In my last essay, a meandering one titled “Long Division,” I shared at some length about some ironically divisive aspects of the ostensibly unifying concept of marriage, following that with a few words about divisive flag(s). Now, I’ll invite you to think with me for a few moments about church division.
Speaking ideologically, division among Christians shouldn’t be a practical reality (and it isn’t a spiritual reality). Whether we’re thinking of 1Corinthians 1, or of the “seven ones” of Ephesians 4, or generally of the 1st-centuring uniting under the Christ of Jewish and gentile believers, we all realize that Jesus doesn’t want us spiritually separated. Some physical division of Christian circles is inherently neutral. Even a racially based divided state need not be appraised as evil, if it’s based solely on choice or geography/distance and not on racism.
Paul’s 1Cor 1 polemic against using names to divide believers (Apollos, Cephas, etc.), by the way, is part of a larger rhetorical structure and shouldn’t be used presumptively to attempt to eradicate every divided scenario, necessarily. In other words, denominating (i.e., naming) and dividing are inherently neutral, not necessarily wrong.
Now, if division occurs, i.e., if it is an event within a single church, it is very likely to be a bad thing; it’s doubtful that humans can navigate a dividing of a group of people and sustain all-around positive feelings and results. (Intentional “multiplication by division,” a church growth ideal, is an exception.) On the other hand, if a divided state is merely observed as status quo, it may be just fine, at the time in question.
Case(y) in point: when CofC families moved to northern Delaware during my phases of life there, they were presented with a choice of either the Newark or the Cedars congregation. At some point down the road, one of these transplanted church members would often wistfully wonder “why Newark and Cedars don’t do more together.” These folks thought they’d identified a unity problem, but most of us Delaware fixtures never wondered about it ourselves.
The status quo was just fine: it was a division based mostly on geography and, I suppose, somewhat on “style.” More Cedars-ites came from North Wilmington, Hockessin, and mid-county, while more Newark-ers were from Newark, Bear, and Glasgow. I believe there were slightly higher per capita income and education levels at Cedars, and those aggregated factors probably influenced a few “style” choices. But there were many friendships that crossed congregational lines, and I never once knew of any animosity or unkindness between leaders or anyone else in either the Cedars or Newark congregation. It was simply the way things were—two different bodies of the same, general stripe, divided by about 12 miles and perhaps somewhat by socioeconomics.
On the other hand (and it’s a very large hand, with long, bony fingers and misshapen, protruding knuckles!), some things are historically divisive within the context of groups. Take politics, for example. . . .
I’ve written several times on matters related to political, patriotic, or militaristic expressions within church congregations. Here, I’ll simply mention that, about 20 years ago, one sister was heard to say something about never wanting to sit anywhere near a certain brother, because “she couldn’t stand his politics.” Had neither of these believers publicly made their political positions known, sustained disunity wouldn’t have been created.
I’m currently aware of a church in the Northeast that’s increasingly characterized by right-wing diatribes unbecoming to Jesus’ disciples and unworthy of the gathered saints’ time. The focus is way off! The politically motivated statements, as they create deeper divides, also betray undue interest in political goals and not enough faith for eternity. General patriotism may not be divisive on a large scale, but expressions of partisan politics in a congregation are divisive by nature. For that reason alone, partisan politics must be left out of church gatherings.
Staff ministers regularly prove divisive, no matter their frequent intentions to unify and rally the people. People naturally gravitate to one personality type or to one style of ministering, and they just as naturally may be repelled by another staff minister. This dis-unifying reality constitutes one argument against paid ministry; things get even more intense when money is involved.
The congregational assembly and worship may also be divisive, inasmuch as focus moves from God to peripheral matters such as leader personalities, music styles, or liturgical order.
Almost anything may be divisive. If it’s spiritually divisive, problems ensue. If it’s mere geography or preference that leads people to one “side” or another, and no disunity is created in significant matters . . . well, “no harm, no foul.”
I’m just tickling the bear’s ear here. Better not poke him.
B. Casey, 7/12-14