When Churches Split
by Ken Westby
plits happen. There've been many and there'll be many more. They occur in all denominations and for that matter in just about any human organization. I experienced a big one first hand.
They called me "the Devil," well, maybe not THE Devil, or THE Satan, but a bad hombre under the devil's influence. I was accused of being used by the Prince of Darkness to attack "the church," to cause a split. Heavy stuff. I was innocent of the charge and wasn't pushing for a split, but what does that matter?
Who were the "they" to which I refer? The "they" were the human heads of God's One and Only True Church, the OTC. They were the most important humans on earth, spiritually speaking, to use the proper caveat. More heavy stuff.
What was the crime that prompted my firing and energetic denunciation? Simply this: I questioned church practices, ethics, and doctrine and suggested reforms. In this I was not alone as 35 other ministers were of the same opinion on the same issues, and they too were fired. It now seems a lifetime ago.
Since I seemed to be a leader the devil label was pinned on me and great calamity ensued: The human heads of the OTC (One True Church) warned the confused and wavering brethren that this may be the end-time sign when Satan launches his attack to destroy The Church. Hold fast. Don't listen to the evil dissidents. Do what we tell you. Send money.
The OTC survived the 1974 faux attack and could continue to ignore or hide its problems--at least until the next crisis. Problems ignored stay problems and future crises are guaranteed to come. And come they did until finally the OTC broke into many pieces, with a few sharp and nasty ones still thinking themselves the OTC. Nevertheless, the breakup proved therapeutic and liberating for many. But the departed individual Christian was now left standing alone before God and responsible to discover His will--without the false comfort of hiding behind the OTC, its correct dogma, and its ministers knowing God's will and administering God's authority.
Once out of a high-commitment cult or church organization, it becomes just you and God. That can be scary at first, but can prove to be the best thing that ever happened to promote individual growth and Christian maturity. I think most find this to be their story.
In the months leading up to and for many months following a church split emotions move in hyper drive, emails and phone calls shoot into the ether like anti-aircraft flack, bad motives generously attributed (rightly or wrongly), lists of sympathizers and "enemies" develop, leaders emerge, fence sitters are pushed, and preparations get legal and irreversible. The high drama distorts facts, but that's called the fog of war. Meanwhile a lot of church members minding their own business wonder what all the commotion is about. It seems to be a minister's brawl. Preachers who lecture on how to live harmoniously apparently need more mirror time. One side has one story as the opposite side tells another. Good luck on finding out the real scoop. Sometimes it takes a decade or two before the pieces come together giving the real picture of why it all happened.
Big church splits, firing, and purges produce strange phenomena. One day the church has loyal faithful employees, effective and good-hearted ministers; the next day, these same individuals are evil plotters, disloyal dissenters, snakes, inciters to rebellion (which, you must remember, is akin to witchcraft), attackers of the OTC and the poor innocent brethren within, etc., etc.
Page flipping loyalists quickly amass Scriptures describing the crisis. The tender, helpless tithe-paying flock must be protected from these self-serving plotters who have "gone the way of Balaam," and forsaken "the faith once delivered" (to the OTC leaders, of course). The End Times are headlined "in the last days deceivers shall arise...." The end is near for Satan has come with wrath attacking the church. Send money.
In my case, all this and more were packed in 10-12 page legal size letters whisked out to the East Coast by church jets to hit the post offices fast and crush the supposed rebellion. It worked--at least in the short term. Reputations were ruined, former friends fled in fear, church members were left befuddled and confused. To what end?
My group of "rebels" were like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. We had made no preparations for departure, no secret planning meetings, just a bunch of naive preachers who thought we would get a fair hearing. Since then I think "rebels" have wised up and plan these things.
The WWC (OTC) organization survived with its 1974 leaders intact and in charge. The "dissidents" defeated and destroyed. But, as is usually the case in strong arm suppressions, there is another casualty: Truth. It can be hidden or buried for awhile, but truth has a way of winning in the end. It is a light that cannot be extinguished and when it shines the lies and deceits are exposed. That shining may not happen soon or all at once, but eventually the truth will out.
Standing on the sidelines for the past 37 years watching this process repeat itself in one form or another, and seeing the hundreds of church breakups, small and large, there are patterns that emerge. From those patterns and from personal experience lessons can be drawn that may offer understanding, perspective, and yes, hope.
Not all splits are bad, some in fact are quite necessary and some are good, even noble if the issues are biblical truth and proper treatment of people. I don't wring my hands over the need for "unity" among all the various Church of God iterations. The unity the hand-wringers call for is an organizational unity, joining their particular church outfit, returning to the true fold--theirs. Much of the unity talk rings false, an excuse to recruit members into another OTC.
The unity mongers are self-serving and use their noble sounding rhetoric as a criticism of little groups that have split away suggesting that they have done some wrong thing and need to repent and reunite. There is this lingering nostalgia for the halcyon days when the WWC was the full unity of the One and Only True Church and ruled the waves. A lot of tin-horn wannabes try to resurrect those stone dead glory days. I say R.I.P. God and his truth march on.
Corporate or organizational unity is just fine, but if one must compromise truth, morality or ethics to maintain it, then maybe unity isn't such a good thing. A division may preserve individual doctrinal distinctives and truth that would otherwise have to be abandoned to preserve unity. A split may allow individuals a fresh start in their Christian walk, away from heavy-handed ministers who had them sitting on the bench. There are a number of good things that could come from Christians' parting of the ways--organizationally speaking. There are also negative things, and collateral damage.
The true unity of which the Bible speaks is unity of spirit, God-like character, love, and commitment to faith and obedience to God and his Son (Col 3:1-4, 9, 12-14 "...together in perfect unity"). The legitimate One True Church is a spiritual entity composed of believers having the very Spirit of God. Its membership roll book is kept in heaven far away from the prying eyes of mortals. That Church belongs to God and is headed by his son, Jesus Christ. We should all attain to be members in good standing in God's OTC.
I believe membership in humanly organized churches is encouraged by God, but not required. Members of the heavenly OTC are to be in fellowship with other believers, be engaged in service, and committed to proclaiming Jesus' message in its fullness: the Kingdom of God. That Christians organize themselves in churches or denominations to accomplish these things can be good. How good depends on the people, on their character and vision. But, please, never confuse earthly organizations with the spiritual Body of Christ, the real OTC. Ideally, all members of human church assemblies would also be members of the Body of Christ and behave accordingly. But alas, we don't know ideal, but we know God, and we know how he wants us to behave toward each other.
Each church split is occasioned by a maze of motives often hidden behind the official reasons. Frankly, most splits are unnecessary, even silly. If occasioned from the top down, they are usually about power and control, who or which faction gets to call the shots. Security and money are big things, but the prideful ego of getting one's way looms big in management. Injured pride occasions revenge and pay back. There are differences in management style, philosophy, sense of purpose, mission, money allocation, etc. These internal differences are normal in all organizations. Organizations are dynamic entities and must work smart and cooperatively to keep it together, to keep it solvent, and to keep it growing. But people are people and sometimes it doesn't work.
In churches, honestly organized, there is not a lot of get rich money to chase. So the sweet nectar to suck is not money but power, prestige, meaning, having one's way, and of course, security. Fights will generally be found in these areas. Doctrine may also be involved, but sometimes it is just cover for motives common to the human condition. We all must do battle with these competing pulls of human nature.
Conditional Friendship. I learned a hard lesson upon being forced out of my church. I had friends, many friends. Some so close that I thought we would be friends till death and beyond. I think they felt the same way. We had laughed and cried together and shared our dreams and sorrows.
What I didn't understand is that the church organization--its work or mission--took precedence over personal relationships. I was their best friend as long as I was a member in good standing in the OTC. It wasn't a matter of putting God before a friendship, but somehow God and the OTC's Work had morphed into the same thing. If you left, or were kicked out of the OTC, then you had rejected God, and rejected his Apostle, blah, blah, blah. So my friendship which I though would hold through thick and thin was revealed to be conditional. I'm sure my friends felt loss, but couldn't do anything about it if they wanted to remain a member or minister in good standing.
My advice. Don't base your friendship upon status within an organization. True friendships should survive one leaving for another church home or just leaving. There can be real reasons for severing a friendship, but I doubt church affiliation should be one. My! Jesus had genuine friendships with "sinners" and IRS agents (Mt 11:19). David's best friend was his enemy's son.
We church people need to learn the art of disputation. Growing in knowledge often means challenging accepted wisdom, orthodoxy, presuppositions, including our own. New approaches and ideas usually come through other people. They are not to be regarded as enemies, but patiently and respectfully entertain their evidence and make your own judgments. You may not buy their conclusions, but may learn some good stuff along the way. Christian "biblical bull sessions" are healthy and should be encouraged, dogmatism and coerced conformity avoided. Everybody believing the same thing about every doctrine is like a desert that hasn't had rain for a century.
Give those of "wrong opinions" some slack. How many wrong doctrines did you believe in times past? I not only sincerely believed some bogus doctrines, I taught them! We learn. We grow up, or at least we should. Give each other space for growth which means being tolerant of his or her present lack of growth. This is kindness. We thrive with kindness.
Stay away from judging people and noting faults. Let God be a man's judge. A judging church is a cold church of cliques and self-righteous prigs. Authoritarian, hierarchical groups oppress intellectual freedom, stultify spiritual growth and initiative. God is free and loves freedom. He created all his sentient creatures, angelic and human, to be free. He wants our love to be feely given him and gives us plenty of space and time to come around to his point of view. We should be so generous with each other.
Righteous Christian living is to be mastered by all. Biblical scholarship is another matter. The Bible is not an easy book to master. It is a composite of documents 2000 years old or older, written in ancient languages, and to peoples in cultures and contexts that are not fully understood. Much of it can be plainly understood, some of it is difficult. Properly "doing theology" requires specific background, skill, and access to the tools of scholarship. The Bible demands respectful handling, not bullying to fit a pet dogma.
Nevertheless, even among scholars we will find disagreement so the better informed we are the better able we are to make judgments regarding what Scripture teaches. Never before in all history has so much information on Scripture been so readily available. A gold mine of knowledge awaits the eager learner. Seeking to better understand God's word should be our never-ending and life-long passion. "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free" (Ps 119:32).
Exercise respect to all. If your belief is this or that and is not embraced by most in your fellowship group, believe what you will but don't evangelize. Be honest with your different belief if asked, or if the occasion naturally arises. If you are part of a mature Christian fellowship it will continue to love you and tolerate your differences. You should not feel intimidated into silence and virtual denial of your beliefs, but neither should you go about blabbing them to people who aren't interested. Give the respect you want others to give you. Often that can be the kindness of avoiding dead end arguments.
Build on points of agreement and give the points of disagreement a rest. I know that this isn't always easy to do and some points are too important to one's conscience to let slide, but here is where we must passionately seek Godly wisdom. If things are just too stressful because of disagreements, peacefully leave and find a more agreeable place. Don't try to destroy the group you leave, just leave.
One can be selfish about being right. The bride of truth is humility. God who has all truth presents his closest personal virtue as "kindness" (Jer 9:23-24). To Moses, Yahweh characterized his glory as "my goodness" which passed in front of Moses (Exo 33:19. Jesus confessed that he was "gentle and humble in heart" which is why his offer to "Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened..." is so appealing (Mt 11:28-30). Don't forge truth into a club to beat people, or into a badge of superiority. Truth is a gift to be held with humility.
The Big Three
Here is what I believe makes for a good church or fellowship culture: A spirit of acceptance, a spirit of forgiveness, and a spirit of love. We quickly recognize these as qualities in the heart of God. They are also the deepest yearnings of the human soul. We want to be accepted, forgiven, and loved. If these permeate the atmosphere of your local church, don't you think real spiritual growth, contentment, and happiness will flourish? Are we capable of offering these?
Acceptance is not a critical spirit of judgment or condemnation, but quite the opposite. It is one of mercy. Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," and he used the example of judgment, "Judge not, and you shall not be judged." If you want God to be merciful and accepting of you, faults and all, then offer that same grace toward others. That "other" is also an "Image Bearer" whose name is known to God.
Forgiveness follows the same principle, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins' (Mt 6:15-15). Notice that our willingness to forgive is made the one condition to our being forgiven (note also there is no mention of blood or sacrifice, just our willingness to forgive). This is powerful. Do we exercise it?
Advice. Honestly locate and bury every grudge-hatchet you have. Establish a hatchet graveyard behind the church and fill it up with buried hatchets. Let acceptance and forgiveness reign.
Love, of course, is a decision to give respect and honor to your fellow imperfect servant of God. Love is the giving bond that knits us together. It is what lies behind all the virtues of Godly character and action. Wouldn't you enjoy attending a fellowship of people flowing with acceptance, forgiveness, and love? Then be that individual in your church group.
Alone Before God
Everyone should compose his or her own personal Statement of Faith. That's your job, not your church's job. Once written it may be in perfect agreement with your church's statement, maybe not. It is your statement that defines what you believe is most important in your covenant with God (Dr. Charles Dorothy once wrote a primer on making your own Statement of Faith; write and I'll send you a copy).
Hold fast to your core beliefs and make sure they are truly core...and few. Jesus was able to summarize life in the one Great Commandment, which he could expand into two commandments, and which could then be summarized in one word, love.
One's Statement of Faith should be fairly brief, not cluttered with every doctrine and speculation you like. There are many teachings one may believe to be scriptural, but these shouldn't become tests of fellowship or put on a par with one's core beliefs. Too many "must believe" points in your personal statement of faith will exclude people, people who might share core beliefs with you, but not all those on your long list. Don't make your long list of "must believes" a test of fellowship with others, or you will be mighty lonely in your empty church. Work to include, not exclude.
Becoming a genuine Christian is not child's play. We have been called to take on the image of Yahweh, to become like him in mind, character, and love. This is huge. To conform to the Divine Image and take on the Divine Nature is to climb to the stars--impossible without help. Jesus has done it and God offers his spirit to assist in our spiritual transformation. We also need help from each other as friends, teachers, mentors, encouragers, examplers, supporters. We don't do it alone. We need good churches with good people more interested in moving Godward than moving the church board to do this or that.
Sure, there are troubles with human organizations. None is perfect so why be spiritually destroyed when they flop. Disappointed? Sure. Splits happen. Don't blame God. It is all about humans struggling to find their way. We need to learn to work through the maze of human affairs discovering those things that are true and priceless along the way. God never promised easy. The path is narrow and it takes vigilance and grit to stay on it.
Your Life's Last Chapter Not Yet Written
Jeremiah was about to throw in the towel with the hard job of doing God's bidding in a crooked and perverse world. I can feel for the guy for he had it much worse than anything I've ever experienced in my "church wars." His treatment was brutal and he was worn down and absorbed in self-pity. He served God honestly but was so disappointed with God's rebellious people he was ready to chuck it. He was tired of it all.
Yahweh answered his complaints with a challenge: "Tired, you say? If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of the Jordan?" (Jer 12:5).
God told Jeremiah what I believe he would say to you and me; that he has called us to a life of purpose far beyond what we think ourselves capable of living and promised us adequate strength to fulfill our destiny--a destiny beyond local churches, their politics, and their splits--a destiny at the side of His Majesty sharing rule over all creation.
Do we quit at signs of difficulty? Are we fatigued by a run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities playing church? Well then, how about the real race with the swift horses of excellence attached to God's chariot? "Jeremiah, do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?" His life became his answer, "I'll run with the horses." How about you?
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