God Does Not Always Desire Unity – So When Should Christians Divide?

Refusing to sacrifice truth in the quest for love

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There are many viewpoints within churches that have divided congregations over the centuries, and continue to do so. Churches have separated over issues such as predestination, the current role of the Holy Spirit, the proper way to repent, and how we should take communion or get baptized. However, today Christians are wrestling with issues such as gay marriage, and questioning their perception of truth and morality in the process. The postmodern mindset of our day is growing, meaning many now believe that truth is relative. This philosophy, that everyone can define his or her own version of truth, has infiltrated even the religious ethos of the 21st century, challenging the very foundations of Christianity.

Jesus prayed that His followers would be one, as He and the Father were one (John 17:20-23). He knew we would need to be united with God and with each other if we were going to fully accomplish God’s purposes on earth. But in today’s culture, in the midst of such ambiguity of truth, does God desire unity at all costs . . . or is there a time when it is best for us to separate?

We can see from the tower of Babel that unity is not always a noble goal - people can come together on issues that don’t glorify God, or for reasons that are self-serving (Genesis 11:4-8). However, even though sin was at the root of this division in Babylon, God ordained the division for their good. In a chapter titled, “Divisions are not always bad,” A.W. Tozer expounds on the potential dangers of unity.

The constant and recurring question (for us as individuals and for the church) must be, ‘What shall we unite with and from what shall we separate?’ The question of coexistence does not enter here, but the question of union and fellowship does. The wheat grows in the same field with the tares, but shall the two cross-pollinate? The sheep graze near the goats, but shall they seek to interbreed? The just and the unjust enjoy the same rain and sunshine, but shall they forget their deep moral differences and intermarry?

To these questions the popular answer is yes . . . unity is so devoutly to be desired that no price is too high to pay for it and nothing is important enough to keep us apart. Truth is slain to provide a feast to celebrate the marriage of heaven and hell, and all to support a concept of unity, which has no basis in the Word of God.

The Spirit-illuminated church will have none of this. In a fallen world like ours unity is no treasure to be purchased at the price of compromise. Loyalty to God, faithfulness to truth and the preservation of a good conscience are jewels more precious than gold or diamonds. ‘Divide and Conquer’ is the cynical slogan of Machiavellian political leaders, but Satan knows also how to unite and conquer. To bring a nation to its knees the aspiring dictator must unite. (i.e. stockyards and concentration camps). We have seen this happen several times in this century, and the world will see it at least once more when the nations of the earth are united under Antichrist. When confused sheep start over a cliff the individual sheep can save himself only by separating from the flock. Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar. Maybe what we need in religious circles today is not more union but some wise and courageous division. Everyone desires peace but it could be that revival will follow the sword.

A few years ago, my home church St. Andrews Mt. Pleasant, faced some issues within the Episcopal Church that challenged key elements of our creed. According to Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, the Episcopal Church was embracing a “false gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity,” which challenged the authority of Scripture. For many years, Steve Wood, the rector at St. Andrews, sought the Lord regarding the best course of action for our church. He, along with an overwhelming majority of parishioners at the church, came to the conclusion that St. Andrews would remain “faithful to the gospel in the midst of the Episcopal Church’s increasing abandonment of the faith.” Though heartbreaking in many ways, separation appeared to be the best decision for St. Andrews, so the church pulled out of the Episcopal denomination and joined the Anglican community. But even in the midst of this departure, there was no “holier than thou” attitude; Wood understood the heart of the gospel and petitioned his parishioners to ensure that “St. Andrews would remain a parish where all are welcome to gather at the foot of the cross.” He went on to say, “The call of every Christian is to stand with and for Christ . . . the Gospel story is that God in Christ reaches out to broken and lost humanity offering real hope for a new life.” So even this separation within the church was not meant to exclude those on “the other side.” Healthy division does not entail withdrawing into a sterile religious bubble in order to avoid getting “slimed” by the world. In this case, St. Andrews simply adjusted their alignment to preserve the defining beliefs of the Christian faith, while still welcoming others to join them as they venture forward on their own journey toward truth and healing.

I know of no church that sees eye-to-eye on everything, so complete agreement can never be the criteria for coming together in unity (especially since two people can both value the authority of Scripture but disagree on its interpretation). So how do we answer Tozier’s question, “What shall we unite with and from what shall we separate?” I believe the Five Solas, which emerged from the Protestant Reformation to help provide a framework of our core beliefs as Christians, can help us navigate through this dilemma. The Five Solas are . . .

1 - Sola Fide - By faith alone. We are saved by faith, through receiving Christ’s finished work on the cross and resting in His righteousness alone. (Galatians 3:11, Romans 3:23-25)

2 - Sola Scriptura - By Scripture alone. Scripture (the Bible) is the ultimate authority, the sole course of written divine revelation. The Holy Spirit will never speak contrary to the Scriptures. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

3 - Solus Christus - Through Christ alone. Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man – His death justified us and provided the means for reconciliation to our Heavenly Father. Our salvation is accomplished through Christ alone and His atonement for our sin. (1 Timothy 2:5-6, Colossians 1:13-18)

4 - Sola Gratia – By grace alone. We are rescued from God’s wrath by His grace alone - no human works can pay penance or earn our salvation. (Ephesians 1:7-8)

5 - Soli Deo Gloria - Glory to God alone. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Our lives were not designed for our own glory; and every activity in our lives should be sanctified unto the glory of God. (Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 4:11)

The way we handle conflict inside the church should differ from the way we face our differences outside the body of Christ. I believe any ideology within the church that contradicts one of these “Five Solas” should be refuted. Agreeing to disagree for the sake of “peace” and “unity” would only dilute our faith, and could open us up to deception and compromise (Galatians 5:7-9). Paul warned us in 2 Timothy 4:3, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Though the application of truth can vary based on the culture and our circumstances, the heart of God’s truth is unchanging. Taking a politically correct approach within the church by allowing others to define their own truth, or to adopt only the parts of the Bible that align with one’s viewpoints or preferred lifestyle, would only nullify the authority of Scripture. And we must be careful, because a partial truth can be a falsehood.

The gospel can be offensive - claiming Jesus as the only way condemns every other alternative (John 14:6). Because adhering to faith in Christ can lead to persecution, and in some cases, martyrdom (Luke 14:27-33), Jesus instructs us to “count the cost” before we decide to follow Him. However, it seems many Christians today are unwilling to endure the mere “cost” of being viewed intolerant. Our culture applauds open-mindedness, so many avoid confrontation like the plague. But both political correctness and a laissez faire attitude can be rooted in the fear of man, so tolerance is not always a Godly attribute. We are told in John 15:18-19 that the world hated Jesus, and because “we are not of the world,” it will hate us too. We were never meant to blend in with the world - light and darkness are incompatible (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Whether interacting with people inside or outside the church, believers are called to be both innocent and wise (Matthew 10:16), to live a life where “mercy and justice kiss” (Psalm 85:10).   We must not forget the wisdom and justice half of this instruction. In C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the children hear about Aslan the lion (an archetype of Christ) and Susan asks if he is safe. She is told, “No, he is not safe . . . but he is good.” Here lies the true heart and paradox of Christianity. Christians who follow a “politically correct” agenda of inclusion mistake that embodying Christ’s love means embracing everyone’s version of truth . . . but everything in this world (beliefs, habits, lifestyles, etc) are not spiritually “safe.” Genuine love does not sanction things that could endanger others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well . . . 

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

So when should we separate ourselves from people outside the church? According to 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character,” so some people can be toxic to our intimacy with God. Since those around us often influence us, we should choose our friends wisely. If spending time with someone tempts you to sin (maybe sexually, maybe triggering an addiction, etc) then it could be critical to sever the relationship. But there are also times in which we need to get distance from people (even from other believers) because their subtle worldliness is rubbing off on us (maybe they are a gossip, or negative and judgmental, or driven by money or status). We may not need to cut these people completely out of our life, and we should always keep our love on no matter what, but if these people are leading us to compromise in our walk with God, then they should not be our main source of friendship.

However, as we strive to live a life “set apart” to God, we must be careful not to retire exclusively into Christian community. Dividing from intimate friendship with the world does not mean withdrawing from interacting and loving those in the world. We are called to let our lights shine (Matthew 5:14-16), and if we don’t tell others the good news, who will (Romans 10:14)?

Paul shows us how we can minister to nonbelievers without being influenced by their beliefs and practices. Scripture tells us that Paul tried to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 10:32-33), which sounds strangely similar to the “inclusivity” some churches hold sacred today. However, Paul became as a “Jew to reach the Jews” without compromising the gospel in the process – he simply honored their cultural and religious beliefs while with them. Because of Old Testament law, Jewish people considered anyone uncircumcised to be “unclean,” and cut off from God’s covenant (Genesis 17:14). So, Paul encouraged Timothy to get circumcised (Acts 16:3) in order to open a door to preach Jesus to the Jews, but Timothy never embraced circumcision as a means to salvation. Interestingly, Paul refused to let Titus get circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5), because in that particular setting, to do so would have supported justification by works and not by faith – it would have put the very truth of the gospel at stake. In each situation, Paul discerned the best manner to connect with his audience and communicate the good news to them, but he did so without endorsing false ideology in the process.

We need to meet those outside the church with an extra level of grace, carefully considering how and when and even if we should confront our differences. Jesus spent very little time telling the world to get their act together; those efforts were reserved mostly for the religious leaders. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Go forth preaching always, if necessary use words.” The way we live our lives and relate to the world will have the greatest impact on their view of God, not how well we refute their beliefs or defend our own. As it says in 1 John 3:18 “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” In my article, “How should Christians face the controversies of our day,” I expound on how we can best do this.  Jesus set the prime example for us - He loved people just as they were, while He simply modeled a better way for them. He was never passive or aggressive when dealing with the controversies of the day; He was appropriately assertive when necessary, yet aptly silent when this was best.

In summary, we should use discernment to identify which parts of things we should unite with (always the love), and from which aspects we should divide (anything that contradicts the Five Solas). Aside from the core foundations of our faith, there may be a third alternative to standing in the black and white extremes of our beliefs, a place where truth is not denied, but love reigns, and any urge to change the other person is set aside. As pastor Steve Cobb would say, may we find "unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials, and grace in all things."  As long as we are on this side of heaven, none of us will ever get it all right (1 Corinthians 13:12) . . . but we can at least strive to marry God's truth with our love. For our greatest power lies in this balance, and His grace and wisdom are readily available to help us with this task.

My prayer for us all is this . . . that “speaking the truth in love, may we grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  Love is not real love without truth, and truth is not genuine truth without love. They are inseparable.

Further Reading:

Article by John Piper on Truth and Love

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

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