Jack M. Lane
It's time we re-evaluate what Jesus was talking about when He said He would build His church. Why do we see continued splitting and division among brethren who had formerly met together in peace and harmony? Can anything be done to stop the continuing splintering?
This article addresses the increasing modern phenomenon of splitting and dividing among church groups because of doctrinal disagreements. Perhaps you have undergone division in your church. You may have gone looking for another church home after you were traumatized or offended by your former church. If so, this article is for you!
What makes you think you're in God's One True Church? Because you believe the One True Set of Doctrines? Because you follow the One True Leader? Because you think you have earnestly contended for the faith once delivered -- by a church leader?
At one point you may have thought, "Here's the Bible. That's our 'Statement of Beliefs.' All anyone has to do is look in the Bible and he'll find out what we believe." A few years ago, if someone were to ask us what our church teaches, we might have simply said, with a certain amount of smugness, "Look in the Bible. You'll find all our doctrines in there."
The fact is, they're not all in there. Many of the doctrines we believed are simply not spelled out plainly in there. Quite a few doctrines, dogmas and customs we followed and observed (some of which we continue to follow and observe) are extrapolations and deductions based on certain clues found here and there in the Bible (Isaiah 28:10-13). But other people, looking into the same Bible, have come up with vastly different doctrines. Who's right? Who's wrong?
Is the "One True Church" (the church you may be attending) true because of its doctrines? Is there one group that has it all correct, while all others are incorrect? If that was the case, there would be exactly one correct church group among the many hundreds of Christian sects and organizations and the thousands of tiny, scattered Christ-professing groups in existence today. All the other church groups would, by definition, be false churches. We must ask, "Is the church I attend the One True Church?" What about the church my church came out of? What about the churches that may have arisen out of my church? Which one is the true church? The most likely answer from many people would be, "Why, the one I'm in, of course!"
In the United States, man-made corporations call themselves churches, but in reality they came into existence, and operate on a daily basis, as state controlled businesses, serving at the will of the government. (That was the premise of the 1979 State of California v. Worldwide Church of God legal action, which ended only when the State Legislature passed a bill modifying that part of the law.) Other church organizations have since cited this as an example of case law to defend against government regulation and interference in the daily operation of their churches.
God's one true church is emphatically not one of these corporations. Instead, God's true church, His ekklesia, is the body of true believers whom God has called from around the world, many of whom congregate with other people in various church groups.
That being the case, what we see being divided are congregations of church groups. We can't actually see if God's true church, who fellowship among and within the church groups, are being divided, but there is a very real possibility that they are! Although there may be a common Spirit uniting God's people, there are a great many physical barriers, emotional walls, and prejudicial blockades between the groups that are difficult to overcome, and may easily affect true Christians. As a result of doctrinal division, friendships end, families are pulled apart at the seams, character is assassinated, and true Christian love and growth are being stymied, all because of doctrine!
To so many people, doctrine is everything, and any area of disagreement is like the Grand Canyon -- a fixed gulf that no one could cross!
Why are church congregations dividing? Why are new church corporations springing up around the world? What is dividing them?
Listen to the words of a young minister, written many years ago:
"Stop and think a moment. The one great barrier that separates professing Christians into denominational bundles -- that keeps them apart -- that promotes rivalry, hatred, and causes continued new splits and divisions -- is this insane insistence that the other fellow must see 'eye to eye' on every little point of doctrine! The one chord that binds together each little denominational bundle is the identical thing which has caused every split and division that ever took place between brethren -- DOCTRINE! As long as DOCTRINE is employed as the basis for church unity, every so-called 'church' will continue to suffer strife, division and separation into more division.
"And yet each denomination firmly believes that it, and it alone, is God's one and only TRUE CHURCH! And they think they base their claim on solid Bible evidence, the same as YOU probably think about YOURS!" (Quoted from Herbert W. Armstrong, editorial, The Plain Truth, March 1938, page 4)
If the important thing is for everyone to see things exactly the same way, such an effort is doomed to failure, because no two humans view everything alike, let alone a whole congregation or denomination all having exactly the same viewpoint.
As the years went by, the young minister quoted above strayed from his earlier viewpoint. He felt the need to exert power and authority over the members of his denomination in order to keep them under control, so they would remain as members of his One True Church. Enforcing doctrinal uniformity was the means he chose. This aging minister fell victim, in the 1970s, to the same malady he spoke out against in 1938! The emphasis shifted to, "I know the way. Follow me." "We are the True Church, and we have the True Doctrines." In fact, "Follow me as I follow Christ" became a frequently used proverb in his sermons. Members and followers were assured that the church would lead them into a place of safety, and then on into the Kingdom of God, but in order to catch a ride on this minister's coattails, the members needed to conform to the doctrines being taught. If there were people who had trouble with any of the doctrines, they either needed to change their mind and accept, or quietly leave and miss out on salvation. Once again, doctrine divided.
Of course, we must not minimize the existence of major doctrinal differences, such as disagreements regarding the nature of God and man, which day to observe as a Sabbath (or any day at all), law versus grace, whether Jesus was real, whether He was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, should the Ten Commandments be obeyed, and so forth. If there is no agreement on these basic, fundamental issues, then separate fellowships would probably be the best answer. But there are at the same time many minor points of doctrine and philosophy which try to wedge themselves between members of the ekklesia. There must be some high ground we can walk to avoid this.
For example, we've noticed in some of the Sabbath-keeping groups we've visited that if some of the members in the congregation wish to observe the holy days and others don't, they all still get along and love each other. If there are differences in doctrinal understanding, they all still work together as a congregation. This seems to be a more admirable way of doing things.
The problem arises when people have a different perception of what is critical and what is non-critical. If one person believes God is an amorphous blob which can manifest itself as a Father, a Son, or a Holy Spirit, while another person visualizes a two-member God Family which will expand to a Family with billions of members, there can easily be some first commandment issues here. But the two people can still get along and work together, fellowshipping freely with positive results. But to argue whether or not God has fingers and toes can be ranked in importance right alongside arguments of whether Adam had a naval, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- both popular subjects of discussion in theological circles 150 years ago. The problem of division arises primarily when doctrine is used as a weapon rather than a collection of current understandings.
Over the years, many people from different churches have departed their former church and have "gone shopping" for a new church home. Some begin attending with a splinter group from the former church which has doctrines and philosophies to their liking. However, at some point many of these people begin to disagree with the new leadership on some point or another, then tempers flare among the congregation, frustrations arise, shunning and ostracism begin, disfellowshipment is just around the corner, and so, off they go, in search of another new group with a "better" approach, or "better" doctrines.
Yet, after years of watching this take place, and after experiencing it ourselves, I can tell you this: Although having biblical doctrines is very important, and striving to have the correct (or "true") doctrines is essential, it is not necessarily of paramount single importance. Other factors go into our lives as children of God, including our attitude, our love of the brethren, and our general approach to Christianity. It is apparently possible to have more-or-less correct doctrines, and still not be in God's true church!
(A major aspect of this topic revolves around churches which have "correct" doctrines but hate their neighbor. This article doesn't go in that direction, but you may know of such organizations, and you can guess what we might say about them on this web site!)
Doctrine became the test of membership in a church organization my family and I no longer attend, and it remains so in both the main church and its daughter churches. We were all trained to the idea that we must be united doctrinally, or we're not united at all. Now, however, many of us don't have a strong man to follow, a man to whom we look as our unquestioned leader. Now many of us look at things for ourselves, make up our own minds, draw our own conclusions, and many times follow our own paths. What happens as a natural outcome of all this? Doctrinal division! What kind of behavior does this engender? Person A might find himself thinking, in regard to Person B, "Well, what I believe is obviously true, so what you believe can't possibly be true." Unfortunately, though, Person B is thinking the same thing about Person A at the same time!
There is a certain amount of merit in that, though. If we hold fast to the idea that what we believe is right, even if someone else near us is doing something different, that will help us by strengthening us to do what we consider to be the right thing, and help us to be able to defend what we believe from the Bible. The shortcoming of it all is that we tend to take it personally when someone else believes something slightly different. After all, somebody has to be wrong! And yet, what someone else believes shouldn't reflect on our personal beliefs, nor should it be taken as any kind of personal dig at anyone. We each must decide for ourselves what is true. The biblical example in ancient Israel is this: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21:25, NIV).
The Outcome of Division
We must remember that we're all in this together, and we're all seeking God's truth, His will, and His Way. But we can do it better together than individually. Don't you suppose Satan would love to divide us so he can conquer us?
If we carry this doctrinal division to its logical conclusion, if enough people stop fellowshipping with other people simply because the other guy has a different understanding than ours, soon we might all be meeting in little churches of one! That could conceivably be the outcome, if we all insist that only people who agree completely, in every detail, should meet together.
Many of us have enjoyed the freedom and independence to study our Bibles, draw our own conclusions, and discuss them freely, being admonished and corrected as needed by our brethren who also have studied into the same topic. Some of us feel as if these positive benefits would be stifled if we were herded together into one large church group again. Now that we are growing beyond the "baby stage" in our Christian lives, learning to walk and run as never before, we are also free to develop more mature doctrinal ideas than we ever could before. As a result, different people are coming up with different ideas, and disagreements are the natural result. Admittedly, some of the ideas people are coming up with are a little "far out," and not everyone would be able to meet with groups espousing some of the more non-traditional concepts being developed. We must be free to draw our own conclusions from the Bible, and we may need to withdraw from some hot-headed individuals who would like nothing better than to argue their own new ideas.
As you can see, there is good and bad on both sides of the issue. It would seem that the independent groups will continue to study on their own and come to their own understandings until the Messiah comes to reunite the scattered fragments of His ekklesia, and give us the "real truth" on many of these questions we have.
Remember, what we believe is just that -- what we believe! That's one definition of faith -- we believe that what we believe is true. But we can no longer have the luxury of thinking that way. There are many who have changed the way they look at many things and now believe things which they formerly had not believed. Has truth become any less true or more true than it was before? No, truth tends to remain true whether we have discovered it or not. But our belief system can change. We can honestly say, "This is what I believe to be true." The brutally honest can say, "This is what I believe to be true now. I may believe something else next year." Is that waffling? Is that wavering in belief? Is it being blown about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14)? Or is it acknowledging that we can come to a more perfect understanding as time progresses and as we allow God to lead us? We are told to grow in both the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
Through this process, we may believe something else next year at this time, as we continue to honestly seek the will of God. Others may be growing and learning at faster or slower rates than we are, so they may be ahead of us, or behind us. Let's not let that be something that divides us, though!
What Is Important
Yes, truth is important. The scriptures tell us that we must have sound, secure, firm, steady doctrine, and that we must hold to the traditions of the elders (that is, the first century apostles). There is at least one church group that claims to have "the whole truth," and that is how they know they are God's church. Even if that was true, even if that was possible, having "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," is not enough.
You may be aware of the scripture that says people aren't able to come to Christ unless the Father calls them (John 6:44). This was often preached in conjunction with the idea that understanding and accepting the doctrines of a particular church was the sure sign that one was being called by God! Then it becomes the duty of the new believer to respond to that church so he or she would be among the chosen (Matthew 22:14).
But now it becomes important to ask, "Is it possible to understand these doctrines, to 'have the truth' (as that church understands it), and yet be unconverted?" The disintegration of church organizations, denominations, and little independent groups have amply demonstrated that this can, indeed, be true, when leading teachers, ministers, people we used to look up to as pillars, have disappointed us mightily.
What's been missing all these years? Why have so many failed? We need to have the truth. But in addition to that, we must have love. In Hebrews 10:24, we are told, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works."
The apostle John wrote several times in his epistles that we are to love one another (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-12, 20-21; 5:2; 2 John 5). In his gospel, John wrote, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
We can see that, while having the truth and doing good works are a sign to God that we are His, having real, sincere love for one another (1 Peter 1:22) is a sign to those both inside and outside the church that someone is a member of the ekklesia. All three aspects -- truth, good works, and love of the brethren -- must be present in our Christian lives. It would be sad to be among a group where the only thing that sets them apart is their doctrine (what they believe to be "truth"), but there is no love or good works. Perhaps you have attended with such a group.
If members of a church group neglect to show love for each other, if they start to show disrespect, shun people, distrust and accuse a brother or sister, try to drive people out of fellowship, spread gossip and rumors to destroy others, because of doctrinal differences, they are being disobedient, and violating a clear sign of who is a true disciple!
A Christian's life should show that they have "the fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). To have "the truth" (a set of doctrines) without having the fruit of the Spirit, indicates that such a person or group may not have the Spirit at all!
Ephesians 4:15 says, "but, speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ." Wouldn't it be horrible for someone -- or some church corporation -- to speak the truth (or some portion of it) without love? In groups where this is the case, the tendency is to place supreme emphasis on doctrine, or on following the top-ranking leader of the corporation, with little emphasis placed on the need of the members of the congregations to have love, edification, building up, and so forth. If a member was to disagree about a doctrine, or begin to question whether the top man was the One True Leader, that member would very shortly begin to notice a distinct change in his status among that group. We have seen some frightening changes come over people, and have heard some pretty silly rumors being circulated, simply because a formerly beloved member and brother in the church suddenly is looked on as a traitor and an evil person. Why? Because the church member raised questions about the group's religious beliefs or its leader! Rather than examining the belief or the leader, they throw away the questioning church member!
Would it even be possible for a Christian to "grow up," to spiritually mature, under such circumstances? Does any child thrive in a loveless environment? Can any Christian be expected to thrive in a loveless environment?
Jesus said, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-39). And Christ made it abundantly clear who our neighbor is (Luke 10:29-37), and that we can't just shut off a fellow church member, call him names, and say he doesn't belong there, based on a difference of opinion about understanding a doctrine! That's not our call. That's not our job.
Let's suppose for a moment that the church organization's doctrine is correct, but the questioning member is not ready to accept that doctrine. What does the Bible say our course of action should be?
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. ... Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master [God as his Father and the Messiah as his Lord] he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:1, 4). And if God is able to make him stand, who are we to judge him?
The Love Chapter
What are we saying? Are we proposing that love is more important than truth? What about denominations that believe what we would consider to be pagan beliefs, but where the people really love each other (and any visitors who come in)? Are they practicing true religion?
At one time I would have thought that might be going too far. But which is more important: a strict outlook on every little point of doctrine and belief, insisting on complete conformity to someone else's beliefs or standards, or the ability of God's people to work together, live together, and grow together in peace, love, and harmony with each other, in spite of some differences in what individuals believe?
What did Paul say? "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels [with all the oratory skills and gifts of languages it's possible to have], but have not love [agape love, the highest form of brotherly love], I have become as sounding brass [a trumpet, used to call out very simple signals to alert people, but can't say any words] or a clanging symbol [just a big noise attracting attention]" (1 Corinthians 13:1, NKJV).
All right, but what about having a good handle on the truth of the Bible, and having gifts of the Spirit? "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge [all the truth, all the really detailed information in the Bible], and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains [even to the point of working miracles!], but have not love, I am nothing" (verse 2).
Well, all right, but what about all the good works some people do to be considered righteous, or out of a motivation of actually being righteous? "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor [doing a good work], and though I give my body to be burned [another good work: martyrdom, the supreme sacrifice], but have not love, it profits me nothing" (verse 3).
If we don't have love, it profits us nothing! It doesn't do us a bit of good! None of it does! Not truth, not good works, not being called, not all the righteousness (or self-righteousness) we can muster! Without a pure, sincere, unfeigned love of the brethren, it's all just playing church!
Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom, but whoever does the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23). And what is the Father's will? "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy [that is, to forgive your fellowman every chance you get], and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, NIV). In other words, don't get the big head and think you're proudly walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the Father and Christ (especially if that idea is based on your being a member of a particular church)!
This should be our goal and objective in our congregational life: "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere [margin: unhypocritical] love of the brethren, love one another fervently, with a pure heart" (1 Peter 1:22). This is the apostle Peter talking. "Love one another fervently, with a pure heart." Not just if they live up to our ideal. Not just if they meet with our approval. Not just if they see things the way we do.
"My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue [lip service], but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18) -- by taking action to demonstrate true love (in deed), and by actually being the person of love these actions show (in truth). Not in the hypocrisy of acting the part -- actually being the part!
This is how we can know if we are examples of the true New Testament ekklesia of God.
At a time when we should be learning how to love our enemies, too many of us are spending our time and efforts hating our friends! At a time when we should be learning to get along as brothers and sisters, too many of us are separated by sibling rivalries. At a time when Satan is getting the upper hand on God's people, when we should be uniting as God's Family, we are squabbling and disagreeing among ourselves like spoiled children.
Surprisingly, there is mention of this phenomenon of church splitting in the New Testament. Division among followers of Jesus Christ, and the resultant division among church congregations, was already at work while the apostles yet lived. (For example, see our article about the major first-century heresy, Gnosticism.) But Paul saw it happening in his time, not as a horrible failure of the church, but with a positive spin. He said, "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1 Corinthians 11:18-19, KJV). The NIV words it: "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. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval."
Do you see an awesome responsibility there? Especially among the rising number of independent churches and Bible study groups, there is a responsibility to note which divisions are heresy, and which disagreements point out -- to God and to man -- who has God's approval! Does your group? Does your church? Does your little independent study group?
If we have only doctrine to set our group apart from others as being "the One True Church," we don't have enough. If we have plenty of love but not enough truth, that won't work, either.
Do we have both the truth and love? And do we show it in good works? If we do, then the apostle John says to us, "Grace, mercy and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love" (2 John 3).