A new year! 2019 is over. When you read this, 2020 will have begun. What will I remember about the year that’s gone? I will look back on many things with joy and gratitude. But other things have cast heavy shadows. And among those things, some of the darkest shadows have been the divisions I’ve been aware of in many churches.
During the year, many gospel churches across the UK were torn apart by painful conflicts. Hardly a week went by without my answering the phone and listening as one distressed friend or another poured out the story of yet another church in crisis.
Nor was 2019 just a blip. It was simply a trend continued. With each year that passes, I seem to be aware of more churches coming to pieces.
Should we be surprised?
Should we be surprised when we hear of churches divided? I suppose not. Even the churches of the New Testament were troubled by deep divisions. Paul saw the church he pastored in Antioch torn apart when the Jewish members of the church refused to eat with the Gentile members (Galatians 2:11-14).
James used his letter to challenge believers and churches: ‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war among you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel’ (James 4:1-2).
John wrote to a church dominated by an authoritarian leader who ‘refuses to welcome the brothers and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church’ (3 John v 10).
The last chapter of Romans bears witness to the fact that the Christians in Rome were split into lots of little groups who distrusted each other and had gone their separate ways. Paul has to appeal to them ‘to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught’ (Romans 16:17).
His longing and prayer for them was that ‘the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Romans 15:5). But at the time when he wrote, that was far from the reality.
And what was true in New Testament times has been true ever since. The British churches of the 6th and 7th centuries were divided over such issues as the date of Easter, or the right approach to church discipline. Many of us look back on the Puritan era as a golden age of gospel witness in England and forget the radical and, at times, bitter divisions within the Puritan movement.
We read the accounts of the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century, and pass over the brutal controversies that plagued the Methodist societies. We rejoice in Spurgeon’s marvellous ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and never ask how that greatly-blessed congregation could be wrecked by infighting so soon after his death.
Half a century of divisions
I was brought up in the world of independent evangelical churches, mission halls, non-denominational fellowships, and I’ve lived in that world all my life. All through those years I’ve seen divisions. We’re familiar with the churches which continue to meet in one building but are divided into cliques each fighting to gain the upper hand. We take for granted the revolving-door churches where there is always a trickle of unhappy people moving on to be replaced by new arrivals who themselves will move on five years later.
We have watched church after church finally erupt into open division. A third or two-thirds of the membership leave and are either scattered to the winds or form a new congregation, which in turn will divide ten years later. And with each division a heritage of bitterness is left even when its causes have long been forgotten.
For the past thirty years the churches I’ve known best have been reformed churches, committed to the principles of Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone. Have they been any different? Hardly. One after another have experienced the same painful divisions. And that includes the church I pastor. The church here was formed after a confused evangelical church split. And in its brief life, it has experienced a number of crises where groups of folk have left us unhappily.
So, no, I’m not surprised when I see divisions within churches. And yet, I have been saddened and shaken by the number of such situations I’ve witnessed in the last few years – and by the depth of the divisions that have torn them apart. Churches that I thought were well-taught, lovingly-pastored, stable, happy churches have exploded into strife and confusion. Gospel witness has been marred. Christian friends have been deeply scarred.
Some reasons why churches become divided
The New Testament points to many reasons why churches become disunited. In some cases it is clearly due to the influence of false teachers. False teachers come in and ‘draw away the disciples after them’ (Acts 20:30).
In other cases, it comes down to a refusal to understand and respect the choices that fellow church members make. ‘One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables’ (Romans 14:2). If person A cannot accept the freedom of person B to follow his conscience, division is inevitable.
In other cases again, divisions begin with an unresolved quarrel over some petty personal matter. ‘Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no foothold to the devil’ (Ephesians 4: 26). One Christian takes offence at something another has said or done. The issue is left to fester and Satan has his foothold in the church.
In other cases, groups form within a church on ethnic or cultural lines. The church in Jerusalem was threatened by the rivalry between Greek-speaking and Aramaic speaking widows (Acts 6:1).
And of course in many cases, the issue simply comes down to personalities and personal rivalries. The conflict that John speaks about in his 3rd letter simply seems to have come down to the egotism of one man – Diotrephes ‘loves to have the pre-eminence’.
That isn’t an exhaustive list. These are just some of the starting-points for conflict which the New Testament talks about. And divisions within churches rarely come down to one cause alone. Usually there’s a combination of several or all of these factors. Theological differences, cultural misunderstandings, personal quarrels may all merge into a perfect storm which tears the ship apart. None of the situations I’ve witnessed in the recent years could be said to be caused by one factor alone.
And yet there have been some common ingredients which have been there in the mix in nearly all of these situations. The churches I’m thinking of are very different from one another. They are scattered throughout the country. Some are city churches, some are rural churches. Some are relatively large, some very small. Some were established centuries ago. Some were planted within the last forty years. Yet as I’ve listened, I’ve realised that the same issues lie behind their different conflicts.
What has led to the divisions that have wreaked chaos in so many churches? I suspect that the single biggest factor is discouragement.
These are hard, hard days for gospel churches in the UK. Evangelical Bible-Christians are a tiny minority within the population. Our influence is marginal. Society disintegrates about us and we seem powerless to alter things. Our witness is met with indifference, ridicule or – increasingly – hostility. We have no spokesman whose voice is heard and respected in the public sphere.
And above all, we see few credible conversions. If an active evangelical church in a village of 5,000 inhabitants saw ten baptisms in a year, we would be thrilled. Yet that would leave 4,990 to whom our witness was ineffective. And how many of our churches ever see ten baptisms in a year?
We’re not used to being in this position. For centuries, gospel Christianity has had an honoured and influential role in the life of our country. Evangelical Christians have built great chapels, organised vast Sunday schools, held fruitful evangelistic campaigns, pioneered social reform, sent out thousands of missionaries, had spokesmen in government, education, medicine, the law. And we’ve seen lots of people coming to Christ.
We find it hard to accept that our present situation may be God’s fixed purpose for us in our generation. Yes, we know that believers in many countries are cruelly persecuted. But Britain is a Christian country, isn’t it? Or at least a country with a Christian heritage? Yes, we know that there are Muslim countries where Christians are a fraction of one per cent of the population. We accept the fact that in such countries many years may go by without a single person coming to faith. But surely it shouldn’t be that way in the UK? When Christians in the UK experience helplessness, social marginalisation and evangelistic ineffectiveness, we feel that something’s gone wrong.
Depression and desperation
Part of the problem is that we’ve been persuaded to believe that evangelistic success is the chief sign of God’s blessing on his people. Lots of books declare that if we live holy lives, we will see people saved. Lots of preachers encourage us to believe that any church where people gather to pray for conversions will see them. I remember a very well-known London preacher pointing me to John 15 and assuring me that any Christian (and especially any preacher) who ‘abides in Christ’ will see fruit – and what, he asked, can fruit mean if not conversions?
So when churches go for years without conversions, church members become deeply depressed. ‘We must be doing something wrong. There’s got to be an answer. We’ve got to change the way we do things’. They begin to search for some formula that will transform the situation and give them back the success they think we ought to have.
That is the single most common factor which I’ve seen in situations I’ve watched in recent years. Folk within a church – maybe the members, maybe the leaders – are desperate for success and especially success in reaching outsiders. And in their desperation they look for something – the secret ingredient – that will turn things round.
And of course, there is no shortage of Christian leaders and groups out there offering their counsel. ‘This is what you’ve got to do…’ You’ve got to get involved in community projects, says one. You’ve got to start a Sunday school, says another. You’ve got to break free from hymn-sandwich services. You’ve got to get into church-planting regardless of how small your own congregation may be.
You’ve got to get rid of the traditional hymnal and start singing contemporary worship songs. You’ve got to jettison the organ and switch to guitars. You’ve got to give women more public roles. You’ve got to start small group evangelistic Bible studies. You’ve got to move out of the church building and meet in homes.
You’ve got to adopt a new model of church management. You’ve got to put more young people into leadership positions. You’ve got to stop wearing ties in services. You’ve got to work together with evangelicals in the mainstream denominations. You’ve got to start revival prayer meetings. You’ve got to join our church network and do things our way. Endless exhortations to change – with the promise of success attached to them all.
‘If you don’t change you’ll carry on being impotent and marginal. But if you do what we say, success is round the corner’. That’s the message we’re hearing all the time.
And of course each expert will point to a situation where their formula worked. ‘When we started our Sunday school, we were just thirty people. Now we’re two hundred’. ‘When we sang those old hymns, no one from the village ever came in. Now we’re packed out every Sunday’.
Change, change, change. Churches are being told all the time they have to change.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve no problem with change. Every church needs to change. And some of the proposals for change I’ve just listed may be right and appropriate. We need to be constantly reforming to bring the church more in line with biblical principles and commands. We need to be reshaping the church constantly so that it reflects the image and character of God better.
Over the years the church here has changed many things. And I’m sure we’ll change many others as the years go by. The question is motive. Does a church change in order to be more biblical, more godly? Or does it change because it’s desperate for success? Are we concerned to reflect God’s glory, or are we wanting to remedy our own feelings of impotence?
If we take on board the idea that the reason for reformation is to win outsiders, the demand for change will never be satisfied. A church that makes success its chief motive – especially evangelistic success – is like a child stuck on a never-stopping roundabout. Or like an ageing beauty queen who tries one patent cream after another in a desperate search to make herself look young and attractive. Why can’t she come to terms with the reality of her situation?
And – this is the point – a church that is desperate for success is a church that is easily divided. Because people will always disagree about whether change is necessary, or what changes are necessary. One group will want the church to adopt the strategy that’s worked in New Tokyo or Silicon Mountain. Another will push for the model that celebrity pastor Hank spoke about at the WOW (Way of Wonders) Conference last year. If changes are pushed through, one group will demand further changes; another will want to back-track on the changes that have already been made.
And if finally none of the changes bring the success people crave, someone must be to blame. The pastor. The elders. That group who pushed us into that new project (fat lot of good that did!). That clique who refused to back our new approach (it would have succeeded if it weren’t for those stick-in-the-muds!)
Each of the churches I’m thinking of has been divided in the same way. Some key leader, or a group of members, has been determined to change the church – in order to bring success, in order to combat the depressed, defeated feeling in the church, in order to make the church more attractive to outsiders. And others have resisted the changes – because they’ve seen them as unnecessary, counter-productive, or plainly unbiblical. And the church has been torn apart.
Four key principles
Let me spell out four principles that may guard us from the pressures that have torn so many churches apart in recent years.
- It is God in his sovereignty who decides whether a particular community – whether a whole nation, or a single town – should be a fruitful field for gospel work.
When the Lord Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the gospel in all the towns and villages of Israel, he told them frankly that in some places they would be welcomed and that in others they would be rejected. (Matthew 10: 5-15). What would make the difference? If they found themselves rejected in a town would that prove that they had failed to preach as they should, or pray as they should, or use the methods that they should? Far from it. They should simply accept that men’s hearts are hard, and that it was not God’s purpose to save the people of that town.
We see the same reality in the book of Acts. Paul and his companions received a very different response in different communities. They were driven out of Thessalonica, went on to Berea and found that the Jews there were ‘more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed’ (Acts 17:11).
What made the difference? Was it that Paul was walking more closely with God in Berea than in Thessalonica? Was it that he was more Spirit-filled? Was it that he used different methods? Or was it simply that by God’s grace, the Bereans were more ready to listen than the Thessalonians?
Some evangelists and some churches are given the privilege of working in fields that are ripe for harvest. They are allowed to work in communities where God has placed many of his elect (Acts 18:10: ‘I have many in this city who are my people’). Others are given the honour of working in harder places – places where God has ordained few to be saved.
That appears to be the situation in much of the UK today. After centuries where the Holy Spirit has been active in the British Isles saving many people, it seems that he has largely withdrawn his presence and turned to places where there has been little activity in the past. Even so Father, for it seemed good in your sight.
Should we feel despondent or defeated if God has asked us to serve him on the hardest and most difficult battle front? Perhaps we should view it as an honour rather than a curse.
- We cannot measure God’s blessing upon a church by its size, or by its success in winning outsiders.
The New Testament simply does not put the same emphasis on evangelistic success that Christians so often do today. Many Christians think of evangelism as the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. But that is simply not the way the New Testament writers think.
Neither the Lord Jesus nor his apostles ever suggested that God would reward faithful Christians or churches by evangelistic success. In the New Testament, a successful church (if we are going to use that word at all) is a church where the members grow more like the Lord Jesus, and where the church reflects more of God’s character. Such a church may see growth. Or it may not. Of all the seven churches listed in the book of Revelation, the only one to which the Lord Jesus gave unreserved praise was the church in Philadelphia. Why? Apparently it had remained small. It had ‘little strength’. But it had ‘kept my word and not denied my name’ (Revelation 3:8).
The fact is that the Scriptures say very little at all about churches evangelising the communities around them. I’m sure that it happened. Christians and churches must surely have applied the Great Commission of Matthew 28 to themselves. But there is remarkably little emphasis put upon that duty in the pages of the New Testament
Nowhere in all the New Testament letters to churches is a church commanded or urged to evangelise. Nowhere does Paul or any other apostle pray that a church will be helped in evangelism. In fact, I can’t find a single place where Christians are told to pray for the conversion of others.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t do these things. Being Christlike surely must mean sharing his compassion for the lost. But it does put things in perspective. There are scores of commands in the New Testament addressed to churches. We are commanded to care for one another and to bear one another’s burdens. We are commanded to teach the whole counsel of God. We are commanded to care for the needy in our midst. We are commanded to maintain church discipline. We are commanded to pray for those in government. We are commanded to remember Christ and to wait for his coming. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. We are commanded to grow in love and holiness. Such are the priorities that the apostles urged upon the churches in their letters. A church where these commands are being fulfilled is a successful church whether or not it grows in numbers. A church where these commands are neglected is a failing church, even if it sees many conversions.
- If God has decided in his sovereignty to harden the communities of the UK (or anywhere else) no tinkering with the externals of church life will change that reality.
Does anybody really believe that God is likely to save more people in Anytown, UK, if the church there throws out its hymnbooks and projects choruses onto a screen? Does anybody really believe that God will save more people if the pastors of the church stop wearing ties and start wearing roll neck jumpers? Do they really think that God will save more people in the UK if churches stop talking about pastor and deacons, and talk instead about elders? Yes. Some Christians do believe these things. They really believe that there is a magic formula that will transform the scene. But that’s because they’ve forgotten the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.
The fact is that, as far as I can judge, there is very little correlation between the externals of church life and evangelistic effectiveness. There are churches which retain traditional practices which others say are outdated. They cling to the AV, pews, monologue sermons. They refuse to engage at all in community and social activities. They make no concessions to contemporary culture. Some of those churches wither and die. Others see a steady stream of conversions.
Likewise, there are churches which in their search for relevance have abandoned church buildings, sermons, hymnbooks, and almost every traditional structure of church life. And again, some of those churches fade away and die; others see regular and credible conversions from the world.
God has never promised that he will bless any church with evangelistic success. But if it is his will to do it, what means is he most likely to use? Faithfulness to God’s Word, a passion for Christ, love for the brethren, courage in witness, Christlike humility, boldness in speech, perseverance in prayer – these are things he loves to see. If we really want to see conversions, these are the things we must cultivate above all.
- When change is necessary, it must be pursued lovingly.
I’ve said already that there are times when change is necessary in a church – not in order to bring success but in order to bring things into line with Bible commands. But change must never be pursued at the expense of love.
If an individual or a group within a church sees a need for change, and then tries to bring it about through a campaign of criticism and bullying, they have proved that it is not the Spirit of God who is leading them. If they pursue it insensitively, dismissing the concerns of others, they have demonstrated that they are not fit to play any part in reshaping the church. If they are prepared to hurt and alienate other believers to bring about the changes that they see as necessary, it is evident that they cannot be following God-given wisdom.
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom… The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace…’ (James 3:13-18).
In almost every one of the tragic situations I’ve heard about in recent years, folk have pursued change – and forgotten the wisdom that’s pure, peaceable, gentle. And that’s why churches have been torn apart.
How Satan rejoices when gospel churches are divided! How the Holy Spirit is grieved! May God guard this church. ‘..Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…’ (Ephesians 4:1-3).
All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk