Doctrine Ch.9 - Church Divisions

A split occurred in Acts 6 that eventually divided Paul’s churches from Jewish congregations. Paul found a way to minimize the damage. Can we learn from this how to heal our own divisions?

My friend Ken showed me a strange photo of the two small Baptist churches for which he was the joint minister in a South Wales village. The churches were next to each other, and in the photo the two congregations stand on the steps leading up to each of their front doors, with Ken standing astride a small dividing wall with a foot on each set of steps. They shared him as their minister because neither church could pay his salary by itself. When he took on the dual pastorate, he assumed that he’d be able to unite the churches into one, but they absolutely refused. Despite his urging, even though they believed the same things, heard the same sermons from him, had occasional joint services, and shared friendships, they were determined they wouldn’t amalgamate. Why? One church worshiped in English and one in Welsh.

       Jews in Jerusalem during New Testament times were split in a similar way. Most of them were locals who spoke Aramaic, but many pious Greek-speaking Jews from other countries retired there to be closer to the Temple. The two groups worshiped in separate synagogues, using different translations of Scripture. Both synagogues revered the Bible in Hebrew, but in one it was translated into Greek, and in the other it was translated into Aramaic—a language descended from Hebrew in a similar way that Italian descended from Latin. So the synagogues reflected a deep division in society.

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Squabbling widows

The first Christian church in Jerusalem faced the same problem, especially when a large number of Greek-speaking foreigners were converted at Pentecost. However, the church was determined to remain together in a single, mixed community (Acts 2:44). Before too long, though, a split started during an apparently minor dispute. A group of widows whom the church fed at communal meals started bickering about favoritism. Some Greek-speaking widows complained that the deacons (Greek for “servants,” or in this case, “waiters”) were giving them smaller portions than the Aramaic-speaking widows. The disciples addressed this problem by appointing Greek-speaking leaders to the team (Acts 6:1-6). This halted the immediate crisis, but it was the start of a split that became a permanent divide.

       A surprising outcome of this first split was its effect on evangelism, because some of the newly appointed Greek leaders (including Philip and Stephen) became powerful evangelists. The Jewish leaders reacted violently, and following Stephen’s martyrdom, the Greek-speaking Christians fled abroad to avoid persecution. This resulted in evangelism in many more cities, but also divided the church geographically.

       One of the main persecutors of these Greek believers was Saul, who was converted while pursuing them. Using his Greek name, Paul, he became the greatest evangelist to the Greek-speaking world—and found himself effectively the head of a rival church. The believers in Jerusalem continued worshiping alongside Jews in the Temple, but Paul’s increasingly Gentile church was gradually regarded as a separate religion. The schism became permanent, though the Jewish Christian groups (later called Nazarenes and Ebionites) only lasted a couple of centuries before dying out.

       Paul went to great lengths to try healing this rift by collecting money for the impoverished Jerusalem church and working with them to dispel myths about his anti-Jewish bias. Ultimately, though, he failed. His plan was to be publicly seen sponsoring some men who were making a vow offering in the Temple. But this went disastrously wrong when some Jews in the Temple thought that Paul’s friends were Gentiles whom Paul had sneaked into the inner court. In the ensuing riot, Paul was arrested by Roman soldiers, and Jewish leaders charged him with destroying the harmony brought by (or imposed by) the Romans (1 Cor 16:1; Acts 24:1-17).

       Similar schisms were probably happening in John’s community when he wrote his Gospel. Synagogues rejected early Christians as heretical because they were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. Also, sadly, judging from the way John emphasized Jesus’ pleas for unity, there were also divisions among these believers. John records that after his final meal with the disciples, Jesus prayed for his church: “that all of them may be one … so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21, 23).

       These splits would have discredited the Gospel in Greco-Roman society, where harmony was one of the greatest virtues. Dissension among the members of any group was regarded as a serious vice. The Romans strove to create unity in the empire by respecting all religions and even by building expensive temples for the gods of conquered people. Even when addressing the emperor, you could get away with telling him that he should seek a more harmonious relationship with his conquered enemies.1

       Many of the most eloquent and memorable passages in the New Testament were written to combat rivalry and disharmony. This theme is clear in the carefully constructed “One Lord, one faith” passage in Ephesians 4, and the elegant, image-filled passage about controlling the tongue in James 3. Even the beautiful poem about love in 1 Corinthians 13 is a call for unity, placed between two chapters concerning the particularly divisive subjects of worship styles and spiritual gifts. Perhaps this is one reason why it is so appropriate at weddings!

       On the whole, it seems that the early church took the need for unity to heart—in the first two centuries, new believers were attracted to the church, saying, “See how they love one another.” Church leader Tertullian recorded this comment in the third century,2 but by the next century everything changed. Soon after Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official religion in AD 312, Christians started to publicly curse each other with anathemas.

       An anathema, meaning “accursed,” was a public proclamation of excommunication, and it gradually became a weapon of church politics. The first anathema was proclaimed at the Council of Elvira (AD 306) against serious sexual offenders, which was certainly a good reason to exclude them. Then in AD 340 the Synod of Gangra anathematized those who were ascetic for the wrong motives—that is, for self-aggrandizement instead of self-abasement. Gradually this method was used more commonly to condemn differences in theology than to condemn sinful lifestyles. At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), for example, Cyril of Alexandria passed anathemas against Nestorius for calling Mary the Mother of Christ instead of Mother of God. Nestorius’ followers retaliated by forming their own synod, at which they denounced Cyril. Such conduct, often over minor differences, has continued to split the church, until we now have over thirty-four thousand denominations.

Deadly divisions

The Jewish world at the time of Jesus was like the modern church—divided into countless factions—and this weakness almost destroyed it. The community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls was separated from other Jews by a different religious calendar—just like the Catholic and Orthodox split was exacerbated by different dates for Christmas and Easter. Sadducees and Pharisees were split by theological issues such as the afterlife and angels (which Sadducees rejected), similar to the doctrines that divide modern liberal and conservative theologians. And the Pharisees, like modern Protestants, were divided into countless smaller groups. Almost all we know about the two most famous Pharisee groups is found in a long ancient catalogue of their 316 disagreements, often about very minor matters!

       Jesus, paradoxically, managed to unite the Pharisees and Sadducees when they had to cooperate to accuse him before the Romans. They couldn’t repeat this rare moment of unity when they attempted to accuse Paul before the Romans, because Paul exploited their differences. He provoked them into an open argument with each other in the courtroom until the trial ended with a riot (Acts 23:1-10).

       The splits within Judaism almost destroyed it. When the Zealots (Jewish terrorists) took over Jerusalem, causing the Romans to attack the city, the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to unite to stop this disaster. In AD 70, the Romans destroyed the city and Temple, and almost every Jewish leader was massacred. The few who survived decided to do things differently from that time on: they agreed to discuss all issues and abide by majority decisions after a public vote. Following this principle, a new, united Judaism was born.

       Judaism learned some hard lessons about unity—and how to work toward it—at a time of weakness. Churches sometimes learn the same lesson when they are in the minority or persecuted. When there are fewer of us, our differences seem less important than the Savior whom we have in common. But when churches grow strong, it becomes easier to split and to disobey the only specifically new commandment Jesus gave us: “Love one another” (John 13:34).

       The same tribal instincts that divide people into street gangs and social cliques make Christians exaggerate small differences and create new denominations. Our emphasis, however, should be on the things that unite us. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians—written when two of its members, Euodia and Syntyche, were embattled (Phil 4:2)—he makes his famous plea to think about what is honorable, pure, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Instead of highlighting our rivals’ failings and vices, let’s take Paul’s words to heart and look for “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable” in them, because this will lead us all to the peace of God.

1^ This happens twice in the senatorial Speech to Caesar 5.3; 6.5 (
2^ Apologeticus pro Christianis 39 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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