First Century Church Divisions

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In every Christian church established by Apostle Paul there sprang up at least one schismatic party which, by its existence, brought divisions in the church. Those who sought to divide, rather than unify, were opposed to Paul's teachings and hostile to his person.

The great judaizing party in the church was subdivided into various sections, united in their main object, but distinguished by minor shades of difference. Thus, we find at Corinth that it comprehended two divisions, the one apparently distinguished from the other by a greater degree of violence.

The more moderate judaizing division in the church called themselves the followers of Peter, or rather of Cephas, for they preferred to use his Hebrew name (1Corinthians 1:12). These dwelt much upon the Lord's close relationship with him (Luke 9:28 - 36, Matthew 16:15 - 17, etc.) and the perceived inferiority of Apostle Paul to him. They insinuated that Paul felt doubts about his own authority, and did not dare to claim the right of maintenance (1Corinthians 9:4, 6, 2Corinthians 11:9 - 10) which Christ had expressly given to His original apostles. They also depreciated him as a maintainer of celibacy, and contrasted him in this respect with those who were married in the church (1Corinthians 9:5).

The party of Jesus

A still more violent faction of division called themselves, by a strange misnomer, the party of Christ (1Corinthians 1:12). These appear to have laid great stress upon the fact that Paul had never seen or known our Lord while on earth. They claimed for themselves a peculiar connection with Christ, as having either been among the number of His disciples, or at least as being in close connection with the "brethren of the Lord," and especially with James, the head of the church at Jerusalem. To this subdivision probably belonged the emissaries who professed to come "from James" (Galatians 2:12) and who created a schism in the church meeting in Antioch.

Connected to a certain extent with the judaizing party, but yet to be carefully distinguished from it, were those Christians who were called in the church the "weak brethren" (Romans 14:1 - 2, 15:1, 1Corinthians 8:7, 9:22). These were not a factious or divisive party per se, as they were not, properly speaking, a party at all. They were individual converts of Jewish extraction whose minds were not as yet sufficiently enlightened to comprehend the fulness of "the liberty with which Christ had made them free."

The consciences of the "weak" Christians was sensitive, and filled with scruples, resulting from early habit and old prejudices. They did not join in the violence of the Judaizing bigots, and there was even a danger lest they should be led, by the example of their more enlightened brethren, to wound their own conscience in acts which they thought wrong.

The party for Paul

The Pauline party (as they called themselves) in the church appear to have ridiculed the scrupulosity of their less enlightened brethren, and to have felt for them a contempt inconsistent with the spirit of Christian love. In their opposition to the Judaizers, they showed a bitterness of feeling and violence of action like that of their opponents. Some of them were inclined to exult over the fall of the ancient Israelites, and to glory in their own position, as though it had been won by superior merit. These divisive people are rebuked by Apostle Paul for their boasting and warned of its consequences (Romans 11:17 - 22).

One division seems to have united several errors with one still more dangerous to the simplicity of the Christian faith. They received Christianity more in an intellectual than a moral aspect, not as a spiritual religion, so much as a new system of philosophy. This was a phase of error most likely to occur among the disputatious reasoners who abounded in the great Greek cities. We, therefore, find the first trace of this division in the church at Corinth.

In Corinth this division in the church took a peculiar form, in consequence of the arrival of Apollos as a Christian teacher, soon after the departure of Apostle Paul. He was a Jew of Alexandria and as such had received that Grecian cultivation, and acquired that familiarity with Greek philosophy, which distinguished the more learned Alexandrian Jews. Thus he was able to adapt his teaching to the taste of his philosophizing hearers at Corinth far more than Apostle Paul could do. Accordingly, this church division called themselves the followers of Apollos (1Corinthians 1:12) and extolled his philosophic views, in opposition to the simple and unlearned simplicity which they ascribed to the style of Apostle Paul.

It is easy to perceive in the temper of this portion of the Church the germ of that rationalizing tendency which afterwards developed itself into the Greek element of Gnosticism. Some of the worst opinions of the worst Gnostics found advocates among those who called themselves Christians. There was even a party or division in the Church which defended fornication (1Corinthians 6:9 - 20) on theory, and which denied the resurrection of the dead (1Corinthians 15:12). These heresies probably originated with those who embraced Christianity as a new philosophy, some of whom attempted to extract from its doctrines a justification of the immoral life to which they were addicted.

Amazingly, there were other forms of errors and heresies in the church which harassed Paul in his declining years. One was a bigoted, exclusive, and superstitious tendency which was of Jewish origin. Another division was a pseudo-philosophic, or rationalizing tendency, which was of Grecian birth.

Although many of the Jewish Christians were forced to give up their exclusiveness, and to acknowledge the uncircumcised as "fellow-heirs and of the same body," their superstition remained, and became a fruitful source of mischief. Others sought for nothing more in Christianity than a new philosophy and were naturally increased in number as the Church gained converts from the educated classes.

Doctrinal divide

All heresies which divided the church had a doctrinal and practical aspect. In regard to the doctrinal, their general characteristic was the claim to a deep philosophical insight into the mysteries of religion. Thus the Colossians are warned against the false teachers who would deceive them by a vain affectation of "philosophy," and who were "puffed up by a fleshly mind" (Colossians 2:8, 18). When writing to Timothy, Apostle Paul speaks of these heretics as falsely claiming "knowledge" (Gnosis, 2Timothy 3:7). In the book of Ephesians, Paul seems to allude to the same boastful assumption when he speaks of the love of Christ as surpassing "knowledge" in a passage which contains other apparent allusions to Gnostic doctrine.

All the Gnostic divisions in the church, in the second century, were united in denying the resurrection of the dead. We find the Colossian heretics introducing a worship of angels, "intruding into those things which they have not seen" and so, the "self-styled Gnostics" (1Timothy 6:20) are occupied with "endless genealogies," which were probably fanciful myths, concerning the origin and emanation of spiritual beings.

Practical result

In their practical results, these heretical divisions within the church had a twofold direction. On one side was an ascetic tendency, such as we find at Colossae, showing itself by an arbitrarily invented worship of God, an affectation of self-humiliation and mortification of the flesh. We find the prohibition of marriage, the enforced abstinence from food, and other bodily mortifications, mentioned as characteristics of heresy. If this asceticism originated from the Jewish element which has been mentioned above, it may be compared with the practice of the Essenes, whose existence shows that such asceticism was not inconsistent with Judaism, although it was contrary to the views of the Judaizing party properly so called.

But this asceticism was a weak and comparatively innocent form, in which the practical results of this incipient Gnosticism exhibited themselves. Its really dangerous church manifestation was derived, not from its Jewish, but from its Heathen element. At Corinth, men sheltered their immoralities under the name of Christianity and even justified them by a perversion of its doctrines. Such teaching could not fail to find a ready audience wherever there were found vicious lives and hardened consciences. Accordingly, it was in the luxurious and corrupt population of Asia Minor that this early Gnosticism assumed its worst form of immoral practice.

In his letter to the Ephesian church, Apostle Paul warned his readers against the sophistical arguments by which certain false teachers strove to justify the sins of impurity.

Do not let anyone deceive you with vain words; for because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be joint partakers with them (Ephesians 5:6 - 7, HBFV).

We find that many Christians in the church used their liberty as a cloak of maliciousness (1Peter 2:16), "promising their hearers liberty, yet themselves the slaves of corruption" (1Peter 2:19) and "turning the grace of God into lasciviousness" (Jude 1: 4). They were justly condemned by the surrounding heathen for their crimes and even suffered punishment as robbers and murderers (1Peter 4:15). They were also infamous for the practice of the pretended arts of magic and witchcraft (Revelation 2:20) which they may have borrowed either from the Jewish soothsayers and exorcisers (Acts 19:13) or from the heathen professors of magical arts.

We find, moreover, that these false disciples, with their licentiousness in morals, united anarchy in politics, and resistance to law and government to influence division. They "walked after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despised governments." Such people in the church gave rise to those charges against Christianity itself, which were made by the heathen writers of the time, whose knowledge of the new religion was naturally taken from those falling under the judgment of the Law.

It is painful to acknowledge among the New Testament Christians the existence of so many forms of error, sin and divisions in the church. It is, however, a higher feeling which bids us thankfully recognize the truth that "there is no partiality with God" (Acts 10:34). He has never supernaturally coerced any generation of mankind into virtue, nor rendered division and heresy impossible in any age of the Church. So Apostle Paul tells his converts (1Corinthians 11:19) that there must needs be heresies among them for the purpose that the good may be tried and distinguished from the bad. Without the possibility of a choice, there would be no test of faith or holiness.

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