Why So Many Groups?
“For there must also be factions
among you, that those who
This scripture has been understood by
many of the Eternal’s people.
Undoubtedly, you’ve often wondered about all the differences and divisions in the church—about all the splits, schisms, and conflicting doctrines. Christians don’t agree on the nature of man, the nature of God, or even what their reward is. Local congregations and worldwide movements alike are plagued with factions and controversies. Of course there are many denominations that solve the problem of divisions by claiming that they alone are the one true church. They scoff at all the schisms in other churches until they, too, eventually become riddled with disagreements and splits!
Why?! If the same holy spirit is leading Christians into truth—why can’t we all get along? Why doesn’t God show us exactly what we should believe so we can all agree? Or must we throw up our hands in disillusionment and say, “I guess the church has simply lost its way—it’s hopelessly divided!”
But Jesus promised that He would build His church, that He would always be with it, that the gates of hades would not overcome it! And He is still on His throne—ruling the church—and allowing divisions for very important reasons!
To understand the current state of the church, we must first of all recognize that not all who claim to be Christian are Christian. Just because an organization (or a person) claims to be doing God’s work means nothing. Jesus predicted that many (not a few) would come in His name and deceive many (not just a handful) (Matt 24:5). He said “Not everyone that says unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but He that doeth the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Paul wrote about people who profess to know God, but who deny Him by their actions (Tit 1:16). He predicted there would be false ministers masquerading as true ministers—just as Satan himself pretends to be an angel of light (2Cor 11:14).
Where are these many false ministers today? Where are those who are Christians in name only? Certainly, if there were false brethren in Paul’s day, there would be many more so today. And there are.
Of course, it’s not our responsibility to play judge and try to figure out who is and isn’t a Christian. We don’t need to judge every minister. Only God can look at the heart (Rom 14). We simply need to make sure we are personally right before God; we should be careful about whom we fellowship with, and about what ministers we look to for spiritual guidance and leadership! We must judge what influences we allow into our minds; but we don’t need to judge the spiritual lives of others who have no direct relationship to us. However, we can be sure that much of the confusion in the church comes from false Christians—false ministers, who profess Jesus for whatever reason, but who are not filled with the Holy Spirit.
But what about the divisions and differences among true Christians?
To understand why there are factions even among true children of God, we must take a look at the church during its first 40 or 50 years of existence. If there was ever a time when we would expect the Church to be unified, it would be at the beginning! However, we don’t have to read much of the New Testament to see that from its very inception, the Church was plagued by divisive problems—there were personality differences, administrative disagreements and doctrinal disputes.
The church at Corinth is, perhaps, the classic example. Paul wrote to them, “...are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1Cor 3:4.) Confusion and excesses characterized their assemblies (1Cor 11 & 14). They were certainly divided.
In the late forties A.D., Jewish Christians “of the sect of the Pharisees” had tried to force the law of Moses on Gentile Christians. The controversy grew to the point that Paul and others went to Jerusalem for a big conference (Acts 15). The apostles and elders all came to agreement and the matter seemed settled for a time; but undoubtedly there were many who didn’t exactly go along with the final conclusion. In fact, some time later, Christians from Jerusalem intimidated Peter to withdraw from eating with Gentiles at Antioch. Paul had a confrontation with him in front of the whole group! Strong words were spoken! Feelings were hurt. Emotions were involved. Things weren’t all harmonious and smooth in the Church (Gal 2:11-12).
The picture of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 is one of differences. The Ephesians were commended for exposing false apostles, yet as a whole, they had lost their first love. Within the church at Pergamos were those who permitted the teachings of the Nicolaitans—others in the church did not. Some of the Thyatirans regarded Jezebel as a prophetess, others did not. At Sardis, many were spiritually dead. The differences existed both within each church as well as among the seven.
The record of the New Testament certainly does not reveal the kind of unity and harmony that many Christians long for today! Obviously, God is not the promoter of confusion and disharmony (1Cor 14:33,40), but is it possible that He uses it to accomplish His will? Is it possible that He never intended the Church to be completely united in theology and organization? After all, He could have spelled out doctrines in minute detail—leaving no room for different interpretations. He could have laid down precise rules for Christian conduct. He could have set up a rigid administrative structure to assure “proper” leadership and harmony within a worldwide church organization!
But He didn’t! Why!?
Because, I believe, a completely unified church in the human realm would produce results exactly the opposite of the ones God wants in His true children!
Consider some of the possible consequences of a unified, universal church. Human beings are very security conscious; they want to enjoy the comforts of a solid, stable environment with established social contacts. A huge, united church that provided such a warm haven would be very full—full of people who had no personal relationship with God. Parishioners would look to the human church leaders instead of to God for ultimate guidance and security.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I think there must be heresies among you that those who are spiritual may be revealed” (1Cor 11:19). Controversy separates the “men” form the “boys.” It causes the “hangers on” to become disenchanted and disillusioned, but it helps true Christians to grow in their personal relationship with God. Doctrinal conflict in the church confuses many, but it forces true Christians to think—it forces them to look to God and His Word for spiritual direction—instead of to an organization.
When Paul wrote to the Romans, he could easily have straightened out their differences by telling them the truth in each area of controversy. But he didn’t! Rather, he told them, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another....Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:13,15 NIV). Paul knew that Christians learn to love and respect one another by accepting differences without judging.
If every doctrine were spelled out so precisely that there would be no room for different interpretations, Christians would tend to go to sleep intellectually—they would stop thinking and learning—they would stop using their God-given minds. Christianity would become a “cookbook” religion (just blindly follow the recipes for every situation) and “babes in Christ” would never grow up to spiritual adulthood.
As it is, the Bible spells out clearly the essentials of salvation and of God’s will for man. But it provides considerable latitude for Christians to mature spiritually—by making decisions—by learning to apply God’s will in their lives. Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb 5:8) and Christians learn the same way—through experience, through problems and suffering, through controversy, and uncertainty and adversity.
When we see Christians scattered among various organizations, when we see differing opinions and controversies in the Church, we tend to look at the problems they cause and get discouraged. But God can also see the growth taking place in His children and He rejoices. For He wants His true Children to be clean, white, and mature. And so they will be—refined in the fires of controversies, differences and problems—including those within the Church. So while we pray and work for love and harmony among true Christians, let us not despair when we see divisions in the Church—for God is using them to accomplish His great purpose.
How does an individual find a congregation with which to attend? Should he obtain the “statement of beliefs” of as many organizations as possible and determine from them which is the “true” church?
Jesus said, “...I will build my church; and the gates of hell [hades, grave] shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16;18); and He did build it on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). But from its earliest days, the church had its problems. The Corinthians permitted sin, had divisions, got carried away with their spiritual gifts. The Christians at Rome had problems judging one another. The Galatians were being led from the true Gospel to a legalistic system. Some of the Thessalonians thought Jesus’ return was so imminent they quit working. And almost all of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 had serious problems—false doctrines, false prophets and teachers, sinners, paganism, non-Christians in their midst, or they were just deadbeats.
Suppose you had been traveling around back then, in search of the one true church organization, armed with the following list of criteria:
You could travel from Jerusalem to Galatia to Rome—probably to every congregation mentioned in the New Testament—and you would not be able to find the true Church based on your criteria.
Many people have searched for the true Church today and have given up in frustration; some conclude that the Bible must be all mixed up and maybe God doesn’t really exist. Others reason that, since the true Church doesn’t exist, they’ll have to start it. Or they fall prey to the cults and cult-like churches who claim that they are the one true Church. Millions have cast aside family, friends, jobs, even the Word of God for the false sense of warmth and security offered by organizations claiming to be the one true Church.
Well, thank God, the complete membership roll of the Church is found only in heaven, not in the computer of any organization on earth. For the true Church is the sum total of all people who have the Spirit of God—who have accepted Jesus as Savior, Lord, and Master, who have become God’s children. These true Christians are not all found in one organization on this earth, just as they were not in apostolic times. They do have their problems and faults, their misunderstandings, some pagan influences, sin and sinners, false doctrines and even false ministers—just as they did back then. But in spite of all these problems, true Christians are scattered on this earth and the one true Church does exist.
Do you want to find it?
Don’t look around you! Rather, look up! Develop a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Head of the one true Church. Get to know Him and to love Him. For in Him you will find the one true Church!
Once you become part of God’s Church, you can and should look around for other Christians with whom you can fellowship (Heb 10:25), for spiritual elders, pastors, and teachers who can help you grow spiritually (Eph 4:11-13), and for Christians with whom you can cooperate in sharing the Gospel. You should look for ministers and brethren who are zealous and dedicated to God, who serve and obey His will, including the Fourth Commandment, who aren’t encumbered with a lot of pagan practices and false doctrines.
Finding Christians like that can be a real challenge, but with God all things are possible. And it is a lot easier knowing that you’re not looking for the one true church. You’ve already found it—in Jesus Christ; and you’ve already become part of it through your personal relationship with Him.
— Richard A. Wiedenheft