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What is the cause of church splits?

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Divisions that lead to church splits are a sad and all-too-common occurrence in the body of Christ. The effects of a church split, regardless of the cause, can be devastating. Church splits distress and dismay mature believers, disillusion new believers, cause havoc in the lives of pastors and their families, and bring reproach upon the name of Christ. But there is hope; churches that split can experience healing and restoration.

Churches are like hospitals, full of wounded and sick people, but in the church the sickness is sin and the wounds are those we inflict upon ourselves and one another because of sin. One sin that causes multiple problems is a lack of forgiveness. No Christian is perfect, and no pastor or elder or deacon is perfect. When all these imperfect people get together, disagreements, hurt feelings and misunderstandings are inevitable. If our expectations of others are too high, disappointment is inevitable and can cause further feelings of hurt and resentment. Our response to one another should be to forgive one another in kindness and compassion (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13) and in Christian love, which covers a multitude of sins, followed by an increased commitment to serve one another (1 Peter 4:8-11). Once we are committed to forgiving, loving and serving one another, we will see each other’s differences in a new light. But if we react to differences of opinion, particularly those related to non-essential matters, by taking sides and gossiping, the split will widen, more harm will be done to the church members, and our message to the world will be further compromised.

A church split may happen when someone seeks to manipulate people and/or events for his own ends. It may be that there is pride in rule-keeping, and those who do not keep the same rules are ill-treated. It may be that one interpretation of a non-essential and obscure doctrine is emphasized and used as a measure for who is included and who is excluded. Or, it could be that someone wants to wrest leadership from the pastor or elders and rallies a group of people around himself to accomplish that end. Sadly, difference of opinion regarding music and worship style is also a frequent cause of division in the church. The excuses for the conflict are numerous, but they all stem from the same root cause—pride and selfishness. James 4:1-3 says, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

Also to be considered is that not all who sit in church week after week are truly Christians. Not all who name the name of Christ belong to Him, a truth He made clear in Matthew 7:16-23. We can identify both the true and the false by the fruits they produce. True Christians show forth the fruit of the Spirit who indwells them (Galatians 5:22-23), while the tares among the wheat sow discord and dissension. We need to be on guard for those the enemy places among us and exercise both wisdom and discernment, utilizing church discipline when necessary (Matthew 18:15-20) and speaking the truth in love in all things (Matthew 10:16; Ephesians 4:15).

Ultimately, each local church is made up of individual members, and how those members live affects how the church functions. Paul admonishes the church in Rome to behave decently, “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy” (Romans 13:13). Church members are influenced daily by an immoral culture, and one hour a week in church is wholly inadequate to counter the culture's influence. Heart transformation is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is incumbent upon each believer to diligently follow Christ and do the work of spiritual growth by doing things like regularly reading and studying the Bible, spending time with God in prayer, and fellowshipping with other believers outside of just sitting together at a Sunday morning church service (Philippians 2:12–13). Church attendance is vital, but living the Christian life is much more than merely going to church weekly. The world’s standard is one of self-promotion, self-esteem, and self-worship, attributing value to other people only insofar as they are willing to idolize us the way we idolize ourselves. Such an attitude always leads to “dissension and jealousy,” the inevitable results of worshiping the god of self. The cure is found in Titus 2:11-13: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” God’s grace, shed upon those who belong to Him through faith in Christ, enables us to deny worldly passions, put away immorality and live in godly humility toward one another: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

Church splits are healed through repentance and humility. If there is disagreement, the best would be for both sides to repent of anything said or done in an unloving manner during the disagreement. Repentance includes seeking forgiveness from the party offended by another’s behavior. In humility, each should accept the other’s apology, committing to go forward in the bonds of Christian love.

There is one particular case where leaving a group would be appropriate. If the leadership of a church abandons scriptural stands on key issues like the deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, God as Creator, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or other foundational doctrines, then it is appropriate (and perhaps obligatory) to leave that group.

The causes of divisions in the church are many, but ultimately the main reason for a church split is that someone has taken his focus off of Jesus Christ and begun to use the church organization for his own ends. The church is to be more organism (living thing) than organization. The apostle Paul uses the analogy of the body to describe the church. In 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, he calls the church the body of Christ. We are to be the body which does the will of the Head, Jesus Christ. If everyone in the body is focused on doing the will of God and on worshiping Jesus Christ in love and humility, then there may be disagreement, but the disagreement will be worked out in a loving and appropriate manner.

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This page last updated: June 15, 2023