Schism. It means a division, separation, or split between strongly opposed parties, usually caused by differences in opinion or belief. It is the antithesis of unity. It’s an ugly word with an ugly meaning. It is a word that, in my opinion, shouldn’t exist…but it does.
The world in which we live in knows this term well. Schisms happen in corporations and businesses when the pursuit of a new partnership promises to be more lucrative than the old one. Schisms happen in relationships and marriages when difficult issues seem to be irreconcilable resulting in splits and divorce. Schisms happen when we become disappointed with our cellphone providers, landlords, and insurance agents, causing us to part ways.
Unfortunately, schisms also happen in the church. The church is well known for exercising the use of this word. In fact, as I did research for this post, the example of schism that was brought up in the dictionary said, “the formal separation of a church into two churches…” Sadly, according to the dictionary, the church has helped to clarify the definition of this word for the world.
Jesus knew this would be an issue for us, therefore, He prayed in the upper room the night of His arrest before being crucified, saying,
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:20-23 (NASB95)
Jesus prayed to the Father requesting that those who believe in Him, past, present, and future, would be one just as the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son. As there is perfect unity and oneness within the Trinity, so it is Jesus’ prayer and desire for there to be unity and oneness within His church. His desire is that His followers will be one, not two or three or twelve (which is the number of churches in the small town where I live). That’s a deeply profound prayer and an extremely high calling!
Now, let me clarify something for a moment. One criticism that is often voiced against the church by outsiders is that we are so divided and fragmented that it has caused us to be weak, ineffective, and irrelevant. I would disagree with this.
While it is true that some divisions have been caused by sin and are unhealthy and have caused setbacks, I understand that not all separations in the body of Christ have come from disunified congregations that can’t get along. Sometimes, the multifaceted nature of churches in a community is simply birthed from different approaches of how to present the gospel, various tastes and styles of worship, interpretations of church governance, cultural influences and traditions, or personal opinions of what color the carpet should be. We should recognize and celebrate the diversity of churches and the people in them who call Jesus, Lord and Savior. God’s word says we are many individuals with various gifts but yet we belong to one body, with Christ as the head. As such, when this diversity is grounded in unity with the essentials of biblical truth, we are more effective for the kingdom. This is a strength not a weakness and is cause for celebration. But what shouldn’t be celebrated is when anger, frustrations, failures, hurts, gossip, hatred, and unforgiveness leads to separation in the body of Christ. Schisms inspired by these sins fly in the face of Jesus’ prayer.
Even though Jesus the Son of God prayed this profound prayer, He still knew what was in the heart of man. He knew that divisions would happen among His people. He knew there would be variances on how to interpret His scripture. He knew there would be disagreements in how to govern His church. Furthermore, He knew that these differences would tempt His sheep to act more like goats at times; causing hurt and pain which would scar us and threaten to tear us apart. Therefore, not only did He proactively pray for us two thousand years ago, but He provided the wisdom necessary to confront splits and divisions among His body in His written word. In fact, He provided an abundance of wisdom concerning unhealthy divisions in the church and how we are to avoid them as well as how to deal with their aftermath.
In this post, one example of that wisdom which provides many insights for us comes from the Letter to the Philippians. For those who are facing the dark conflict and temptation of division, and are humble enough to follow the Lord down the path of restoration, reconciliation, and harmony, I believe this word is for you.
Euodia and Syntyche
As Paul is wrapping up his letter to the church in Philippi, he urges his beloved brethren, who are his joy and his crown, to stand firm in the Lord. Then, almost as an after thought, he mentions two sisters in the Lord, Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know a whole lot about these two women of God or their lives, but we do know this…they were at odds with one another. In fact, we find that the peaceful harmony had been shattered between them for some unknown, unspoken reason which led to the threat of permanent division looming on the horizon. Paul obviously wanted to see this avoided if possible so he gave instructions to the church concerning these two ladies. He says this,
“I urge Euodia and Synthyche to live in harmony…” Philippians 4:2
Paul urges these two sisters at odds to live in harmony. Now, we don’t know what the source of their conflict was or how deep it ran but it must have been substantial and close to Paul’s heart for him to make mention of it. After stating his desire for them to live in harmony, he provides five other subtle references that will enable them and us to move toward unity.
In the Lord…
First, Paul urges them to live in harmony, in the Lord. When we come into conflict with someone else, whether that be in the church or in a secular circumstance, the only hope of true reconciliation, long-term peace, and unflinching forgiveness is in the Lord. As fallen humans, we have the ability to put on a false face that immitates forgiveness. We have the skill set to produce a pseudo peace that says everything is fine. Furthermore, we can even deceive ourselves into thinking that things have been reconciled, at least until we come face to face with that person or organization again, and we are reminded of the conflict which produced so much pain.
We must understand that forgiveness is a choice we make today and also a process that often takes a long time. Furthermore, unless we are allowing the Lord to lead and guide that process we may be wasting our time on a path that is only leading to a temporary fix, not a long-term, permanent solution by which our faith is strengthened and God is glorified.
In Isaiah, the bible predicts that to us a Son will be given to us and one of His names will be the Prince of Peace. Furthermore, it goes on to say that there shall be no end to the increase of His government or of peace. That means Jesus is the ruler and sovereign monarch of peace. Not only that but He gives us the free offer of peace to all who desire it. This peace, I believe, is for sinful man to find restoration to the Father but also for His creation to come into peaceful unity with each other. This is something only the Lord can do. No amount of therapy, counseling, philosophy, or good works can accomplish this; it is only available in Christ.
I have seen spouses, families, former friends, coworkers, and even church members who were once at odds with each other find reconciliation in the healing blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we find ourselves at odds with a brother or sister, the first step is to seek harmony with them in the Lord.
I Ask You to Help…
Secondly, Paul calls upon his true companion to help these women. Since he has up to this point been addressing the entire congregation at Philippi, it makes sense that he isn’t departing from this by referring to the church as his companion, something we would normally associate with an individual. This gives us a glimpse into the dynamic relationship between the apostle and this church.
Therefore, because of his confident relationship with the Philippians, he calls on them corporately to help these two sisters. Now, take note of a couple of things. By doing this, he is proactively preventing the church from picking sides in this issue. He unites them in a single cause…help the two sisters live in harmony in the Lord. Furthermore, he trumps gossip and speculation by bringing it out in the open. Oh how many splits could be avoided if we were willing to be intently unified and focused around the purpose of reconciliation!
Also, it is interesting (if my assessment that Paul is addressing the entire congregation is correct) how he calls on the whole body to help in this matter. He doesn’t just make it an issue for the elders or the pastor, but admonishes everyone to serve in some capacity. This should remind us that we all have a part to play in the Lord’s church; we are members of His family and no one is irrelevant. At the very least, we as individuals can agree in pray for those at odds, which is actually something very significant.
The Cause of the Gospel…
Thirdly, we catch a further glimpse into Paul’s relationship with Euodia and Syntyche. He mentions that these women have “shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel.” It would seem to imply, that at some point, Paul and these women had worked together in the mission of spreading the good news of the kingdom. If so, then Paul is clearly saying to them, remember the mission that once unified your lives with mine and all other believers in this life…sharing the gospel, making disciples, baptizing new converts, teaching everything that Jesus commanded. And that mission is still incredibly important. It is greater than your differences, although they are important, too. But for the sake of the gospel, and the world that is dying without hope, be reconciled.
When Jesus prayed that night in the upper room, He asked for us to be one, that we would be in perfect unity so that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son and that the Son loves them. Unity in the church is essential to the mission and message of the gospel.
Along with Paul reminding them of their common cause, he is also appealing to their common history. Here another name, Clement, is mentioned, along with the rest of his fellow workers. Paul is making an appeal to this group’s past experiences together laboring for the Lord. This is genius because Paul knows that those who have been together in the trenches of ministry share a special bond as well as memories that are not easily forgotten.
Personally, I have such fond memories of the people I have been privileged to serve with in the past for the cause of the kingdom. Whether it was those on mission trips or evangelistic outreaches or worship teams or prayer meetings or small group bible studies or building projects, or whatever, I have a very high regard and fond memories for those I served with. Even for those who have caused me and my family great pain and frustration.
One thing I have observed concerning conflict and division in the church is how the enemy will try to use bitterness and unforgiveness to taint our memories and testimonies of God’s accomplishments in ministry. The devil may not be able to stop the spread of the kingdom, but he can rob us of our joy and gratitude by twisting our perception of those who labored with us for the Lord. This is a tragedy when a once fruitful, joyful corporate ministry becomes something full of bitterness, torturing the heart at its memory.
The Book of Life…
Paul’s final appeal is to the fact that these sisters along with those others who have labored in the cause of the gospel have their names written in the book of life. The final common ground, which is arguably the most important, is that because of Jesus Christ, their names have been eternally written in God’s book of life. Heaven will be shared by these two sisters someday.
Here’s a news flash for you, there won’t be any division in heaven. Irreconcilable differences will not occur. Divorces will not happen. Church schism will no longer be the example given in our dictionaries.
But that is heaven. This is now. And there is a warning for us in this life. Paul makes another point in 1 Corinthians 6 concerning contentions and divisions which lead to lawsuits. The basic principle is that those who are willing to wrong and defraud each other over a conflict are in danger of missing the inheritance of the kingdom. Jesus also made a similar point and warning saying,
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Matthew 6:14-15 (NASB95)
Jesus is not saying the Father is holding an extra condition over our heads for our own forgiveness. Nor is He saying that we have to earn our salvation by forgiving others for their sins against us. What I believe He is pointing out, is that a mark of the child of the kingdom is forgiveness. The natural fruit that comes from a son or daughter of God is mercy, reconciliation, and love, even towards those who have caused us harm. Jesus Christ is our example.
So why would Jesus say the Father wouldn’t forgive someone who is unwilling to forgive his brother? Because harboring unforgiveness is a mark of someone who hasn’t experienced the forgiveness and love of Christ, who is the Way, by whom we have eternal life. If we do not know forgiveness then we do not know the Son. If we do not know the Son then we do not know the Father.
Although our flesh may fight our decision to forgive, and the world may advise us that we are foolish to forgive, and the devil may try to twist our thinking and prod our pain, if we know the love of God through Christ Jesus, then we know forgiveness and have been empowered to live in harmony.