Can Church Division Be Healthy?

Author’s note: I’m writing this entry about denominational division, not individual church spats. Some elements apply but I am not focusing on the micro, a.k.a. the local church, just the macro.

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Today I was reading about the formation of what might be another major denominational split. The divisive issue is not uncommon in church groups these days and has led to division in several established denominations — the ordination of homosexual clergy. This time the denomination is in Scotland, and it involves the largest Christian organization in the country.

Here in America, the subject came to the forefront of the news in 2003 when the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson, from New Hampshire. His election to the holy office was widely seen by conservative groups as a great compromise of the integrity of historical church doctrine. When several more openly gay clergy were ordained — and in another case made a bishop — the Episcopal Church saw a great rift form and many conservative churches chose to ally themselves with conservative communions of the sister Anglican church. One such church was Christ Church in Plano, Texas — at the time the largest (and most vibrant) Episcopal church in the nation. The 2004 decision by Christ Church to disassociate itself from the Episcopal Church sent shock waves through the church world.

St. George’s Tron Church.

In Scotland, shock waves were sent through the Church of Scotland community 12 days ago when one of its largest churches, St. George’s Tron Church in downtown Glasgow, voted to leave the Church of Scotland over grave concerns about the denomination’s compromise of biblical truth. The 500-member church, which I heard some good things about when I was in Glasgow last March, now finds itself in limbo — desiring to continue as a church community in reaching Glasgow’s City Centre while somehow retaining some relationship with the Church of Scotland (afterward called “COS” for the sake of time), which owns its property.

The Foundation of a Split

Here is a quick background behind the split. In 2009 the General Assembly of the COS (a congress of sorts) declared that it would allow gay clergy to serve in COS churches and even allowed the appointment of an openly gay minister in Aberdeen, Reverend Scott Rennie. The conservatives in Scotland “had a row” about it, releasing statements questioning the assembly’s decision. An alliance was formed between churches that opposed the general assembly’s rulings on homosexual clergy called “The Fellowship of Confessing Churches,” an inter-denominational group formed to stand up for historical truth. In 2011, the assembly essentially reaffirmed its stance, adding that it would continue to allow openly gay ministers to serve in their areas of church ministry so long as they were ordained before 2009. A moratorium on the new ordination of gay clergy was instituted, though, until a theological commission could look into the whole issue of sexuality and ministry and report back to the Assembly when it next meets in 2013.

Ministers across Scotland reacted to the “inaction,” regarding the Assembly’s lack of a ruling reversal a “compromise of truth” and many ministers resigned their ordinations and left their church pensions (and positions). They could not continue on with the Church of Scotland in good conscience, they wrote in public statements.

But 12 days ago, the biggest shock wave hit when, after a year of prayer and discussion, St. George’s Tron voted to leave the Church of Scotland. Other churches followed. And now the Church of Scotland is finding itself in the same position as the Episcopal Church of America. This wouldn’t be the first division in the Church of Scotland. (Read this recap for a fuller picture.) Its entire history has been plagued by church splits over doctrine and practice. And denominations around the world are facing future battles over the issue of homosexuality and the Church. Here in the U.S., the Presbyterian and United Methodist denominations have, over the past five years, debated the issue at length.

Unity or Truth?

An old, abandoned church near Aberdeen, Scotland.

I find all of this division to be sad considering that Jesus wanted His followers to be one, just as Jesus and the God the Father are one (John 17). It’s also sad considering how fervently the apostles urged the churches to be unified. Of course, they didn’t have denominations to deal with. Or committees. And “general assemblies” had to be held in secret because of persecution (even the one in Acts 15, seen as the first church council). Oh well. But the question I have is, can division be good for a church? Is it possible for a church group to come away from division stronger?

On one hand I hate division in the church, whether its between four walls or inside a denomination. I think division makes God sad. In some ways, the more walls Christians put up between each other the weaker the Church on earth becomes. Our Lord said the world would know that we belonged to Him by our love for one another (Jn. 13). On the other hand, I also believe believers should stand up for truth and reject heresy. Call it out when you see it! And offer the biblical answer.It was division that led to Reformation in the 1500s, a turbulent period of time that, ultimately, benefited the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Reformers. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door, he didn’t want to divide the Catholic Church. He wanted to reform it. Hence the name “reformation.” But we now know that instead the church divided and, among the new Protestants, even more division happened and, before you know it, there were a kazillion denominations, most of which refused to fellowship with the others.

Lost in the Reformation, however, is the reality that changes also came to the Roman Church, and several of the disputed areas, such as indulgences, went away. Over the next three hundred years the existence of a large, influential, Protestant Church caused the Catholic Church to moderate some of its strictest practices (historic Catholicism, including the sacraments, remained unchanged).

Lessons from Scotland’s Past

But division can also cause war and the loss of life. As I’ve studied Scottish history, I’ve flipped page after page of religious warfare and death. John Knox and the Protestant Scottish nobles didn’t march on Edinburgh to convince the Catholic regent to convert — they took torches, guns and good ole Scottish furor to force Mary of Guise to step down so a Protestant Scotland could emerge. Protestant burned down churches, killed abbots and monks, and set about reaping vengeance on Catholicism. After the Reformation, the Protestants continued to repress Catholics and, then, turned on each other during the Bishops Wars. The 1600s were ugly for Scottish religion. Starting in 1733, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland started to have division which led to a big split in 1843 and many smaller splits and unification. Followed by more splits. By the 1900s, some of the churches united but those who didn’t wish to unite formed new denominations. There are now at least six Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, all of which came from the initial Presbyterian Church that emerged after the 1600s. It’s an historical church mess, in my outside opinion.

Division has caused some bad things to happen through the centuries. But this is a different age, I believe, an age that has been influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and discussion (instead of stake burning and beheading). For all the bad things that came from the Enlightenment (1700’s and 1800s), including humanism and a withdrawal of religion from society, it had a positive impact on the way the Western World goes about division. There are still emotions and hurts and, in the worst cases, acts of violence, but there hasn’t been a war inside the Catholic Church or between Protestant denominations since the 1600s. Of course, there is still plenty of animosity between the two sides, sadly, which still exists in Scotland today. But civil dialogue is the norm and not the exception.

Conclusion

So is this division in the Church of Scotland good? In many ways, yes. The COS is being forced to deal with the very relevant issue of homosexuality and must examine what it believes. And a large group has taken a stand for orthodoxy (historical truth). Both of these are good. And, personally, I hope that out of this a new fire will ignite in Scotland for searching for truth and finding in God’s Word. Maybe these dissenting churches will form the nucleus for spiritual change that sweeps the country and sees younger generations seeking the Lord and finding Him, with young believers fellowshipping with one another in love and unity. Is it bad? For the Church of Scotland, yes. Any time a denomination splits it grows weaker. And with church involvement on a steady decline in Scotland, a church split certainly would not be very welcome. Division that becomes public also hurts the church’s witness to the communities around it. In an age where Christians are fighting to remind Scots that Christ is real and worth following, division hurts the cause. But can good come from the bad? Our God has a track record of bringing forth just that result. This is where trust comes into play. Stand for truth and, despite the immediate pain, let God work out the details.

I write this as someone wanting the church in Scotland to be united behind biblical truth and on mission for the Lord. The more fractured we are, the harder it is to shine the light of Jesus Christ into the dark places. But we must be cognizant of maintaining truth. If someone is wanting to take the flame and turn it into an LED, then fan the flame. Pray for unity but stand for truth. Gracefully. In love. If it’s possible to divide in love. Maybe it is. That’s a whole other debate!

— John

2 thoughts on “Can Church Division Be Healthy?

  1. I know these church splits are discouraging, but remember, true unity is not found under denominational banners. That is just artificial unity. True unity will often require you to separate yourself from the worship of nonbelievers in your own denomination, while at the same time reaching out to your spiritual brothers and sisters in other denominations. The collapse of a denomination does not mean we need to give up on unity in Christ.

    • Quite true! Thanks for the feedback! There are a lot of “unity-s” to be found in churches and denominations and groups. The churches that formed the non-denominational alliance to fight what they believed to be a departure from truth are unified, as are the members of that one church in Glasgow, Scotland. Unity in Christ is paramount, I believe. Well said. By the way… I grew up non-denominational and am an active member of an independent church. So the very function of denominations is still a bit foreign to me. But still, any Christian division does make me sad, whether it is a single church or a whole denomination of churches. But sometimes it is necessary in the fight for truth.

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