There may be no failure so evident and so pervasive in Christendom over the last 500 years since the Reformation than the splintering of the Christian testimony into hundreds of sects founded on various teachings or following competing leaders. The failure is great because both the prototype and the principle of the church’s unity on earth were so pristine and ideal. There are few things more striking in the New Testament than the unity and love by which that prototypical assembly in Jerusalem functioned, as seen in Acts 2-15. How far the testimony of the church has fallen!
The Lord Jesus first laid down the principle of unity: “That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us” (John 17:21). The apostle Paul provides an illustration to the Corinthians, who were perhaps the earliest to manifest divisive tendencies¹: “Now are they many members, yet but one body” (I Corinthians 12:20). Each heart that honors Christ as Head of the body cannot but be grieved on His account for the disunity of the Christian testimony. But an outward unity of the whole church of God, in testimony toward the world, is impossible for any of us to restore, no matter our love or zeal for it. Ecumenism is not the answer, for there will not be a maintenance of holiness or righteousness where the underlying reasons for the divisions and disunity are ignored and glossed over by men, since “God requires that which is past” (Eccl. 3:15; I Kings 12 & 13; Rev. 18:4-7). Neither is the solution to break away from an established group with problems in order to start our own independent assembly, perhaps with better intentions or nicer people, for it would leave us with just another division, and perhaps no more truth or unity.
So what then are the causes of the divided state of the church of God? Or what causes rifts in individual assemblies? All believers must admit in their consciences that there has been general failure in “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), and I would suggest there is a primary cause for the failure: Reserving for oneself a right to choose one’s own religion or church. This diagnosis may sound strange to many believers, so allow me to explain further.
The words “heretic” (Titus 3:10) and “sects” or “factions” (I Corinthians 11:19, Galatians 5:20) are based on the Greek hairéomai, which means to prefer, or to choose². The sects called Pharisees and Saducees (Acts 5:17; 15:5) were results of the choices and preferences many Jews had made prior to the Lord’s first coming, and they bore similarities to denominations in our day. (Even the early Christians were called a sect, though they never considered themselves that – Acts 24:5, 15 and 28:22.) A heretic, or divisive person, is very often simply a Christian leader who draws saints after himself, perhaps by seemingly innocuous methods. Nevertheless, where pride of this sort is not judged for what it is, Corinthian sectarianism¹ bears the fruit of its disobedience just one more time in the church’s long history. Whenever we reserve for ourselves a “right to choose” our church affiliation or leader according to our preferences, we become guilty of sectarianism, and so at least tacitly approve of division in the church of God.
What is an earnest Christian to do if he or she ought not to choose a church based on preferences? The only scriptural principle of action when a believer is troubled about his religious or ecclesiastical associations is obedience. When Moses instructed Israel on the matter of acceptable worship to Jehovah when they would enter the land of Canaan, he addressed it as a matter of obedience to God, both as to the manner and location for worship. “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest: but in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, there shalt thou offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee” (Deut. 12:1-14). The ramifications of obedience or disobedience to this command are seen frequently in the rest of the Old Testament. The old forms and location of worship do not apply to Christians, but the principle of obedience to the apostles’ doctrine does apply. Faith has no other operative principle than obedience.
A powerful example of an attitude of obedience to the Holy Spirit’s direction on how and where believers should meet for worship is found in Luke 22. The Lord Jesus asked Peter and John to go on ahead and prepare the Passover, so that He could enjoy this memorial act of worship one more time with His disciples. They instinctively knew that it would be quite inappropriate for them to act upon their own preferences in finding a place, so they evidenced their dependence on the Lord in this question: “Where wilt Thou that we prepare?” He was ready with a clear answer in response to their sincere dependence upon Him, and the answer ought to speak to the heart of a believer even now, for it has a distinctly typical meaning. “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in.” In other passages of scripture, we find that an unnamed servant represents the Spirit of God, and that water is a picture of the word of God,³ so it should not be difficult to understand the typical meaning of the Lord’s answer.
Does the error of partisanship and exalting leaders (whether from the recent or distant past) trouble you? It is encouraging to see the occasional individual exercised in his or her conscience to leave a religious group whose tradition, geographical or cultural limits, and sometimes its denominational or congregational name,* attests to its divisive inception. Such repentance and separation from what dishonors Christ, coupled with a desire to obey the Spirit’s leading according to the principles of the word of God, will be honored by Him.°
Choosing a church, or preferring one Christian leader above another, is not the path of obedience and faith, for it effectively perpetuates the historical failure of the church in maintaining the unity of the Spirit. If a Christian who finds the religious scene confusing is obedient to the Spirit of God (who always guides according to the word of God), blessing and satisfaction in God’s will is sure to be its pleasant fruit.
¹ I Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:3-6; 4:6-7; 11:17-20
² As, for example, in Philippians 1:22, in a different context.
³ Servant: Genesis 24; Luke 14:17; John 16:13-15. Water: John 3:5; 13:10; Eph. 5:26
* For example: Lutheran, Calvinist, Mennonite, Hutterite; Zwingli, Wesley, St. Peter
° II Timothy 2:15-22