How is a church guarded against splits, schism, and division? How does the church remain united over decades? In planting a new church I believe that much, if not most, of the pastoral work against division must happen before a crisis of division faces the church. The following pastoral priorities come to mind.
1. Prioritize exegetical preaching and proclaim the authority of God’s Word. Unless a church is grounded in Biblical authority, divisive voices can claim a temporary authority based on experience, pain, magnetic personality, or natural gifting.
2. Emphasize the work and glory of Christ as the central passion and identity of the church. Secondary church values, as well as personal ambition, will always press for primacy and will tempt division unless they are put in their place by the first things of Christ and Him crucified.
3. Teach and model encouragement, gratitude, compassion, patience, longsuffering, humility, and forgiveness. Where these are assumed and discernment and correction are emphasized, the groundwork for judgmental catastrophe is laid.
4. Teach and model discernment, the doctrine of sin, Biblical warnings, God’s holy hatred for divisive speech, and Biblical church discipline. Where these are assumed and compassion and encouragement are emphasized, the church is made vulnerable to immorality and divisive wolves who devour and divide unsuspecting sheep.
5. Teach Christ’s love for his imperfect bride. If God’s extravagant, unrelenting covenantal love for his church is emphasized, Christians will find it more difficult to divide and foment contention for purely personal, secondary, or unproven issues.
6. Teach and model pastoral authority, integrity, plurality, humility, and hospitality. Each category, if neglected, can become a breach into which the flood of division can flow.
7. Teach the church to respect Godly pastors outside of their own congregation and welcome congregational input. When the day of trial comes, objective sources of counsel, as well as a pattern of pastoral receptivity, may be the difference between division and preservation.
8. Persevere. No amount of previous teaching removes the need for fresh teaching against division. The temptation of division is always around the corner.
9. Pray. Nothing ultimately guards the church from division but God. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. (Ps. 127).
10. Trust. Because God’s goodness is not limited to our understanding, he may allow and use the pain of division in the short run to accomplish the magnificent wisdom of his broader purpose. If he does, take up the cross of painful division and follow him in meekness and courage and faith.