Causes of Division
I can think of four reasons why church leaders cause division over non-essentials:
- Insecurity and
It is all too common to find those who feel superior to those who do not properly understand doctrine. If I am honest, I must admit that my inner Pharisee seeks to move me toward such feelings. It is easy to become proud.
Yet, this is not how we see Jesus and the Apostle Paul functioning in the New Testament. Yes, they taught and argued to bring people to a correct understanding of doctrine, but one does not sense in either Jesus or Paul any attitude that would promote division over non-essential doctrine. If anything, one senses feelings of sorrow over those who misunderstand the Gospel.
Paul points to Jesus as the example of one who humbled himself for the purpose of bringing us to salvation. The very Gospel that is to unite us was made possible by Jesus’ example of humility. To the Philippians Paul wrote:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, ESV)
Those who promote division often have a misunderstanding of what it means to be set apart. Jesus told us that his coming would result in disagreement rather than peace. Jesus also told us that his followers would have to endure persecution.
But we should not be seeking the disagreement, it may find us, but it should be something that we try to avoid. If an offense is to come, let it be the offense of the gospel and not the offense of those who seek to speak in God’s name. We don’t need to take hard stands on issues such as the preferred Bible translation, or wearing of cosmetics or many of the really silly things that have divided believers over the years.
Jesus told us that the defining mark of the Christian is to be love. If anything is to set us apart from others it should be the radical way we love those around us.
I have seen in some a need to be reassured of being part of the “in” group. The insecurity manifests itself by setting up doctrinal litmus tests to see who is in and who is out. This could be over eschatology (the study of last things – interpretation of prophecy) or some other doctrine that is set up as the test for orthodoxy.
When I look at who hung around Jesus, I have to marvel that churches work so hard at defining who is in and who is not. Jesus hung around with drunkards, hookers, thieves, terrorists and every other category of societal outcast. The one and only test for inclusion into his group was a love for Jesus.
Why then do we feel the need to quantify who is in and who is not? Jesus knows. Can the knowledge that Jesus knows be enough for us?
I love Scripture. I spend time reading it and studying it so that I am on a path of increasing understanding of how God intends me to live and how I should understand the world around me. I believe that this study will lead me into correct belief and practice.
But there is a danger for those who put high value on correct understanding of the Bible. Our desire for correct understanding can eclipse our love for the one who gave us Scripture. In other words, we can be so enamored with correct understanding, we can lose sight of the purpose for gaining that understanding. Our study is to draw us more deeply in love with the God who gave us the Bible.
When our love for correct belief causes us to be unloving toward someone who believes differently, then perhaps we have made an idol out of our doctrine.
Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that our hearts can lead us astray. When division comes, the first place we should look for blame is in our own hearts. Am I causing division out of pride, misunderstanding, insecurity or idolatry? Am I working to be the cause of resolution to the division or am I promoting it?
Unfortunately, the world around us thinks of the church as judgmental and contentious. May we begin to allow God to change our hearts so that we can be known for our love?