Are factions in the church really a bad thing? This question might seem absurd at first, and the general complaint of most Christians is that the church is indeed too fragmented, and even most pastors bemoan the various factions that exist in the church. I however am not so sure that factions are a bad thing. In fact I believe factions may be one of the greatest protective measures that God has given the Church. I do not write this simply as a trivial exercise in seeing the good in things like factions that appear bad, I write this to bring us to a place where we hit our knees and thank God for some of our discord, and thank him for protecting us from our own unity. I do not say all unity is bad, please understand that, in fact I think that the true church catholic (little c) is indeed united, and that while there are factions the unity which Christ prayed for has actually ALREADY been achieved in his sacrifice and resurrection. In that sense unity is good, and believe it or not, already exists. Now certainly we long for a greater manifestation of THAT unity, and ultimately long to see the consummation of THAT unity at His return, nonetheless in Christ (factions or not) we are indeed united.
How then do we come to the place where we see factions as a good thing? The individual human will runs to sin at lightning pace by nature, the united corporate human will runs to sin even faster. What do you get when you have a totally united humanity? You get the tower of babel, you get Nazi Germany, you get both the woes of communism and (gasp) even those of capitalism. (Honestly the reason I like capitalism a little better is that competition halts some of the unity). Completely united human endeavors rarely turn out good, in fact the largest scale displays of unity never turn out good. Now as an aside there is a difference between unity and a common patriotism. There is a difference between a love for your individual church and agreement with all its members. In one sense our nation is utterly divided in our politics, yet united in its patriotism (which by the way is why both parties appeal to patriotism in order to discredit the other side, because they know that most Americans regardless of their politics are patriots.) Our nation has benefitted tremendously from this schism. The simple fact is that the naturally depraved will of the human is slowed down by schism but would run full speed if it became united in purpose. That should cause us to give thanks! The question gets asked “Can’t we all just get along?” I think we have no idea how scary it would be if we did.
The same is true in the church. We are Christian because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ so in that sense we are utterly united. Nonetheless our factions keep our human will from running freely, which is something we should be grateful for. Let’s not make the mistake of believing that the early church did not deal with this as well. We certainly see in the early part of Acts where the disciples were of one accord, but as the book plays out we see much division over circumcision, and dietary law. Of course they were of one accord at the beginning but as things play out God did not allow them to run wild with their own beliefs. Even in the case of Peter’s vision and the Cornelius account, what Peter did still needed to be verified by the church who initially were opposed to what Peter had done (dining with Gentiles at their table.)
If you believe in total depravity you ought to greatly fear a total unity, and be thankful for discord. (This is not to give license to sewing discord, nor to stop efforts to realize our unity in Christ. It is simply to humble ourselves enough to see that if our ideas were given free reign and everyone agreed with us, we would have some serious problems.) In most Christian unity movements we see today it seems the primary doctrine that gets disposed of up front is the doctrine of penal substitution. Strangely enough it seems that the Gospel itself is the greatest hindrance not help to the movements of unity in our day.
I could ramble forever but will bring this to a close. Remember that in one sense we are perfectly united in Christ, He himself has purchased us and created that unity. The unity which he establishes is wonderful and real. However the unity we seek in on our own terms by the power of our own wills are bound to end up just like babel, a unity established on the flimsy foundation of humanism. Thank God for giving us factions within the true individual Christian congregations, because they protect us from ourselves!