When unity is not preferred

Are there factions in your church? EPrata photo
Factions in church are a deed of the flesh.

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, (Galatians 5:20)

Here, the progression is given. Enmities result in strife, then morphs into jealousy, which are inward attitudes. Eventually the inward attitude becomes outward behavior in the form of fits of anger, then progresses to disputes, entrenched into dissensions (which literally means here 'standing apart'), and then these harden into factions.

The word factions in Greek as it's used here in the Galatians verse means 'personal choice due to strong opinion'. As an example to show rivalries gravitating to factions, some Jews chose to be Sadducees as opposed to Pharisees. Pharisees believed in an afterlife containing rewards for the righteous and and punishments for the wicked, and had added many traditions to the faith. Sadducees believed only the Torah and therefore no afterlife. Little discussed in the Bible but existing at the same time as the Pharisees and Sadducees were two other factions within Judaism, the Zealots and the Essenes. These four factions had splintered the religion as given by God to Moses and the Prophets. The dividing lines were hard and fast until it came to Jesus and then the adage 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' came to life and they set aside their jealousies and rivalries to kill their Messiah.

One wonders if the Sadducees and Pharisees had not spent hundreds of years in jealousies and rivalries they might have been thinking straight regarding who Jesus is when He came. But anyway...that's a speculation. The lesson here is that Paul warns that these attitudes become entrenched, and then make an outward progression into undesirable behavior.
Is your church splitting due to rivalries or dissensions?
EPrata photo
Factionism is often mentioned in the New Testament. Because humans populate the church, the sinful tendency to divide along theological, moral, or just plain silly lines is always present. Paul chastised the Corinthians for 'following' preferred teachers, Peter, Apollos, himself, or none at all and only Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:12). He reminded them that Christ has not been divided, then he reminded them in Whose name they had been baptized.

In another case of mentioned factionalism, in Apostolic authority Paul pleaded with Euodia and Syntyche to set aside their differences and come together. (Philippians 4:2). As Pulpit Commentary says, "Their dissensions disturbed the peace of the Church." Paul called them sisters and so they were believers risking a church unity that is desirable and should be sought after by all members, not pursuing disharmony and upset by entrenching into their own supposed correct positions on whatever it was they were arguing about.

Ephesians speaks to the importance of unity in the church. Paul says we should be-

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)

 In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul says for there to be no divisions among us-

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

We do this through love, which is the perfect bond of unity (Colossians 3:14), forbearing and forgiving one another, (Colossians 3:13). And so on and so on. Unity is important.

The Christian life is marked with a thin line, on which we stay only through the grace of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit, and our diligence in searching the Word. Because ... the opposite of the above is also true. There are times we are NOT supposed to unite. At times, we are supposed to mark those who cause divisions and avoid them. (Romans 16:17). We're called to shake the dust off and go away from those who won't listen (Mark 6:11). Paul and Peter didn't hold back when warning the members of those who put stumbling-blocks in their way, they variously called them dogs in vomit, blots, and blemishes. Even gangrene and cursed ones. Those are warnings not to unite, or even tolerate (Revelation 2:20).

But those are unbelievers mentioned in those verses. What about believers? Should we pursue unity at all costs with believers? No. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul urged,

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.

The 2 Thessalonians verse is about believers and it is a command! In Matthew 18, the last part of the multi-step process for dealing with sin in a believer is to treat them as a pagan or a tax-collector if the sinner refuses to heed.  (Matthew 18:17).

In another Thessalonians verse, Paul reiterates how to treat believers, in this case idlers who were using the church as a welfare state.

Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:14 )

So when do we do what? How do we know when to pursue unity and when to allow separation? It is especially hard when we are being told by the shallow end of the church culture that any disunity whatsoever is to be avoided.

It's obvious that there are different kinds of unity. We unite in Christ into one body in theological unity in the Gospel, forbearing and overlooking the theological points of disagreement where possible and are "non-essential." We do not overlook sin but we display some patience with people in the process of helping them overcome it, especially the babes in Christ. In this, the moral imperative is strict; help, point out, warn, all the while forbearing in love as they are given a chance to rectify. However, we never overlook persistent or flagrant or rebellious sin. Ever.

Who are the peacemakers among you?
So be careful when using the word unity. Just like there is with any human involvement with anything, there are gradations and nuances. During the hopefully short period when situations are being addressed and resolved there will be some disharmony. Depending on the maturity of the church, in some places this disharmony will be more evident than others. Of course overall given human penchant for selfishness, there will be seasons of unity and seasons of disharmony in any church for whatever reason. Even these take time to settle.

While unity is to be pursued and factionalism is to be avoided, sometimes the Lord uses it to the good. There IS a good that comes with factions in churches. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:18-19,

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

In verse 18 Paul strongly chastises the divisive Corinthians by saying when they get together for the Lord's supper it is for the WORSE! How would you like to hear your pastor say that? "Y'all make Christianity worse when you're together, you big ole bunch of squabbling firecrackers."
Matthew Henry says, "The apostle rebukes the disorders in their partaking of the Lord's supper. The ordinances of Christ, if they do not make us better, will be apt to make us worse."
Yet in the next breath Paul says something very interesting:

"There MUST be factions"

Here, the word factions is heresies. It indicates a worse state than in verse 18, which was divisions. In verse 19 divisions have become heresies. Now the problem mirrors the Sadducees and Pharisees, with the hard and fast and permanent division in the faith. One faith then becomes two, or nearly so. Schism, because of heresy.

Yet why would Paul say 'there MUST be heresies' (factions)? I thought we were to avoid disharmony and pursue unity? This may sound abrupt or unbelievable to innocent ears, but God actually intended for there to be factions. Because, how are we to know who the peacemakers are if there is never any disruption to the peace? How are we to know to whom ministries should be given if there is never an opportunity for one to display wisdom or patience? Divisions and disharmony is the way Jesus uses circumstances to reveal genuine believers.

If you pardon the long excerpt, after reading widely and wrestling with writing an explanation myself, I have found no better explanation than Pastor John MacArthur's. Here is his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:19, 'there must be factions':

The Celebration of the Lord's Supper part 1
Now, he goes further in verse 19. And this is really an interesting statement. He says, “I believe it for this reason, I believe it because there must be also heresies among you that they who are approved may be made manifest among you.” Boy, that is a strange statement, folks. Did you hear what he said? He says the reason I believe you’ve got division is because there must be division among you so that the ones who are approved might be made manifest. 
You say, “Is he saying that the church has to have heresy?” Yes. What does the word “heresy” mean? I’m glad you asked because that’s very important. The word “heresy” doesn’t mean totally what we’ve made it mean today. The word “heresy” basically means, it comes from a root that stresses the idea of a choice, choosing. It simply means a choice of a group who hold a given opinion. I’ll tell you how you’ll understand it. It’s translated again and again in the gospels by the word “sect.” It’s a group of people who hold an opinion. It doesn’t have to be bad. It doesn’t mean that it’s good. It’s used in a neutral sense in, say, Acts 24. It talks about the sect of the Nazarenes. 
It isn’t necessarily bad. It’s used in a bad sense in Galatians 5:20 where it refers to one of the works of the flesh, is hairesis, or heresies, or what it means is differences of opinion. And there it has to do with the selfish contention, has to do with a self-centered factious clique kind of thing, and that’s its use here. 
There has to be contention, if you will. Or there has to be factions in the church. There has to be problems in the church. There has to be differences of opinions in the church. You say, “Well, why? I mean, you just said in 1 Corinthians1:10 get rid of them all, now you’re saying they’ve got to be there. ... Well, what’s he saying here?” No, he’s saying it has to be that they who are approved might be manifest among you. 
Now, wait a minute. Paul says I believe there are those groups because they’re necessary. Now, notice the statement, “there must be.” That’s dei. D-E-I in the Greek. It is a word that means it is necessary. “It is necessary”, and then you should translate the word factions, that’s how it should be. It is necessary that there be factions among you. That little word “it is necessary” is used again and again and again in the new Testament. A very common particle; very, very, very useful. And in many of its uses, it singles out something that is necessary because of the will of God. It is used of something that is necessary because of the will of God. For example, it is necessary that Jesus suffer and, right, and die and rise again. It is necessary that I go to Jerusalem. You find that little particle again and again and again connected with something that Jesus must do because that is God’s will.

And here we have the same thing. It is necessary. Why? Because God is doing something that needs it. What’s He doing? He is approving certain people and making them manifest to you. How? Because when problems arrive and when factions arrive you will soon find out who the good folks are, the dokimoi: the approved, the tested, the gold who come out of the fire purified. Evil is necessary to manifest good. 
You don’t know who the peacemakers are in your church unless you need somebody to make the peace, right? You don’t know who the people are who show the love in the church unless you know how they’ve been related to the people who don’t show it. You see, it’s adversity and struggle and contention that causes the true leadership, the true godly people, the true walking in the Spirit folks to rise to the top and be visible to everybody. Trouble has a way of manifesting personality and it has a way also of manifesting spirituality. The dokimoi are the ones that hang in there and give evidence of walking in the Spirit in the midst of a difficult situation
Perhaps your church has had a change of leadership or a change of heart and now wants to root out female leadership that had infiltrated. This will cause disharmony. Unity will be shattered. There will inevitably be some who don't appreciate the change of direction nor the removal of women. As is the way of rivalries some will go around gossiping and complaining and mounting up for sides to be taken. The Lord uses this time of factioning and disruption to manifest true believers. Whatever the Godly reason that unity has been interrupted, and there are oh, so many possibilities, Jesus will use it to show to one and all who the genuine ones are.

Pursue unity when possible,
but not at the expense of truth
Now the opposite could be happening. Maybe a disharmony is occurring not for a Godly reason but because the leadership wants to initiate or perpetuate a false doctrine. Maybe the genuine ones have warned, pleaded, prayed, and offered proofs. Yet despite the true believers' attempts to sway them from their willful path, they insist. During this time also, there will be disunity. Sides will be taken. The patient yet firm stand of the genuine ones will be noticed and remembered either now or later. And if not on this side of the veil, then certainly at the Bema seat.

Now for one last, important thought. The crux of this essay. After all this, if you are still with me, dear reader, please take this thought with you as I close. If God says there must be heresies in order to manifest true believers, isn't it to satan's advantage to whitewash all divisions so that true believers will NOT be made manifest? Couldn't it be that this culture's current insistence in unity at all costs be a satanic ploy to intimidate the genuine ones so they are not made manifest?

I understand that when Jesus wants something to happen, He will make it happen. I am not saying satan has power to controvert Jesus. But think on it. If Jesus as the Head uses divisions and heresies to advance His church by manifesting true believers, it is in satan's evil interest not to let that happen.

So keep that in mind when you hear "unity at all costs!" As I said at the outset, unity is preferred, but not at the expense of tolerating false doctrine. Unite is not preferred when it's a ploy to silence the ones who Jesus intends to stand apart as genuine.

When Brothers Dwell in Unity
A Song of Ascents. Of David.

133 Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity![a]
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore
. Psalm 133

And yet you know that when rivalries come and the Lord uses you to be seen as genuine, the period of testing is sometimes painful. But Peter has encouragement--

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16).


  1. Thanks for the post. I always learn alot when I read your blog and I appreciate eveything you research. I use the KJV, and I was trying to follow along with Galatians 5:20, but am having trouble figuring out which word in the KJV lines up with "factions". Can you help me out with that? Thanks!

    1. Sure:

      ESV/ KJV/ Greek
      Idolatry/ idolatry/ image worship
      Sorcery/ witchcraft/ The use of medicine, drugs or spells
      Enmity/ hatred/ enmity
      Strife/ variance/ strife
      Jealousy/ emulations/ Zeal, jealousy
      fits of anger/ wrath/ passion
      rivalries/ strife/ Rivalry, hence ambition
      dissensions/ seditions/ Dissension, standing apart
      divisions(factions)/ heresies/ Choice, opinion


  2. Thanks for that systematic theology. Very useful/helpful. I think I'll remember this without difficulty.

  3. Also, Adam4d's "unity" cartoon is relevant here. http://adam4d.com/unity/


Post a Comment