is not a command to the church, as some tell us, but it is a prayer to God the father, that he would provide unity to his church. The source of that unity is God, not us. We cannot answer prayer. If unity were something that was to come through and from us, as members of Christ's body, surely this would have been said to the church at some point, but nowhere in scripture have we found anything to tell us to create unity in the church. What we do see is an emphasis on sound doctrine and on obedience to God, and the unity that comes about as a result.

That being said, if unity in the church comes from God, then is there a basis in scripture for division to exist, and if so why?

First, the Spirit of Truth cannot have fellowship with the spirit of error; therefore there is a Biblical basis for division. Christ said this himself in Matthew 10:34-38

34 Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

35 For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law:

36 and a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

38 And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.

We are told in 2 Tim 3:16 and other verses to correct and rebuke on the basis of scripture. We see examples of this in scripture, for example when Paul publicly rebuked Peter (Gal 2:11),

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned.

and where Paul named others who were teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:19-20).

19 holding faith and a good conscience; which some having thrust from them made shipwreck concerning the faith:

20 of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I delivered unto Satan, that they might be taught not to blaspheme.

Paul also, when confronted with a situation where a friend is teaching wrong doctrine, stands on that doctrine, and asks if he has become an enemy because of the truth (Gal 4:15-16). In that case Paul divided with him on the basis of truth.

15 Where then is that gratulation of yourselves? for I bear you witness, that, if possible, ye would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.

16 So then am I become your enemy, by telling you the truth?

Unity with others in the church is to be dependent upon the recipient of the message, accepting correction from God's word. Without truth, there will and must be division. Our loyalty must be to the Living Word and the written word of God. Because of this, we must divide with those who seek to deceive or lead astray the people of God (2 Cor 11:12-15).

12 But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them that desire an occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we.

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ.

14 And no marvel; for even Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light.

15 It is no great thing therefore if his ministers also fashion themselves as ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their works.

This must hold true no matter what the position or authority of an individual or group. Those who have received the love of truth, and in whom God has placed a burden of love and care for the body of Christ must guard the people of God jealously. In these evil and seductive days our knowledge and understanding of God's Word (His Truth) is and will continue to be directly and closely related to our faithfulness to it.

The safe-guarding of the people of God must come before our desire to fit in or to be popular. The distinction must be made between the doctrines and practices which come from God's Holy Word, and those that come from the church culture and traditions. God spoke clearly about this when he gave his charge to Ezekiel, a watchmen of Israel (Ez 3:17-21).

17 Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me.

18 When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand.

19 Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

20 Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thy hand.

21 Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and thou hast delivered thy soul.

Ezekiel was to speak the truth, without compromise (Ez 3:8-11). If Ezekiel failed to speak the full truth, and failed to warn the people of their error, their blood would be upon him. Therefore while we would agree that there is no place for contentiousness, there is and must be division over truth and error. To be faithful to God's word, we must take a stand for truth and against error. If division results, that is the decision of those who rebel against truth. We cannot fail to speak God's words for fear of division. The Bible tells us that divisions are appropriate an necessary in order to ensure that the church remains sound, by dividing from those who deviate from sound doctrine (1 Cor 11:18-19).

18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it.

19 For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you.

If the church would hear this message, and cease to try to please men, but rather seek to be obedient to God's word, and seek to have sound doctrine rather than trying to seek acceptance from men, then we will be better able to be used of God to speak to a dying world, a world dying in sin and a world that needs to hear the truth.

Then, and only then will there be hope of the revival that we would all like to see. Then and only then will the church become an island of God's peace in an increasingly evil world. Then and only then will we be able to speak, as a single body, united in the Spirit of Truth.