The Causes of Division

A new disease comes into a community. Doctors and scientists come to look for the cause or source of the disease. Once they understand the origin, they can combat it and prevent it. Likewise when we understand where division comes from, we are more able to heal it and to prevent it. According to scripture, causes of division include:
1. Rejection of fundamental beliefs and commandments in the Bible
Paul listed basic fundamentals of the faith on which unity depends – Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. If a person rejects even one of those essentials, we cannot remain one with him. John wrote that Christians should not receive into their houses teachers who said Christ did not come in the flesh – 1 John 2:22,23; 4:1-3; 2 John 7-11; compare 1 Corinthians 13:3; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:3,4; 5:1-13. God does not condemn us for separating ourselves from this kind of false teachers. We are required to be separate from them.
2. Our sinful nature, “the flesh”
Paul and John described the actions of the sinful nature – Galatians 5:19-21; 3 John 9,10. We justify our divisions by saying they are about scriptural beliefs, but often the underlying cause is a struggle over power, or perhaps resentment and unforgiveness, or pride in our superior righteousness (Paul said the Corinthians must have factions among them in order show who has God’s approval – 1 Corinthians 11:19). Our superior “identity” becomes more important than Christ’s wider body and the welfare of the church.
3. A love of quarreling over foolish and vain questions
Paul said some religious discussions are not only profitless but engender strife and division – 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:7; 6:3-5,20,21; 2 Timothy 2:15-17,23-26; 4:3,4; Titus 1:10-15; 3:9-11. Our fallen nature enjoys that kind of strife, but Paul says it eats away at the church like gangrene.
4. Not understanding the Bible’s teaching about unity or the nature of Biblical unity
Though the doctrine of unity is among the major, foundational doctrines of our faith, it has often been the neglected orphan child in doctrinal study. We need to deeply understand such passages as Ephesians 4:1-6; Romans 14:1-15:7; 16:18; 1 Corinthians 1-3; Galatians 5:19-23. Biblical unity is not just “everybody agreeing with me.” We will never agree on everything, but we can have the unity the Bible talks about.
5. Making other things bigger than Christ and the cross
Se 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:1. The Corinthians divided because they followed different preachers more than they followed Christ. We might glory in an eloquent preacher, a wise teacher, a name, a building, a pet doctrine, a tradition. All of these could divide Christians. Anything (even a valid doctrine) that replaces Christ at the center of our attention becomes an idol. All the other teachings in scripture get their meaning from the central truth of the cross and the Lordship of Jesus. On Pentecost baptism took its meaning from the central truth of the Lordship of Jesus. Paul refused to center his teaching on anything but the crucified Christ – 1 Corinthians 2:2. A message centered anywhere else becomes a distorted, deceptive gospel. And there can be as many divided sects as there are doctrines to emphasize.
6. Legalism, the belief that we are saved by our correctness rather than by the grace of the cross
In our flesh we like to feel righter than others and that we have made it by ourselves. It is hard to admit our failure and our total dependence on the Lord. So our fallen, fleshly nature always wants to take the gospel system of grace and turn it into a mere legal code, a system of law-salvation. We appear to accomplish salvation by our own effort rather than by depending on the cross. This happened with some in the early church (see Acts 15 and the letter to the Galatians) and it has happened often in the church since the apostles. People who fight to preserve a legalistic system often mistakenly believe they are contending for the gospel and for the Christian faith. – see Romans 10:2,3.
The New Testament teaches that no one can be saved by the law-correctness, because no one keeps all of the law perfectly. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but we are counted righteous because Jesus paid for our sins by his blood on the cross – Romans 3:20-28.
A Comparison of Justification by Law and Justification by Grace :
Righteousness by Law Righteousness by Grace
Our own doing God’s doing
Depends on perfect works – Galatians 3:10; James 2:10 Depends on what Christ has done
Our own righteousness Righteousness from God
Boasts of own performance Glorifies God
Earns salvation – “God owes us” Salvation an undeserved gift
Bondage Freedom
Concern mainly for the letter Concern for the spirit and intent
Through deeds, works alone Through faith
A feeling of superiority A feeling of humility
Do right because we have to Do right freely because our new nature wants to
Do just enough to “get by” Do all the good we can
All have failed All may receive
But we still tend to think we will be saved by keeping the commands of God perfectly. And division naturally grows out of legalism. If we think we are free of error, we feel that we must separate ourselves from those who believe and practice error. Since legalism focuses on a few selected commandments or interpretations (while neglecting many other teachings and inward concerns), it is easy to feel that we are measuring up pretty well. Thus the large number of divisive sects, each walling itself off from other believers and considering itself the only faithful church (based on its correctness on some particular issue).
This is deadly. Not only does it needlessly rend and tear the body of Christ and repel outsiders who might have accepted the gospel, but at its extreme it removes a person from the grace of God. “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” – Galatians 5:4 NIV. Our “righteousness” by rule-keeping is an illusion; none of us understands or obeys all the Bible teaches. Also our focus on externals hinders our developing an inward, personal relationship with the Lord. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” – 2 Corinthians 3:6b NIV. Like the Pharisees we may strain out gnats but swallow camels.
Because salvation depends on our perfect obedience, we make sure by adding several extra fences of rules beyond what the Bible actually teaches. We see rules and patterns beyond what God ever intended. This gives us more and more to divide over.
Some of Paul’s readers at Rome were afraid of Paul’s teaching about grace because they thought it meant a license to be careless and disobedient. Paul’s response was emphatic: Whoever would say such a thing had misunderstood grace completely, as well as who we are as Christians. Today we may still misunderstand grace, thinking it means accepting a lesser standard. In fact grace sets a much higher standard for personal obedience – Titus 2:11,12.
Legalism actually produces less obedience to God because it overlooks so many of God’s commands and narrows to a few, and because it neglects inward matters of obedience in favor of the outward. Under grace, the believer is much more motivated to obey God because the believer is responding to the love of the cross, a relationship with his or her Lord. The believer loves God personally and is concerned about all God’s commands, not just some. But since the child of grace knows his/her own imperfection and dependence on the cross, he/she is more ready to accept other imperfect people just as God does. Thus the prayer of Jesus for unity is fulfilled.
—B. Shelburne, originally published in the Servant newsletter of South Houston Bible Institute and now available under Bible Lessons at

© by G.B. Shelburne, III (except for any graphics and scripture quotations). May be reproduced for non-profit, non-publishing instructional purposes provided document content is not altered and this copyright notice is included in full. Format may be altered. South Houston Bible Institute, 14325 Crescent Landing Dr, Houston, TX 77062-2178, U.S.A., telephone 281-990-8899, email <>, web site <>. Scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1978 and 1984 by the New York International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.