Regarding Responsible Reformation
Al Maxey

Issue #29
April 11, 2003


Quotable Quote

"It is not in numbers but in unity
that our great strength lies."

--- Thomas Paine (1776)


The Spirit of Sectarianism

A reader of these Reflections from Alabama recently wrote to me about a problem he was facing among some of his brethren in the local congregation. There was a difference of opinion with regard to a particular matter and it was suggested that some might be acting with a "sectarian spirit." The reader stated that a few of the members apparently saw no problem with the concept of sectarianism, and one actually issued the challenge: "Prove to me in the Scriptures where it is wrong to be sectarian!"

What is sectarianism? The dictionary defines a "sectarian" as "a person who is blindly and narrow-mindedly devoted to a sect." "Sectarianism" is characterized as "narrow-minded bigotry." Not a positive picture, is it? In short, it is an allegiance, often a militant one, to a narrow perspective. Around these perceptions, and the personalities behind them, an exclusive party is often eventually formed. Those within this faction are considered the "faithful;" those outside are apostates fit only for the fires of hell.

A "sect," by definition, is simply "a subset of the whole" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1178). The Greek word we translate "sect" is hairesis, from which we derive the word "heresy." It comes from a root word meaning "to choose." The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, "hairesis came to mean those who 'chose' to associate with a political party, a philosophical school, or a religious community espousing a particular view" (vol. 3, p. 672). Volume two of the ISBE states that in classical Greek the idea of "choice" or "selection" was a primary meaning, and that it came to signify "groups in a larger society that follow the teachings of particular leaders in distinction from others" (p. 684). Thus, the word conveyed the sense "of a party with distinctive emphases and concerns" (ibid).

Although the term could be used in a neutral sense, simply depicting the reality of diversity of perspectives, it soon came to be used with an almost exclusive pejorative nuance. "Hairesis when used pejoratively denotes a group whose belief or practice differs from what is considered orthodox. This use is found in both Hellenistic Judaism and apostolic Christianity" (ISBE, vol. 3, p. 673). "Within the Church itself the term had from the very first a pejorative nuance" (ISBE, vol. 2, p. 685). "A negative nuance of sects seems to have developed during NT times, becoming even more pronounced in the writings of post-NT Christian apologists" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1178).

Paul speaks disparagingly of such "factions" among the saints in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:19; cf. 1:10-12), and he condemns this "party spirit" as one of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20, RSV). The apostle Peter attributes the rise of such factions to the work of "false teachers" who out of greed "exploit you with false words" (2 Peter 2:1-3). Gerhard Kittel pointed out that the One Body and factions are completely incompatible with one another. "Ekklesia and hairesis are material opposites. The latter cannot accept the former; the former excludes the latter" (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 183). Such factions "are splits in the community caused by personally motivated disputes" (ibid). "Within Christianity hairesis always denotes hostile societies" (ibid).

Among the leaders of the so-called Restoration Movement in America, this same irreconcilable conflict between unity of Spirit and uniformity of separatists was often noted. For example, Barton W. Stone, in an article entitled "Revivals of Religion" in The Christian Messenger (vol. 5, no. 7, July 1831), in which he wrote about the beauty of spiritual renewal and revival among the people of God, and the threat of the spirit of sectarianism against it, made the following observations:

A theologian by the name of Channing deplored the sight of "Christians, forsaking their one Lord, gathering under various standards to gain victory for their sects." What a pathetic picture is presented to the world when feuding factions wage war in the One Family of our Father. When disciples of Christ descend upon one another with destructive intent over differing opinions strongly held, there is indeed a "demon of partyism" at work in the One Body. Left unopposed, it will dismember the precious Body of Christ and leave it so dysfunctional that it will be incapable of fulfilling its mission and purpose. Our fiendish foe knows the most effective way to prevent us from fighting him is to seduce us into battle with one another. Perhaps his most effective tool is this spirit of sectarianism. With it he has won many battles and destroyed many lives. Whenever and wherever this "demon of partyism" rears its ugly head, the conditions of judgmentalism, exclusivism, and isolationism are never far behind.

Sectarians spend more time fighting than fellowshipping; denouncing Christians than declaring Christ; wrangling with siblings than welcoming seekers. Our Lord's harshest rebukes were against the rigid, religious elitists who regarded themselves as superior to all others, thus becoming separatists. A perfect example can be found in His condemnation of such sectarians in Matthew 23. There is no question but what sectarianism is condemned in Scripture. Indeed, it is astonishing that some would actually seemingly suggest otherwise! Our Lord came to UNITE His people into ONE BODY, not sanction its continual fragmentation into warring camps. Those who perpetuate factions are opposed to the very purpose of Jesus Christ, who came to break down the dividing walls between peoples (Ephesians 2). The late G. C. Brewer, my brother in Christ and cousin in the flesh, observed, "The big idea of being 'Christians only' entered the little minds of a later generation and was perverted into 'we are the only Christians'" (Gospel Advocate, March 14, 1929).

Another beloved brother in Christ, W. Carl Ketcherside, penned the following insightful thoughts in his Mission Messenger (March 1958):

Since Jesus prayed for (John 17), and even died for (Ephesians 2), the unity and oneness of His body of believers, one can conceive of no greater "heresy" than an arrogant spirit which seeks to divide and dismember that body once again based on attempted imposition of one's personal choices upon others and separation from those who resist such enslavement. When a party spirit began to evidence itself in Corinth, Paul attacked the problem immediately. He dared not procrastinate in the face of such partyism. Sectarianism is a fleshly work (Galatians 5:20) whose continued practice will exclude one from the kingdom.

When one exercises his "right to choose," and chooses to affiliate with a group that is intent upon actively and militantly fostering exclusivism and isolationism due to the promotion of its own particular party preferences, perceptions, practices and precepts, then that person has chosen to embrace heresy. This is a spirit of sectarianism; a demon of partyism. It must be avoided at all cost, and exposed and opposed at every opportunity! Our oneness and effectiveness depends upon it! "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:24-25, NIV).


Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother, I am very grateful to have found your web site and to receive your Reflections. On a rare occasion, you challenge me ... on every occasion you encourage me and give me something uplifting to think about. I appreciate your work!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I agree that the story of Lazarus & the rich man is a parable. One should not view it as a literal event. Others offer that the parable, in addition to its main lesson, is a prophecy regarding the imminent destruction of the Jewish nation in favor of the Gentiles. The idea is that the Jews had been given the truth as the chosen people of God. God had generally rejected the Gentiles until then. After the kingdom was to have come their positions would be reversed.

Also, one could view the parable as a prophecy concerning the termination of the old covenant with the Jews' special relationship to God and the establishment of the new covenant and the favoritism of its adherents. Further, one could view it as an ending of a relationship based on law & physical elements with the establishment of a relationship based on grace & spiritual elements.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, In regard to your interpretation of "The Rich Man & Lazarus." Well done Ol' Chap!!! You are an incredible exegete!

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Al, I cannot say enough about how well you wrote this one. Clear, concise, and crammed full of logical thinking. How could this be refuted?!!

From Edward Fudge in Texas:

Al, A very fine presentation on a troublesome text. I also like to note the relationship between the context and this story -- the story illustrating in graphic form the contextual points that (1) obedience to God at this time is critical; (2) God and men see and value men differently; (3) covetousness is evil and does not go unpunished.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Excellent work, Al. You took a difficult subject (Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross) and illustrated how at least some theological problems can be resolved rather simply. Your explanation is sensible and true to the text. Thanks for some good "mind stimulation" to start out the week.

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