by David Halbrook
Synopsis: Sectarianism is a denial of the divine pattern for the church. Satan employed this tool in his rebellion against God, and it has continued to be used throughout history.
I once had little interest in history, but now, at age 42, the value of history is increasingly obvious. Every problem dealt with in this series on "isms" has thrived in the hearts and lives of people in the past, and if there is a record of it, we can benefit from what happened then. This is true with the problem of sectarianism.
The Greek word hairesis refers to "a choice," and is also reflected in the English word, "heresy." It was used of people choosing to leave a group, thus causing division. As the gospel spread, some people thought Christians were a new sect of the Jews (Acts 24:14). Discussing the works of the flesh, Paul used this term in describing those who cause division (Gal. 5:20, NKJV). In English, a "sect" may refer to any group that leaves another group due to differing beliefs.
In some ways, modern man-made religious groups that claim to follow Christ but reject His fundamental teachings on forgiveness and salvation could be called sects (though in reality, they were never in Christ). They repeat errors of the past and bring on themselves the same judgment and condemnation. Jesus prepared His people for this, saying "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matt. 10:34, NKJV).
We begin to learn about sectarianism when we learn about the sacrifice of Cain, the rebellion of Korah, and the teachings of Balaam (Jude 5-12). Cain didn't compel Abel to worship like him but wanted Abel's and God's approval of his choice (Gen. 4:1-15; 1 John 3:10-12). Korah didn't deny Moses and Aaron a place among the priesthood but sought a more inclusive approach to leadership (Num. 16:1-40). Balaam didn't teach Israel to deny the existence of God—he just persuaded them to try a different way (Num. 25:1-5; 31:15-16). Jude mentioned these examples as he strengthened the saints to contend earnestly for the faith, note ungodly men, and reject such men. In this, Jude prepares us for the task of opposing sectarianism.
Assuming that Cain and Abel were bringing a sacrifice for sin (the primary type of sacrifice the Scriptures tell us of, especially before the law of Moses), Cain was guilty of bringing a bloodless sacrifice to God and was angry when his choice was rejected. We have no reason to believe that he criticized Abel for bringing a lamb, but Abel obviously expected his offering to be equally acceptable. This is also the spirit of modern sectarianism—it expects acceptance even when it's faith contradicts the faith of those whose approval it seeks, failing to distinguish right and wrong.
As Christians, if we love our neighbor, then we are searching for opportunities to move conversations with them beyond mundane things to spiritual things. Are you? What is your attitude and approach when topics of disagreement arise with them? Read John 3-4 and learn from Jesus' approach to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Then, imitating Him, pay attention to the responses you see from others when disagreements arise. Modern sectarianism typically fails to show the kind of interest and openness of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.
In time past, even Protestant denominations would publicly debate basic matters of difference between themselves (Calvinism, infant baptism, sprinkling-pouring-immersion), but today sectarian groups often openly affirm that such differences are unimportant. For example, in the context of divorce, eternal salvation security, second baptism of the Holy Spirit, and worship, a "pastor" said:
"These debates may be important in my congregation, but they are not important to work together and preach the gospel to the city," says Bongarrá. "We accept the differences as a richness. It would be very boring if all the churches were the same. Imagine if God made just one flower; that would be boring" (Weber).
It easy to imagine Cain saying something like this—"It would be very boring if all the sacrifices were the same…" This thinking minimizes the importance of uniformity in faith, believing almost all things offered to God on those subjects will be accepted. Herein, sin lies at the door and is uncontrollable without the willingness to reexamine what they bring to God and what God has spoken. The willful acceptance of all this variety is sectarianism.
Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were secretly upset with the limitations God placed upon Israel's leadership and priesthood, but their anger was visibly directed at Moses and Aaron. He accused them of taking "too much upon yourselves" because they limited what the Levites could do. On his side, Korah had two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, also called "men of renown." Had God not intervened, this would have resulted in a new Jewish sect (which came later in the leadership of King Jeroboam [1 Kings 12:28-33]).
The heart that is frustrated and angry with God's limitations will often do as Korah, unleashing that anger on God's people. They will claim the Lord is with them and that others are exalting themselves, while the exact opposite is true. Somehow, they find others who also are discontent, and they gather that group besides them in their efforts for sinful change. This group, bound together by the lie that the Lord is on their side, has joined the sect of Korah. In the distant past, this group revealed itself in a new plan for leadership that was widely accepted at least by AD 110. Please read Ignatius' letter to the Magnesians (see citation below) which distinguishes the pastor from the presbyters/elders and paved the way for the sinful organization of the Roman Catholic Church. In the present, this group reveals itself in the ongoing effort to diminish the different roles God has given to men and women among the church, promoting female pastors, evangelists, and deacons. Had many of these people been Israelites, they would have been among Korah's group, and if Korah were alive today, he would be among them. The result of sinful changes, whether in the distant past or present, is the ancient disease of sectarianism.
If we look at the portion of Balaam's life recorded in Scripture, the true things he said outnumber the false things. He declared the glory of God in the presence of God's enemy Barak, a heathen king, but his overall influence was more aligned with Barak than Moses for he persuaded Israel to ignore what God said about sexual immorality.
Any idea that causes sinful division between God's people will eventually produce visible differences in their deeds, and those differences will increase over time. Paul warned, "Evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3:13, NKJV). By its nature, error cannot remain stagnant. False teachings in the first-century which denied the deity of Jesus were accompanied by various forms of sexual immorality (Jude 4). Ongoing digression like this continues. For example, The Church of England began when the civil king wanted a new spouse and was denied permission by Catholic leaders, leading him to declare his own spiritual authority. From this group comes this December 2018 announcement: "Church of England to offer baptism-style services to transgender people to celebrate their new identity for the first time." Read 2 Timothy 3:13 again and think about the connection between their origin and this recent news. Be aware that the American version of the Church of England is the Episcopal Church—expect them to imitate this in time. The seeds of sectarianism produce fruit according to its kind! If these people had been alive in Balaam's day, what would they have done at Baal Peor? If Balaam were alive today, what would he say about baptism-style services for transgender people?
Meanwhile, let us view these events as opportunities to talk to others about the gospel. Surely there are people whose eyes will be awakened by this or similar occasions of rebellion. For example, the day I began writing this article I saw this headline: "A Presbyterian pastor was pushed out of his northern California parish this week after he erected a sign outside the church that stated, 'homosexuality is a sin' and transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner 'is still a man'" (Aviles). Is it possible your neighbors or coworkers see things like this among the religious group with which you worship? Is it possible you could send the light that brings men out of the darkness of Balaam-like sectarianism? Let's not merely identify the problems around us but bring the solution to those who have not heard!
The source of sectarianism is not new, nor is the solution. Satan started the original sect by his very first rebellion against God, and many followed him. God provides us with the solution to sectarianism through one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. In Him, there are no sects. In Him, there is peace.
Weber, Jeremy. "Something Better Than Revival." Christianity Today, June 2010, 38-40.
Aviles, Gwen. "Pastor Ousted after Posting Anti-LGBTQ Sign outside His Church." NBCNews.com. January 16, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/pastor-ousted-after-posting-anti-lgbtq-sign-outside-his-church-n959086.
"Letter to the Magnesians (Ignatius)." Wikipedia. December 07, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_to_the_Magnesians_(Ignatius).
Image 1: The sign outside the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Siskiyou County, California posted by pastor Justin Hoke. Courtesy KOBI
Author Bio: David will begin working among the Chena Small Tracts church of Christ in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2019. He and his wife, Starla, have three children. He can be reached at email@example.com.