Things fall apart. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s Romans 8:20 happening all around us. It’s a reality I increasingly experience in my body as I pass through the second half of middle age. Cracks permeate everything — including every church I’ve known.
Christian relationships encounter all the temptations common to man. That’s why Christian churches will rarely experience a kind of unity that knows no conflict or struggle.
But an absence of conflict and struggle is not what God has in mind for Christian unity in this age. As I’ve explained more thoroughly elsewhere, God gives unity as part of our inheritance in Christ (Ephesians 1:5, 11), but Christian oneness has a participatory dimension through which God accomplishes some glorious work in us and the world. So when God, through Paul, commands us to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), he intends for this endeavor to be hard — for some very good reasons.
But more than that, God intends our churches to experience seasons of noticeable disunity. In fact, these seasons are necessary, because they bring to light some very important realities. The old hymn pinpoints it well:
Tho’ with a scornful wonder
The world sees her oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed.
Yet saints their watch are keeping;
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
When it comes to Christian unity in this age of things falling apart, the reality we experience is “sorrowful” over our frequent factions, “yet always rejoicing” over the future grace of perfected unity set before us (2 Corinthians 6:10).
By Schisms Rent Asunder
Church schisms happen, as we all know. And they get a lot of bad press from Christians and non-Christians — often much deserved, as we also know. But schisms perform necessary functions in the church by revealing numerous areas requiring attention. Let me address three types of division in the church.
1. Fleshly Schisms
Paul illustrates the first type of schism in his blunt reproof of the Corinthian church:
I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Corinthians 3:1–3)
Fleshly schisms plagued this church. They were divided into partisan loyalties and impressed by worldly wisdom and rhetoric (chapters 1–3), easily swayed by those who slandered Paul in his absence (chapter 4), tolerating shocking sexual immorality (chapter 5), suing each other in civil court (chapter 6), damaging each other’s faith over issues of Christian freedom (chapter 8), and more. Paul didn’t call them false Christians; he called them fleshly Christians — people governed more by carnal discernment and desires than by the Spirit in numerous areas.
True Christian unity can be experienced and maintained only where Christlike love governs — the kind Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Therefore, it’s a much-needed mercy to bring our unity-killing fleshliness into the light so we can see it and repent. And church schisms often perform that function.
2. Maturity Schisms
A second type of schism overlaps with the first, but its function is distinct enough to highlight. I call them maturity schisms.
Any healthy, evangelizing, disciple-making church will have differing levels of maturity among its members. And when people of diverse maturity levels come together, conflicts will erupt. Different life experiences, scriptural knowledge, and overall sanctification will stretch the church.
Differences in maturity run many different ways. A younger person might have more life experience in a certain area than an older person. Or someone who’s been a Christian a long time might be more governed by the flesh than a newer convert. Or a less formally trained saint might have a more profound, life-transforming grasp of Scripture than a seminary-trained saint. On top of that, some members who “ought to be teachers” may have regressed in maturity by habitually indulging sin, and so they need milk again (Hebrews 5:12).
Here’s my point: the maturity diversity that’s part of normal, healthy church life produces a complex relational recipe for a lot of misunderstanding and plenty of pride-fueled conflicts. Positively, this gives us all opportunities to learn from each other and grow in grace. Negatively, we don’t always seize these opportunities, and sometimes they grow into various schisms.
3. Necessary Schisms
Paul also addresses a third type of church schism in 1 Corinthians 11:19:
There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
As Jesus taught in the parable of the weeds in the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30), our churches in this age will remain a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, no matter how seriously we take membership. Some weeds, thankfully, will become wheat by the end. But some are weeds, and often it’s schisms — factions — that reveal them.
And some of these weeds grow into a league of their own, as we know from urgent apostolic warnings of false teachers:
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17–18)
You must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 17–19)
These false Christians are “fierce wolves” that prey on the flock of God, “men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), causing distress in our churches by their heresies. And one clear way we can recognize that they are not genuine is by the disunity they create due to “contrary doctrine” and “ungodly passions.”
In addressing church unity, Paul explains why godly, mature, loving, wise, Scripture-soaked, straight-talking leaders in various roles are such valuable gifts to any church. They
equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)
This is a hard calling, requiring proven character, wisdom, knowledge, and a track record of “walk[ing] by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Therefore, church leaders must not be spiritually immature (1 Timothy 3:1–7) lest they pour the gasoline of fleshliness on the flames of emerging church schisms rather than the water of sacrificial love and godly wisdom.
Mature leaders foster cultures in their churches that help saints pursue “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And they’re not naive. They know that factors like fleshliness, maturity diversity, and false Christians make this corporate pursuit hard. But they also know it’s necessarily hard. In this age.
But this age isn’t forever. An age approaches when weeds will not grow among the wheat, when our sinful flesh will no longer influence us, and when whatever different maturity levels may exist will no longer result in conflicts. “We [will] all [finally] attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We will all experience the unity that is our inheritance in Christ, and all be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).
Till then, let’s not give up the fight to be one. In this fight for unity, we experience numerous aspects of the Father’s varied grace. Forced to wrestle with our own sin as we pursue unity, we experience much-needed sanctification by the Spirit. And as we struggle to attain and maintain unity, we discover and experience priceless dimensions of the love of Christ and display it for the world (John 13:35).
And our desire to experience the “not yet” promise of the completed, perfected, harmonious oneness of the body of Christ causes us to long, groan, and pray for the age to come. It keeps us saints watching and crying out, “How long, O Lord?” And the promised joy of perfected unity set before us fuels our hope that “soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”