When a Church Divides

By Luther Blackmon

Hardly a week passes now but that we see in some religious paper an account of division in some church over such things as church support of vacation resorts, youth centers, colleges, church hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, church kitchens, banquet halls, brotherhood programs under one eldership, brotherhood organizations to take the place of the old missionary societies (we are reluctant to call them that now because of the stigma of the name “missionary society” which set the pace that wrecked the church a century ago), “Campaigns for Christ International,” “Gospel Press,” etc.

To those who love the Lord and His people, this always is an occasion of sorrow. Sorrow, because when a church divides there is always the breaking of ties and the alienation of friends and relatives. This often leaves scars that will never heal. Then there is the blighting effect that division has on the church in the community. Such a crisis as this nearly always causes some of the weaker members to become discouraged and drop out. The world will mock and deride us and the devil will gloat. Then last; but not last, where there is division such as this, there is always sin. Paul said to the Corinthians, “For ye are yet carnal: For whereas there is among you envying and strife and divisions, are ye not carnal and walk as men” (1 Cor.3:3). In some cases, both sides may be guilty, but one thing is sure, where there is division, somebody is guilty of sin. Woe unto the ones who cause division in the Lord’s church.

Division’s Sometimes Necessary

As sinful as divisions is, it is not always true that all those involved are guilty of sin. Sometimes the situation becomes such that it is sinful for some not to separate. themselves from the others. There comes a time when those who respect the truth and want to live by it have no choice but to walk out and start a church where the work can be carried on in harmony with New Testament teaching. Where would the church be today if some brethren had not walked out when the missionary societies and instrumental music were forced upon them? When prejudice has not yet crystalized the sentiment of a church against honest investigation of the issues involved, I would certainly encourage brethren to stay on and study the matter with mutual patience and forbearance as long as there is hope of saving a church from the curse of innovation. But when a Christian continues on in a congregation that is engaged in unscriptural practices, knowing that he can do nothing to change the condition, he becomes guilty with the others, because he is lending his influence and giving his money to aid those who are corrupting the Lord’s church. John said, “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed, for he that biddeth him Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 10, 11)

Some Excuses

Nearly every time a church divides there are some who, knowing the truth, still refuse to go with the few who go out and establish a faithful New Testament church. There are many reasons for this. Of course, there are always some who just do not care. They know what the Bible teaches but have no conviction. There is not much loss to the effort here, because these would not be worth much if they went along. They will not be worth much where they stay. They are going with the biggest crowd. They can get lost in the crowd and what they do not do will not be noticed. When you are in a small group your laziness and good-for-nothingness shows more. It is embarrassing.

Then there are some who say, “My children have their friends here and I just hate to take them away.” Are these more interested in their children’s social status or their souls? Do they think their children can grow up in a church that disregards New Testament authority and come out sound in the faith? When swans are hatched from buzzard eggs you may look for this.

Others say, “Their elders are opposed to this move, and I don’t want to be guilty of rebellion against the elders.” I wonder if they are that conscientious about attending all the classes and meetings arranged by the elders? Anyway, where did we get the idea that the elders have the right to forbid a group of Christians to leave the church where they serve and start another congregation. Suppose some members of a church live in a town twenty miles away and one day they decide to start a church in the town where they live. If the elders refused permission they would have to continue driving twenty miles to worship. And, if some outsider came in and started a church in that town, these members who were driving twenty miles could not place membership in their own home town. Do you believe that? If the elders can forbid forty members to go out and start another work, they can forbid one to change his membership to another church. I recognize that brethren should consider the elders and counsel with them concerning the starting of another church, and in normal condition abide by their decisions in the matter. But when elders are spending the money of the church in supporting things for which they can offer no scriptural proof, and in many instances will not even try, I would not feel bound by their decision. I have a higher obligation than that which I sustain to the elders. The Bible says that wives should submit to their husbands. But we all understand that this is a relative submission. Her first duty is to God, and her husband comes second. The same is true with regard to the children and the parent relationship; the citizen and the government. And it is also true that the Christian is taught to be in submission to the elders, but when the elders command one to do something that God has not authorized, he “must obey God rather than man.” I would ask these brethren who have such reverence for the eiders, “What would you have done if you had lived a century ago and h.-.d been members of a church in which the elders decided Lo support the Missionary Society?” Would you have obeyed the elders? If you say that was different, you assume the very thing to be proven, that the Missionary Society was unscriptural, but that the things that are now dividing the church are scriptural. If you believe they are scriptural, then you should take a stand and fight for them, after you have found the scripture that authorizes them. If you think they are unscriptural, then you should help oppose them.

Elders not Official Interpreters

Elders have the awesome responsibility of feeding, overseeing, ruling and being examples to the flock. Certainly faithful elders deserve our respect and cooperation. They are set to “watch for our souls as they who must give account. . .” (Heb. 13:17). But they are not set over the church as official interpreters of the Word. And they have no arbitrary authority. Christ has all authority (Mt. 28:18), and that does not leave any for the elders. Elders have the charge to rule the church under Christ and in harmony with His Word, just as the wife is told to submit to her husband “as it is fit in the Lord” (Col. 3:18). And when elders demand that the flock submit to their decision and refuse to even allow the matter to be discussed in the light of scripture, they are “lord(ing) it over God’s heritage,” and the Christians have no more obligation to obey them in that matter than the wife would be obligated to obey her husband’s command that she prostitute her body to support him.

If this sentiment gains general acceptance, that the decision of the elders regarding the work of the church must be accepted without question or even study, then it is only a matter of time until the church has a human creed. Our freedom to study the Bible and decide for ourselves has been our great strength. It has kept us from the shackles of a human creed. And when we relinquish this freedom, even to the elders, we might as well have a priest or a bishop to tell us what we may believe and do, as do the Catholics.

Truth Magazine XXI: 42, pp. 668-669
October 27, 1977