Find out what the Bible teaches about the subject of division within the church.

Let's begin by considering a few scriptures which deal with the subject of division.

17 Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them18 For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. 19 For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil. 20 And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.
(Rom. 16:17-20)

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. 11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. 
(1 Cor. 1:10-11)

For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
(1 Cor. 3:3b)

18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.
(1 Cor. 11:18)

17 But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: 18 how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. 19 These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.
(Jude 17-19)

What does "division" mean?

There are three words in the New Testament (NT) which are translated "division" according to Strong's Concordance:

  1. diamerismos-- breaking up; discord, hostility. This word is used twice in scripture:
    • 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
      (Gal. 5:19-21)
    • 17 Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.
      (Rom. 16:17)
  2. dichostasia-- division, dissension, standing apart. This word is used only once, by Jesus:
    • 51 Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.
      (Luke 12:51)
  3. schisma-- a rent, as in a garment; a division, dissention. This word appears 8 times in the NT:
    • 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.
      (Matt. 9:16)
    • 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.
      (Mark 2:21)
    • 40 Therefore many from the crowd, when they heard this saying, said, “Truly this is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.”  But some said, “Will the Christ come out of Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people because of Him.
      (John 7:40-43)
    • 16 Therefore some of the Pharisees said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. 17 They said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him because He opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
      (John 9:16-17)
    • 19 Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings.
      (John 10:19)
    • 23 And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, 24 but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.
      (1 Cor. 12:23-25)
    • 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.
      (1 Cor. 1:10)
    • 18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.
      (1 Cor. 11:18)
  4. There is a fourth word, apodiorizó, which is translated "divisions" in the NKJV in Jude 19—These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.

Characteristics of a Divisive Person

How can I tell if a person is creating division according to the biblical use of the word? Let's let the Bible answer this as well. Look more closely at the context of the word and we can identify characteristics of the divisive person.

  • They cause offenses (Rom. 16:17). The Greek word "offenses" here means "a snare, stumbling-block, cause for error". It does NOT mean he/she "upset me" or "said/did something I disliked". In other words, the divisive person causes others to trip up (stumble) and sin in their walk with GOD.
  • They do not follow NT teaching ("the doctrine which you have learned" - Rom. 16:17). This does NOT mean that the allegedly-divisive person believes 100% the same thing that I do about EVERY biblical subject. Paul and Barnabas disagreed contentiously (Acts 15:36-40). The entire chapter of Rom. 14 is devoted to "doubtful things" over which Christians disagree. Instead, Rom. 16:17 is referring to an individual that is following and/or teaching a "different gospel, which is not another" (Gal. 1:6-9).
  • They do not serve the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 16:18). Jesus said: 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matt. 7:15-20) What kind of life does the person lead? Are they known as a Christian or do their works betray them as a hypocrite or an evildoer?
  • They serve their own belly (Rom. 16:18). What does the person stand to gain from their actions? Do they appear to be motivated by greed or selfishness? Again, as Jesus said, our fruit tells others what type of person we are.
  • They deceive simple-minded people with their speech (Rom. 16:18). Look at the person's companions -- are they people you would consider to be simple-minded people, babes in Christ, milk-eating Christians unable to discern right and wrong? Or are they people who think for themselves and have a reputation for searching the scriptures diligently and studying the Word (Eph. 4:12-16)? This should tell you a lot!
  • They seek to have people say, "I am of <insert person's name here>.", rather than, "I am of Jesus." (1 Cor. 1:10-17)
  • Their other works can be found in Gal. 5:19-21—19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
  • They seek recognition among their brethren (1 Cor. 11:18-19).
  • They don't care about other members of Jesus' body (1 Cor. 12:25).
  • They are grumblers and complainers (Jude 16).
  • They walk in their own lusts (Jude 16).
  • They flatter people with their speech in order to gain an advantage (Jude 16).
  • They are mockers (Jude 18).
  • They are worldly-minded (Jude 19).
  • They do not have the Spirit of GOD (Jude 19).

But Jesus Prayed for Unity Among Disciples

It is GOD's will that His children be unified. Shortly before His arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for unity among His disciples.

20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 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. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
(John 17:20-23)

How can all Christians be unified when it is virtually impossible to get even two people to agree on everything? As I pointed out, Rom. 14 clearly acknowledges that Christians are going to disagree on "doubtful" things, so it's clear that GOD doesn't expect us to see every issue the same. I believe the answer is that GOD desires (and expects) us to be unified in Jesus despite our differences. He wants us to love one another and treat one another as brethren even though we might not agree about a subject. You see, two people don't have to be identical twins to be brothers.

(Lest there be any confusion, let me be clear: I am speaking of disagreeing over subjects where the Bible is difficult to understand or silent. In no way am I suggesting that we can blatantly disregard Scripture.)

Examples to Illustrate

In an attempt to shed some further light on this subject, let's look at a few examples:

The Head Covering (1 Cor. 11:2-16)

John and Suzie are married. They are currently working with Church A. John and Suzie feel strongly that women should wear a covering over their head when they pray. The majority of the Christians in Church A do not share John and Suzie's view on this issue and thus the women there do not wear a covering. John requests that they study the issue together and he shares his view on the subject, attempting to persuade people to agree with him. But the brethren at Church A still disagree. John is now faced with a choice. He can acknowledge the disagreement on the issue and continue to work with the Christians in that group. He can continue pushing his view as "right" and pronounce everyone else there as sinning. Or he can decide that it is in his and the congregation's best interest if he and Suzie go work with another group of brethren who share his view on this subject.

Which of these three choices would be creating division? You might wish John and Suzie would choose the first path—to just acknowledge the disagreement and continue working together. Sometimes that's possible. Other times it isn't. For John or Suzie, it might violate their conscience that their sisters there aren't praying with covered head. I submit to you that choice two is the one by which John and Suzie would be creating division. If they choose option three and decide to go work with another group of Christians, they can still treat the Christians at Church A as their brethren. They can still love them and they can still be unified as brothers and sisters in Christ—even though they feel strongly about this specific issue.

Church Fellowship Halls

Bill and Larry are best friends. They grew up together in the same town and in the same church. Both were baptized into Christ as teenagers. After graduating high school, Bill and Larry moved away to different towns. Bill found a congregation in his new town and so did Larry. Bill's congregation has a room attached to their church building called a fellowship hall where the brethren there eat meals together. Bill feels that having a fellowship hall is perfectly acceptable to GOD because in Acts 2:42-46, the first century Christians ate meals together. Larry disagrees with Bill. Larry feels that there is no scriptural authority to use "the Lord's money" for physical things such as eating a meal together, and therefore it is wrong for a church to have a fellowship hall or eat in the church building. Bill and Larry have studied the subject at length and still disagree. What should Bill and Larry do?

Bill might understand GOD's will on this issue and Larry be wrong. Larry might understand and Bill be wrong. Both of them could partially or completely misunderstand GOD's will. Or, this could be a matter about which GOD is indifferent, given that He did not specifically speak about fellowship halls in the NT. Can Bill and Larry disagree on this issue and still be unified? I suggest to you that they can. They can both recognize this difference of opinion and still see each other as brothers in Christ. Or, they can allow this issue to divide their relationship with one another (and perhaps even with GOD). Larry could consider Bill and his congregation as sinners. Bill could label Larry as legalistic and they could stop speaking with one another and no longer associate or be friends. Which do you think is GOD's will?

Starting a New Congregation

For my third and final example, I'm going to use a personal situation. Some time ago my wife Holly and I started a congregation that meets in our home. We reached the conclusion that GOD was leading us in this direction over 18 months of focused Bible study, fervent prayer, and many discussions. There were multiple reasons for our decision to leave the congregation we were working with at the time to start this work. We felt strongly about the need for some specific changes and the shepherds there did not agree. For me personally, I felt so convicted about our need to start this work that to stay there would have caused me to violate my conscience.

Although Holly and I left that congregation of Christians we never stopped loving them. It was painful to leave—the hardest decision I've ever made—and I know it was painful for them also. But, from our perspective, we remained unified in the LORD. I still count them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. We might have disagreed over specific issues but we are all still working for the same goal—to share Jesus with as many people as possible—and we are still children of the same Father.

By contrast, just like John and Suzie in our first example, I feel that what would have been divisive would be for Holly and I to remain with that congregation and continue to push our point of view. I feel that we acted properly and have done everything possible to maintain a spirit of unity.

Conclusion: Be Very Careful Labeling People

Must a person have all of the characteristics listed above in order for them to be accurately "marked" (Rom. 16:17) as one who creates division? Maybe not. But if you perceive that a brother or sister is behaving in such a way as to create division within the Lord's body, then your responsibility is to love that person and:

  • Take your concerns regarding their actions to them in person, as Jesus taught:

    15
    “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that
    ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
    (Matt. 18:15-17)

  • Avoid gossiping or slandering them behind their back, especially while they have no knowledge of how you feel.
  • Use (ONLY) the characteristics the Bible gives us to assess whether an individual is truly creating division within the church.

Be very cautious and judicious about whom you choose to label as one who creates division within the church. Otherwise YOU might actually be the one creating division and our Lord may be instead disappointed in you.


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