How To Prevent A Church Split – Part II

Again, the following is written by Thabiti Anyabwile and posting it with his permission (thanks Thabiti!):

As a boy, I loved reading the Encyclopedia Brown mystery novels. It was engaging and stimulating stuff. Sherlock Holmes for us young shorties. (If any of you have any of the stories and you’d like to part with them for a modest fee, please e-mail me).

I still love a great mystery novel or suspense thriller. Mystery creates much of the wonder of life. And because it leaves us in wonder, a kind of admiring awe, mystery creates a godly humility.

Christianity is a mystery from start to finish. Its truths stagger the mind and refresh the soul… One God in three Persons, creation ex nihilo, Perfect Infinity squeezed into the finiteness of a virgin’s womb, sinless perfection, substitution and propitiation, simultaneously just and sinner, resurrection, new birth, and I could go on. These are grand, towering, staggering, “biggie-sized” truths. They are mysterious in the best sense of the word.

But there is at least one other mystery in Christianity. In fact, the Bible itself uses the term “mystery” to describe it. There is the mystery of the church (Eph. 3). The church is the revelation of a mystery hidden in ages past but now revealed by the Spirit of God to His holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that there is one people of God—Jew and Gentile in one body, heirs together, and partakers together of the promise—and that the intent of God, His eternal purpose, is that the church should reveal His wisdom to heavenly powers (3:10, 11) and be the repository of His glory along with Christ (3:21).

Take that in for a moment….

That makes this next mystery all the more puzzling. It is mysterious to me that the centrality of the church is so little preached today. What explains its absence from the vast majority of sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes? How did it just vanish from the thinking of Christians? It’s a detective mystery worthy of Encyclopedia Brown. And it’s a problem that we must fix if we are to ever see our people desire life with all God’s people above their own self-interests and affinity groups.

To prevent church splits, we must regain the centrality of the local church in our preaching and practice. We must lay heavy biblical emphasis on the centrality of the people of God throughout redemptive history and in contemporary Christian life. We must preach and emphasize the fact that the church is central to God’s affections, self-identification, and eternal plan. It must, therefore, be central to ours.

The Church: The Center of God’s Affections
The Scripture tells us that earthly marriage is a picture (dim and imperfect, surely) of Christ’s love for the church… again called a “mystery” (Eph. 5:25-32). The church is his bride, which He is purifying and preparing for the consummation. He gave himself for her and is her Savior. In other words, the church is the center of the Savior’s affections. Our preaching must make this plain, and not just from the obvious places like Eph. 5. We must underscore this in all of Scripture which is the story of God creating for himself a people upon whom He sovereignly places His love.

As a preacher, I must work against the strong currents of individualism that reads all of Scripture as a “personal love letter” from Jesus to each individual. As an evangelist, I have to undermine the popular sentiment that says “God has a plan for your (read individual) life” and “you need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Well… God does have a plan for His people and it the center of it is involvement in His church, His body, His royal nation. The emphasis almost everywhere is on plural nouns, not first person singulars. It is vitally important that we make it clear that discipleship by definition includes following Christ in the company of His people, in fact, loving His people.

The Church: Central to Jesus’ Self-Identity
We must also preach and make clear that Christ Jesus strongly identifies with the church. Recall that arresting question He asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul’s imprisonment and abuse of Christians was actually done to Christ. All of the body of Christ imagery says nothing if it doesn’t mean that Christ identifies with His people. And throughout the biblical record, the Lord identifies with His chosen, calling them by His name, protecting and providing for them, dwelling in their midst.

We have to teach and preach this so that our people will see the rightness of identifying with Him. Though the Lord saves us individually, Christ identifies fundamentally with the church. And our identification with Him is clearest when we too associate with the church. All of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper) the Lord left us are designed to make this allegiance clear. They say more than this, but not less than this: that we identify with Jesus by identifying with His body, the same body that He identifies with. We must help our folks understand this so that their allegiance to the Lord is expressed in large measure through their allegiance to the church—not the pastor, not the music, not particular church programs, or conveniences like service times. Their allegiance must be raised to the level of Christ, which is an allegiance to the entire people of God.

The Church: Central to God’s Plan of Redemption
We must, finally, help our people see that the church is the center of God’s redeeming and self-glorifying plan in heaven and on earth. That’s what we gather from Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 2:14-22; 3:9-11, 20-21. It’s through the church that the evangelism of the world is carried out. The church reveals God’s wisdom and glory. The church proclaims the defeat of the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Through the church, the Lord will gather all things under His feet.

Our people must know that God has not plan of redemption and no plan for spiritual edification and maturity outside the church. They must know that participation in church is about far more than their individual needs. Participation in the church is essential to advancing the plans of God to bring to himself glory, to redeem humanity, and to bring all things to completion. And they must be taught to prize all of that above their individual selves. We must teach them that if it’s God’s glory they wish to pursue, then one of the easiest things they can do is to join, commit to, and love a local church—which is God’s eternal design for them anyway.

I suspect that if our people are immersed in these truths week to week, taught to read the Scripture with at least one corporate lense, and encouraged to live out the faith with “one another,” we will begin the process of inoculating our churches against the plague of church splits. This I take to be my objective as a pastor.

Next time, Lord willing, we’ll consider the importance of relationships in protecting the church from splits.

How To Prevent A Church Split – Part I

The following essay is written by Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor in Cayman Islands and one of the speakers for the upcoming Desiring God Pastors’ Conference. I’m posting it with a written permission from him:

I have a new and growing conviction. It’s occupying a lot of my thoughts these days… good thoughts, I think. I don’t know why it hasn’t always been a conviction, at least not quite in this way. But, nonetheless, I am convinced that one of my fundamental objectives as a pastor is to prevent church splits from happening.

I don’t mean that it’s my responsibility to make sure no one leaves, or to settle every dispute in a way that preserves unity at all costs. No, there’ll be times when a “split” will humanly speaking be inevitable, and I trust that the Lord has good purposes in causing or allowing them to happen.

What I mean is this: I have some basic responsibilities as a pastor. I must teach and preach God’s Word; I must pray; I must be an example; and, I must carry on a visitation ministry. That’s basically what I think a pastor is to do (admittedly a bit oversimplified). But I am increasingly convinced that I am to do those things with a particular perspective. I’m to do those things with an eye toward the developing and continuing unity of the church. Said negatively, I’m to work in such a way as to prevent the splintering of Christ’s local body in my charge.

It seems to me that preventing splits is a bit like preventative health care. Most of us trolly through life without caring much about our health. We eat any and most everything. We don’t exercise regularly. Our sleep habits are terrible. We overwork ourselves at high-stress jobs, and we seldom take vacations. Then we go to the doctor for a checkup or because some pain or another won’t go away. That’s when we hear the news: our bodies have actually been carrying on a covert coup against us. We’re told that our blood pressure is high. Cholestorol is clogging up blood flow. And then there is the dreaded “O” word that seems to be wreaking havoc on youth in particular–obesity.

We react with surprise at the news. Not the kind of surprise that’s completely unsuspecting; we knew that neglecting ourselves could result in these things. No, we’re surprised because it happened to us. “High blood pressure… that’s aunt Annie’s problem. Obesity… that’s uncle Bobo’s issue.” The reality of the problem–completely preventable if it had been at least a part of our focus–comes crashing home. We’re sick and now there is only the drudgery of changing life-long habits and/or undergoing some radical procedure.

I think church splits are a lot like that. Churches adopt lifelong bad habits, deny the warning signs (the sleeplessness, headaches and chest pains), and then are surprised when part of the body carries out the silent coup. They don’t think it will happen to them no matter how bad things get. And then it does and the pain is great.

There were early warning signs:

  • Growing numbers of cliques and factions. Cliques present themselves as “natural friendships,” groups of people who “get along” because of some shared interests, backgrounds, or ideas. But without care, these groups will harden into impenetrable factions that use their common interests as a rallying cry against the rest of the body.
  • Low concern for the church qua church. We live in a Christian era that stresses the individual like no era before it. Most people think Christianity is about me and “my personal relationship with Jesus.” That littly phrase, “my personal,” acting as a kind of double possessive, is deadly to the body. And it’s often compounded by the next warning signal.
  • Self-interests dominate group interests. If life is all about “my personal relationship” then I’m likely to be quite self-seeking. I want to be stimulated. I want to be served. I want my preferences met. I… I… I… till there is no “we” left. And where that exists, there will be little concern–certainly not ultimate concern–for the needs and mission of the larger group, the church.
  • Isolated and absent members. It’s understandable, given the first three symptoms, that some number of members will be isolated in the body, without any meaningful relationships, or absent altogether. Large numbers of isolated and absent members actually have the peculiar effect of making it more difficult to pastor those who are attending. Isolated and absent members make it more difficult to know who is in your care and who is not. And at various points they will cause you to expend a lot of energy trying to “catch up with them” and diagnose their spiritual state. But there’s another problem. These isolated and absentee members actually undermine the very fabric of fellowship and relationships in the body. They make it normal to be a part of a church and simultaneously anonymous and uninvolved with others. So, there becomes no relational context in the church to support a wider concern for the church, making splits easier to ponder.
  • Lack of humility. Pride is a lethal foe. Combine pride with any of the symptoms above and you can just hear the emergency room attendant yelling “STAT” into the loud speaker. Pride surfaces itself in an unwillingness to hear feedback, be it a word of correction, instruction and even encouragement. Pride in the cliques says, “we’ve got it all together and those folks over there need to get with us.” Pride in “lone ranger Christians” contends that she/he doesn’t need the church. Absent members exhibit pride when they say, “Leave me alone; this is my life.” This pride is deadly serious.
  • Mixed allegiance to the pastor(s)/elders. Sometimes some members feel a fierce allegiance to the pastor(s), while others feel fairly opposed or indifferent to him/them. And when church members clump together on the poles of love and dislike, you can just about be certain that some significant number of them have taken their eyes off the true Head of the Church, Jesus. One cries “I’m with Appollos,” and another cries “I’m with Paul.” The fact that everyone is not crying “I’m with Jesus” and “We follow our pastors as they follow Jesus” should be of real concern.
  • Low emphasis on the Word of God. I can’t state this problem better than David Wells’ observation (HT: Mark Dever). Quite simply, if we lose the centrality, sufficiency, and authority of the Word of God, we unravel the church as we abandon the only rule of faith and conduct.

These are some of the early warning signals for a church split. Imperceptible at their start, they grow very slowly in most cases. When you feel mild discomfort from them, they’ve usually rooted themselves to some extent. And by the time you feel real pain, those roots have formed huge balls and arteries that wrap themselves around the foundation of the house. Excavating them will be painful and costly. But in many cases, by the time you feel the pain, the conditions for a split are quite abundant.

I’m convinced that it’s my job to pastor in such a way that I try to ward off, retard, uproot or cut out these problems before they give birth to greater sin. I need to approach the basic task of pastoring with at least one eye toward prevention. And I need to look beyond the horizon of this present congregation to consider those who are coming after us, to take the long view with the hopes of leaving a congregation that would be healthy for generations should the Lord tarry.

Since pastors tend to impress upon their congregations something of their own personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and that impress tends to linger through subsequent generations and pastorates, for good and for ill, I need to work hard at being an example of one that loves like Jesus loves and one that encourages and teaches others to pursue unity and peace. That’s my task, I think. That’s the task of every Christian. In the next couple of posts, we’ll explore some ways of thinking about and living out this task.