Pleasures of the Flesh (Mar-Apr 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

Thoughts on Sectarianism

by Bob Hendren
March – April, 1998

“Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

31The “works of the flesh are plain” Paul writes, or if you prefer, “the activities of the lower nature are evident.” These deeds that men and women find perverse pleasure in are evident, clear, obvious to any observant person, right? Well, in my experience, it would seem the first five and the last two are generally evident to most people, but the rest of the list doesn’t seem to be so plain. What I mean is we usually not only notice, but are deeply offended by anyone who engages in the seamy or irreligious works of the flesh. On the other hand, we do not find anywhere near the same heated attitude toward enmity, strife, dissension, and party spirit.

According to Paul, there are pleasures of the flesh that have nothing to do with sex, idolatry, or alcohol. When is the last time you saw some brother or sister brought to task for enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, or party spirit? Have you ever encountered a questionnaire in some church, which you had to fill out and pass successfully in order to teach or wait on the Lord’s Table? What were the questions? Probably, mostly about marriage and divorce, which version of the Bible you read, etc. Do you remember any questions on whether you were a gossip, possessed a sectarian spirit, or had factious behaviors? Drunkenness and carousing might merit a warning or two, but when was anyone reprimanded for envy? Hair that touches your collar can get you off a waiting-on-the-table list, but party spirit may get you appointed to church leadership!

Malicious, hate-filled activities, overflowing with a sectarian spirit, often get you honored as a defender of the truth. Practitioners of such fleshly pleasures are not condemned, rather they are praised by their followers. In some fellowships power-mongers with divisive spirits are busily training others to follow in their footsteps. People who dote on strife, jealousy, and selfishness are not only leaders in some groups, but are actually admired for their unbiblical traits. Why are they not branded as the followers of the flesh they obviously are? Maybe only a few works of the flesh are “plain” to us, when all of them ought to be! The time has come to call those who practice such actions to accountability and repentance.

“Why such an extreme view?” you may ask. “Are you not over-reacting?” “Live and let live.” The indifference displayed by some Christians to the state of the body of Christ is not a sign of healthy spirituality. It is time to awaken to the incredible damage done to fellowships and persons by the people who regularly engage in the behaviors Paul mentions. Sectarianism is a virus of the soul; it will kill.

Deadly biological warfare looms over the world as scientists frantically scramble to concoct ever more dangerous combinations of killer diseases to be dropped on the unsuspecting heads of people. Prominent among these killer germs are tiny particles known as viruses. Some viruses can cause warts, but a good many can kill you. Sectarianism is a virus of the soul. It does not merely make you spiritually sick, or spiritually warty, it will kill you! None is immune from this threat. All of us need Christ as a sentinel in our soul to guard against such behavior. I must imitate the process of healing by first asking myself “Am I a sectarian?” Honest self-examination is the first step to uncovering this deadly virus.

How do I know if I am a sectarian? How do we know we are not a sect? This latter question was put to the late French evangelist Richard Andrejewski. His reply is to the point:

“We can’t…sectarianism is like war, it begins in the heart, and it begins at any moment. When I become angry and competitive, or determined to win by any means, when I lose my respect for other people’s liberty, when I become possessive and absorbed in concern for my own well-being, when I let my zeal for truth be turned not against error and confusion, but against human beings who oppose me—all this makes for a sectarian spirit.

“These things come so naturally to human hearts that we can never be completely rid of them. Only the grace of God can keep a body of believers from becoming a sect.”

I heard a minister say publicly a few years ago that he believed so many young people divorced whose background was a certain conservative denomination, not because they had been so poorly taught on the subject, but that they had grown up in congregations where, on the first sign of disagreement, you either left or split the church. I have no statistics to back up his belief, but how can such an example serve to further cohesion in relationships? Our actions always speak more eloquently than our sermons.

The call to end sectarianism begins with self-examination done in an honest spirit. I must understand why I have a need to be a factious person, to cut myself off from other believers. Why do people join factions? Why do they practice sectarianism? No doubt there are numerous justifications for this behavior. The following are what I have encountered, perhaps you have others you could list:

  • The most basic reason is that many people are human-centered rather than Christ-centered. They tend to desire to please some human being more than they desire to please Christ. The other “reasons” are variations on this theme.
  • People are attracted to charismatic leaders and prefer to bask in the personality of the leader rather than focus upon God. Some persons are attracted to leaders who have a “savior” complex, who see themselves as those with exclusive insights from God. Loyalty to such a “godly” leader is mistaken for loyalty to God.
  • People want leaders who effectively promote and express their particular slant on matters. Therefore, they give their loyalties to those who “give them a voice.”
  • People think there may be only limited recognition and reward from others if they are simply loyal to Christ, but the faction offers them recognition and a sense of place. They may think, “Better to have recognition in a limited group than to be lost in the big picture.” This is the old frog in a small pond syndrome. James Denney remarked, “The church of Christ was for them [the sectarians at Corinth] a stage on which they aspired to be conspicuous figures.”
  • People sometimes enjoy the thrill of competition which a sect breeds. “It’s us against them!” can be an exhilarating experience. Never forget, there is a fellowship of sorts in a faction, even if it is a perverse fellowship. Just as there is loyalty in a seriously dysfunctional family, there can be a pseudo fellowship of the “unloving,” that is, those who cannot understand the grace and love of God may clump together for mutual reinforcement.
  • People sometimes are convinced their narrow views are essential truth. They have a limited view of what God is able to do and whom he is able to accept. Many persons have a capacity to over-simplify complex matters and see things in an extremely rigid, black and white configuration. This appeals to persons who want others to think for them and maintain their comfort zones for them. The faction helps them believe they are the only “true believers.”

No doubt the whole of Christian truth is so expansive, so incapable of being thoroughly mastered by finite man, that groups historically spring to life clustered around some influential thought leader. These leaders catch a major emphasis of Christian doctrine and express it in compelling ways so that schools of thought form around their works. We may compare the influence of a Pelagius, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Campbell, etc. to see how easily some may pass from appreciating their insights to being enslaved to their concepts. Can we ever get beyond these enslaving concepts and realize that truth can never be packaged in human-sized containers?

What could have been accomplished if the members of the body of Christ had some understanding and semblance of unity in Christ? The obvious solution to sectarianism is loyalty to Christ, but since much of our sectarianism is played out in some particular form involving a group of believers, a consideration of the body of Christ is an excellent starting point. An examination of the Corinthian correspondence reveals a group in the grip of a destructive divisive spirit. Paul saw in the chaotic climate of the Corinthian church fertile ground for the weeds of dissension. In chapter one, he asks, “Is Christ divided? That is, “Is Christ the property of sectarians?” Has Christ become the exclusive property of one group? Absolutely not! Even those of the “Christ party” (those claiming “I am of Christ…”) are censured for their sectarian attitude. The original language indicates all the “party watchwords are on one level, and all are in the same category of blame.”

Further, sectarianism had transformed their assemblies into harmful experiences (1 Corinthians 11:17). Paul’s answer for the sectarian attitude is found in the initial chapters and in chapter 12. We all began at the same point, baptized by the one Spirit into the one body of Christ and made to be “sustained” by the Spirit (12:13-14). Our religious status did not contribute to this, our social status was of no value in this transaction. We began as totally dependent on Christ. Like a human body we, as the body of Christ, are one unit with many differing parts, all of which are designed by God to promote the welfare of the whole body.

Initially, inferior feeling persons must recognize their value to Christ and other believers. One part may feel itself inferior, “because I am not a hand” the foot might say, reflecting on its supposed lowly status. “I am not part of the body.” No! Feet are absolutely essential to support the entire body. Correct walking will not come from stalking around on the hands. The foot must not envy the hand. The feet (persons) must realize God has placed them into an important function in the body of Christ. Ears may not draw as many compliments as eyes often do, for seldom does anyone say, “What beautiful ears you have!” Still, ears are necessary and eyes hear not at all. Claim your place in His body!

Second, the more visible members, such as eyes, must not overvalue themselves. Paul may be referring to those who are “out front” more, such as leaders in congregational life and worship. If one of these parts exalts itself over the others, it ceases to serve the body and is transformed into an aberration. A body which consisted only of an eye or a foot would be a monster. The body disappears when one member (or clusters of members) see themselves as the whole body. Such an anomaly would be of no value, not even to itself. Even the most gifted member needs to realize, in profound humility, that he or she is nothing without other members of the body of Christ.

Third, mutual respect and an ability to feel the pain and enjoy the honor of the other members is necessary. “If one member suffers, all the members suffer.” As Eugene Peterson has noted, “The church is not what we organize, but what God gives, not the people we want to be with, but the people God gives us to be with…” Unity of the body is a gift, not an accomplishment of the members. Grace teaches us that each Christian is God’s gift to us. We may join a club, be accepted into the Army or Marine Corps, be rushed by a sorority or fraternity and acquire a host of associates, but only God can give us a fellow Christian.

The full solution to sectarianism would no doubt fill more books than the Internet has web sites, but this is a beginning for me. Perhaps for you as well. We can look at our own exclusivity, our tendencies to dismiss and despise other believers, and we can repent of our sectarian attitude. I can reflect on what it would mean if God treated me with the same contempt I direct toward those who disagree with me. Only the grace of God can inoculate us from the virus of sectarianism.


1 Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exigetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2nd Edition, The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh: T T. Clark, reprinted 1967, p. 11Wineskins Magazine

 

Bob Hendren

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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