We live in a time of deepening and widening divisions. The church is not exempt from this. Churches were not without their conflicts before 2020 but fractures have only accelerated since. It is obvious that COVID-19 and the measures used to contain it have caused major disruption to individual and congregational life as with most other things. Anxieties, distance, fatigue and uncertainty easily facilitate misunderstanding and mistrust. Beyond this, highly polarised and political differences can separate people once united on almost every other issue. Vaccines, masks, government requirements – we are all too aware of the pressing issues that currently impact on church life. There may also be potential or actual divisions on other deeply held concerns that do not arise from the current crisis. What can you and I do, not only to avoid deepening divisions but also to start to heal them?
Probably no one has written more on this subject than James Durham, certainly there has never been anything wiser and weightier. He takes the issue as seriously as possible, and he is very realistic about the difficulties involved. Yet he brings biblical counsel to bear on a truly difficult area. He points out that divisions are not easily healed, even among the best (Proverbs 18:19). It is easy to deepen divisions by the way we contend for what we believe to be right and by putting labels on those with whom we disagree. What language do we use about those with whom we disagree? Is it dismissive disrespect that harms their reputation or do we still seek to have others think respectfully about them? Here are some of things that deepen divisions according to Durham:
- Heat and contention. Division engenders heatedness, strife and contention, and in this way, makes people carnal (1 Corinthians 3).
- Division breeds alienation in affection and separates the fellowship even of those who have been most intimate.
- Division breeds jealousy and suspicion about one another’s actions and intentions.
- Harsh language. Division leads to harsh expressions and reflections on each other
- Personal attacks. Divisions can come to the point that people do not spare to publish even personal attacks on each other.
- Abuse of church discipline. Division has sometimes been followed with discipline as extreme as deposition and excommunication.
Durham’s book, A Treatise Concerning Scandal, maintains that division is a great evil, indeed that no greater evil can befall a church. At one point Durham seeks to tackle the following great perplexing question. What should an orthodox church do, when it is divided in itself in what we may call some circumstantial truths or in contrary practices and actions, when still agreeing in the fundamentals of doctrine, worship, discipline and government, and having mutual esteem for one another’s integrity? What are they called to do for healing that division? Durham gives his answer in the following abridged and updated extract. Healing division according to Durham is not about ignoring problems and hoping they will go away by refusing to discuss the differences. Neither is it about one side having to concede to the other. It requires mutual concessions and genuine reconciliation. The following are the considerations we need to address before we start to implement the principles or practical solutions and methods that will heal division.
1. Recognise the dreadful plague of division
All, especially ministers, should have a deep impression of how terrible the plague of division is. If we thought of God as angry at a church and at ministers in a time of division, it is likely that people would be in a better condition to speak concerning healing.
Some time should be bestowed on this, therefore, to let this consideration sink down in the soul, so that the Lord’s hand in it is recognised. The many sad consequences of division should be brought before the mind and the heart should be seriously affected and humbled with this – just as if sword, pestilence or fire were threatened. Indeed, it is as if the Lord were spitting in ministers’ faces, rubbing shame on them and threatening to:
- make them despicable,
- blast the ordinances in their hands,
- bring to nothing their authority among the people,
- remove the hedges of the visible church to let in boars and wolves to spoil the vines and destroy the flock;
- and, in a word, to remove His candlestick.
Ministers, or other persons who are involved in the division, do not only have to look to human opponents who are angry with them. They also have to look to the Lord as their opponent, for it is the Lord’s anger that has divided them. Failing to register this makes people more confident under the judgment. Rather, seeing it is a plague, even those who suppose themselves innocent as to the immediate origin of the division ought to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God on account of this plague, just as they would with other plagues.
2. Recognise division as a fearful snare
People should also view division as a snare. How many temptations accompany divisions (especially for ministers). How many afflictions, crosses and reproaches come on the back of them. Might it not make a minister tremble to think that now, due to the division, there is a snare and trial in everything (besides all his former difficulties and troubles).
In every sermon that he preaches, the temptation is that his own affection will steal in to make him hotter and more vehement against those who oppose him in the current controversy than he ordinarily is in things which more directly concern the glory of God. The snare is that he will make his ministry despicable before others if someone might provoke him by contradicting him. Even supposing no one would contradict him, he is in danger of laying less weight on what is edifying, because it is spoken by someone who differs from him on the controversial points.
When he sits in any meeting of a church court there is a temptation waiting in the least hint of the controversy, to discompose everything and make the meetings stumbling blocks to edification and burdensome.
Because of division all conversation almost becomes disheartening and comfortless. The most intimate brother is either suspicious or suspected. All constructions put on people’s sincerity in anything comes to be based on their interests. There is a failing of sympathy among brethren.
May not these considerations and many such like, make ministers circumspect, so that they would be slow to speak what may foment division, and wary in hazarding on snares. Alas, the opposite happens when people act with more confidence and liberty in attributing motives, speaking and acting, and with less sensitivity in times of division than at other times. Yet if people were impressed with the fear of sinning due to divisions, they would be much more disposed to speak of union.
3. Recognise our personal responsibility
Ministers and others should take time in secret before the Lord to take a sober view of their own spiritual condition and see if they have kept their own vineyard. They should examine things such as these:
(a) How have I prized union with the Lord? Have I striven to be, and to abide, in Christ, and to keep myself in the love of God?
(b) Is there any ground of quarrel in current trends or bygone practice, that might provoke the Lord to smite us in general?
(c) Have I been an accessory in any way to bring this evil of division in, for example by negligence and unfaithfulness, imprudence, heat, passion, tenaciousness, addictedness to personalities and too much reluctance to displease them, prejudice against others, uncharitableness to others, or the like?
This should include a view both of the sins that procure division, and the evils which create a breeding ground for it and increase it . It also requires impartiality and thoroughness. For it is preposterous for someone to begin removing differences when they do not know how it stands with themselves.
4. Recognise it in repentance before God
Once they have taken stock, there should be repentance appropriate to what is found, in special humbling and secret prayer to God. This should be not only for themselves and for their own condition in particular but for the whole church. In particular, for healing the division so that by healing the breach God would spare his people, and not allow His inheritance to be a reproach. It is no little furtherance to union to have people in a spiritual and mortified condition. For we are sure that even if it does not remove the difference, it will in a great part moderate the division, and restrain the carnality that usually accompanies it. It will also dispose people to be more impartial to hear what may lead further towards unity.
5. Do what you can to recommend unity
People should not stop here, but should seriously endeavour by speaking, writing, imploring and in other ways, to commend union to those who differ. Indeed, even those who differ should commend union to those who differ from them! We see the apostles do this frequently in the New Testament, not only in general to churches, but also to persons who are particularly entreated by name (Philippians 4:2).
People should encourage others with whom they agree, to be conciliatory , and should seriously entreat them. When they go to extremes, they should rebuke them for the good of the church. This is often of great weight. Often also, those who are most prominent in a difference will be hotter and carry things further than others of the same opinions will allow. Those who are less involved in the controversy ought not to be silent in this case.
6. Make unity the priority
Serious and single-minded thoughts of union should be laid down, and union should be purposely driven at as the great duty, so that endeavours would not principally tend to strengthen a side, or to let anyone exonerate themselves, or get advantage over others, etc., but to make one out of them both. Therefore, when one means or opportunity fails, another should be attempted. Neither should they be weary in this, although it often proves a most wearisome business.
7. Act with sensitivity and respect
All this should be attempted with sensitivity and respect to people’s persons, actions and qualifications. For often when division occurs, people are alienated from each other in their affections, which then disposes them to put bad constructions both on their opinions and their actions. Indeed, this is often the sticking point, that people’s affections are not satisfied with one another and that prevents them from trusting each other.
We see in Scripture that commending love as well as honouring and preferring others above ourselves, is ordinarily subjoined to the exhortations to union, or reproofs for division (Philippians 2, Ephesians 4, Matthew 18, etc.). This giving of respect could or should be manifested in ways like this.
(a) Being respectful when mentioning them and their concerns, whether in word or writing, especially those who are are most eminent among them.
(b) Putting good constructions on their aims, intentions and sincerity, even in such actions as are displeasing.
(c) Refraining from loading their opinions and actions with palpable absurdities and high aggravations, especially in public; because that only tends to make them odious, and it stands in the way of a future good understanding, when one has represented another as so absurd and hateful a person.
(d) Abstaining from all personal reflections, as also slighting answers, disdainful words and greetings, and such like. Instead, there should be love, familiarity, and tenderness. If there has been any reflection or bitterness which has occasioned misunderstanding, and even if it has been unjustly understood, there should be willingness to back down to remove it. I have heard of a worthy person who had been led away in an hour of temptation. Many of his former friends disapproved of him and discountenanced him, which only led him to defend what he had done and resent them for losing respect for him. It almost ended up in a division. But then he encountered one who, although he was most opposed to his present way, nevertheless, as lovingly and familiarly as ever, embraced him, and did not mention anything about it. It is said that his heart melted instantly with the conviction of his former opposition. And so any further drift towards a division was prevented, when he saw that he still had a place in the affections of the most eminent of those he differed from.
(e) Expressions of mutual confidence in one another. These should be apparent not only with respect to personalities, but also with respect to the ministry of those they differ from, endeavouring to strengthen and confirm it.
(f) Supportiveness towards them and confidence that they are trustworthy and fit to hold leadership positions in the church. This is a way of not only engaging with a particular person, but all who have the different opinion or practice, and it demonstrates confidence in them notwithstanding the difference. Whereas the contrary is disobliging and irritating to all, because it proposes that all who follow that opinion or practice are unworthy of office-bearing or trust, which is hard for anyone to stomach. And in a way, it forces them in their state of division to endeavour some other way of holding office, and to increase their reservations about those who manage matters so partially (in their esteem at least), and prefer the strengthening of a side, to the edification of the church (as any different party cannot but expound it, seeing they seem to themselves to have some persuasion of their own integrity in the main work).
(g) Mutual visits and fellowship, both in everyday things and specifically Christian fellowship. If this has been happening already, it should be increased even more. For if people have some confidence that others love their persons, respect them as ministers, and have a high esteem of them as Christians, they will be easily induced to trust the others in these ways also.
(h) Treating pejorative terms as unacceptable . In debates, if anyone uses bitter terms or casts aspersions (as even good men are too ready to grant themselves a liberty in debate to exceed in this), they should not be included in such fellowship visits and meetings .
8. Stir each other up in the things that matter
Ministers should not only in their own practice, but in their teaching, and in other ways, stir up others to the practice and life of religion. We constantly find the apostle Paul, on the back of his exhortations to union, urging them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, etc. And in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, when he exhorts ministers to stay away from foolish and jangling questions, strifes and contentions, the remedy is stated either previously or subsequently, that they should press the believers to be zealous of good works, and careful to maintain them (Titus 3:8-9); and that they would follow after love, righteousness, faith, peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:22-23).
For when either ministers or church members are exercised and taken up with these things, there is little opportunity for other things! Then also they discern the necessity of union the more, and are the more disposed for it themselves, and others are the more easily induced to unite with them. Besides, it is never in such things that the godly and orthodox differ, but differences arise when they are diverted away from these. That is why so often much heat in particular differences carries with it a decay and lukewarmness in more practical things, while on the contrary, zeal in these material things ordinarily allays and mitigates heat and fervour in the other.
9. Appeal to God
There should solemn appeals to God for directing and guiding in the way to this end. For he is the God of peace, and ought to be acknowledged in removing the great evil of division. Hence the apostle subjoins prayers for peace to his exhortations to peace. Indeed, we are commanded to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (i.e. church peace) no less than civil peace.
It may be that the neglect of these appeals to God is the reason why those who love the welfare of Zion and are sound, godly and peaceable still continue to be divided and cannot find any means of healing the division. Perhaps (a) the necessity of the Lord’s intervening may be discerned by this inability, (b) so that we would purposely appeal to the Lord for this thing, and also (c) so that people would not underestimate the seriousness of division, whether by:
- failing to recognise it as a rod (seeing it is God with whom they have to do);
- being content to live with it without seeking to have it removed by Him, just as we would plead with Him for the removal of any temporal plague; or
- fruitlessly expecting a blessing on the gospel in the absence of peace.
A different excerpt from Durham’s book is available as a booklet for £1.00.
It includes Durham’s positive and practical biblical counsel on how to restore union when division exists.
“Never did men run to quench a fire in a city, lest all should be destroyed, with more diligence, than men ought to bestir themselves to quench division in the church” – James Durham
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