What Does Disunity Say?

What Does Disunity Say?

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.

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 1:511), 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.

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