If there is one thing that we Christians have failed the Lord in, it is in maintaining unity, and we can only be ashamed when we survey the innumerable sects, denominations, fellowships, churches, meetings and groups that now make up the Christian profession. As believers, we have all been “called into [the] fellowship” of God’s Son “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1: 9), but this is not apparent from the confusion we see around us. Clearly, something has gone badly wrong. Nor is it a particularly recent phenomenon, for division happened very early in the history of the Assembly. The apostle Paul criticised the Corinthian saints, saying “when ye come together in assembly, I hear there exist divisions among you, and I partly give credit [to it]. For there must also be sects among you, that the approved may become manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11: 18, 19). The divided condition was made clear when they assembled, such that “when ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat [the] Lord’s Supper. For each one in eating takes his own supper before [others], and one is hungry and another drinks to excess” (vs. 20, 21). Such a coming together was clearly “for the worse” (v17). Division is really the alienation of heart between saints, but given time, it crystallizes around opinions and leaders, and a sect is formed. Hence Paul, on hearing about the divisions in Corinth, said that there “must also be sects among you” (the word sect (hairesis) is derived from the Greek verb to choose and means faction or school of opinion. It involves the will of man selecting something around which the adherents can coalesce—in essence ignoring the unity that God has made). The formation of sects indicates that there is open rupture among the saints—although they may, of course, be nominally still ‘together’ (as indicated by Paul’s repeated use of “among you” in vs. 18, 19). However, the manifestation of sects in the assembly had, in turn, its own effect: “For there must also be sects among you, that the approved may become manifest among you” (v19, my emphasis). Who then, are the approved referred to here?
The sectarians made themselves obvious by what they said (“each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ”—1 Cor. 1: 12) but the approved were only brought to light by the attitude and actions of others. Put simply, when sectarianism raised its partisan flag, it necessarily revealed those who were not prepared to rally to it. Indeed, if any doubt the seriousness of sectarianism they only need to reflect on the similarity in Greek between hairesis (sect), and hairetikos (heretic). A sect is a work of the flesh (see Gal. 5: 20 where hairesis is rendered “schools of opinion”), and is therefore evidence that its proponents are “carnal” (1 Cor. 3: 3). The “approved” by contrast are clearly the spiritual remnant in the place (there may even be an element of sarcasm in the apostle’s language, for the party-minded no doubt imagined that they were the approved). Being approved is not, of course, a question of seeing oneself and those with me as better than others (that would be self-approval), for what Paul is referring to is approval from God.
Sectarianism is now, of course, effectively ‘normalised’ among Christians. Often the first question we are asked by strangers relates to what Christian group we belong to, and some even go as far as to say that the plethora of sects are a blessing from God, ensuring that each Christian has a spiritual ‘home’ that suits his particular needs and desires! That, sadly, is the wisdom of the world operating in the house of God. This being the situation, “the approved” ought to be more obvious than ever. However, being truly unsectarian is not just a matter of claiming the title, for some who characterise themselves that way are, in reality, just as party-minded as those who openly advocate a factional approach. How then are “the approved” of God to be distinguished then from those who are merely self-approved? The answer, as always, lies in the Bible.
The most important characteristic of “the approved” is a genuine belief in what the Christian has been called to. Paul exhorts the saints to “walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called” (Eph. 4: 1). Now this exhortation is preceded by the word “therefore”, which carries us back to where the apostle speaks of the “hope of his calling” (Eph. 1: 18), and then in detail how Jew and Gentile are brought together into “one new man” (Eph. 2: 15), reconciled “both in one body to God by the cross” (v16) and through Christ have “access by one Spirit to the Father” (v18). Hence when Paul exhorts the saints to “walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called” (Eph. 4: 1, my emphasis) he certainly has all this in mind. The oneness he describes is as far removed from factionalism as it is possible to get. But how is this wonderful unity maintained? By enforcing a military-style order? No! “With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love; using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace. [There is] one body and one Spirit, as ye have been also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all” (vs. 2-6). Thus, there is a spirit to be seen in the saint that is in keeping with the divine revelation—a brotherly attitude that necessarily accompanies a true understanding of the oneness to which we have been called. This spirit is what marks “the approved”—not through natural amiability, but because the Holy Spirit has brought their hearts into correspondence with what has been revealed. That was why the Ephesians could not help but be characterised by love “towards all the saints” (Eph. 1: 15, my emphasis). By contrast, while a factionalist may love those who share his opinions, he cannot be said to walk worthy of the calling because he only has in view some rather than all.
Those who are on the lines of “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos” (1 Cor. 1: 12) will never feel the shame of the public breakdown in the same way as a saint who has properly understood what all Christians have been called to. We have not been called into a religious society that man has put together but into the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). Why accept anything less? Here we have the one true fellowship, to which all Christians are called, and in which the Lord’s will is the only will. Is this not Biblical Christianity? Sadly, most regard 1 Cor. 1: 9 in such a mystical way that it is stripped of all practical value. Thus, when Paul pointedly asks “Is the Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1: 13), most would answer ‘No’, but then struggle to explain the discrepancy between the accepted sectarianism of the day and Paul’s charge to all the saints in Corinth to be “perfectly united” (v10). It certainly cannot be right that some Christians know more about believers in distant places than they do about those in their own city!
It should be no surprise, of course, that there is so little sense of the Assembly as a divine unity among Christians generally when the prevailing attitude is ‘supermarket Christianity’. The determining factor in ‘finding a church’ is personal preference, which feeds a very fickle and selfish frame of mind—and the ‘churches’ have responded in kind by behaving as if they were in the marketplace, adapting their ‘product’ to suit demand. This is often coupled with excessive congregationalism, in which the majority take a passive role as receivers of what a small active minority provide. The tendency of this arrangement is for the connection to the providers to be strong (‘I go where I like what I hear’), but the links among the passive receivers to be weak. Cliques there may well be, but a true state of fellowship where all saints are gathered together around a divine centre (see Matt. 18: 20; Heb. 2: 12) cannot be known. Again, the “unity of the faith” (Eph. 4: 13) is often made the basis of fellowship, ignoring the fact that this particular form of unity is prefaced by the words “until we all arrive”—for some will have made more progress than others. The charge left to the faithful is instead to use “diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 3, my emphasis), which encompasses all levels of spiritual development and does not require new converts or simple believers to sign up to things they do not understand or have the faith for. As is well-known, the Lord Jesus was very particular when here on earth about ensuring a part for the little children. Keeping the unity of the Spirit also has nothing to do with belonging to a particular ecclesiastical group, but embraces all those genuine saints not leavened by moral or doctrinal evil. How this works out practically in a broken day is another question, but those who support, who acquiesce with or who are indifferent to factionalism are, by definition, striving to keep some other sort of unity.
The Character of the Day
Sometimes the impetus for the formation of a new sect is a desire to remain faithful to the faith once delivered to the saints in the face of indifference or resistance and thus yet another company is set up to replace or rival the old. Indeed, some tell us that the existing denominations are so far removed from the original ideal that we must “get back to Pentecost’. However, while superficially attractive, such statements do not bear the test of Scripture. We certainly need to get back to Biblical principles, but can we actually get back to everything as it is set out in the early chapters of Acts? I do not believe so—anymore than Israel could get back to the kingdom after the Babylonian captivity. A simple example will illustrate what I mean: in the first epistle to Timothy the apostle explains the qualification required for eldership, among which are that the candidates are to be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3: 2). Now this exact same expression (didaktikos in Greek) also occurs in 2 Tim. 2: 24, where the apostle says that the “bondman of [the] Lord ought not to contend, but be gentle towards all; apt to teach”. In the first epistle, it is the elders that are required to have some ability in teaching, while in the second epistle, the situation has so changed, that it is the faithful servant of the Lord, whether an elder or not, who is to be “apt to teach”. Clearly, what is so evidently organised in 1 Timothy has collapsed (at least as regards being a true testimony to Christ), and in 2 Timothy responsibility now falls very heavily on the individual saint.
Of course, many Christians do not see this difference, and seek to re-erect, to a greater or lesser degree, what God has allowed to be cast down. They set up something collective, and insist that others recognise the company that they have formed. It is impossible to imagine that “the approved” could go along with such ideas. It makes no difference whether this new group is close to Scripture or not, for the problem lies in the fact that an additional body has been produced at all. People who look on their ‘meetings’ as having some sort of corporate status have not grasped the character of the day in which we live. The aged apostle’s answer to the public breakdown was simply for godly individuals to pursue “righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2: 22). Christian blessings can be enjoyed together, but there is no new body. Our walk together is to be in accord with the fellowship of God’s Son (that is, we abide by its terms), and we can certainly enjoy a genuine “fellowship of [the] Spirit” (Phil. 2: 1) together, but we are neither a fellowship nor the fellowship. Walking together bestows no corporate status: that belongs to the Assembly alone. Furthermore, 2 Tim. 2: 22 needs to be followed in reality. When the reasons for being together are mainly about shared history, family connections or conservative views, then the union is really sectarian—particularly if ‘outsiders’ struggle to find acceptance or understand the culture.
We have Sinned
The very nature of sectarianism means it has a tendency to feed a sense of superiority (or self-approval), and to leave the blame for the public state of the Christian profession with others. By contrast, where there has been a genuine rejection of party-spirit, this will be accompanied by a deep sense of the collective breakdown as if it were our own individual failure. This is more than the admission of my own role in divisions among saints (if, indeed, I bear any personal guilt). Instead, having grasped the essential oneness of all God’s people, I confess the sin of the whole public breakdown as if it were mine own. It cannot be otherwise if I accept the truth of the one body. If an illustration of the sort of confession is required, there is none better than how Daniel prayed regarding the nation of which he was a member (see Daniel 9). Of all those exiled in Babylon, Daniel might be supposed to have been in the least need of confession of sin. He was a holy and righteous man, God-fearing in every way. Furthermore, he was carried away at such a young age from Jerusalem that the judgment from God which had fallen could not be blamed on anything for which he was responsible. Despite this, Daniel takes the place of humble confession before God, thereby becoming the expression of the people in their disobedience. Though personally guiltless in relation to the national sin, Daniel speaks of “my confession” (Dan. 9: 4), and four times he confesses “we have sinned” (vs 5, 8, 11, 15). So far as the record of Scripture goes, he was the only Jew that prayed in this way. Now Daniel’s people had gone into captivity because they had “committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even turning aside from thy commandments and from thine ordinances” (v5)—and this, frankly, is not altogether dissimilar to the sins of the Assembly (who, it must be said, are the recipients of far greater light from God than Israel ever was). Do we seriously imagine then that we have not turned aside from the commandments and the ordinances of the Lord and His apostles? Have we, for example, lived up to the Lord’s commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15: 12)? Have we stood “firm in one spirit, with one soul, labouring together in the same conflict with the faith of the glad tidings” (Phil. 1: 27)? Have we been marked by “bowels of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also [do] ye” (Col. 3: 12, 13)? If even we think we have ourselves, it is clear that these things have not marked the Lord’s people as they should. Therefore, beloved, have we ever got on our knees and made our confession, and cried out to God ‘we have sinned’? I am not talking merely about the history of things in the limited circle of my acquaintance but the sins of the Assembly as a whole, particularly in failing to maintain godly unity. It is not enough to keep oneself pure, vital though that is in itself. We are individuals, but we are not independent units. We are members of Christ’s body, and if there has been collective failure then it is incumbent on every believer, even if personally clean, to confess the sin of the whole as if it were his own. This is far more than merely sorrowing over division, because it is possible to do that in a detached and abstract way as an observer. If I am to be one of “the approved”, I will confess as well as grieve, and it will be my confession and our sins.
Let Your Heart Expand Itself
In choosing a ‘church’ (not something Scripture ever asks us to do), believers are often swayed by gift. Gift is important but in itself it will not give you the Assembly in its true character. Corinth, for example, came “short in no gift” (1 Cor. 1: 7), but the apostle Paul had to tell them “ye are straightened in your affections … let your heart also expand itself” (2 Cor. 6: 12, 13, my emphasis). This statement is all the more remarkable when the warning that follows is considered: “be not diversely yoked with unbelievers” (v14). The plain implication is that the Corinthians were wide-hearted beyond Scriptural limits in relation to the world, but inadequate when it came to the relationships that ought to exist among brethren in Christ. Paul even had to take the saints to task for going to law against each other (see 1 Cor. 6: 6-8). Can we be surprised that there were divisions in Corinth? What truly binds saints together is not gift, but love. How much unnecessary conflict could have been avoided if love was in operation among brethren in Christ! As Peter tells us: “but before all things having fervent love among yourselves, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4: 8).
How sad to be straightened in our affections by the constraints of party-spirit! The object of the Lord’s heart is His Assembly—all His people—for He loves that body and has delivered Himself up for it (see Eph. 5: 25). Enlargement of heart necessarily takes in all the saints. If we are occupied with ourselves (particularly in an ecclesiastical sense), then we really have lost any true sense of the Assembly and have become merely a party. It is facile to say that we grieve over the fact that not all of God’s people are available to us, if it is clearly evident that we intend to pursue such an insular path that other believers may as well not exist. There are no ‘grades’ of Christians, and if some are less important to us, then we can be sure that we have lost the Lord’s mind, for it is certain that all are equally important to Him. Certainly, the public scattering has made loving all the saints that more difficult but it does not excuse us from it. John writes “children, let us not love with word, nor with tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3: 18)—“in deed” because real love always acts (even to the laying down of one’s life for the brethren—see v16); “in truth”—because we are not to allow any compromise of what is right and Scriptural (see 1 John 5: 2). Some even appear to have lost sight of the fact that gift is given “with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4: 12) and not some smaller circle. It is faithless to respond by saying that working these things out in practice is just too difficult. Difficult it may be, but never too difficult. If Onesiphorus could seek out Paul very diligently (see 2 Tim. 1: 17) and provide him with succour, then there is no excuse for you and I not to seek out one or two of the Lord’s scattered sheep and enjoy mutual encouragement. If you have a heart for Christ then you will have a heart for His people. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that we are to retreat in upon ourselves in order to ‘hold the position’ (it is a nauseating conceit to imagine that this could even be our unique responsibility). Separation from iniquity is imperative (see 2 Tim. 2: 19) but let us see that we do not slip into a modern version of “the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15: 5), whose attitude to the people of God generally can be seen in John 7: 49: “this crowd, which does not know the law, are accursed”.
The question of sectarianism is a very real one, and moreover, it is a question of the utmost seriousness. Each of us, individually, will one day give an account of our actions to God, and this includes whether we have used “diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3), or whether we have gone along with the factionalism now ‘normalised’ in Christendom. Let me put it very simply to you: Does God count you among “the approved”?