Let me begin this article by saying that God is disappointed whenever a local church composed of His children are forced to divide. We should all agree that God’s first desire is for His people to dwell together in unity (Psalms 133:1; John 17:21, 22; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:3). When God’s people cannot dwell together, sin abounds somewhere, and the devil is the only one that prospers from it. In fact, if the devil had his way, he would divide every local church on earth and would, no doubt, win a lot of souls in the process.
The fact remains, however, that local churches do divide from time to time. The question is, is it ever right for a church to divide? The answer to that question is a sad yes. Sometimes it is necessary for local churches to divide. There is certainly a wrong reason for churches to divide, and perhaps many times it is sinful for churches to do so; but, sometimes it is the only course of action for those who want to remain faithful to the Lord. Let’s look at when it is right and when it is wrong for a church to divide. We begin with when it is wrong. It is wrong for a church to divide:
1. When it divides over personal opinions. I have heard of brethren dividing over silly matters such as the color of the carpet, ceiling fans, when the Lord’s supper is taken (before or after the preaching), etc. Brethren should be more mature than to divide over such trivial matters. When there are no doctrinal issues involved, brethren should be big enough to concede and move on. We can’t always have our way. And since a split among God’s people can potentially damage the reputation of local churches in the area, and can do harm to the cause of Christ, dividing over different opinions is without question wrong. Those who instigate division over such non-doctrinal, non-sinful, matters of opinion, will have to answer to God. They violate principles found in such passages as 1 Corinthians 12:25.
2. When it divides without making a strong effort to solve the problem. Sometimes a congregation finds itself with a membership divided over a major doctrinal issue. Should the congregation split at the first mention of it? I don’t know of anyone who would advocate such a thing. Brethren should be able to sit down with each other, study God’s Word and resolve differences. When there were problems with the church at Corinth, Paul didn’t just write them off. He wrote them about their faults and gave them a chance to straighten up. It appears from the second letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they took heed to much of what he advised them to do and solved many of their problems. Brethren ought to be able to calmly reason together when differences arise between them. If they cannot, sin is already in the camp!
3. When local churches divides because the preacher is not liked. This is when we must remind ourselves of how important it is for local churches not to divide. More times than not more bad comes from a split in a local church than good. The people of God are often perceived as being nit-picking, unloving, bickering people when congregations split. Is it worth giving a church a bad reputation just because we don’t like the preacher‘s personality or because he doesn’t preach the way we think he should? It seems to me that many need to stop thinking that the preacher’s job is to entertain. His job is to preach the word, and if he is doing that and only that, there is no need to divide the local church just because we don’t like the preacher. Now, I should point out that I’m not talking about a member deciding that he simply wants to worship with another congregation. What local church we worship with is a personal choice. If a person is not getting anything out of the preaching, and he feels as if he wants to go to a different place, he certainly has the right to do that. Though, I must say that if a person never gets anything out of the preaching of God’s Word, he should probably look inward regardless of who is doing the preaching. But I am not talking about a person simply desiring to change his or her membership. We are talking in this article about a group of brethren in the local church instigating a split. Doing that just because the preacher is not liked is wrong.
But now, let’s talk about when it might be RIGHT for a local church to divide.
1. When they want to start another work somewhere else. Sometimes local churches have what is called a “friendly split.” It may be that the local church is outgrowing the building in which they are located. Instead of rebuilding, they decide to start another work in a part of the city where it is needed. There is nothing wrong with that. I know some brethren think that it is a good idea to do that and others think it is not. Still, it is a personal choice of a local church and there is nothing sinful about it.
2. When there is false doctrine being taught or practiced and the situation cannot be resolved. This can involve different situations. It may involve a congregation participating in an unscriptural practice and using the Lord’s money to support it. For a person to remain at such a congregation would be to participate in the sin by supporting it, not only in presence, but also financially when he gives on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). If the church will not cease the sinful activity, the only recourse for those who want to remain faithful is to leave. Is it sad when that happens? Yes! Is God disappointed? Yes! But the sin is on the part of those practicing unauthorized things, not on the part of those who leave.
Another situation would be if a preacher was teaching false doctrine. Let’s say a preacher is openly teaching error. If he won’t quit preaching the error, and the church allows him to continue using the pulpit to spread the destructive error while continuing to support him financially, what are those who oppose the false teaching to do but leave? Remember, I have already indicated that a dialogue should take place before any kind of division occurs. But once it becomes abundantly clear that the false teaching is going to continue, those who wish to stand for the truth must decide to leave and not have fellowship with the false teaching (Ephesians 5:11).
This kind of division might also take place without the Lord’s money being involved. It might simply involve sinful practices. For example, what if a congregation selects unqualified men to be elders over a local church? Let’s say that a good number of members come to recognize that these men are not qualified, yet they won’t step down and the rest of the church is willing to tolerate the situation. Should these members just abide in a local church that they now believe is unscripturally organized? If they truly believe that the church is unscripturally organized, and therefore they feel like it would be sinful for them to stay, it would be a violation of their own conscience to stay. To do that would be sin within itself (Romans 14:22-23). Their only recourse would be to leave. Again, the sin would not be on their part for leaving, it would be on the part of those who tolerate error.
Unity is important, but the Bible never has advocated unity at all cost. What should be sought is the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). That takes place only when the unity is based on what the Spirit has revealed to us. It is always sad and disappointing when a church is divided, but it is not always sinful for folks to leave a local church. Sometimes it is necessary to remain faithful to the Lord.