Congregational Division:
An Ancient Reality

Virtually everyone acknowledges the beauty, the power, and the desirability of unity. In principle, everyone acknowledges that all forms of human relationship and enterprise are enhanced by unity. Unity is an essential component of a strong marriage and a stable home. The potential of a business corporation is as certainly measured by its unity as its assets. Effective government cannot exist on any level without unity. Unity is an asset to every form of human enterprise.

In no human endeavor is unity of greater importance than in the church. By divine design the church functions as a cooperative effort based on voluntary individual commitment. People are not hired to be Christians, and congregations do not exist to make money. The church is the ultimate form of the non-profit organization whose work is dependent on volunteers. In every congregation, unity is essential for success, and division is a terminal illness.

If the average Christian were asked to declare the kind of unity needed in a congregation, he would give one or more of the following answers. (1) "We need to be one as God and Christ are one." (2) "We need to be of the same mind and judgment." (3) "We need to be 'division free' in all matters." (4) "We need the unity which existed in the church of the New Testament."

If understood in its scriptural context, the answers declaring that Christians need to be one as God and Christ and need to be of the same mind and judgment are accurate, excellent answers. The answer that Christians need to be division free by achieving the unity of the fist-century church is an inaccurate answer which ignores reality. Unity was not the natural state of existence within any congregation in the New Testament.

The Reality of Congregational Division

The New Testament reveals that division was a common, critical problem in congregations. The reality of congregational division was as complex and troublesome in the first-century church as it is now.

The Jerusalem church-the first congregation-initially exhibited great brotherly love and generosity. "Having all things in common" was one of their earliest expressions of fellowship.<1> Many members sold possessions to aid fellow converts who were in dire need.<2> "They were of one heart and one soul . . . and had all things in common."<3>

Though the Jerusalem church began with an exemplary fellowship, it was to have a long history of problems produced by division. In its early fellowship was Ananias and Sapphira who loved their money and coveted the congregation's praise.<4> Early, a major dissension arose between converts from Grecian Jews and those from the Hebraists (Palestinian Jews).<5> Though both were Jewish, these two groups had major cultural and background differences which produced antagonism and mistrust. In this dissension, the Christian Grecian Jews accused the Hebraist Christians of discrimination by neglect. Only the apostles' wise handling of the matter averted a critical rupture of fellowship.

Peter, by direct, divine instruction and guidance, taught and baptized the first Gentiles.<6> Upon his return to Jerusalem, part of the congregation "contended" with him because he dared even associate with Gentiles.<7> Only a full explanation and the account of the Holy Spirit "falling" upon the Gentiles convinced them to "hold their peace and glorify God."<8>

When the dispute concerning circumcision and gentile converts was irreconcilable in the Antioch congregation, the matter was refereed to the leadership of the Jerusalem church.<9> In Jerusalem, some converted Pharisees emphatically declared that Gentile converts must be circumcised and observe the law of Moses.<10> An intense discussion ensued.<11> Though the apostles and elders declared circumcision nonessential for Gentile Christians,<12> the continuing efforts of Judaizing teachers thereafter is strong evidence that the decision did not resolve their conflict.

Years later, after Paul's third missionary journey, the faction of the Jerusalem church which had advocated the circumcision of Gentiles had grown even larger.<13> Because of its influence and intensity, the elders asked Paul to take a Jewish vow in an attempt to appease its displeasure with Paul for his work among the Gentiles.<14> Though years had passed since the Acts 15 decision, clearly the congregation was not unified in regard to Gentile converts or to the work of Paul.

The Jerusalem Church Was No Exception.

When writing the Christians at Rome, Paul addressed the problem of congregational division.<15> The Mosaical dietary code created serious problems between Jewish and Gentile converts. Paul declared that peaceful, full fellowship should exist through respecting individual consciences despite strong disagreements. (1) The Gentile Christian who ate meat was not to despise (hold in contempt) the Jewish Christian who was a vegetarian; the vegetarian Jewish Christian was not to judge (condemn) the Gentile Christian who ate meat.<16> (2) Both were to understand that each was honoring God by his act of conscience and conviction, and the Lord accepted both.<17> (3) The Jewish Christian was not to pass judgment on the Gentile Christian, and the Gentile Christian was not to look with contempt on the Jewish Christian.<18> (4) Each was to contribute to the existence of peace and edification.<19> Obviously, both Jewish and Gentile Christians in that congregation were guilty of doing what Paul condemned.

The church at Corinth was riddled with division. First Corinthians begins with Paul's charge to bring an end to division.<20> Expressions of the division included these: some rejected Paul's apostleship;<21> all ignored a blatant case of fornication;<22> members sued one another in civil courts;<23> controversy existed over dietary codes and eating food offered to idols;<24> and some rejected the resurrection.<25> In no sense was the church at Corinth unified.

The problem which occasioned Paul's epistle to the Galatians was a serious state of division in the churches of that Roman province. Judaizing teachers, perhaps from the Jerusalem congregation, taught Gentile converts that their baptism was invalid if they had not been circumcised and were not keeping basic Jewish teachings.

In his Ephesian epistle, Paul pled with them to do everything necessary to preserve unity and peace.<26> When they spiritually matured, they would cease being children who were easily deceived by false teachings.<27>

The church in Philippi, one of the finest congregations, was urged to develop the humility necessary for unity's existence.<28> They were to be of like minds pursuing the same purpose as they rejected selfish ambitions and conceit. The mind of Christ was to forge the prevailing attitude of the congregation.<29>

The church at Colossae has serious problems with division. Its divisiveness was created by problems produced by dietary codes, keeping holy days, asceticism, and worshipping angels.<30>

Unity was ruptured in the Thessalonian congregation by a group who believed Jesus was returning immediately.<31> These Christians refused to work, expected others to care for their physical needs, and became lazy gossipers.<32>

Paul once left Timothy in Ephesus to correct those who were teaching different doctrines and those who sought to impose Jewish laws on Christians.<33> Once he left Titus in Crete to confront rebellious, deceitful Christians who were upsetting entire families.<34>

Second Peter and Jude discuss at length the problems created in the churches by false teachers. Third John speaks of Diotrephes, a church leader whose love of power destroyed unity and restricted those who could visit the Christians.<35> Of the seven churches in Asia Minor,<36> Ephesus was loveless, Pergamum loved the teachings of the Nicolatitans, Thyatira had Jezebel who taught Christians that fornication was not sinful, Sardis was dead and did not know it, and Laodicea was sick and self-deceived. Those are not the conditions of unity.

A Complex World

The first-century Roman empire with its interacting cultures and societies was as complex as is the world of today. Its complexity was a product of the necessary association and interaction among all the peoples politically subservient to Rome. Forced allegiance to the Roman empire created an interdependence among the subservient nations of that time just as mass communication and the realities of a world economy create an interdependence among the nations of today.

Any first-century congregation which had differing cultures represented within its membership faced a major challenge in its attempt to sustain unity. Consider the problems created by Jewish interactions, by Gentile interactions, and by Jewish and Gentile interactions. Please remember that the word Gentile is the Jewish word for all non-Jews. Common cultural barriers existed between distinct Gentile cultures just as they did between any Gentile culture and the Jewish culture.

Devout Palestinian Jews often had no social interaction with Gentiles.<37> Diaspora Jews living in different regions often had degrees of social interaction with Gentiles which varied form being politically active within a Gentile community<38> to intermarriage with Gentiles.<39>

Perhaps the devout Jew of Palestine based his actions upon the Mosaical prohibition to intermarry with those not Jews<40> and to avoid the idolatrous practices of the Gentile world.<41>

Perhaps the Diaspora Jew based his actions upon Jeremiah's command to the exiles in Babylon to settle and establish themselves in Babylonian cities, and to seek and pray for the peace (welfare-NASV, RSV, NEB; peace and prosperity, NIV) of that city.<42> Daniel was their example of a devout Jew among Gentiles who had social interaction, and who used his God-given ability to interpret dreams to aid the kings of Gentile empires. Esther was their example of a devout Jewess who married a Gentile, and who had social interaction with Gentiles.

Obviously, serious differences existed within the Jewish population between Palestinian Jews and Diaspora Jews. Baptism into Christ did not erase those differences

In some areas the Jewish population had considerable influence within the Gentile community,<43> and in other areas they were looked upon with contempt.<44> There were areas of serious anti-Semitic prejudices.

Gentile converts created still another complex problem for a congregation's fellowship. There were Gentile proselytes (full converts to Judaism).<45> There were Gentiles known as God-fearers who worshipped at Jewish synagogues because they believed in Jehovah and accepted the teachings of the law, but who had not submitted to circumcision.<46> There were many Gentiles devoted to idolatrous worship. Gentile converts came from all these backgrounds. It takes little imagination to visualize the complexity of the interaction among such Gentiles who became Christians.

When the complication of the interaction of Jewish converts with Gentile converts within a congregation is added, one realizes that the difficulties confronting a sustained unity with a first-century congregation were formidable.

However, this complicated problem did not end with the various problems posed by Jewish, Gentile, and Jewish-Gentile interactions. Further complicating congregational interrelationships was the Jewish dietary code commanded by the Mosaical law. These dietary laws<47> were among the earliest laws given to Israel. The devout Jew had lived by them since leaving Egypt. Baptism into Christ did not miraculously reeducate their consciences or erase 1,500 years of daily dietary practices. Adding further to the difficulties were the enlightened consciences of some Christians who accepted the food offered to idols as acceptable food.<48> The common practice of a congregation eating a common meal together combined with the complexities of Jewish-Gentile social interactions virtually guarantee serious problems in determining proper and improper foods.

A second aspect of the acceptable food issue concerned the definition of what constituted an act of idolatry. Strong disagreement existed concerning the religious significance of eating any food which had been at one time offered in a pagan temple. Some regarded eating such food in any context as an idolatrous act; others declared that eating such food outside the context of pagan rites as religiously meaningless.

A unified congregational fellowship was also threatened by those who espoused special issues within the church. The Judaizing teachers adamantly demanded that Gentile converts yield to circumcision and the teachings of the Mosaical law. Gentile converts from Greek philosophy strongly advocated preaching the Greek concept of wisdom rather than a message based on the disreputable concept of a crucified Savior. False teachers deliberately advocated causes which would win popular approval and result in their acquiring power and money.

An Enormous Challenge!

Any thoughtful Christian easily can grasp the enormous difficulty of sustaining congregational unity in the face of such challenges. Imagine being the first converted pagan Gentile to visit in a conservative Jewish convert's home! Imagine the sensitivities and the awkwardness of everyone eating together at a congregational meal! Consider the enormous differences in their concepts of worship!

Many of those congregations were composed of distinct groups of converts who were culturally worlds apart. Jews and Gentiles converted to Christ found it necessary to make radical changes in thought, understanding, and life. Few American Christians will ever confront the need to make such radical changes.


Any Christian who believes first-century congregations possessed a natural, beautiful harmony holds to a misimpression. However, the fact that the early church struggled with problems of division does not exonerate division in today's church. The New Testament's documentation of division in the early church reveals two things: (1) Today's Christians commonly hold oversimplified ideas of the nature of unity. (2) The difficulty of sustaining unity does not excuse Christians from God's desire and expectation.

If Christians are to pursue unity seriously, they must acknowledge these critical needs: (1) The need for an accurate definition of unity; (2) the need for a scriptural concept of unity; and (3) the need for a scriptural view of what it means to be unified. If most congregations compared their present concept of congregational unity with Scripture's concept, they would see basic, significant differences.

How long will a Christens worship in a congregation ceaselessly fighting within? How hard will a Christian labor in a congregation divided by jealous factions? Will an unconverted person seeking Christ visit a congregation which is openly feuding? Can a congregation preaching love and forgiveness have any influence if it lives in hate, suspicion, and bitterness?

If the essentiality of congregational unity is evident after asking those questions, whisper, "Congregational unity begins with me!"

Chapter One Questions

    1. Discuss incidents of divisiveness within the Jerusalem church.
    2. Discuss the division in the church at Rome created by a disagreement over proper diet.
    3. Discuss the division which existed in the church at Corinth.
    4. Discuss the division in the congregations of Galatia.
    5. Discuss the evidences of divisiveness in these congregations:
      1. Ephesus.
      2. Philippi.
      3. Colossae.
      4. Thessalonica.
      5. Crete.
    6. Discuss how the differences between converted Palestinian Jews and Diaspora Jews challenged congregational unity in a first-century congregation.
    7. Discuss how differences between Gentile converts who had been Jewish proselytes, God-fearers, or pagans challenged a congregation's unity.
    8. Why did the Mosaical dietary code challenge congregational unity in the first century?
    9. How did food offered to idols challenge congregational unity in the first century?
    10. If Christians are to pursue congregational unity seriously, what three critical needs must they acknowledge?

Thought Question

Discuss this statement: The fact that the early church struggled with problems of division does not exonerate division in today's church.


<1>Acts 2:44.
<2>Acts 2:45.
<3>Acts 4:32.
<4>Acts 5:1-11.
<5>Acts 6:1-6.
<6>Acts 10.
<7>Acts 11:2-3.
<8>Acts 11:4-18.
<9>Acts 15:1-2.
<10>Acts 15:5.
<11>Acts 15:6-21.
<12>Acts 15:22-29.
<13>Acts 21:20.
<14>Acts 21:20-26.
<15>Romans 14.
<16>Romans 14:3.
<17>Romans 14:4-6.
<18>Romans 14:13.
<19>Romans 14:19.
<20>1 Corinthians 1:10.
<21>1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 4; 9; also see 2 Cor. 10:8-17; 12:1-13.
<22>1 Corinthians 5.
<23>1 Corinthians 6:1-11.
<24>1 Corinthians 8.
<25>1 Corinthians 15.
<26>Ephesians 4:1-3.
<27>Ephesians 4:11-16.
<28>Philippians 2:1-4.
<29>Philippians 2:5-8.
<30>Colossians 2:16-19.
<31>2 Thessalonians 2:1-5.
<32>2 Thessalonians 3:6-12.
<33>1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7.
<34>Titus 1:10.
<35>3 John 9, 10.
<36>Revelation 2, 3.
<37>Acts 10:28; 11:3.
<38>Acts 19:33-34.
<39>Acts 16:1.
<40>Deuteronomy 7:1-4.
<41>Exodus 20:4-6.
<42>Jeremiah 29:5-7.
<43>Acts 13:50.
<44>Acts 16:20-21.
<45>Acts 13:43.
<46>Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26.
<47>Leviticus 11.
<48>1 Corinthians 8.

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