DIVISIONS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2007

 

Question:

A division in our church is creating further divisions within families and between friends. How should a Christian respond to these secondary divisions?

Answer:

While the cause of a division in a church is largely out of the control of the ordinary members of the congregation, the secondary divisions that result are largely due to the way each member reacts and responds, and the responsibility for these secondary divisions is therefore in the hands of every member.

When a significant division occurs in a church it is good to stand back and look at a few guiding principles in relation to the secondary divisions caused by that division.

These principles include:

[1] The principle of obedience to Christ. Jesus commands us to follow him. His relationship with Judas over his three years of ministry gives us an example to follow. During those three years Jesus never did a single thing - either word or action - that revealed the basic and fundamental difference between his mindset and the mindset of Judas. He treated him just the same as he treated the 11 who had genuine faith. This is a demonstration of grace in the highest order. It is also a demonstration of giving people both freedom and time to learn and to change, while loving and accepting them. This demonstrates how church and family members should treat each other, even though they may have a difference of opinion regarding the issue that is dividing the church. A difference of opinion does not give us the right to alter our attitudes and actions towards each other, nor does it make it okay for us to hold the other in contempt. [It was not until the final night, the night of the betrayal, that Jesus exposed the difference, and then he did it in such a way that only Judas really understood what was going on.]

[2] The principle of grace. God relates to us by the principle of grace. He does not wait till we are perfect morally. He does not wait till we are perfect in our understanding and our knowledge. Nothing we are or do either gains or maintains his acceptance of us. He commands us to exercise this same level of acceptance in our relationships with each other. [See Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Also Matthew 18:21-35]. Nothing the other person is or does should reduce our acceptance of that person. We are to accept them for exactly the same reason and on the same level as God does - that they are 'in Christ'. Irrespective of our differing opinions in a divisive issue we are to relate to each other on the same basis as God relates to us, that is, always, ever and only by grace and always, ever and only 'in Christ'.

[3] The 'in Christ' principle: This is fundamental to reconciliation between God and man, and man and man. Paul explains it in 2 Corinthians 5. In verse 14 Paul states that 'one died for all, therefore all died.' By this he means, as becomes obvious later, that in the death of Jesus Christ every one who believes in him 'died'. Christians holding differing viewpoints in a church division have both, in the death of Christ their substitute, paid the penalty for their sin, including whatever sin is involved in their reactions, responses and opinions regarding the divisive issue. It is therefore, out of order, for a person on either ‘side’ to in any way inflict a punishment on the other, because of differing opinions in the matter. Thus Paul goes on to say in verse 16: 'so from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view'. [The Greek text actually says 'we regard no one according to flesh' - that is, according to what they are in themselves apart from Christ.] By this he means that from now on, now that he knows Christ and what the death of Christ achieved, he no longer relates to other believers on the basis of who or what they are or do. That is the way of those who do not know Christ and his salvation - always thinking and acting on a tit-for-tat basis, and imposing judgments, penalties, and punishments on people as though their sin has not been paid for by the death of Christ. Actually, Paul says, it is now a whole new set up, a whole new world [creation], a whole new ball-game - with a totally different set of operating principles, and a totally different set of values [verse 17]. Here, in this new world in which we are 'in Christ', the key word for relationships both with God and with each other is 'reconciliation'. Paul then goes on to urge us 'not to receive God's grace in vain' [6:1]. Why does he say this? Because if we continue to relate to God and to each other on the basis of our, or the other's, performance, then we have really not understood what it was that God achieved in and through the death of Christ - we have received it 'in vain' - in an empty and meaningless way. [For further on reconciliation between divided people, read Ephesians 2:11-22]. Reconciliation, based on the 'in Christ' principle, can exist even where there are differences - Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female etc/etc [and against the divisive issue/for the divisive issue] because it is not based on mutual agreement, but on a common Lord, a common salvation, and a common identity and purpose.

[4] The principle of mutual submission: Ephesians 5:21 lists 'submitting to one another' as one of the ways being filled with the Spirit is expressed. The person who lives life under the direction of the Spirit of God will have the well being of the other person always in mind. This is what submission means in practice - it is putting aside what I perceive as my rights and my benefits in order to gain the best for the other person. This is further taught in Philippians 2: 1-11, as well as in Ephesians 5:22 to 6:9, where Paul relates the principle of submission to six different roles. The practical application of this for family and friends experiencing division in a divided church is that the primary concern of each should not be to get everyone to have the same opinion as ourselves, but to be to each other, irrespective of personal stance on the issue, such a Christian brother or sister, husband or wife, or friend, that, although we do not agree with the other, we still love him/her, we understand that this is difficult for him/her too, and that, apart from changing our convictions, we put aside our own agenda, and do all we can to achieve his/her well-being, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, just as we did, or were supposed to be doing, before the division erupted.

[5] The principle of edification: Under this principle all that we do or say should edify [build, strengthen, encourage] the other. When Paul explains this in Ephesians 4:25-5:2 he makes it very clear that the way we talk to each other either destroys them or builds them. Here the challenge for us is to talk to the person who is ‘on the other side’ in the issue in such a way that he/she is built up, strengthened and encouraged by the things we say and the way we say them. Note that this is not about trying to make them change their mind; it is about being loving, accepting, forgiving, kind and compassionate, in our verbal communication with them.

[6] The principle of bearing with others, and bearing the burdens of others: We find this in Colossians 3:17 and Galatians 6:1-4. This is a two-fold principle - we bear with others - that is we put up with them and their weaknesses [because Christ bears with us], and we help them to bear their burdens. Practical application in a divided relationship situation: we are to 'bear with' each other [not conditionally, hoping the other will change his/her opinion, but unconditionally.] We are also to bear the burden of the other - obviously people on both sides are burdened by what has happened in their church, and inevitably, people on both sides are imperfect in their responses and reactions to the division. It is difficult. Both the issue, and how to respond, what to think and say, is a huge burden. Rather than push each other away because of sinful responses, we should each try to understand and bear the burden of these sins … absorbing their impact without retaliation or revenge. This includes, sharing openly with each other about how the whole situation makes us feel, and why we each think the way we do, not from a position of rightness and pride, but humbly and compassionately. Included in Paul's instructions is this warning: 'watch yourself, or you also may be tempted' and 'if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself' [Gal 6:1,3].

[7] The sanctity of marriage: if a marriage is being stretched and divided by a church division, it is essential to remember that the sanctity of marriage is more important than each spouse having the same opinion on a given issue. Each partner in the marriage should back off trying to get the other to see things the way he/she does. Defend and protect your marriage, rather than creating and sustaining conflict and division by continually promoting your personal stance.

[8] The over-arching sovereignty of God: in which we have to trust God to work out things over which we have little or no control, and for which our responsibility is minimal or zero. Trusting in God's sovereignty in respect to our church, to the divisive issue, and to the different opinions of our friends and relatives, will give us freedom to concentrate on applying the above principles to our relationships with family and friends.