The necessity–and value–of church divisions

Rev. William Cwirla offers some provocative and oddly encouraging thoughts about why divisions within a congregation or church body are, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “necessary.” See Blogosphere Underground: Devilish Distractions. A sample:

Dissensions and divisions have their root in our old Adamic flesh (Gal 5:20; 1 Tim 6:4; Titus 3:9). The old Adam loves to stir up trouble wherever he can find it. Dissensions and divisions in the church arise from false teachings and false teachers who subvert the Gospel (Rom 16:17; Jude 19). Paul’s desire for the Corinthian congregation is that it be united, of the same mind and judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). Yet Paul goes on to make this remarkable statement: “It is necessary that there be divisions (Gk: heresies) among you so that those who are proven might be manifest among you” (1 Cor 11:19). In other words, the soundness of a teacher is tested in the face of controversy, and divisions serve the purpose of showing who is proven.

Rev. Cwirla goes on to apply what this means and why. He does not praise church divisions, mind you, seeing them as sinful; and yet God uses them nonetheless.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I have met many people over the years who are strongly in favor of church unity. I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who was willing to accept church unity on the other denomination’s terms.

    I suppose the ELCA is a sort of exception, since they jettisoned Lutheran ecclesiology in order to have pulpit and altar fellowship with the Episcopalians. But I don’t think they’d adopt a pro-life position to reconcile with Rome.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I have met many people over the years who are strongly in favor of church unity. I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who was willing to accept church unity on the other denomination’s terms.

    I suppose the ELCA is a sort of exception, since they jettisoned Lutheran ecclesiology in order to have pulpit and altar fellowship with the Episcopalians. But I don’t think they’d adopt a pro-life position to reconcile with Rome.

  • Don S

    With experience comes the realization that divisions within the body are inevitable, and periodic. I have come to the place where I look for the good in them. In our previous church, we had a major division, due to doctrinal interpretation, which caused a complete cleavage of the church, with almost half of the body leaving, including our family. As I look back now, ten years later, I see elements from that one local church seeding congregations throughout our area, and leading effective ministries within and out of those various local churches, including a number in full time Christian service. Though it was a painful experience at the time, it tore many of us out of a comfortable church existence, and revitalized our individual ministries as well as the corporate ministry of the Body here in our local area.

    Divisions can be doctrinally based, but can also be based on differences in ministry styles and personalities. I think of Acts 15:36-41, detailing the split between Paul and Barnabus over the issue of John Mark. The contention became very sharp, and I’m sure there were hard feelings as they went their separate ways. But the result was two outstanding teams of missionaries, and we know that Paul and John Mark ultimately were fully reconciled (II Tim. 4:11).

  • Don S

    With experience comes the realization that divisions within the body are inevitable, and periodic. I have come to the place where I look for the good in them. In our previous church, we had a major division, due to doctrinal interpretation, which caused a complete cleavage of the church, with almost half of the body leaving, including our family. As I look back now, ten years later, I see elements from that one local church seeding congregations throughout our area, and leading effective ministries within and out of those various local churches, including a number in full time Christian service. Though it was a painful experience at the time, it tore many of us out of a comfortable church existence, and revitalized our individual ministries as well as the corporate ministry of the Body here in our local area.

    Divisions can be doctrinally based, but can also be based on differences in ministry styles and personalities. I think of Acts 15:36-41, detailing the split between Paul and Barnabus over the issue of John Mark. The contention became very sharp, and I’m sure there were hard feelings as they went their separate ways. But the result was two outstanding teams of missionaries, and we know that Paul and John Mark ultimately were fully reconciled (II Tim. 4:11).

  • Dan

    This truth is so fundamental that it is impossible to teach and appreciate church history properly without understanding it. God uses heresy, as he uses all things, for the good of His church.

    God always defends and preserves His people. The Great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries is the most obvious example, but all of church history sings this quite plainly.

    As a Dutch Reformed believer, I can appreciate the divisions and schisms throughout history as a means God uses to preserve the beautiful truth of sovereign grace. When a church rejects the pure preaching of God’s Word, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline, division and separation are necessary for the child of God. God uses division to preserve the precious truths of Scripture.

  • Dan

    This truth is so fundamental that it is impossible to teach and appreciate church history properly without understanding it. God uses heresy, as he uses all things, for the good of His church.

    God always defends and preserves His people. The Great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries is the most obvious example, but all of church history sings this quite plainly.

    As a Dutch Reformed believer, I can appreciate the divisions and schisms throughout history as a means God uses to preserve the beautiful truth of sovereign grace. When a church rejects the pure preaching of God’s Word, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline, division and separation are necessary for the child of God. God uses division to preserve the precious truths of Scripture.

  • CRB

    Question related to this post: As we know, in things concernding the “left-hand kingdom” we are bound to obey our leaders. If the leaders contradict God’s Word and that would lead us into sin by obeying them, we are to resist, even unto death. What I wonder, what is the response of Christians in the right-hand kingdom (specifically in a synod) when the leaders in that kingdom try to force us to obey them when it would mean contradicting God’s Word. Perhaps Romans 16:17 applies here, but how would that play out practically?

  • CRB

    Question related to this post: As we know, in things concernding the “left-hand kingdom” we are bound to obey our leaders. If the leaders contradict God’s Word and that would lead us into sin by obeying them, we are to resist, even unto death. What I wonder, what is the response of Christians in the right-hand kingdom (specifically in a synod) when the leaders in that kingdom try to force us to obey them when it would mean contradicting God’s Word. Perhaps Romans 16:17 applies here, but how would that play out practically?

  • http://www.stpaulbluepoint.org dspeers

    I believe that it was either Engelder or Laetsch, old LCMS guys writing about ecumenism et al in the late 30s and early 40s who make the comment that God allows false teaching to find its way into the church to test and see whether Christians are going to be faithful. I believe Luther and Walther make similar statements.

    Laetsch said in one article that the church should never take UNITY as its goal, but the clear preaching and teaching of the Word/right administration of the Sacraments, for UNITY is of/from the Spirit, (Eph 4) worked through the means, and not something man creates. Unionism, is by definition, unbiblical.

  • http://www.stpaulbluepoint.org dspeers

    I believe that it was either Engelder or Laetsch, old LCMS guys writing about ecumenism et al in the late 30s and early 40s who make the comment that God allows false teaching to find its way into the church to test and see whether Christians are going to be faithful. I believe Luther and Walther make similar statements.

    Laetsch said in one article that the church should never take UNITY as its goal, but the clear preaching and teaching of the Word/right administration of the Sacraments, for UNITY is of/from the Spirit, (Eph 4) worked through the means, and not something man creates. Unionism, is by definition, unbiblical.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@4), you’re asking about issues of fellowship. You are right that Romans 16:17 (among other passages) teaches that we should not and cannot pretend to be of one faith with those who teach contrary to God’s Word. For our sake and for theirs, we should separate from them.

    But you should do so lovingly. This involves first doing what you can to tell those people about their error. If they repent, then there is no need for separation. But if it becomes clear that they will not listen to you and repent, then it is your job to separate from them, to show them that what they are doing is wrong. We cannot maintain unity where there is none.

    Of course, it is incumbent on you to make sure that the leaders are truly “contradicting God’s Word.” If you used the above process merely to enforce your own opinions and get your way, then you would be the one sinning, not the leaders.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@4), you’re asking about issues of fellowship. You are right that Romans 16:17 (among other passages) teaches that we should not and cannot pretend to be of one faith with those who teach contrary to God’s Word. For our sake and for theirs, we should separate from them.

    But you should do so lovingly. This involves first doing what you can to tell those people about their error. If they repent, then there is no need for separation. But if it becomes clear that they will not listen to you and repent, then it is your job to separate from them, to show them that what they are doing is wrong. We cannot maintain unity where there is none.

    Of course, it is incumbent on you to make sure that the leaders are truly “contradicting God’s Word.” If you used the above process merely to enforce your own opinions and get your way, then you would be the one sinning, not the leaders.

  • CRB

    tODD,
    Thanks much! That’s what I thought, too. Wonder how that works in the synod, if you are in the synod, that is? Since the synod is not the church, what can people do who feel dragged away from their Lutheran teachings?!

  • CRB

    tODD,
    Thanks much! That’s what I thought, too. Wonder how that works in the synod, if you are in the synod, that is? Since the synod is not the church, what can people do who feel dragged away from their Lutheran teachings?!

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@7), I’m in a synod, but probably not the one you’re thinking of. Though I was raised LCMS, I’ve been a member of the WELS for a decade now. I switched synods when I moved from Texas (where there are many confessional Lutheran churches) to Oregon (where there aren’t). Of course, the fact that such a diversity of theological attitudes seems to exist points to a problem with the LCMS: is it really a fellowship of people in unity of belief? You wouldn’t know it from the comments I hear here or from my parents (still in the LCMS).

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “the synod is not the church”. Regardless, doesn’t the fact that you’re a member of a church that is a member of a synod mean that you are declaring full doctrinal agreement (fellowship) with your church and your synod? If that agreement does not exist, then it would seem it’s either up to your church to leave your synod or to you to leave your church. (Provided, of course, that you have done due diligence in addressing the problem, as discussed before.)

    Of course, I only hear this and that about what’s going on in the LCMS. I don’t claim to have evaluated it, since I’m no longer a member. But I really don’t understand the copious complaining combined with ultimate inaction. I mean, it’s good to write letters and make phone calls, but if there is a clear doctrinal problem and if making the problem known to those responsible produces no contrition or change, what does it take for people to say, “Enough, there is no unity here”?

    But I am young, given to impetuousness, and not all that knowledgeable about synod politics, ultimately. So what do I know?

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@7), I’m in a synod, but probably not the one you’re thinking of. Though I was raised LCMS, I’ve been a member of the WELS for a decade now. I switched synods when I moved from Texas (where there are many confessional Lutheran churches) to Oregon (where there aren’t). Of course, the fact that such a diversity of theological attitudes seems to exist points to a problem with the LCMS: is it really a fellowship of people in unity of belief? You wouldn’t know it from the comments I hear here or from my parents (still in the LCMS).

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “the synod is not the church”. Regardless, doesn’t the fact that you’re a member of a church that is a member of a synod mean that you are declaring full doctrinal agreement (fellowship) with your church and your synod? If that agreement does not exist, then it would seem it’s either up to your church to leave your synod or to you to leave your church. (Provided, of course, that you have done due diligence in addressing the problem, as discussed before.)

    Of course, I only hear this and that about what’s going on in the LCMS. I don’t claim to have evaluated it, since I’m no longer a member. But I really don’t understand the copious complaining combined with ultimate inaction. I mean, it’s good to write letters and make phone calls, but if there is a clear doctrinal problem and if making the problem known to those responsible produces no contrition or change, what does it take for people to say, “Enough, there is no unity here”?

    But I am young, given to impetuousness, and not all that knowledgeable about synod politics, ultimately. So what do I know?

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    A side note: there may actually be lots of confessional LCMS churches in Oregon. But I felt uncomfortable with the ones I visited at the time in and around Portland. The difference between them and my parents’ church in Plano was noticeable.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    A side note: there may actually be lots of confessional LCMS churches in Oregon. But I felt uncomfortable with the ones I visited at the time in and around Portland. The difference between them and my parents’ church in Plano was noticeable.

  • FW

    #9 Todd

    I was raised in the WELS and feel the WELS did the LCMS a favor by witnessing to it and separating when they did. The problem with the WELS is that they cannot dispute doctrines or admit that there might be something wrong with doctrine or practice. There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told. They will hard pressed to resist things going wrong if there is not room for open discussion. I hope the very best for the WELS because it is my spiritual mother. I am not seeing the WELS that much more united in doctrine or practice in some ways than the LCMS, other than a certain enforced uniformity.

    The WELS is not a great example of where a certain amount of controversy or disagreement can sharpen beliefs, convictions and practices and promote true unity apart from that imposed organizationally.

    In the LCMS there is alot of bad stuff, but those who are confessional lutherans have had to carefully consider exactly why being a confessional lutheran is right and why it is important versus the alternatives. Most WELS pastors have not had to really think those things through at the same level it seems.

  • FW

    #9 Todd

    I was raised in the WELS and feel the WELS did the LCMS a favor by witnessing to it and separating when they did. The problem with the WELS is that they cannot dispute doctrines or admit that there might be something wrong with doctrine or practice. There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told. They will hard pressed to resist things going wrong if there is not room for open discussion. I hope the very best for the WELS because it is my spiritual mother. I am not seeing the WELS that much more united in doctrine or practice in some ways than the LCMS, other than a certain enforced uniformity.

    The WELS is not a great example of where a certain amount of controversy or disagreement can sharpen beliefs, convictions and practices and promote true unity apart from that imposed organizationally.

    In the LCMS there is alot of bad stuff, but those who are confessional lutherans have had to carefully consider exactly why being a confessional lutheran is right and why it is important versus the alternatives. Most WELS pastors have not had to really think those things through at the same level it seems.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Frank (@10), I’m afraid I’m either missing some historical context or some specific references. “The problem with the WELS is that they cannot dispute doctrines or admit that there might be something wrong with doctrine or practice”? Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.

    “There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told.” Yes, my parents (in the LCMS) tell me they hear this, also. But I don’t know what they or you are referring to, honestly. Is it some insidious LCMS rumor, or is there something you can point to?

    I hope I’m not coming across as defensive. I’m not. I may be quite ignorant or naive, but honestly, I just don’t know what you’re referring to. Like I said, I’m not terribly up on (WELS) synod politics. I read Forward in Christ and watch the WELS Connection videos, but that’s it. If there’s a burgeoning split in the WELS (as I’ve heard there is in the LCMS), I know nothing about it.

    I don’t mean to bad-mouth the LCMS (frankly, I think its own members here do enough of that), I just don’t understand the attitude that ultimately nothing should be done about the existence of “a lot of bad stuff” in that synod. Nor do I think that the fact that tough times tend to separate the wheat from the chaff in a church body means that one should pretend to have fellowship where there is not so as to bring about tough times. Part of being a confessional Lutheran involves the proper application of the doctrine of fellowship.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Frank (@10), I’m afraid I’m either missing some historical context or some specific references. “The problem with the WELS is that they cannot dispute doctrines or admit that there might be something wrong with doctrine or practice”? Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.

    “There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told.” Yes, my parents (in the LCMS) tell me they hear this, also. But I don’t know what they or you are referring to, honestly. Is it some insidious LCMS rumor, or is there something you can point to?

    I hope I’m not coming across as defensive. I’m not. I may be quite ignorant or naive, but honestly, I just don’t know what you’re referring to. Like I said, I’m not terribly up on (WELS) synod politics. I read Forward in Christ and watch the WELS Connection videos, but that’s it. If there’s a burgeoning split in the WELS (as I’ve heard there is in the LCMS), I know nothing about it.

    I don’t mean to bad-mouth the LCMS (frankly, I think its own members here do enough of that), I just don’t understand the attitude that ultimately nothing should be done about the existence of “a lot of bad stuff” in that synod. Nor do I think that the fact that tough times tend to separate the wheat from the chaff in a church body means that one should pretend to have fellowship where there is not so as to bring about tough times. Part of being a confessional Lutheran involves the proper application of the doctrine of fellowship.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    “There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told.” Yes, my parents (in the LCMS) tell me they hear this, also. But I don’t know what they or you are referring to, honestly. Is it some insidious LCMS rumor, or is there something you can point to?

    It’s not a rumor, though I suppose it depends on how you phrase it. This is definitely a trend in the WELS churches in the Twin Cities area and in Wisconsin, along with a great openness toward contemporary worship (ie. losing the hymnal and liturgy, and worshiping like Megachurch, Inc.). I have heard this from several pastors. I have not been to these churches, however one was recently highlighted during Easter for their “creative” way to draw in a crowd for the Easter weekend services. I am in the ELS and my daughter attends a WELS high school, so I consider it important to keep up on these things for my child’s sake. Also, since I am on the school board of my ELS church’s K-8 school I keep up on trends in both the ELS and WELS, both school and church.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    “There is a rather large movement towards church growth models in Wisconsin I am told.” Yes, my parents (in the LCMS) tell me they hear this, also. But I don’t know what they or you are referring to, honestly. Is it some insidious LCMS rumor, or is there something you can point to?

    It’s not a rumor, though I suppose it depends on how you phrase it. This is definitely a trend in the WELS churches in the Twin Cities area and in Wisconsin, along with a great openness toward contemporary worship (ie. losing the hymnal and liturgy, and worshiping like Megachurch, Inc.). I have heard this from several pastors. I have not been to these churches, however one was recently highlighted during Easter for their “creative” way to draw in a crowd for the Easter weekend services. I am in the ELS and my daughter attends a WELS high school, so I consider it important to keep up on these things for my child’s sake. Also, since I am on the school board of my ELS church’s K-8 school I keep up on trends in both the ELS and WELS, both school and church.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As I understand the phrase “church growth”, it refers to focusing more on human efforts to increase membership (often at the expense of doctrine), rather than putting the truths of God’s Word first and trusting in the Holy Spirit to do his work.

    However, TK, as you (@12) have stated it, it seems that you are equating “church growth” merely with “contemporary” worship. Does the presence of a guitar in worship equal “church growth”? Is it possible to praise God with the crashing cymbals of a drum set? Is “creativity” a sure sign of turning away from God?

    As defined above, I have every reason to be concerned about the true existence of “church growth” thought in my synod. But I’m also concerned when people conflate different approaches in worship with deficient doctrine.

    I mean, the organ was a new instrument at some point. Who knows what sort of disagreements people had over Pope Vitalian’s crazy new idea back in the day?

    I say all this as a member of a congregation that is liturgical (usually from the hymnal or a supplement), has an organ, and would probably pass muster with all sorts of man-made rules. The same goes for all the WELS churches in the area, as far as I know. As I said before, though, I cannot speak for every congregation in the synod.

    But unless we’re using the term “church growth” merely to mean “having some modern aspects”, I’d hope that there would be some better examples before accusing the synod of such a thing.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    As I understand the phrase “church growth”, it refers to focusing more on human efforts to increase membership (often at the expense of doctrine), rather than putting the truths of God’s Word first and trusting in the Holy Spirit to do his work.

    However, TK, as you (@12) have stated it, it seems that you are equating “church growth” merely with “contemporary” worship. Does the presence of a guitar in worship equal “church growth”? Is it possible to praise God with the crashing cymbals of a drum set? Is “creativity” a sure sign of turning away from God?

    As defined above, I have every reason to be concerned about the true existence of “church growth” thought in my synod. But I’m also concerned when people conflate different approaches in worship with deficient doctrine.

    I mean, the organ was a new instrument at some point. Who knows what sort of disagreements people had over Pope Vitalian’s crazy new idea back in the day?

    I say all this as a member of a congregation that is liturgical (usually from the hymnal or a supplement), has an organ, and would probably pass muster with all sorts of man-made rules. The same goes for all the WELS churches in the area, as far as I know. As I said before, though, I cannot speak for every congregation in the synod.

    But unless we’re using the term “church growth” merely to mean “having some modern aspects”, I’d hope that there would be some better examples before accusing the synod of such a thing.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Fie. I miss the preview button. “As defined above, I would have every reason to be concerned …” (That is, I’m saying that an example of “church growth” as I defined it would be alarming, if there were one. Is there?)

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Fie. I miss the preview button. “As defined above, I would have every reason to be concerned …” (That is, I’m saying that an example of “church growth” as I defined it would be alarming, if there were one. Is there?)

  • Bror Erickson

    tODD,
    Frank is quite frankly right. There were three students much smarter than I who jumped ship from the wels when I was at Ft. Wayne. The problems there are in the WELS, run much deeper than they do in the LCMS. But there is a lockstep meantality there that doesn’t allow for open discussion. The freinds I had were not only excommunicated. One could no longer go see his parents for thanksgiving.
    Most of this has to do with the doctrine of the ministry. Wisconsin has a nice front, but behind it, the termites have eaten the structure.

  • Bror Erickson

    tODD,
    Frank is quite frankly right. There were three students much smarter than I who jumped ship from the wels when I was at Ft. Wayne. The problems there are in the WELS, run much deeper than they do in the LCMS. But there is a lockstep meantality there that doesn’t allow for open discussion. The freinds I had were not only excommunicated. One could no longer go see his parents for thanksgiving.
    Most of this has to do with the doctrine of the ministry. Wisconsin has a nice front, but behind it, the termites have eaten the structure.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Bror (@15), if you’re not going to name “the problems there are in the WELS”, it’s of no value to me and amounts to little more than name-calling. Your comment doesn’t seem designed to edify.

    Is your accusation of “a lock-step mentality” a complete misreading of the doctrine of fellowship, or is there something to it? I don’t know — there isn’t much to go on here.

    And the Thanksgiving anecdote … what can I say? It apparently happened, though whether that is due to some WELS policy I’ve never heard of or perhaps some poor, unloving judgment, well, I can’t know. But my LCMS parents won’t be shocked to see me, once again, this November.

    I’d love to know what, exactly, in the “doctrine of the ministry” you’re referring to that causes all these problems. Or, for that matter, what any of this has to do with the initial charges of “church growth” mentality. As far as I can tell, you’ve opened up a whole new line of complaints.

    I really would like to have a discussion with actual examples of problems with the synod (problems with individual churches may be enlightening, or may not, depending on whether they reflect the synod or not, obviously). But the comments I’ve read here have done nothing to help. They point, vaguely, at some problem, but neither name it or offer a solution. As a WELS member, unable to evaluate the accusations, all I can do is either despair or assume that the foundations are baseless (for reasons I can only guess at).

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Bror (@15), if you’re not going to name “the problems there are in the WELS”, it’s of no value to me and amounts to little more than name-calling. Your comment doesn’t seem designed to edify.

    Is your accusation of “a lock-step mentality” a complete misreading of the doctrine of fellowship, or is there something to it? I don’t know — there isn’t much to go on here.

    And the Thanksgiving anecdote … what can I say? It apparently happened, though whether that is due to some WELS policy I’ve never heard of or perhaps some poor, unloving judgment, well, I can’t know. But my LCMS parents won’t be shocked to see me, once again, this November.

    I’d love to know what, exactly, in the “doctrine of the ministry” you’re referring to that causes all these problems. Or, for that matter, what any of this has to do with the initial charges of “church growth” mentality. As far as I can tell, you’ve opened up a whole new line of complaints.

    I really would like to have a discussion with actual examples of problems with the synod (problems with individual churches may be enlightening, or may not, depending on whether they reflect the synod or not, obviously). But the comments I’ve read here have done nothing to help. They point, vaguely, at some problem, but neither name it or offer a solution. As a WELS member, unable to evaluate the accusations, all I can do is either despair or assume that the foundations are baseless (for reasons I can only guess at).


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