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Volume 18, Issue 3: Thema

The Genesis of Church Splits

Douglas Wilson

Conflict in the church—where does it come from? One of the things we need to learn how to do, whenever questions like this arise, is turn instinctively, immediately, to Scripture. If we want to know where conflict in our midst comes from, we should ask ourselves if the Bible ever raises the issue, and, if it does, what the answer is.

From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (Jas. 4:1-6).
James is not here describing the genesis of individual temptations to sexual lust. Rather he is describing the genesis of church splits. When Christians get together and find themselves squabbling and quarreling, where does this come from? James says that tumult in the congregation is the result of tumult within, that is, war within our members; and internal dissension is created by a particular kind of desire. The King James can be misleading here because this lust is not sexual lust, but rather strong desire—of which sexual desire is a subset. The problem is covetousness and envy. The problem is that people really want.
When this happens, individual Christians are overwhelmed with ambition, drive, and envy. Given the nature of their desires, they cannot take these things to God and ask for what they want. And, if they manage to do that, God will not grant the requests because their motives are skewed. These desires are stirred up through coziness with the world, which amounts to enmity with God. When members of the congregation are at enmity with God, it necessarily follows that there will be enmity between them and those who are in fellowship with God. And this is where conflict comes from. The spirit within us tends toward envy, but God gives more grace.
Now God does not give "more grace" universally and across the board—if He did, that would remove the conflict. But God resists the proud, it says, and gives grace to the humble. So this means that there is a division, and conflict is usually between the proud and the humble. Sometimes it is between the proud and the proud, although it is usually between the proud and the humble. But it is never between the humble and the humble. Given the nature of the case, it doesn't work that way. And, of course, when it is between the proud and the humble, both sides think the other side is proud—one of them thinks this accurately, and the other inaccurately.
In what follows, close readers will detect my debts to René Girard and his valuable work on mimetic desire, violence, and scapegoating.1 So I need to begin by making one important distinction, not to distance myself from Girard's work overall, but to address what I believe to be his central omission with regard to scriptural accounts of conflict, fratricidal violence, or competition. Girard sees clearly that conflict arises from close proximity which necessarily leads to something that is mutually desired, and then that mutual desire results in a tangled web of violence that pagan mythologies try to hide from us, and which Scripture reveals to us in all its horror. But Girard's difficulty, as I read it, is that he takes insufficient account of how God takes sides in these conflicts. In other words, the antithesis requires us to see that Abel was righteous (Matt. 23:35) and that Cain was wicked (l Jn. 3:12). The antithesis is not between two sets of abstractions (goodness and badness) but rather between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is not between the quality of being right and the quality of being wrong. The antithesis does not begin with abstractions, but rather with brothers—Cain and Abel.
In other words, in another situation, Joseph was righteous, and his brothers were consumed with envy (Acts 7:9). The fact that we share the difficulty that his brothers had with him ("Now what did he want to go and tell them that dream for?") should tell us something a little unsavory about ourselves. We probably would have helped throw Joseph down into that pit.
The fact that the New Testament uses the imagery of a brotherhood to describe the Church should strike us as odd, if for no other reason than that brothers throughout the Old Testament are constantly at one another's throats. We begin with Cain and Abel, and there is Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and David and his brothers. There is some sense of how it ought to be between brothers (Prov. 18:24), but all the actual examples seem to run the other way. Throw into the mix the conflict we see between other close kin like Abraham and Lot, or David and Absalom, and we are justified in seeing how close connection is the cause of real conflict. And it really is—after a fashion.
Family conflicts (because they make so little sense) help illustrate how all such conflicts make no sense. The conflicts are the result of wants, not reasons. Reasons are invented after the fact to justify the wanting. A second-born son wants to be the first-born. And so conflict begins (a conflict that cannot be resolved on these terms), and once the conflict starts, reasons for the conflict multiply, like the frogs of Egypt.
Speaking of the frogs of Egypt, consider the example of Moses. What shape was Egypt in when Moses first arrived (with his stick)? It was the world's premiere superpower, at the zenith of her glory. What shape was it in when Moses, along with that stick, departed for new territory? The world's great superpower was a smoldering ruin. Crops destroyed, firstborn killed, the army drowned, and the Pharaoh dead on the beach. Plague after plague had rained down on that nation. The economy was wrecked, the military power decimated, and their hubris was all shot to blazes. And to top it all off, the Israelites marched away from Egypt between two walls of water, standing straight up on either side. Now it seems to me that the view that would be taken among the rank and file Israelites would have been something like, "You know, that man can lead us as long as he wants to." But what was actually happening, about three rows from the front of the congregation, was that a number of Israelite nobles were looking at Moses, at the height of his God-given authority, and thinking something like, "That should have been me," "1 could do that," or "If I just win the primary in New Hampshire. . . ."
Consider the history of why Moses was leading them at all, and the leadership challenges leveled at Moses make absolutely no sense. His miracles authenticated him as in fact from God. He demonstrated this to the elders of Israel before his first showdown with Pharaoh, and he demonstrated it time and again afterwards upon the head of Pharaoh, and the result was a ruined Egypt. But this true authentication, which placed Moses in the position he was in, was also the reason for the challenges. In other words, there is no way to place a man in a position of unquestioned authority without creating, in the minds of sinful and envious men, the very reasons for questioning it.
The spirit in us tends toward envy. Think of it this way: if God gives a man a beautiful and prudent wife, this is simultaneously a sign of God's blessing on that man (Prov. 19:14), and the reason why a covetous neighbor wants her. And the more God shows His kindness to this man, the less the covetous neighbor considers himself refuted. Rather, the more enflamed he gets. Now he wants his neighbor's car and house and job and so on. And he wants it simply because his neighbor has it. Envy does not occur when one man gets a really good deal on a lawn mower on sale at Sears, and tells his neighbor about it because he knows that he was looking for one too. Envy is when Herod takes Herodias, his brother's wife, simply because she was his brother's wife.
Sin doesn't make sense. If it made sense, it wouldn't be sin. When God anoints godly leadership, establishing that authority, this will accomplish two things—it will establish harmony among the humble and dissension among the proud. Where do conflicts come from? They come from lusts within our members. James says elsewhere that wherever you have selfish ambition, there you have every evil practice (Jas. 3:16). This is what causes churn and tumult within the church. Envy, pure and simple.
Those who are friends with the world will always think in worldly terms, and such ambition and competition is the essence of worldliness. But those who are worldly this way are at enmity with God, and this places them at enmity with the friends of God. From the side it looks like a "competition" between Cain and Abel, but Cain is striving, wanting, and while desiring, Abel is receiving, thanking, and blessing God. To think that they are both striving is to be the victim of an optical illusion. A good illustration of competition that is not two-sided competition comes from the classic movie Chariots of Fire. Eric Lidell runs simply because it is a gift he enjoys, and Harold Abrahams runs because he is driven. To return to the archetypical example, this means that although Abel is not "competing," he still wins the competition. This exasperates Cain beyond endurance, and so he rises up and slays his brother.
But note this well. Cain is the first man who was ever born. He is the archetype for all men who want to dwell in the City of Man. The first man ever born of woman was the man who rose up and killed his brother. He is the pattern of worldliness. And why did he kill him? Because Abel was righteous, and Cain was unrighteous, and this meant that Abel was going to win every competition unless Cain cheated. And this is what all church conflicts are—the result of attempts to usurp and cheat. God's world will be run God's way, in accordance with God's Word. But sinful and envious men are constantly at war with the inexorable law of God's blessing.
God blesses one man, and the next man says, "Give me that." Well, he might not say, "Give me that." He might rather say, "I don't think the pastor is really preaching Christ." "I don't feel fed anymore." "Did you hear that the elders had a secret meeting?" Or "The deacon's wife had two buttons on her blouse undone at the church picnic. I really don't think. . . ." But he is really saying, "Give me that."
When James says that the spirit in us tends toward envy, he is telling us that envy is ubiquitous. It is not an isolated sin, committed by a mere handful of men, the kind of men who are prone to it. Rather, like pride, this is one of the root sins; it finds its way into everything. Not every sinful man is a bank robber, and not every lustful man has a foot fetish. Some sins are not committed by sinful men. But envy is not like this; it lies at the root of sin, and it is particularly potent in the realm of religious politics. This is because envy knows how to disguise itself as many different virtues, dear to the hearts of Pharisees everywhere. Envy can readily appear as a zeal for orthodoxy, or righteous indignation, or a concern for the poor, or high musical standards for the choir, or as missional concern. But however it appears, it is quickly and necessarily the source of conflict. This is where conflict comes from, James tells us. If we want to know where conflict in the church comes from, we need to listen to James.
We are repeatedly told in the New Testament that envy was the reason for the conflicts that Jesus and the apostles were in. Pilate knew that it was because of envy that the Jews had turned Christ over to him (Matt. 27:18). Our Lord taught with authority, and not as the scribes. The scribes did not like that, and so they started circulating stories about whether Jesus' parents were married, and expressing additional concerns about where He went to seminary. The people liked Jesus fine, and preferred listening to Him than to their regular old rabbinical windbags. This made the problem even worse. The more Jesus was authenticated, vindicated by God, the more the established authority did not like it. No one stopped and said, "Oops! Our mistake! Raising Lazarus would seem to indicate that Jesus is from God. The Sanhedrin now approves of this ministry without reserve." This pattern of irrational opposition continued up to and after the final vindication of Jesus, His resurrection from the dead. Which was the first group to know that Jesus really had risen? The guards. Which was the second group to know? The men who had crucified Him. What did they then do? They bribed the guards to lie about it. Envy doesn't make sense, but it does have a single vision. Envy is irrational, but it knows how to stay focused. The third group to know was the women from Christ's entourage, and the fourth was the disciples. When men are envious, final and unanswerable proof doesn't do anything but anger them further.
The apostles ran into the same problem. Why were they so opposed in the book of Acts? They were opposed because the Spirit of God with them was threatening to bypass the cushy positions of religious leaders within Judaism. In several places we are told that the opposition arose from the rank envy involved (Acts 13:45; 17:5).
Conflict occurs not because people are so different, but because they are very similar. They are very close. They imitate each other. They value the same things, and because they value the same things, this would include the leadership of the same group they are in. This is why the most vicious battles occur between groups that cannot be distinguished from one another from more than thirty yards away. I have been a minister of the gospel for almost thirty years. During that time, I have never had a fight with a Nazarene pastor, or an Assembly of God preacher. But I have found myself in more conflicts than I can count with fellow Reformed ministers, many of them holding to the same doctrinal distinctives that I hold to within the Reformed tradition. Why is that? Because we are similar and desire similar things. And, if you push it further down the road, we desire the same things. And when we desire the same things, the moment comes when we both reach for it, and wham—there you have it.
Secular humanism wants to explain and remove conflict by reminding us that we are all very similar really. "Because deep down, we are all the same" is the answer to the Humanist Catechism Q74. The assumption is that our conflicts are caused by differences, when they are actually brought on by the similarities. How many fights have you had with your distant third cousin? Right. Now, how many with your brother?
But this is not relativistic. This is not to argue that the conflicts arise willy-nilly, with no way to determine who is right and who is wrong. Imagine a room full of toys—the floor is covered with them—and in that room is one happy toddler, playing with whatever suits him. Now place a second toddler in the room. What toy does he want? Remember, the floor is covered with them. The floor could be covered with toys identical to the one the first toddler is holding, but the second toddler will still eventually want the toy held by the first kid. He will want it because it is being played with, because it is possessed by another. The squabble breaks out. Now if you come into the room as an interested sociologist, you will say something like, "Hmm. Interesting case of Girard's mimetic desire, resulting in inevitable conflict between mimetic doubles. Romulus and Remus, Eteocles and Polyneices, it's all in the literature. . . ." But if you are the mother, you will come in and adjudicate. You will tell Cain that "Abel was here first, and he was playing with it. If he puts it down, then you can have it." In other words, sociological insight does not trump the division between righteous and unrighteous competitors. If the righteous are wise, they will learn to take all these things into account, but they cannot take it into account in such a way as to level all ethical considerations. Woe to those who call evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20).
The fact that God takes sides in these kinds of disputes in the Bible should give us comfort because this means that all these conflicts can be ethically evaluated by us. But at the same time, we must be careful to not just breeze in and apply the wisdom of the world to whatever fracas it is. There is a deeper right than being right. The wisdom of this world is frequently wrong. After all, did the unrighteous competitors have no arguments, no verses, no rationalizations? Cain was the eldest, not Abel. Ishmael was older too. Esau was the firstborn. And Joseph was not the oldest, not by a long shot. And Pharez was the firstborn, kind of. And David was the youngest of his unappreciative brothers. We are called to evaluate, sifting and weighing the concerns whenever a dispute breaks out. There is a way to tell if somebody is right and somebody is wrong. But we are not to adjudicate woodenly with a simplistic and worldly conservatism, and we are not to evaluate relativistically in a mindless liberal way. We must evaluate in wisdom.
All this said, what are some of the characteristics of men who mount leadership challenges in the church? What are these troublemakers like? We know from Scripture that they are almost certainly envious, but that is not how they introduce themselves at presbytery. "Hello, my name is Pastor Abaddon from Hellsgate Presbyterian, and I have a gnawing and envious soul that will plunge this entire presbytery into an unprofitable tumult for the next four years. Please bear with me as I begin the process. . . ." The fact that he does not introduce himself this way does not mean that there are no tell-tale signs. In fact, there are some very clear markers.
About three years ago, when we were first dealing with a major eruption in our church, I saw a title in a stray catalog that caught my eye. I looked it up on Amazon and that little helpful feature they have—"people who bought this also bought . . ."—made me realize that a minor cottage industry appears to have developed around this subject. In the list that follows, I am drawing on some of these books.2 This is an attempt to sketch some of the central characteristics of troublemakers, and it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Flannery O'Connor once said, "No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell." Church conflicts are stories, and they are often fascinating stories. But this means somebody, or a small group of people, constitute the dragon. What is that dragon like?
Carnal people like to fight, which is why we have saloon brawls. But in a church, it is not possible for the participants to say that they like fighting this way "just because." Their holy surroundings make it necessary to justify what is going on with inflated spiritual concerns.3 This is why a flameout over the new carpet in the nursery escalates so rapidly in a church setting. If it were a fistfight in a bar over which girlie picture to hang up, everybody would be friends in the morning. But in sanctified surroundings, this kind of behavior is not permissible unless the gospel itself is at stake. It has to turn into a battle between the forces of light and the powers of darkness. And so antagonists in the church inflate the conflict with spiritual hyperbole.
Carriers of conflict will telegraph what they are doing, or what they are about to do. In his fine book Antagonists in the Church, Kenneth Haugk notes a number of warning signs.4 There is the matter of the person's previous track record. Chances are pretty good that this is not the first church this guy has done this to. Then there is the issue of how this person conducts himself elsewhere—constant business turmoils, disputes with neighbors, school board wrangles, and so on. He may not have started something in the church yet, but the pastor should be walking on the balls of his feet. And troublemakers are always in constant contact with "nameless others," and although they will not tell you the names of the people associated with these faceless concerns, they will be happy to pass on the content of those concerns. And pastors should be extremely wary of those who are quick and free to denounce their predecessor. "You are what we need . . . not at all like the last one."
When someone relates to you as an "instant buddy," your pastoral antennae should be arcing and buzzing. Troublemakers, before they make their trouble, are frequently the most ardent in their praise. But they are establishing their credentials for opposing you later with a true manipulative instinct. "I used to be Pastor Schwartz's biggest fan . . . I feel betrayed and saddened more than anything else." Before the festivities start, you could walk on water. Afterwards, you will be the Rev. DemonMan. This is what flattery does; this is how it works. Beware of flattery; beware of flatterers. "As the fining pot for silver, and the furnace for gold; so is a man to his praise" (Prov. 27:21). Evaluate a man by what and how he praises. If it is really effusive, something is terribly wrong.
Watch out for gotcha games. When people pose questions that have been answered repeatedly, or they pose questions in public that have been already answered for them in private, you know that trouble is brewing. Church hoppers—who cannot be satisfied, and who will not be held accountable—are a regular source of difficulty. Watch out for liars. When a man lies in the course of a church conflict (which needs to be distinguished from being simply mistaken), you know that you are dealing with a seared conscience. When someone assumes the "ends justify the means" approach, you know there is grave difficulty. This relates to a point made earlier. If the battle has escalated into a battle between "angels and demons," it is easier for people to justify this move in their own rationalizations.
Flashy givers of big gifts are not honoring God's word, but they are probably trying to get some traction and influence in the church. Guard against those who take notes at weird times. Antagonists like to haul around ten-pound manila folders full of documents. Haugk calls this the "portfolio flag." These people have "impressively stuffed portfolios." When people make unbiblical accusations, and they have not done what the Bible requires, they frequently substitute quantity for quality. They belong to the "total tonnage" school of evidence. It doesn't matter how contradictory and confusing and garbled the evidence is . . . only provided there is enough of it. Mountains of incoherent evidence can wow the simple.
Troublemakers like to style themselves as mavericks, who cannot be troubled to follow the agreed-upon procedures and rules of a church. A sign of initial trouble might be how they shanghai the committee they chair, doing creative turf-war maneuvers with it. Or in the course of the conflict itself, look for them to demand special privileges of appeal, or exemption from accountability themselves, or the right to bypass the normal processes.
Then there are those that Eric Hoffer labeled "true believers." This is a person who is empty unless he has a cause to fight for. He is ardent, and all that ultimately matters to him is that he have a current orientation, a cause to help define him. Just give him a uniform, tell him which direction to march and which direction to shoot, and he will be happy.
This relates to another indicator, which is that politics make strange bedfellows, and this includes ecclesiastical bedfellows. Odd alliances and friendships can form in the course of a church conflict. I have seen a disgruntled person leave the church because of something that someone else in the church was doing. And then, when that someone else also became disgruntled and left, the two immediately sought one another out. Over the years, I have called this kind of thing the Fellowship of the Grievance (FOG). People who are unhappy with a church for various (and sometimes contradictory) reasons will find in the mere fact of their grievance a kinship or a bond with others who are peeved. This is a strange and perverse sort of koinonia—in gripes there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
Ungodly antagonists have no concept of the biblical standards of justice and adjudication.5 They do not know that speculation does not constitute fact, that accusations must be independently confirmed, that accusers must be as accountable as the accused, that anonymous testimony is worthless, and so on. When it is pointed out that their methods of sorting through a controversy are methods that the Bible describes as injustice, they are certain that you are merely saying this as part of a dark coverup. "Of course you want proof. What guilty wretch wouldn't?"
What does the response to all this need to be? There are two basic needs that pastors and elder boards must have in this. The first is a working knowledge of the biblical principles involved in why the conflict began, and what tactics the adversaries will be using in the course of the conflict. When you know what the adversary wants to do, contrary to the Word of God, you must do the opposite, challenging this kind of sin wherever it appears. Preach on the sin of envy. Teach your people the principles of biblical justice. And stand against any of the manipulative tricks described earlier. But this relates to the second need—which is a backbone. In conflict, when wolves are ravaging the sheep, it is the shepherd's duty to fight.
But the fighting must not be carnal. It helps no one to fight fire with fire. One of the best ways to learn how to respond to enemies is to learn, sing, memorize, and preach from the Psalms. The writers of most hymns in most hymnbooks did not have enemies or, if they did, they never wrote about them. The one exception might be Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress," which is still in most hymnals. Contemporary worship songs don't have enemies in them. But the Psalms are full of enemies, and full of godly instruction on how to relate to them.6
Imprecation is not the biblical equivalent of casting a spell or running pins through a voodoo doll. It is a prayer to the infinite personal God, who sees and knows all things, down to the motive of every last heart, including ours. All true prayer commits everything to Him, and where is the danger in that? In this, we may ask God to pay back to our adversaries sevenfold (Ps. 79:12). But how is this consistent with forgiveness to seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21_22)?
If God visits our enemies with conviction of sin, seven-fold, then He will destroy our enemies by transforming them into friends. If this grace from God ticks us off, like it did Jonah, then we certainly have an attitude problem (Jon. 4:9), not knowing what spirit we are of (Lk. 9:55). But if we rejoice in this kind of gospel triumph, then we are fitted to say amen to the other kind of situation—when God intervenes on our behalf, causing our adversaries to fall into the pit that they decided to dig for us. When Hamaan was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai, Esther was not broken up over it. But if God had determined to bring him to true repentance, every true friend of God would have been overjoyed.
So we pray that God will rise up and scatter His enemies. We pray that God would defeat them and bring them low. We pray this, hoping in the first place that He would do with His adversaries (and ours) what He did with that great adversary, Saul of Tarsus. We pray for conversion in the first place, which is another lesson we learn in the psalms. "Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O Lord" (Ps. 83:16). But if it is not God's sovereign purpose to convert and turn them, our prayers remain for all that. We still want God to scatter His enemies. There is nothing wrong with seeking this, for it is something that God has promised to do. Imprecatory prayer is scriptural prayer. Refusal to pray in an imprecatory way is a refusal to pray scripturally.
These are words which, in our soft and sentimental age, can easily be distorted and misrepresented. Given the caliber of adversaries we have been dealing with for the last three years or so, they almost certainly will be. But we leave them with an observation from a sage Puritan, who had to deal with the same kind of people in the seventeenth century: "It is likely enough that these leaves may meet with some boisterous reader who may beat them one against another, who may pry and pick to find that in them which is not. Looking through the contradictions of his own spirit he may think he sees the like here. Let the lines be ever so straight, yet he will wrest and pull them however he can to make them lie cross."7
Fortunately, we worship a covenant-keeping God, which means that we serve a God who keeps track of everything. He knows every glass of water given in His name, everyone visited in prison, everyone aching over a slander, every idle word, every kind gesture to a child, every extension of forgiveness past seventy times seven, and every strong response that was fully justified (by all the circumstances that are fully known only to God). When Nehemiah had finished poking certain Jewish noblemen in the eye, and pulling their hair, he turned to God, and said, "Remember me, O my God, for good" (Neh. 13:31). We should take note of what Nehemiah was asking God to remember, and confess that sentimental Victorian piety is not the same thing as biblical piety.
Because God keeps track of everything, this means He keeps score. He does not say that vengeance is wrong, but rather says that "vengeance is mine." And so we turn back to Him, committing it all to Him, knowing that the Judge of the whole earth will do right. "Shew me a token for good; that they which hate me may see it, and be ashamed: because thou, Lord, hast holpen me, and comforted me" (Ps. 86: 17)

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