“Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,”… Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.”
II Timothy 2:14-26 NKJV
WISDOM PEACEFULLY STANDS ON THE SOLID FOUNDATION OF GOD AVOIDING THE PITFALL OF UNNECESSARY CONTROVERSY. In a tangled mess of human interpretation and tradition, we must humbly attempt to seek God’s perspective on true and essential doctrine. Navigating the confusion of the modern religious scene is kind of like trying to find the right way to eat spaghetti–it always feels like I’m doing it wrong. Spaghetti is a messy dish, and navigating contemporary issues in the church can feel pretty messy too. Working with people makes it even messier. “Indeed, let God be true, and every man a liar,” (Romans 3:4). To be faithful in our endeavor, we must put aside our own opinions, be humble with our interpretations and judgments, cast aside politics, break free from man-made sects, and attempt to discern the purity of God’s word.
I have observed, it is our human tendency to emphasize our points of distinction. Some have said every gospel sermon must be “distinctive.” I believe they mean we must continually repeat those doctrines which distinguish our particular group of believers from some other group. While this practice may have its merits, somehow it always seems to degenerate to emphasizing things God never emphasized in his word. For example:
- How many cups we use in communion
- Whether or not to wear a head covering
- Whether or not to have a “church building”
- What to do or not do in a “church building”
- What to do or not do with “church funds”
- How many times per week to meet and when
- Whether to meet as a collective or in small groups (e.g. Bible classes)
- Whether or not to fully support ministers
- Roles of ministers (e.g. pulpit, youth)
- Style of music
- Style of dress
- Dogmatic moral hedges (e.g. ankle length dresses, no pants)
- Intricate interpretations/inferences related to complex issues (e.g. marriage and divorce, gender roles)
- Which Bible translation(s) are “authorized” or best
- The description or designation the church primarily employs (e.g. church of Christ, the Way, The church in ______)
- Methods of outreach and evangelism (e.g. door to door, small groups, personal studies, acts of service)
- And the list could go on and on…
I am not saying there are not right answers or righteous judgments on all or many of these topics, but simply that these specific issues are not the things the Holy Spirit chose to emphasize in the gospel. Yet, sometimes these are the types of things we emphasize above all else in our preaching and even in drawing lines of fellowship.
Tribal thinking can be seen everywhere from business to politics to sports to ethnicity to socioeconomic status to religion. Marketers are trained to emphasize “differentiators” from their competition and build customer loyalty. College football rivalry illustrates our ability to be carried away with passion and pride even over things that don’t matter. People naturally seek something to shape their identity, to provide purpose, community, direction, and distinction. The true church is called to be distinctive from the world and false religion—to be a light. But are we adding our own filters to the pure light of God by dogmatically attaching our pet-scruples to every gospel message and conversation? Have we distorted the light by dividing the beautiful bride and body of Christ with our own traditions as the Pharisees did?
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew 15:8, 9
I have actually heard some brethren say it is more important what we do in the “church building” or with “church funds” than it is that we treat one another with love, evangelize, serve the needy, or grow spiritually as individuals. Where is the scripture for such an emphasis? Others have stated it would be better to be too conservative than too liberal. Again, where is the scripture to support the premise? Biblically, being extra-conservative on a few issues does not make one extra-Holy. We are not saved by accumulating good works. Adding to God’s word is no better than the liberal who handles the law of Christ loosely (Deuteronomy 12:32; 28:14). In actuality, Jesus’ strongest words were reserved for those who bound traditions of men while hypocritically neglecting the heart (Matthew 23).
We should not divide unless the issue is one of explicit clarity and we have first made every attempt in abundance of love to be united in the truth. I pray that we will exercise patience as we reason together from the scriptures regarding matters of judgment and interpretation while standing firm on the doctrine of Christ that is plainly revealed. I pray that the church may draw the world to Jesus by demonstrating the unity and love of Christ in our churches as Jesus commanded in John 13:34 and 35, and as he prayed in John 17. Let us be known, not by our traditions, opinions, or controversies, but by our love.
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
SAMUEL J. STONE (1866)
2 thoughts on “Rightly dividing the word, wrongly dividing the church”
When we divide over matters of opinion we violate Romans 14. When we make our own rules we become like the Pharisees. When we emphasize the small things we show ourselves as small. When we emulate Jesus we become like God. If we attend to the weightier matters we won’t have time (of the inclination) to worry with the small things. Praise God. Thanks for the article. Larry Pruitt
Yes. I do think there are “lesser” matters that are still important, perhaps even eternally so.