Unity & Disunity in the Church


Tim Challies at Challies.com posted twice this last week on the issue of unity within a church (“Satan’s Great Desire” and “How to Build Unity in Your Church“).  As usual, Tim does a good job of noting the problem, rooting it to Scripture, and offering a solid biblical response to maintaining unity.

But what is left unsaid in those two posts is what has nagged at me the last few days, especially since I believe the topic of the year is church community (and the sudden interest in community seems to be widespread now).

Tim says that a lack of mutual love within a church is a major reason for disunity. His answer is for those in the church to use their spiritual gifts to serve each other.

You’ll get no arguments from me on this.

However, I believe that the problem we have with disunity within churches is more insidious than a lack of love.

What I share below is my experience as a trained observer of churches and people. I can’t give you a lot of Bible verses (yet) to back my observations, only that I believe that what I write is going to resonate—especially with seasoned Christians who have been wounded by their church experiences.

First, a clarification. How does disunity in a church manifest?

What most people see of disunity itself is anger, frustration, resentment, people leaving the church in numbers, and church splits.

Personally, I don’t believe that the majority of this disunity and its fruit can be traced to the Smiths not loving the Joneses. For the people in the seats on Sunday, not getting along with other people in the seats is almost never their reason for manifesting the bitter fruit that leads to people leaving the church.

What I know of people who have left a church or of a church that has split, the reasons are of a different sort. The leavers and splitters are far more likely to note the following failures:

Nuclear blast1. Church leaders failed to address “sticking points” within the church despite others (usually nonleaders)  noting those issues.

2. Church leaders failed to respond to pleas for personal help.

3. Church leaders failed to nurture other people’s God-given spiritual gifts (or even purposefully stymied them).

4. Church leaders failed to communicate vision and direction to the rest of the church body.

5. Church leaders failed to recognize they are fellow brothers and sisters of equal stature with the rest of the people in the church and therefore failed to lead humbly.

Picked up on the pattern yet?

Most solid people (as opposed to church hoppers/shoppers) who leave a church or most churches that split do so for one major reason: church leaders failed.

This is not to excuse those who are not church leaders for their personal culpability in that failure, but it demonstrates an enormous, glaring problem.

If church leadership failures are a major reason for disunity in a church, perhaps the problem is not one of love, as Tim Challies notes, but of the entirety of the way we allow our churches to be led. Perhaps the models of church leadership and proper church functioning we have fallen into over time are not the models depicted in the New Testament. Perhaps this is why church leaders fail so often, why so many people leave a church (or Christianity altogether), and why disunity reigns.

Sadly, almost no one within the North American Church wants to deal with this problem because it means a total rethink of the way we do church and would prove too threatening to a vast number of people.

But if the Church is to do more than survive, thriving means dealing with that problem.

And that is going to have to take a whole lotta love.

31 thoughts on “Unity & Disunity in the Church

  1. If the church had the leadership paradigms you speak of at one time, then it seems to me (since error has crept in and other paradigms emerged), that those paradigms in themselves failed. Are you not banking on something that has a proven track record of failure?

    • slw,

      I can’t tell if that’s sarcasm or not. I think that the paradigm Jesus established of not being like the pharisees and considering each one in the church to be an equal brother or sister is something we have lost. Not only that, but we do not assemble in a way that makes use of our individual gifts of ministry. We become consumers of a religious experience as a result, overseen by an all-powerful Oz (or Ozes), and that’s not the NT church.

      • Not sarcasm, just observation. I’m not sure one can infer from the NT that the model you suggested ever existed. If it did, it certainly did not keep the early church from falling into disunity, heresies, and monarchical bishoprics. I think you’re banking too much on that one issue; whereas love seems to me to be more powerful and fundamental to the issue.

  2. Gramz

    Recently left a church for all the reasons you list here. Frustrated with the search for a new home church. Seems lots of leaders allow teaching that does not conform to the denomination’s published doctrine or with scripture so that you never know what you will hear in a church setting. You may be assured, however, that whatever the denomination you will hear quotes from popular televagelists and writers.

  3. It seems to me that we like our religious observance that permits us to be largely anonymous because actual community in the church is messy and would permit others to see past the church facade we put on every Sunday morning. Being open, being vulnerable, admitting failure and sin is so distasteful to Western Christians. Sitting neatly in our pew in our Sunday best for an hour dutifully listening to a sermon allows us to feel like a proper Christian without a hint of actually living as the Bible describes and commands.

  4. Anonymous girl

    #3 is the main reason why I am leaving my current church. It seemed that the pastor is afraid of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit and wouldn’t allow any experimentation in that area when I tried to nudge us in that direction.

    • Anon,

      I am quite frankly fed up with the paradigm that says that the pastor is the only person with any spiritual sense. That’s an elitist mentality that bears no resemblance to NT Church. I know that I’ve been closed down by those who didn’t like it when I wasn’t trained clergy. Then I got trained and they didn’t like it because I was! I have no idea what happens to rational people once they get into church leadership positions, but man, something has got to give.

      • Mr. Poet

        I know that I’ve been closed down by those who didn’t like it when I wasn’t trained clergy. Then I got trained and they didn’t like it because I was!

        The old saying goes that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. But sometimes the 20% don’t want the 80% to do anything!

  5. Wow, Dan. I think you are definitely on the right path here. It’s not just that people are leaving in droves that’s disturbing, but that the reaction as to why people are leaving is largely accusatory – i.e. people just don’t love each other, people don’t respect authority, the age grows more evil, people’s ear’s are tingling, the devil did it, etc. While all of that is symptomatic on the periphery, there are these larger problems you identify that are not being taken seriously. And you’re right, the remedy is a complete overhaul to the North American church model in lieu of one that actually does look like the first one born some 2,000 years ago.

    • Brad,

      But Brad, that will mean our entire way of living will need to change! We just can’t play at this Christianity thing anymore! Do you know what you’re saying? Have you gone mad?

      Seriously, it bothers me immensely that we go for easy prescriptions when radical surgery is required. The case of the American Church is NOT yet terminal, but we’re putting band-aids on severed limbs, and we’ve got to get serious about our treatment of (and culpability for) these diseases.

    • Brad,

      I will add that the greatest need in the Christian Church in America is for more of us to look in the mirror and say, “I’m part of the problem.” Overall, the stunning lack of humility in most people only fans the flames of non-action. We always want to blame someone else.

      Church leaders, more so than probably anyone, need to do a mirror check and ask how they might be more of a hindrance than a help. Then they need to get off the programming bandwagon and just get back to talking about Jesus. No “how to raise perfect kids” or “how to manage money God’s way,” but good ol’ preaching about the person of Jesus. Jesus and humility have never before been so needed.

      • Dan I couldn’t agree with you more on humility. And after all, that’s not shocking when you consider that you must possess at least an ounce before you can declare Jesus Christ as Lord. But back to your point, our leaders are supposed to be the best and brightest examples of humility in the Church. Are they? Do you really want me to answer that? Change, revolution, reformation…starts with us…specifically, it starts with us going to God and humbly submitting to his will in all things. It’s rare that this is more than lip service, and yet, it is a simple solution that’s well within our grasp – with, of course, that first ounce of humility. Our leaders should be leading us to this end, and I’m afraid, more often than not, they aren’t – and probably don’t want to. How do I know this? I don’t want to…and if I’m a mere reflection of my generation, how can I expect a leader to think, feel, act otherwise. But thankfully, he gives us more grace.

    • Kevin

      Sorry but I disagree. The church ‘model’ of 2,000 years ago is no more sacred than any other. The mechanics of of church is far less important than the basics that transcend any church anywhere: authentic worship (style is unimportant), authentic love and relationships between the members which builds relationships and community, good teaching (good content not depending on entertainment value) and giving to the ‘least of these’.

  6. You are talking about the local church. I’m not saying that’s not a big issue, but what’s been bothering me a lot recently is the disunity in the church universal. The church is so splintered. We’re not just supposed to be one body with those we meet with on Sundays; we’re supposed to be one body, all of us. When the local church fractures, it becomes them vs. us. They divide and divide again and then where is the Body of Christ.

  7. Dire Dan: “church leadership failures”

    Maybe I am wrong but my guess as to what’s going is that the leaders treat “church” as if it were a kind of business they own with themselves as the sole proprietors. As Coolidge one said, “the business of America is business.” Maybe in that saying lies an explanation as to why things are disintegrating in America.

  8. Hans

    Lee touches on the real issue, the unity of the universal church. In Revelations the seven letters were not written to seven churches in a single community but to the seven different communities each with their own church as in the one unified church of that specific community. All the letters Paul wrote were to the unified church of the specific community he was addressing. I travel a bit and when I am in a strange town I would like to drop in at the local church, BUT WHERE DO I FIND IT ?! There is no end of congregations all having there own little turf wars, but where is the real unified body of said community ready to stand up and do battle with the powers and principalities that are at this point in time reigning over said same community
    This is where house churches come into play as long as they are not just out reaches of established congregations but autonomous groups whose leaders are in unity and fellowship with each other and in turn form a counsel that can speak for the community as a whole and therefor link all the individual groups together

    • Hans,

      “BUT WHERE DO I FIND IT?!” is the question of the hour. Where also are these organic/house churches that the noninstitutionalists always brag about? They feel like a myth.

      • Hans

        Maybe they are more of a myth than reality at this point. I think an issue that needs to be addressed is the ‘leadership’ role. looking back at the last paragraph in my post I realized I should have used the word ‘hosts’ instead of ‘leaders’, there seems to be a subtle difference in my experience and one definitely works better than the other.

        I am encouraged by the fact that I do seem to meet more and more that are seeking that mythical organic church

      • Dire Dan: “They feel like a myth.”

        At least one can cash in on the myth by selling lots of books about it. That’s how it feels to me sometimes. And when Frank Viola came up with the “organic church” terminology, it sounded like he was pushing some kind of all-vegan no-pesticides no-hormones all-natural-ingredients no-trans-fats church.

        The word “organic” gets too over-used, I think.

        But, seriously, I have been looking for it myself. If the “organic church” exists in my local area, it has done a marvelous job of keeping itself so well hidden that not even the CIA or NSA could find it. All I see around here is the conventional business-as-usual stuff.

        • Oengus,

          I researched a few “organic churches” in my area to find out more. Unbelievably, at least two no longer meet because the people who started them left to take on “institutional” pastorates! If that doesn’t sting the entire movement (and I can’t believe these are two isolated cases), I’m not sure what can.

          I emailed Viola’s organization about three weeks ago, and so far, nada. I’ve checked the top house church and organic church websites, yet most of them are full of old information, broken links to nonexistent churches, and on and on.

          So I offer an open callout: If you are part of an “organic church” such as those described in Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity or Reimagining Church (especially if you are in the Greater Cincinnati area), email me. Like Fox Mulder of The X-Files fame, I want to believe, but so far I have no proof of anything Viola or organic church proponents say, because I can’t find such a church that seems to be viable in an area with a 2+ million population. If that doesn’t scream “myth,” I don’t know what does.

  9. connie

    The True Church is right where she has always been-interspersed amongst all these congregations. And God is not sitting on His throne biting His nails at the condition of His bride-far from it. He has a plan. The same God who raised up Samuel in Eli’s house is our hope.

    • Connie: “…interspersed amongst all these congregations”

      In other words, what you are saying is that in effect there can never be an visible unity in the Church, at least nothing that the World can see. Or, to put it in somewhat different words, the visible unity exists in Heaven, but the visible unity will never exist on Earth because all that we can ever have here is something invisible.

      Maybe that’s the case, but I would have hoped for better.

  10. david duvall

    I understand what the auther is saying concerning church leadership….sometimes that can be true….but in my experience and estimation…disunity comes from pride and self….Leadership should actually be given the trust to lead and what happens is the people never want to follow…they want to ahve their vote….fight the pastor for leadership and often times PROGRAMS become a hot bed for disunity…. which again is all about pride…My program…My way… I think the leadership is only to fault in the fact they arent tough enough….in the quest to make people happy and keep a job they dont administer church discipline as quickly as needed and things fester….

    • David,

      What human man is head of a local church? Not the pastor. Not the elders. The head is Jesus Christ, and the leadership is by the Holy Spirit, which is available to all believers.

      The most stunning hypocrisy for us within the Protestant Reformation is the concept of the priesthood of all believers. We say we believe it, but it’s lip service in nearly all churches in America.

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