Man! I absolutely love the Church. My heart breaks for her. I have such a deep and sincere longing to love her well and help her be the best she can be. I love all denominations and would visit churches on rotation if I could just to get a beautiful sense of the varied nature of the Bride of Christ.
With that being said, it should come as absolutely no surprise that church splits or church breakups tear me to pieces. I just can’t understand them. Jesus says in John 17:20-21, “And I ask not only for these disciples, but also for all those who will one day believe in me through their message.” (That’s you and me, folks!) “I pray for them all to be joined together as one even as you and I, Father, are joined together as one. I pray for them to become one with us so that the world will recognize that you sent me” (NIV).
That last sentence hits home to me especially. He’s saying that our unity with each other and with Him will tell the world that Jesus is the Son of God, that He was sent by God. So you can extrapolate from that, that if we are in disunity, it causes the world to not be able to see Him correctly. And showing the world a true representation of Him is kind of a huge deal.
Let’s Talk History
What really stinks is just how early the Church missed that crucial point. The first church split was between the Orthodox and Catholic arms of the church in what is known as The Great Schism of 1054. We won’t get into the politics of it all because all good church splits are full of politics. It’s also good to realize that the church split not only for political reasons but because of geography and belief changes as well. One side couldn’t read any Latin, and the other side couldn’t read any Greek. One side was using leavened bread, and the other side was using unleavened bread. Let’s not hash it all out, but it’s safe to say that the Body was growing apart.
Truthfully, I am unsure what could have stopped that inevitable division. They were so far from one another that there really was no way to keep things the same. They were in different cultures with different languages and different histories that Christianity was shaping. It’s sad that they split, but I can completely see why.
Let’s Talk Today
This first split isn’t really what influenced the massive disunity of the Church today, though. That happened later with the Protestant Reformation. Most of us know the story of Martin Luther and his 95 theses. Luther realized that what was being taught wasn’t exactly what was in Scripture, and that just didn’t sit well with him. The main thought behind the Protestant Reformation was that the Bible and not church tradition should be what guided church doctrine.
This is still believed by the majority of the Western Church today, that Scripture trumps tradition. The main problem with that is—you guessed it—interpretation. It’s really easy for us as people to get hung up on certain things that are issues for us from our life history or simply things that matter more to us. We can get caught up judging things we can’t really understand, and, in all honesty, we can get way too caught up in things that don’t really affect our walk with Christ. I mean, in only slight sarcasm, using leavened or unleavened bread this side of the cross isn’t exactly a reason for a church to divide.
And that’s the thing, churches now seem to break up over opinions and misconceptions that should have no authority over the unity of their Body! It seems that, although what Luther did was incredibly beneficial, it opened a door for people to assume that we can just break apart when we think it’s necessary. There’s way too much emphasis on self in that kind of thinking, though.
I personally have not been a part of a church split, but I’ve seen the aftermath of it. I’ve seen the pain and devastation in people’s eyes as their voices crack from holding back tears when expressing the hurt in their hearts. The miscommunication, the judgment, the assumptions, and bitterness. Not all splits are like this, but I think a majority might be. Humanity can get really nasty sometimes.
These church splits are the ones that break my heart the most.
Let’s Talk Leaders and Laymen
I think most church splits wind up happening because leadership gets disconnected from the heart of God. They get caught up in legalism, or religiosity, or thinking their opinion is more important than someone else’s. They let pride become more important than humility, and they become bitter and angry when others call out their sin (I am in no way making a blanket statement for all church splits! Don’t hear me wrong).
I think leadership can get out of line or disconnected because they are living out of their human strength sometimes and because there may be a very real chance that God never called them to be in leadership in the first place. Like James said, “Not many should become leaders.” It’s hard as nails, guys!
Church splits severely grieve the heart of our Lord. He wants unity, unity, unity. Division is from the enemy, and when we as the followers of Jesus let division take over, we misrepresent Him to the world and to one another. We cripple the Body. We break her leg and cause her to walk around on crutches. Not very nice.
So what can we do? Scripture has some great points for church leaders.
In Hebrews 13:17 it says, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (NIV).
James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (NIV).
In Peter 1:2-3 it says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (NIV).
What do I gather from all of this? Leading a church is hard, and it should not be taken lightly. Being a leader in a church is first and foremost a place of humility and servitude. Church leaders should be the most laid down lovers of us all. When they are out of line, they should not begrudge the brother who brings conviction. They should submit to one another as unto the Lord, and they should most importantly submit to the truth of God’s Word above all else. There should be no slander on their lips, forgiveness should be given seventy times seven, and they should spend so much time with the Lord that, day after day, they reflect Him more and more.
That’s you, leaders, but what about the rest of us? Churches don’t split just because leaders get out of line. It’s on the rest of us, too.
I think loving beyond all else is vital. Don’t slander those in leadership above you; instead, pray for them! If things don’t sit well within your spirit, then leave. Don’t contribute to negative talk that can build into schisms. That doesn’t help anyone, and if anything, it ruins your witness as a follower of Jesus. Understand that church leaders are people, too, capable of all the things that people are capable of.
This should not give them a free pass to not be upstanding, but it should give us empathy and love toward them. If leadership gets way out of line then, again, I say leave. But leave with a closed mouth and a smile on your face. The Lord will bring all things to light; you don’t have to.
Love wins. Every time. The goal of our hearts should be love and unity. It should be building the Body up, not tearing it down. We should join Jesus when He prays for unity in all believers, and then we should live like that matters to us—because it should. Leaders and lay alike, we should be living humble lives that point to our King, not mimicking the bigotry and division of the enemy. Let’s love like Jesus and keep His commands.
From one sister to my many brothers and sisters, I say, let’s stand together in unity, reflecting the heart of our Savior and showing the world exactly who He is.
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