This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Factionalism is the sin of personal and/or ecclesiastical separation between true believers. The Bible only recognizes two classes of people, believers and unbelievers. Believers are to be united. Unbelievers are to be rooted out and separated from true believers by means of church discipline. According to God’s Word, there are no other classes of people in the Church. Two sins may be committed with respect to this reality. First, believers may separate themselves from other believers. That is the sin of factionalism. Second, believers may join themselves to unbelievers. That is the sin of worldliness or apostasy. I Corinthians 1: 10-12 records a historical example of factionalism in the Church:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul”, and “I am of Apollos”, and “I of Cephas”, and “I of Christ”.
The church in Corinth was quickly becoming factionalized. True believers were separating from one another because of their theological distinctives. Paulinist churches were emphasizing Christian liberty and justification apart from the works of the law. Petrine churches were emphasizing the necessity of obedience to the law for sanctification. The super-spiritual churches were just asking the question, “What would Jesus do?”. When Paul finds out about their factionalism, he is outraged. They had no right to separate from one another. Jesus was not divided so how could His body be divided? Later in the letter (12:25) he says, “…that there should be no divisions in the body,…” The Corinthians were severely rebuked for visibly dividing the Body of Christ.
The Bible recognizes true and false believers. True believers are always commanded to be personally and ecclesiastically united. False believers are to be disciplined out of the church. There are no other categories. There is no recognition of categories called something like “separate, but equal”, or “divided for the sake of unity”. These phrases, and others like them, are little more than feeble attempts to justify our immoral separations.
Not all separations are cases of factionalism. The unbelievers are to be separated from the Church. Galatians 5: 20 lists “heresies” as one of the deeds of the flesh that are evident for all with eyes to see. Heresy requires separation. II Peter 2:1 says, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies…” Heretics and false teachers were to be thrown out of the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals with both examples of factionalism and heresy. Chapter 11: 17-19 says,
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.
Notice what Paul is saying here. In the first place, he rebukes them for separating themselves from true believers in the church. He had already addressed that issue in the first chapter of the letter. But then he goes on to say that “there must be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident”. Obviously there are some who are not “approved”. These are the false believers. In this sense, factionalism is a necessity. It is necessary that true and false believers be separated. This separation is brought about by means of the process of church discipline, a practice that is almost universally ignored in evangelical churches. So, once again, Paul proves that the separation of true believers is the sin of factionalism and the separation of true from false believers is the proper goal of the church discipline of heretics.