Divisions In The Church, Part II

In my previous post, Why Do We Have Divisions?, I explained the apostle Paul’s contention that divisions occured in the church at Corinth because of unbiblical models of Christian leadership. According to Paul, a Christian leader has two primary roles:

  1. He is a servant, not a boss (1 Cor 4:1; Mark 10:45).
  2. He is to proclaim the secret things of God (1 Cor 4:1), which is the gospel. Any direction and influence that he has must be effected through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not by the exercise of political authority over the church or lording over others as non-Christian leaders do (Mark 10:42).

In the late 19th century, Charles Spurgeon identified these problems as being oppressive and detrimental to the church in England. In the 20th century, John Stott made similar observations in the church through out the world. Yes, God still worked, and he may continue to work in the midst of such problems. But if so, it is because of God’s grace alone, and the continued presence of God’s work does not justify divisive behavior.

In this follow up article (Part II), I would like to describe how divisions typically start in the church. In the next installment (Part III), I will propose some practical solutions for conflict resolution following some biblical guidelines.

How do conflicts and divisions in the church begin?

Basically, it happens in the same way that conflicts among non-Christians arise outside the church. Here is a list of ways that conflicts start. This list is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, and you may add to it based on your own observations or reflections.

1. Gossip and slander behind a person’s back, where the person gossipped about is absent, defenseless, judged, and disrespected. Speaking to the person directly is the most respectful, polite, noble and honorable thing to do. Gossip and slander is cowardly and despicable, and it is highly damaging and destructive to interpersonal relationships (Prov 11:13, 16:28, 18:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:29; 2 Tim 2:16).

2. Labeling and caricaturing another person. Saying things such as: he’s proud; he’s lazy; he’s selfish; he’s immature; he’s childish; he’s self-centered; he’s stubborn; he never listens; he’s lustful; he’s spoilt; he’s divisive; he’s family centered; he’s a mental patient; and on and on. Statements like these are critical and judgmental. They hurt and wound people unnecessarily and are rarely justifiable, even if they contain an element of truth (Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37; Rom 2:1).

3. Making nationalistic or culturally insensitive statements. One that I have commonly heard in the United States is that Americans are “selfish” and “individualistic.” Remarks like these imply that non-Americans are less selfish and therefore better than Americans (cf. Rom 3:23).

4. Pulling rank. Saying to someone, “I’m the senior. I’m older. I’m the leader. I’m the director. Therefore I am your superior, and you must do as I say.” Of course, no one ever says this directly. But it is often said implicitly. Phrases in common use among us (e.g., “spiritual order”) communicate inequality, breed control and manipulation, and deny our God-given equality and Christian freedom (2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1). Although it may be said that everyone is equal, in practice some people are regarded as more equal than others.

5. Envisioning the church as a military operation. The church is not supposed to resemble the army or marines, and its members are not to be treated as cogs in a well-oiled machine. The church is a fellowship, united by bonds of friendship in the Lord (Ps 133:1). First and foremost, Christians are brothers, sisters, and family (Matt 12:50; Mark 3:35). Yes, the New Testament does occasionally use the metaphor of soldiers (2 Tim 2:3), but such language is rare. Any fair reading of the New Testament will show that the Apostles referred to their church members as brothers, sisters and friends, and the body is held together not by a military-style chain of command but by bonds of love. Christians are a “band of brothers,” not a “band of soldiers.”

6. Sending personal messages to another person through a third party. Whatever the reason may be for doing this (e.g., “I’m too busy”), it implies that the person being addressed is not worthy of being spoken to directly. It also subtly communicates that the message is non-negotiable and final, and that the recipient of the message has no choice or say in the matter, because the one communicating the message is not the orginator. This greatly increases the potential for misunderstanding and disgruntlement. Moreover, if the third party has some question or objection about the message he is supposed to communicate, he has been placed in a difficult and uncomfortable position. The recipient of the message then has many unresolved questions. Did the leader mean what he supposedly said? What was his intent in giving me such a message? Did the messenger nuance the orginal message based on his own interpretation and bias? A messenger may exaggerate or say something like this: “Ha, ha, your leader said that you have to do this! Ha, ha!” even though the leader may have never inteneded to say it in such a manner.

7. Making decisions about others without directly involving the persons affected. Countless times it has happened that decisions were made by someone “at the top,” and those being affected didn’t even hear about it until after the fact, and then only indirectly. This assumes that certain people at the top have the absolute right and authority over some other people below them.

8. Blowing up in anger, or losing one’s temper at another person. No one ever quite forgets when someone blows up, reacts angrily toward them, or abuses them either verbally or non-verbally (Eph 4:26).

9. Comparing church members to one another and creating an environment of competition. In a competitive environment, the winner who comes out on top is praised, regarded as superior, more fruitful, and harder working, and the loser is regarded as inferior, less fruitful and lazier.

10. Using the pulpit or podium to embarrass another person publicly by saying something that is negative, unflattering or critical. For example, “She loves her husband too much,” or “He watched a movie, instead of going fishing on campus.” Jesus never embarrassed or humiliated any of his disciples, not even Judas, either publicly or privately.

11. Creating an influential or exclusive group, an in-crowd, whose voices are heard loud and clear, while others are left out, ignored, unheard, or patronized. Exclusivity always excludes genuine friendship (John 15:15). In a previous post Are you a true friend?, I described how exclusivity hurts and destroys friendship. I understand that there must be leaders and elders in the church (1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9). But the members of the church must feel represented by leaders and the elders, not ruled over by them (Mark 10:42).

12. Creating categories of people and making distinctions among them, such as: clergy and laity; senior and junior; shepherds and sheep; missionary and native. Using terms like “exemplary,” “fruitful,” “sacrificial” to describe certain people, which therefore implies that there are those who are not mentioned are un-exemplary, un-fruitful and un-sacrificial.

13. Communicating favoritism, partiality, injustice, or hypocrisy (Exo 23:3; Lev 19:15; Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; James 2:1,9). God is an impartial righteous judge who does not show favoritism. We are made in his image. No man likes to feel that he is treated with injustice or discriminated against arbitrarily.

14. Not being honest, open and transparent (like the Trinity) when interacting with another person. This will invariably cause misunderstanding and miscommunication by causing one party to feel as though the other party is withholding some vital information, or not telling the person the whole story. No one likes to be lied to. No one likes to feel as though someone is withholding some information from them and not telling them the whole truth.

15. Paternalism and patriarchy. This always favors the older, the senior, and the male, instead of the younger, the junior, and the female. This takes away from grace, which is always unmerited undeserved favor (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5; 1 Cor 15:10), with grace being perhaps the most beautiful of doctrines in the Bible. Grace and favor has obviously absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one is older or senior or male. So, if we implicitly favor the older, the senior and the male, then the younger and the junior will always be regarded as wrong or inferior or “less worthy” in any area of disagreement or conflict. The merit of the issue itself, or the case in point will always be secondary, and relegated to the implicit practice of paternalism and patriarchy.

16. Saying, “Just obey,” to anyone, instead of practicing gentle patient persuasion. Even if the intention is to encourage faith, it nonetheless translates as “obey blindly,” or be regarded as no good. True obedience (or, for that matter, true repentance or true faith) is never ever entirely just an act of the human will. Jesus says that obedience or keeping his commands is the result of love (John 14:15,21), with love being the work or fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). So if anyone says, implies or communicates “just obey,” they make it seem as though obedience is entirely up to you, a mere frail, fallible, fallen human being, and they are implying or assuming that obedience is possible by human effort alone, without God’s help or intervention.

After quite plainly listing the points above, I understand that merely pointing out faults doesn’t help and will not resolve anything. It is because the law by itself is not transformative; the law only nitpicks and condemns the guilty. Law is useless unless it leads to grace (Gal 3:24). Some may regard this list as complaining and church-bashing. Describing these problems may not lead to edification and humble reflection (Rom 12:3; Phil 2:3). It may also infuriate those who feel that they are being unfairly picked on or singled out. But this is not my intention.

Rather, my hope and prayer by painstakingly listing the above is

  1. to allow those who have been hurt or wounded by bad practices and blind spots in our church to be heard, and to have a voice and a say,
  2. to promote openness, healing and reconciliation between offended parties, and
  3. to humbly ponder, review, reassess and reflect upon our UBF practices and, as a 50-year old church, identify the specific areas where we need improvement (unless we think we have none).

In your own experience and observations, how have conflicts, broken relationships and divisions arisen in the church?


  1. Darren Gruett

    Great article. It certainly gives me a lot to think about in terms of how I treat other people (especially number 1 and number 8).

    • Yup, Darren, #1 and #8 are humanly impossible “not to do.” I might add #2 as well. I’m thinking that perhaps that’s one reason why God gave us godly spouses: we can speak to them quite openly and frankly, and they will not expose to the world all the stupid things we say, and the “gossip” we might accidentally say to them in “anger” about someone else.

  2. I don’t think it’s church-bashing if it’s not directed at a specific church.   I’m greatful for people who address issues like this. If it weren’t for people like you I would have just left the church. I have felt a lot of these things but I couldn’t figure out how to identify them. After reading similar articles here and elsewhere I can see what has been going on. From there I could pray and think about staying where I am or going to another ministry.   If I decide to stay then these issues have to be worked out. If I leave, well, whose to say I won’t experience the same thing somewhere else? I think in my case I found these problems but failed to looked at my own problems, which may have led me to experience the problems in the article in the first place.   So, even though it’s a touchy subject, I think it’s important to address these issues.   Thanks for taking the time to bring these issues into an open forum!

    • Thanks, Oscar. It is encouraging to hear you say this. I have been personally accused of church bashing, and of trying to divide UBF. Unfortunately, it is never said to me personally, but through someone saying it to someone else, and then I hear it through the grapevine.
      As previously mentioned, this article would be regarded as church bashing if you read it with UBF lens.
      I truly do want to attempt to promote healing and reconciliation, albeit quite imperfectly and with my own blind spots. So, I need your help to uncover them. But I don’t believe that healing and reconciliation can ever quite happen without some open and honest, prayerful and humble discussion and communication.

    • I can imagine that people have been saying things. Actually, I’m quite interested in why West Loop was created and split from UIC. Maybe you can tell me sometime.

    • Sure, Oscar. I’m a full fledged UBF member, and I wouldn’t say that I have split from the church. :-) Email me sometime, and we can have some coffee. benjamintoh@gmail.com

  3. I’m not sure if the issue is so much how to deal with divisions in the church as it is how to deal with spiritual immaturity in the church. Of course, emotional/spiritual immaturity leads to divisions, but framing the issue more as a problem of emotional/spiritual emotional immaturity in the Church leads me to a different mindset and perspective.(I’m thinking of the Corinthian church here as an example)
    For example, if I perceive someone as being “divisive” without a clear understanding of their personal spiritual development (character flaws, personal sin tendencies/blindspots, emotional baggage/wounds), I’m more likely to demonize or assume the worst about that person and set myself in personal opposition to them. If I see someone as reflecting a level of spiritual immaturity in a particular interaction toward me or in a particular area of their life, I’m more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt and realize I need to be committed to praying for their growth and sanctification with that matter, since what I despise in them is not completely absent in me as well (to re-quote Bonhoeffer). Perhaps this sometimes means I undertake the painful process of absorbing the brunt of their divisive words and actions at times while finding active constructive ways to play a transformative role in their growth. Nevertheless, this is challenging to do, and hence the empirical evidence throughout the world and sadly in the Church that it is easier to divide than to reconcile.
    I suppose the hidden challenge that Dr. Ben is alluding to is when spiritual immaturity is being reflected in leaders and those in position of authority over us. That is a humbling challenge as I realize how emotionally and spiritually immature I can be over certain areas of my life (e.g. see   the Emotionally Healthy Church book discussed on previous blogs on this site). For example, when it comes to conflict resolution, I found that after filling out the survey that I’m an emotional “infant.”   Just ask my wife.

    • I agree with John. There are many reasons why conflicts and divisions arise. Sometimes there are real doctrinal differences at stake. But very often it is rooted in emotional immaturity of church members and church leaders. When leaders exhibit this behavior, it is especially troublesome, because they can use their positions to insulate themselves and evade responsibility. I know because I have done that.

      I don’t know what Ben has in mind for Part III, but I can think of many small ways that members of a church can hold one another (even leaders) to high standards of maturity and integrity in interpersonal relationships. For example:

      If you hear someone gossiping or slandering or caricaturing someone, tell them to stop. That takes courage and it’s risky, but sometimes you have to just do it, even if the gossiper is your elder.

      If someone tries to give you a message from someone else, politely refuse the message and say, “Please tell him to speak to me directly.”

    • Thanks, John. I didn’t quite connect immaturity from divisiveness, though perpetual immaturity can surely lead to division. These are 10 points from Scazerro’s book which points to emotionally unhealthy spirituality: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/note.php?note_id=10150125884018941
      Perhaps, it is more culturally conditioned, than immaturity? An inability to see outside of our own cultural lens, and own life long religious tradition/experience that we equate with being spiritual?

  4. GerardoR

    Great article. While reading through some of them, I couldnt help but think.. “yeah but not always.”
    Meaning that some of these things could lead to a division but some times they  strengthen  the church.  For example, you mentioned creating categories. This is an abuse if the titles are meant as a form of elitism but not if they there to make clear limitations of what one can and cant do. It is like the family, it is important that there be a category of “parent” and “child” and it is clear that the parents have the authority. They make up the rules. While it is true that we are all equal in Christ, that doesnt mean we all play a similar role. The husband plays a particular role and so does the wife. And many of these roles are motivated by important theological reasons.  
    I would appreciate your comment on this. There is so much to discuss in this article. Thanks for posting. =)

    • Gerardo, I like what you said about roles. Equality in Christ doesn’t mean that we all play the same roles. In the workplace, a boss must still act as the boss, and the employee must still do his job, even if they are both Christians. However, as we remain within our God-given roles, we must never objectify people or reduce    them  to their roles. We must never forget that we are dealing with persons, human beings made in the image of God. Even though I am the father of my daughter, I cannot simply treat her as my daughter. She is also my sister in Christ, my equal, and I need to respect that. A lot of problems arise when we value human beings only for their roles, for what they are supposed to do, rather than for what they are (children of God).

    • Thanks, Gerardo. I’m thinking that our lack of reflection and study of the Trinity might cause us to misunderstand our distinctive roles or categories: parents, children; husband, wife; leader, member. The Trinity represents perfect order and perfect equality between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But Asian cultures, influenced by Confucius, “over stresses” the order that communicates as inequality, especially toward westerners.
      Under Confucius, the older always has the superior advantage. Thus, saying, “Just obey,” would not be unusual coming from an older person. I don’t think a younger person would ever say to someone older, “Just obey.”
      Also, it is hard for an older man under Confucius’ influence to truly listen to or obey what a younger man says to him. But in the west, it is not uncommon for older men to listen to or obey men, younger than them. Some of the best councils and advice that I have received have come from younger people, and especially from my own 4 kids. For instance, they will tell me, “Dad, you’re just so insensitive … You should said it this way instead of the way you did.” It is quite refreshing and enlightening. Though I try to be more sensitive, I’m probably still quite insensitive.

    • GerardoR

      Wow.. this is a fascinating answer. I have only briefly considered the ways in which Christianity would clash with a the confucionist system that has been there already.

      I am sure it aids Christian conversion in many ways but I never thought about how they conflict. Seems like it is important for Asian UBF members to sit down and tease apart what is uniquely confuciest and what is uniquely Christian and be open to the idea that they have been interjecting eastern values into a system that is beyond eastern vs. western values.

      I can imagine this causes a lot of conflict with westerners. They might misinterpret this confusionist influence (I am older, so obey!) with a self righteous attitude which it may not be. In fact, people with such an attitude may view it as a form of humility because they submit to a social norm but westerners may view it as a lack of humility. This is just my speculation.  

      Interesting stuff.  

    • Thanks, Gerardo. I would agree with you that when one obeys in an Asian context (always when a younger person obeys an older person, or when we obey the leader or the senior), it is culturally viewed as an act of humility. Of course, obedience is also a biblical teaching. Ultimately, God desires that we obey Him out of love and gratitude (John 14:15,21).
      We can get into a highly uncomfortable and multi-angled and multi-faceted area when we transfer and equate obedience to a man as evidence that one is obeying God. So I won’t get into this here.
      Regarding teasing out Confucius influence from our Christian faith, I think that unless we do some deep and painful soul searching and examination of our own deceitful hearts (Jer 17:9), often requiring the help and honesty of others (Prov 27:6), I don’t think that we can easily “see” that our Christian faith is conditioned and colored by our culture.

  5. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Good  article Dr Ben. Thanks for helping us  understand basic Christianity, although as leaders we need to go a level litter higher than the basics. I am tempted to write something here. But I decided to wait until Part III. God bless!

    • Thanks, Abraham. In Part III, I hope to explain 2 common underlying factors that causes divisions. They are 1) a lack of trust and respect toward others, and 2) a sense of inequality. These might underlie some, if not all of the 16 points mentioned. If you or others can think of any other common underlying factors do share them.
      Then I wish to conclude by offering some proposals for conflict resolution.

  6. Ben, thanks for your article. i very much agree with your list. And sadly, i have seen most of it being practiced in one way or the other.  
    One thing that came into my mind: almost all of the issues you address have something to do with the leadership style and the flaws of leaders. I agree with you that leaders play a very dominant role in setting the tone and the atmosphere of a given church. I know that you never intended to say that leaders only are responsible for church splits. i think that people who participate in a church bear as much responsibility for every spirit of disunity.  
    and in addition to spiritual immaturities of believers i would definitely name: lack of good communication.

    • I was wondering what roll those who aren’t leaders have in creating division and/or strife.   In my case it was/is stubborness.

    • Thanks, Henoch. Yes, it always takes 2 hands to clap, and both leaders and members are equal sinners before God.
      I guess I did write this article from the perspective of a leader since I have been in UBF for 30 years. If a member causes division or is divisive, I need to personally make sure I do not violate the 16 points I listed, but instead manifest the graciousness of Christ in the midst of the uncomfortable and painful conflict and division. I know that I can’t do it, but for the grace of Jesus.

  7. All the other factors that Dr. Ben and Henoch and others have mentioned (i.e. lack of communication, problematic leadership styles, the inability to see beyond one own’s cultural lens) I would argue are all still symptoms of a root problem: emotional and spiritual immaturity.
    Maturing individuals learn to communicate truth and express love in a way that others can understand and appreciate. Maturing individuals learn to lead in ways that motivate, inspire and encourage rather than the negative ways we all can recognize. Maturing individuals learn to look beyond their culturally conditioned perspectives (as much as they are able) and show sensitivity, respect and wisdom to those who are not quite like them.
    If there is an area in my life that is leading to miscommunication, relational conflicts, and culturally insensitivity, etc I guess all I’m arguing is that perhaps all these things are still only symptoms pointing to under-development (immaturity) of some area of Christian living–something still needs to be worked on in time by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. One can be mature in so many other ways, but still immature in other areas. So the Christian life is from beginning to end all about learning to   “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18). However, it is the truly saintly Christ-like individual who commits themselves to the spiritual growth of those who have been the source of one’s wounds and hurts. For even the Lord Jesus, after suffering abuse and wounds from those leaders in authority, prayed “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” None of us are quite there, but by the grace of Jesus, may we get there.
    John Y’s Easter Doxology:
    O, the unsearchable and way-cool riches of Jesus’ Grace
    Offer up Praises to the Ultimate Mature One, Our Glorious Destiny
    To the One who said Father Forgive Them On that Old Rugged Cross,
    When I’m dissed, help me to say like you:
    “Father Forgive them, for they do not know what they doing (culturally-speaking)”
    “Father Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (or saying or thinking or communicating or lack thereof)”
    “Father Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (to me deep down emotionally, aargh it hurts sometimes, Lord)”
    Golly Gee Whiz, Lord, I really wanna be like you. Make the Church Be Like You too.
    To Him Be All the Glory and Honor and Praise Now and Forevermore.

    • Hey John, I like your doxology. But “Golly gee whiz”? That was old school before you were born. You’d better ask your sister to translate this into modern English.

  8. Thanks, Oscar, for acknowledging your stubbornness. I would probably have to say that there are few people more stubborn than I. If you need clarification on this, just ask my wife.
    Of course, those who are not leaders might cause division and strive. But really, the one whose influence is most prominent and pervasive in any church is the leader, and thus not those who aren’t leaders. Therefore, Christian and Christ-like leadership can be displayed to the glory of God, even when there are “trouble-makers.” Personally, I love Jesus because he was such a “trouble-maker” that the religious leaders killed him off!

  9. Thanks for all the comments!

    I have been guilty of much of the points Dr. Ben noted. I thought I was being “spiritual” for practicing some of them!! Once I was punched by my Bible student for practicing #16. Instead of practicing gentle persuasion, I pushed him to obey my direction and not live by his feelings. Instead, he made me feel his fist! I agree with John Y that the root problem is emotional and spiritual immaturity.

    I think we can never get it “right” because our hearts are so deceitful. We are naturally divisive. We can only cry out for God’s mercy like the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. We truly need Jesus’ righteousness to abide in our souls. In addition, we should be humble to be accountable to others. It is very painful when others point out your blind spots. Especially when it comes from your wife or kids. I’m always tempted to “pull rank or defend my patriarchal position”. I thank God for each of them. Without their input, love and prayers, I would be a total jerk.

    • Wow, someone actually punched you in the face? Did he storm out after he hit you? Do you still stufy with him?

    • Hi Oscar,

      No, in the stomach. I considered his punch a love tap. After we both calm down, we were both fine. This is one of our many struggles. We had some “intense” Bible studies. As I mentioned because we were both immature and still trying to figure out the gospel.
      Today, we are actually best friends! Because of him, my faith has grown! In a sense, I was thankful this incident happened because it opened my eyes to see as Dr. Ben mentioned is “never ever entirely just an act of the human will.” True obedience comes from the work of the Holy Spirit and remembering what Christ has done for you. In addition, this conflict revealed some demons I didn’t know existed. My attitude in serving my friend was like the oldest son in Luke 15:29 who said “Look, these many years I have served you…” I expected him to “just obey” and listen to my demands absolutely. It also revealed my crooked view of discipleship. I was serving not as an expression of Christ love for me. Rather, for my exultation and admiration from other leaders. If he was doing well, I felt good. If he was disobedient, I felt miserable. What a terrible way to live!
      After much prayer and personal struggle, I realized my attitude should be like the prodigal father who loved his sons both equally and practiced gentle and patient persuasion. By God’s grace and mercy, He has helped me apply this principle in my ministry and how I raise my children.
      In hindsight, conflicts are “good”. They open up all kinds of issues. The most important thing where do you find conflict resolution? It will either lead you to the cross or self-justification. One way leads to life, forgiveness and unity. The other leads to more conflicts and death. We all have to make a choice.

  10. That’s great! I’m glad to hear that you two were able to continue to be friends and study together. I have also had conflicts with my bible teacher. It’s too bad she’s a woman, otherwise I might have punched her too, just kidding!   I agree that conflict can be good. Recently, my bible teacher and I had some conflict and airing of grievences. Were it not for this airing-out we would both still be blind (I know I would be), not recognizing our sin. Of course, it was done with the love of Christ, but it still hurt! But, I think we’re both better people because of it.