God’s Purpose in Divisions and Factions in the Church

by Mike Ratliff

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19 ESV)

I was listening this morning to Chris Rosebrough’s “Fighting For the Faith” on the Pirate Christian Radio podcast for 9/2/2010. The show seemed pretty long. I checked and it ran for over 2 hours and 38 minutes. In it Chris addressed the 25th Anniversary of the Jesus Seminar and some other things. At the 1:02:50 point in the broadcast he began what he calls The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly segment. It is where he reviews sermons. This one was a very long sorta’ sermon from Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan in which he had guest Peter Rollins speak. Chris did a fine job of breaking it up with his own input. If you aren’t familiar with Peter Rollins, he is a Post-Modern “thinker” from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is very much at home in the Emergent camp. I know that there has been a campaign to try to make Rob Bell not appear Emergent, but he speaks in this “sermon” as well and his comments at the end seal it. All through Rollins rambling “sermon” he speaks quite a bit about religion and life, but, to him, real Christians are those who are proven to be so by their doubts, not their solid faith. Never once does he talk about Christ’s atoning work in the Cross as the propitiation for sinners. No, to him, real Christians are those who work to make the world a better place. Jesus was like a coach to him, no more. In any case, at the end of the broadcast, Rob Bell said that hearing all of that was like drinking from a cold stream of water. On the other hand, I felt exactly the opposite. I was in desperate need of Biblical truth to wash myself clean from the filth of heresy. 

After that I received an email from a reader asking me to do a word study on a word at the end of the King James Version of Ephesians 5:20, “heresies.” It is a form of the word αἵρεσις or hairesis, which is only theoretical in that one can hold different views than the majority and remain in the same body but he is a heretic. Heresy is theoretical and does not become practical until the heretic tears himself away, σχίζω or schizō. Then he is schismatic and is the source of σχίσμα or schisma. In that, schismaticalness is practical heresy.

I did that and sent him the results. I had some lawn work to do and that is pretty mindless so I had time to ponder and mediate on these things. When I got back to my desk this evening, I decided to look up all of the occurrences of those Greek words in the New Testament. One big hit came in 1 Corinthians 11:18-19. In v18 there is σχισματα or schismata, which is the anarthrous, plural form of σχίσμα. Also, in v19 is αιρεσεις or haireseis, which is the anarthrous, plural form of αἵρεσις. The ESV translated it as “factions.” That was pretty exciting having both of these key words just one verse apart. I did some cross referencing and found that these two words are tied together quite a bit in the lexicons as well. Remember I was a bit “down” after listening to Rollins and Bell. I think the word I am looking for to describe that is “empty.” I was utterly amazed that those people at Mars Hill would eat up that sort of thing and would think that what he was babbling about was “like a drink of cold water from a stream.” No, to me it was not refreshing at all, but only empty. I wondered why that hit me that way. As I dug into this word study though, all of that was gone. I drank deeply from the true well of God’s cold water of His Word. Peter Rollins may think the place to be is in doubt, but that is not where God wants His people. Those with real faith are in the blessed place of belief not doubt. Also, my joy is not something that is tied to how well I keep the Law or how religious I am, but in that fact that my sins are forgiven indeed!

In any case, here is the passage in question:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Corinthians 11:17-22 ESV)

In this passage Paul was addressing a social issue the Corinthians were having around the Lord’s Table. I put vv18-19 in bold. Here they are in Greek, “πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ συνερχομένων ὑμῶν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ἀκούω σχίσματα ἐν ὑμῖν ὑπάρχειν, καὶ μέρος τι πιστεύω. δεῖ γὰρ καὶ αἱρέσεις ἐν ὑμῖν εἶναι, ἵνα οἱ δόκιμοι φανεροὶ γένωνται ἐν ὑμῖν.” Here is my translation, “First indeed for having come together you in assembly I hear divisions in you to exist and part some I trust. It is necessary for also sects in you to be, that also the genuine evident might be recognized.” I translated σχίσματα as “divisions” and αἱρέσεις as “sects,” but “heresies” would have worked too I suppose. In any case, what point was Paul making here? Inside of the rebuke of the utterly fleshly behavior by these divisions and sects or heresies, the result was that schisms or splits were being created within that body over this stuff. However, in v19 Paul says something very interesting.

It is as if Paul was saying that this entire setup of divisions and factions in this church was a spiritual test. Factions revealed who passed the test of spiritual genuineness and purity. God was using this petty, selfish, self-centered, split to not only test the genuineness of His people (1 Thessalonians 2:4), but to split them away or remove them from those who were not genuine. While those remained who would continue in their drunkenness and gluttony revealing their Christian disingenuousness, the genuine Christians could gather and partake of the Lord’s Table correctly. Those who refused to repent would receive Paul’s rebuke personally when he arrived.

So, from this, do we learn something? When there are divisions and factions in the Church we are being tested. The Remnant’s consistent faithfulness is being tested. This testing “proves” or “tries” it in the fire. It makes it more pure. It burns away from it those who are not genuine. These fall away into their heresies and factions and sects and divisions, et cetera. The faithful must stand firm with eyes firmly fixed on Christ with their focus on the Eternal rather than the temporal. That means that even though we must live here in the here and now, we do so from an eternal perspective. That changes everything. When Christ and His Gospel is the center, those with their heresies can try to cajole and persuade all they want, the truly regenerate, the real Christian will pass the test as Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 11:19 (above.). Factions reveal who passed the the test of spiritual genuineness and purity.

Soli Deo Gloria!

21 thoughts on “God’s Purpose in Divisions and Factions in the Church

  1. Wow!
    Thank you so much for this.
    It is very timely.
    No surprise here for the Lord Jesus Christ is never late or early, but always just in time.
    This is what I needed this morning.
    Praise Jesus for preserving and causing to persevere the remnant!

  2. If there ever was a person who speaks in gibbersih it is Peter Rollins. Everyone connected with Rob Bell is either an heretic, lost, or partaker of his evil deeds. Having been saved for over 35 years, I can lend this perspective:

    Only a few decades ago, Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, and the like would have never been considered Christians at all. Only God can truly know that, but we can know that their teachings are false and spiritually treacherous. On that, Mike, we can all agree.

  3. This is very good, I needed this today. I related this article to my husband. HE said, it was just like Judas Iscariot, he had heresy within him and it was among the disciples, till the day it was in God’s plan to reveal it. These events were all surrounding the Lord’s Table also…….

    “While those remained who would continue in their drunkenness and gluttony revealing their Christian disingenuousness, the genuine Christians could gather and partake of the Lord’s Table correctly. Those who refused to repent would receive Paul’s rebuke personally when he arrived.”
    I couldn’t help but think while reading this; Those who start in heresy truly do become gluttonous and drunken, I am AMAZED at what I have seen some become. To them, it is “drinking from a cold stream of water”, to me, “it is EMPTINESS” AND the day will come when JESUS will see them in person and rebuke them for their sin.

    ” Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say . 16 The cup of blessing which we bless , is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break , is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. 18 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? 20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice , they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. 21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils. 1 Corinthians 10: 14-21

    Lord, help Me to take of your table worthily!!!

  4. BTW – Sometimes smooth and saccharine words of deception are more divisive than open ecclesiastical rebellion since they divide the church from the Spirit.

  5. :-) Rick, and that slick Irish accent seems to make it even more so… :-) Yes, I agree totally Rick, you would never sense from Peter Rollins or Rob Bell any open hostility, but their words and works are entirely deception. I was utterly amazed that these people were drinking from that fountain of emptiness and calling it a cool living water… They are completely deceived…

  6. Thanks Mike for another insightful lesson from The Word.

    True followers of Christ today are experiencing a sort of “division” within so many churches today as a result of Pastors striving to build their church based on the popularity of the Seeker/Purpose/Emergent movements.

    When one confronts the Pastor or the leadership of the church about changes taking place in their church or teachings that contradict the Word, that person is labeled divisive. I’ve been there and it’s quite frustrating. You find yourself trying to defend yourself to no avail. No amount of truth presented will convince them that their teaching, methods or approach is wrong. In fact, they make it very clear that YOU are the wrong one for rocking the boat and criticizing their program, mission or teaching.

    The result is genuine believers leaving these churches in search of a REAL church where the Gospel is still taught according to it’s original intended purpose. Where church is FOR the believer and not done to attract the unchurched seeker. Where people come on Sunday morning to Worship God, not entertain the crowds with man-centered, pyscho-babble. Meanwhile, back at “Feel-Good” church, the word is spread to beware of the divisive, holier-than-thou, judgemental, fundamentalist, pharisee types who seek to cause division and push the seekers away.

    The “refreshing cool water” is only found in the true Word of God.

    Thanks for your boldness and perseverance!

    ~ktf~
    John

  7. Yeah Ken, and that those “pastors” who are falling all over themselves going gaga over him in front of their deceived “congregations” are proving they are “real pieces of work” too. Is it any wonder that the genuine Christian feels “attacked” and “plundered” by these people?

  8. I’m thankful to our Lord he chose us, saved us, taught us and didn’t leave us to our own version of truth.
    These men and women are deceived by the enemy. We didn’t earn our understanding of His truth, He gave us the Spirit of Truth…. let’s pray He will do the same for them while we point out thier clear error… while we remember He could have simply left us in ours but yet while we were sinners He alone died for our sins. This should give us more heartfelt compassion on the lost, while we speak the Truth of Him. This doesn’t suggest we don’t take a stand… but it teaches us how and in what Spirit we do that.

  9. Hi Mike,

    This was an uplifting article and really encouraged me. Everything stated in the comment above from John, my husband and I have recently experienced. We also got shown the door, as you know, and there was no changing the pastor’s mind about IHOP entering in the church or seeker methods being employed. There was no willingness to even discuss it with us when we had our meeting with him. He simply nodded and smiled.
    I am thankful we have found a bible teaching church. The isolation and “being separate” is sometimes so overwhelming. Sometimes you do feel that it is you…not them. I know that though we feel alone, God will not give us more than we can bear and He appoints all our days. He gives us strength to bear these things.
    God bless, Mike!

  10. Amen Diane. Yes, I remember you sharing your journey… We are in dark times. However, much of the Church is not in the “West” and they are persecuted in ways we cannot even imagine. This is why the seeker-sensitive, word-faith people never talk about that. They want everyone to come and be part of what they are doing in order to “get” something, or become something better, or have a better life, et cetera. No, God never promised anything like that. The closer I have drawn to Him, the more obedient I have become to Him, the more firm I have stood, the more persecuted and hateful my life has become. Has this cost me joy. No! I am joyful in my Lord, but I am so ready to be past this sanctification part of my journey. In any case, thank you for sharing that Diane and I pray for you and John to be strong in the Lord and stay focused on Him and His will alone.

  11. Amen, Mike and one thing…am hoping you did not misread my comment–John is not my husband…:-)
    I meant that everything John wrote —–my husband (Bill) and I have recently experienced. I can see I did not write that very well and could easily be mistaken. My apologies.
    Diane :-)

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