Have you ever wondered, “Can anything good ever come out of a local church that’s divided?” I would imagine that many, if not most, professing Christians would answer such a question with an emphatic, “No!” Such a response is certainly understandable.
For one thing, the unity of a local church is commanded as a divine mandate. In Ephesians 4:3, believers are urged to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The significance of this passage is that it reveals a unity which already exists between all Christians – a unity that is created by the Holy Spirit Himself. Hence, it is not a unity manufactured by the church. Yet, the believer in Christ is strongly exhorted to make every effort to guard or keep this unity at all times. This is done by what Ephesians 4:1-2 describes as a “worthy walk.” Such a “walk” or way of life is characterized by relating to one another in humility, gentleness, patience, and with fore-bearing love. When these graces are cultivated by fellow believers, then they will in turn support and preserve the unity of the Spirit.
So then, needless to say, the Spirit’s unity, which binds all Christians together in peace, is a unity that can be severely harmed and stifled. When Christians are not walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called by God in Christ (see Ephesians 1:3-3:21) – then division will erupt and the Spirit’s unity will go underground. This is why diligence must be given by the church as a whole, to maintain the unity we have in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.
But even in the face of such a clear biblical command, local churches suffer seasons of division and strife, that in some cases, have left church fellowships forever marred. However, as hurtful as this is to a local church, can there be any good that could come out of a divided church? The answer from God’s Word is surprisingly – yes!
In the first place, there is the overarching promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The “good” to which this promise is referring is what’s revealed in verse 29, as being “conformed to the image of [Christ].” God, by the works of His providence, is ruling and governing “all things” to work in behalf of all His people, as a means of shaping them more into the image of Christ. This would include even horrid church divisions! That is, a divided church is used by God to transform His children more into the image of Christ.
But next to the promise of Romans 8:28, there is also the more specific teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:19. In this passage, the apostle Paul asserts – on the heels of affirming the reality of division in the Corinthian church – that, “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” The principle point being made by this statement concerning church division, is that God uses such adversity to prove the true character of His redeemed people – “that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” In other words, in the same way that precious metals are tried in fire to certify their purity; so division in the church is permitted by God, to test and bear out the authentic faith of genuine believers. Observing this fact, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) wrote:
By the prevalence of disorders and other evils in the church, God puts his people to the test. They are tried like gold in a furnace, and their genuineness is made to appear. It is a great consolation to know that dissensions in the church are not matters of chance, but are ordered by God’s providence and are designed as storms for the purpose of purification.
This is why Paul qualifies the presence of “factions” in a local church as necessary. He says, “There must be factions among you.” The necessity is grounded in God’s specific purpose. The Lord therefore overrules the damage caused by church division, to bring to light those who are valid converts to Christ and those who are not. So, when thinking about or dreading the potential of division rising up in the church, may we recall that even this is working toward a greater good for God’s people by God’s plan. This truth will fortify us whenever church division shows its ugly head.