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How can we avoid Sectarianism?

Leslie M. Grant

Sectarianism is a natural poisonous weed that springs up in everybody's garden. If we ignore the self-discipline of rooting it out, it will only grow stronger and cause untold spiritual trouble. The signs of it are easily recognizable, though we usually discern it more readily in someone else's garden rather than our own, why? Because basically it is simply selfishness, and none of us likes to be considered selfish, especially if we really are selfish. If we were not actually selfish, we should not worry at all about people thinking we are. For the true answer to sectarianism is found in recognizing the Lord Jesus as the Centre of all God's counsels. Creation does not centre around me, nor around the company in which I find fellowship, nor does it even centre around the true church of God, the body of Christ. It centers around the person of the Son of God Himself. True unselfishness therefore gives Him the supreme place of honour and dignity, and seeks no honour for self in any way.

But there are certain spheres in which sectarianism all too frequently springs up, and the answer to these is beautifully presented in the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians. To meditate deeply upon that lovely book will surely serve to help us to avoid the pitfalls of sectarianism. These spheres are those of

(1) The doctrinal position of the church of God

(2) Our attitude toward other Christians

(3) Our actions, in reference to other Christians.

(1) What is the doctrine concerning the church of God?

Ephesians 1, 2 and 3 declare this doctrine in no uncertain terms. The church of God is the' body of Christ, which includes all believers the world over (ch. 1:22, 23). In the Old Testament, Jews were strictly separated from Gentiles, but now, in Christ Jesus, both Jewish and Gentile believers are reconciled together in one body by virtue of the cross of Christ (ch. 2:13-16), that is, all enmity between them is totally put away and God has made themone in Christ Jesus. During Old Testament times this was a mystery hid in God, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel (ch. 3:4-6). This is no longer a mystery, but is fully revealed, especially through the apostle Paul. It was no easy matter for Jewish believers to recognize so marvellous a truth as this, as we see in Peter's reluctance even to go to the home of a Gentile when God spoke to him in Acts 10:13-15. See verse 28 also, and Acts 11:1-3. But if we do not accept this wonderful truth at present in this day of God's grace, we put ourselves in a sectarian position.

Any professed Christian company that gathers on any other ground than that of the one body of Christ is sectarian. Whatever doctrines we hold must be doctrines applicable to the entire body of Christ, for if we adopt doctrines that apply just to our particular group, we are on sectarian ground, for those doctrines in essence separate us from other members of the body of Christ. To adopt a denominational name is contrary to scripture: its results are divisive and therefore sectarian. Some would justify such a position, saying that such divisions promote a healthy rivalry, spurring believers to work harder for their cause. Is rivalry among the saints of God healthy? Is it good to work harder for our own cause than to work simply for God? Was there rivalry between Peter, Paul, James, John and Timothy? Such rivalry itself involves sectarianism; a selfish energy to accomplish things for a special section of the church.

It is sure that we cannot bring all the saints of God together today from all the divisions that have taken place, and practice the unity that once existed in the early church. But we can still recognize the one basis of true gathering, that is, the one body of Christ, and gather in simplicity on that basis, without claiming to be the body of Christ. If this is honestly the one ground of gathering that we recognize, this is not sectarian ground. May we desire nothing else than this.

(2) Do we have a sectarian attitude?

It is sadly possible to hold to a scriptural position, claiming to gather with the saints of God on the ground of the one body of Christ, and at the same time manifest a sectarian attitude. Though we stand for the doctrine of the one body of Christ, this does not exempt us from an attitude of loving and caring for other believers who may not take that same stand. Indeed, we are to love them precisely the same as we love those nearest to us. In other words, it is only right to have an unsectarian attitude at all times. Ephesians 3:17-19 speaks plainly to us about this, to the effect that, 'Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the width and length and depth and height-to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God' (NKJV). This is the attitude of love that spreads out to all saints everywhere. Of course that love cannot always express itself in approval of the ways of others, but it is genuine love that desires the purest blessing of every one. Thus this is an unselfish, unsectarian attitude.

Sadly, the opposite is seen in Luke 9:49, when John told the Lord, 'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.' Of course this is a selfish, sectarian attitude that the Lord has to correct by gently saying, Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side. Are we not thankful that the Lord's work is being carried on, by whoever it may be? We must be careful to guard against considering that our company is the only one that can have the Lord's approval. Of course it is right to remain in a place of unsectarian doctrine in which the Lord has put us, but it is wrong to allow ourselves a sectarian attitude in that place. On the other hand, we may be thankful to observe that there are Christians who do manifest an unsectarian attitude, though they may be found in a sectarian position. In such cases, their attitude is better than their position.

(3) What about sectarian practice?

It may be that we take a scriptural position and have an attitude that seems unsectarian, yet engage in practices that are sectarian. Or it is very possible to have a genuinely unsectarian position and a genuinely unsectarian spirit, and yet have real difficulty in discerning what is true unsectarian practice and acting on it. This is particularly so because of the confusion that has been caused in Christendom by innumerable divisions. For this is not merely a personal matter, but one affecting the gathering of the saints of God.

But it is refreshing to turn to Ephesians 4 to find what unsectarian practice is. Our walk is to be worthy of our calling (v. 1). We are to diligently seek to keep the unity of the Sprit in the bond of peace. Then to every individual believer grace is given according to the measure of the gift of Christ (v. 7). Though special public gifts are mentioned - apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers - these are seen to have the purpose of equipping all saints for the work of the ministry, that all should work together to build up the church of God, with the object of eventually coming to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (v. 13-NKJV).

Thus, every believer should be prepared to be a servant to all the saints, not just to those with whom he may be privileged to regularly meet. Let us not therefore be sectarian in our service, but seek by every proper means the blessing of the entire body of Christ. Also, in speaking the word of God, let every servant be careful to give that which is applicable to all the church of God, not just to a select group, for that would be sectarianism.

In the gathering of the assembly

In the present day, as we have observed, difficulties have been increased in reference to our being preserved from sectarianism in the gatherings of the saints of God. Can we, for instance, accept any professed Christian to the breaking of bread regardless of what doctrine he may hold or of whether he is involved in moral evil? Immediately a true believer must answer that if his doctrines are fundamentally false, or his practice is morally evil, we should refuse to accept him. To refuse him is certainly not sectarian, but obedience to scripture (2 John 9-11; 1 Cor. 5:11).

A Christian may be identified in fellowship with others who are guilty of false doctrine or moral evil. So long as he maintains this, can any true assembly of God receive him to the breaking of bread? Some would say you are sectarian if you do not. But scripture says, 'Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them' (Eph. 5:11 NKJV). Also, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you (2 Cor. 6:17 NKJV). To obey scripture is certainly not sectarian.

However, there are other cases of a less serious nature. Some of these are easily settled, while others present more difficulty. This means the saints of God must be driven into the Lord's presence to seek discernment as to every case, to pray for wisdom and grace to act for Him in reality of faith and love. Sometimes we may be accused of sectarianism when actually it is the love of God that moves us in desire for the purest blessing of some individual. On the other hand, we may think we are being faithful to the Lord when we are really harsh and sectarian. In this, as in every aspect of Christian life, how greatly we need the pure grace of God to preserve and guide us.

Of all of these things, however, a sectarian doctrinal position is the worst, for it is the basis for a sectarian attitude and sectarian practice. Yet, if we approve an unsectarian position, let us be all the more diligent in maintaining an unsectarian attitude and unsectarian practices.