bible study 1600 clrNote: This article was updated on 7/4/2014. Because it has been one of the most read posts, I am linking a PDF of the original version here in case you wish to reference it as well. The updated article here more comprehensively addresses the subject, however.

Let's begin by considering a few Scriptures that discuss church 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 NKJV)

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 
(1 Cor. 1:10-11 NIV)

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

18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 
(1 Cor. 11:18 NIV)

18 They told you beforehand, In the last days (in the end time) there will be scoffers [who seek to gratify their own unholy desires], following after their own ungodly passions.
19 It is these who are [agitators] setting up distinctions and causing divisions—merely sensual [creatures, carnal, worldly-minded people], devoid of the [Holy] Spirit and destitute of any higher spiritual life.
(Jude 17-19 AMP)

What does "division" mean?

argue dismayThere are three words in the New Testament (NT) which are translated "division" according to Strong's Concordance (which is keyed to the KJV):

  1. diamerismosbreaking 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 NKJV)

    • 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 NKJV)

  2. dichostasia—division, dissension, standing apart. This word is used only once, by Jesus:
    • 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 
      (Luke 12:51 NIV)

  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 NKJV)

    • 21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.
      (Mark 2:21 NIV)

    • 40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

      41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”

      Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.
      (John 7:40-43 NIV)

    • 16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them. 17 So they *said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him, since He opened your eyes?” And he said, “He is a prophet.”
      (John 9:16-17 NASB)

    • 19 Then a fresh division of opinion arose among the Jews because of His saying these things. 
      (John 10:19 AMP)

    • 10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
      (1 Cor. 1:10 NIV)

    • 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.
      (1 Cor. 11:18 NASB)

    • 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 
      (1 Cor. 12:23-25 NIV)

  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

disagreeHow 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 individuals living in the first century.

  • 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 topic. The NT shows us that Christians can disagree over non-essential matters. Paul and Barnabas disagreed contentiously (Acts 15:36-40). The entire chapter of Rom. 14 is devoted to "disputable matters" over which Christians disagreed (and still do). 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 the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.
    (Matt. 7:15-20 NASB)

    What kind of life does the person lead? Are they known as an imitator of Jesus 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, babies 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 us a lot.

  • They seek to have people say, "I am of <insert person's name here>.", rather than, "I am of Jesus." Paul discussed this problem at the division-plagued Corinthian church:

    10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.

    13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
    (1 Cor. 1:10-15 NIV)

    As a bit of an aside, these verses are a key reason why denominations bother me, and why I've chosen not to be part of one. "I follow Apollos," sounds a lot like "I'm a Southern Baptist," and "I follow Cephas," sounds like "I'm a Calvinist," and "I follow Christ" like "I'm a Church of Christ-er." I believe it is absolutely possible for modern day Christ-followers to be Christians without being part of a denomination or possessing what I call a denominational mentality (i.e., the attitude that all Christians are part of some denomination and that Jesus' body is comprised of the collection of all denominations). I intend to write more about this in the future and, once I do, I'll link that post(s) here.

  • Their other works can be found in Gal. 5:19-21:

    19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 
    (Gal. 5:19-21 NIV)

  • 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

circle of unity 400 clrIt is GOD's will that His children be unified. Shortly before His arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for unity among His disciples.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
(John 17:20-23 NIV)

How can all Christians be "brought to complete unity" when it is virtually impossible to get even two people to agree on everything? As I have previously pointed out, Scripture clearly acknowledges that Christians are going to disagree on "disputable" things, so it's clear that GOD doesn't expect us to see every issue the same. But what makes an issue "disputable?"

Rom. 14 gives us two examples of "disputable" things: the eating of meat and observing special days (think holidays). One person is either a vegetarian (Rom. 14:2) or considers certain meats unclean (Rom. 14:14, such as a first century Jewish Christian who was accustomed to keeping the Law of Moses). In the case of foods, the NT reveals that, in Christ, all meats may be considered "clean" (Rom. 14:14; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; Col. 2:16), yet one must not do what their conscience tells them they shouldn't, such as eating meats they knew had been sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29; 21:25; 1 Cor. 8).

Likewise, in the case of observing human or religious "holidays," GOD leaves it up to the individual. Paul told the Roman Christians:

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. ... 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.
(Rom. 14:5-6a, 10 NIV)

Later, while under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote the following to the Colossian Christians:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
(Col. 2:16-17 NIV)

The reason these and similar matters are "disputable" is because GOD didn't give specific instructions about them and is instead leaving it up to the individual person to decide. And every time something is left to human reasoning, life shows us that individuals will see the matter differently. What GOD wants in these situations is for us to:

  1. Be convinced in our own minds what we believe on the matter (Rom. 14:5b).
  2. Follow our personal conviction with our motivation being to serve GOD (Rom. 14:6-8).
  3. Not judge our brother who believes differently on the subject (Rom. 14:4, 13a).
  4. Avoid placing a stumbling block in our brother's way—which may mean suspending our personal liberty so as to not tempt another (e.g., returning to the vegetarian example, I may need to eat a salad instead of tempting my conscientious-objecting vegetarian Christian brother with a juicy steak over dinner—Rom. 14:13b-23).

Therefore, in matters about which GOD did not give specific instruction, we need to apply the instructions given in Rom. 14 so that there might be unity, despite our differences. On matters like these, we need not be identical twins in order to be brothers in Christ. (Lest anyone misunderstand, let me be clear: I am speaking about subjects where the Bible is either difficult to understand or silent. In no way am I suggesting that we can blatantly disregard Scripture.)

Thankfully, Scripture also defines for us those fundamental truths upon which Christian unity stands (and falls). Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lordone faithone baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Eph. 4:1-6 NIV)

In verse 3, Paul instructs us regarding the importance of unity. In verses 4-6, he gives us the fundamental truths upon which Christians must be agreed in order to be unified. An in-depth explanation of these seven "one's" is beyond the scope of this article, but let us note that it is critical to our salvation that we accurately understand, practice and teach these "one's." I believe this is a huge need among believers and these verses give me another big concern about denominationalism (as there are many "bodies," differing "faiths" and "baptisms" taught).

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. In April 2010, 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 stop meeting with our previous congregation in order to start this church. We felt strongly about the need for some specific changes and the shepherds in our previous church disagreed. I felt so convicted about the importance of these changes and our need to start this group that it would have violated my conscience not to do so.

Although Holly and I ceased meeting regularly with that congregation of Christians, we've never stopped loving them or treating them as brethren in Christ. Despite our different views, at least with regard to the eldership of that church, from our perspective we remained unified with them in the LORD.

By contrast, just like John and Suzie in our first example, I feel that it would have been divisive for Holly and I to continue assembling with that congregation while pressing our perspective on the changes we desired. I feel that we acted properly and have done everything possible to maintain a spirit of unity.

Conclusion: Be Very Careful Labeling People

giving hugMust a person have all of the characteristics listed above in order for them to be appropriately "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 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church [i.e., the assembly]; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
    (Matt. 18:15-17 NIV)

  • 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 in order 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 may actually create division and our Lord may instead be disappointed in you.


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