Berita NECF Articles

The ‘I’ Factor In Church Splits

Description: Editorial

In the past, doctrinal issues and heretical teaching were the main reasons for church splits and divisions. The scenario has hanged over the years. Today, the main cause is most likely – the conflict of personalities.

A church on the verge of splitting may appear to be fighting over controversial issues, but in reality, it is the protracted struggle, clash or opposition between personalities, ideas, and interests of strong-willed individuals that are tearing the church apart.

Differences, even clashes, between leaders in a church do not in themselves constitute conflict of a destructive kind. Transparency in terms of views and expression of differences can be signs of vitality in a congregation. It is when we defy peaceful resolution and become protracted and entrenched in the personality clashes that the issues become contentious and destructive.

A church split usually finds its roots in our passion to make ourselves – our needs, our opinions, our group, our goals, our theology – the centre of our egoistic pursuit. It is the “I” factor; the self-centeredness and individualistic mind-set that cause the separation. The attitude of many Christians is that unless something represents their views, or conforms to their positions and beliefs, it is not acceptable.

Pride and obstinacy are the strongest advocates for church splits. The refusal to admit wrong and the unwillingness to submit to authority inevitably lead to the breakup. Typically, the situation will be controlled and influenced by deception, manipulation and domination. It is the manifestation of such carnal acts that hurt and divide the Body.

James expressed clearly this weakness of the leadership of the church today. “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and do not obtain; so you fight and wage war.” (James 4:1–2).

Can any good come out of church splits?

Generally, one would view church splits as something sinful and in contradiction to God’s call for unity. A conflict between two parties in a church may at any time affect an entire congregation; unresolved tensions between pastors and leaders may rob the church of effective leadership; and disputes between members may lead to fragmentation of the Body.

As a result, people are hurt; some leave the church or ministry, or worse leave the faith. The question often raised in times of conflict is: “Is it the will of God and is it biblical?”

Let us look at the biblical principle of divorce and derive a parallel from the word of Jesus in Matthew 19:8, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Jesus said the reason for this tolerance was the hardness of their hearts and because of this, they were permitted to divorce their wives.

Moses complained of the Israelites in his time, that their hearts were hardened (Deut. 9:6; 31:27) against God. This implied that their hearts were hardened against their relationships; they were generally violent and outrageous. They succumbed to their appetites and their passions, and if they were not allowed to divorce their wives, they would have treated them cruelly, to the point of murder.

Moses complained of the Israelites in his time, that their hearts were hardened (Deut. 9:6; 31:27) against God. This implied that their hearts were hardened against their relationships; they were generally violent and outrageous. They succumbed to their appetites and their passions, and if they were not allowed to divorce their wives, they would have treated them cruelly, to the point of murder.

Likewise, the weaknesses of human leaders, personality differences, and the inability to work together may necessitate the splits. It is tolerated, but not intended by God. Church splits occur out of expediency to minimise damage or hurt to relationships. The split is acceptable as long as the separation is amicably effected by all concerned parties.

The other justification of a church split is mentioned in Acts 15:39–40. There was a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over their choice of co-workers for their missionary journey. The Greek word “parozysmos” in the verses refers to “provoking, stirring up, arousing.” It certainly indicated a very sharp contention between them.

Good came out of the dissension, for through it, two missionary journeys instead of one were made – one to Cyprus by Barnabas and Mark, the other to Syria and Cilicia and ultimately Europe by Paul and Silas. Probably both Paul and Barnabas were right in their assessments of Mark. However, because of the differences in their perception of the issue, they agreed to depart.

The lesson here is that the parties of contention must work towards amicable solutions for their differences and departure. As in the case of Paul and Barnabas, Paul later spoke of Barnabas in positive terms (1 Cor. 9:6; Col. 4:10), showing that they later reconciled.

The final outcome of a church split depends on the willingness of the concerned parties to amicably resolve the conflict. The success in the parties’ future ministries also lie in the reason for the separation, and the willingness of the parties to assume responsibility of their weaknesses and failure. If the split is truly for the sake of the Kingdom, both parties’ ministries will flourish.

However, church splits can be avoided if early intervention is sought. It is appropriate for the parties involved in the conflict to resolve the problems directly and personally according to the principles established in Matthew 18.

If after both parties have tried to resolve their issues between themselves and there is no sign of progress or potential reconciliation, the leadership must be willing and humble to seek third party mediation. The involvement of a credible Christian leader may help to resolve the conflict or at least minimise the damage to human relationships.

In Malaysia and Singapore, church splits have brought forth church growth with the emergence of mega churches. But this growth must not be used to justify church splits. It is the mercy and divine hand of our God who is able to work good out of a bad situation.

Many churches in Malaysia have experienced restoration and reconciliation of hurts and wounds as a result of past bitter splits. Some have experienced tremendous church growth while others have been successful in their respective ministries.

Conclusion
The issues are sometimes not so clear-cut. For example, personality clashes can be disguised as doctrinal conflicts. Those who think they are right doctrinally can also feel it is their right to have things their way. Paul told the “strong” in Corinth that he had given up his right to receive life support and that they too should give up their rights for the sake for “the weak” (1 Cor. 9).

Human nature likes to emphasise “personal right”. The Bible requires that we give up our rights for the sake of the Church. Is the Bible anti-individual? No, because a true individual is one who has self-control over his/her own desires and is able to defer to others. This is a profound paradox. May God help us to obey His Word.

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (1 Cor. 9:19)

“Behold, how good and
how pleasant
it is for brethren to
dwell together in unity!”
– Psalm 133:1






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