Sectarianism — What is It? What’s Wrong with It?
You don’t have to be a Christian for very long before you’ll notice some sincere believers who regard their sect or assembly as the “one true church” and all other believers are either false or, at least, somehow lesser Christians. Sectarianism is faction-ism where a believer’s loyalty is to his or her sect/church to the point that it overrides clear and balanced biblical teaching. It’s a myopic mentality that tends to hinder the apprehension of truth (and therefore freedom), but also fosters spiritual dependence & immaturity.
To be expected, believers who fall into sectarianism increasingly view “outsiders” with an eye of suspicion. By ‘outsider’ I mean anyone who is not part of their particular sect/church or anyone who has chosen to leave. Consider this scriptural example concerning Jesus’ disciples:
“Master,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
(50) “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”
As you can see, John and the other disciples were upset that someone besides them was driving out demons in Jesus’ name and their knee-jerk response was to oppose him. This is sectarianism. Those who cop such an attitude view people outside their group with a suspicious, rivalrous eye. What’s absurd is that this man was doing an incredibly good work—driving out demons—but it didn’t matter to John and the other disciples because they were blinded by their factionalist spirit.
Christ put an immediate stop to this nonsense. His response was simple: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” Obviously it didn’t bother the Lord that the man was operating outside their group. It didn’t irk him in the least that this guy didn’t go to Jesus’ “seminary.” The man was doing a good work and he was obviously on their side, so what was the problem? There wasn’t one, but those infected by sectarianism will always create a problem when it concerns someone who functions outside the box with which they’ve put themselves and God.
The Messiah didn’t come down too hard on his disciples here. He saw that they were developing a sectarian spirit and nipped it in the bud. Jesus’ general strategy on such occasions was to correct the negative behavior or attitude in a fairly mild manner and only take a sterner approach if the person or persons failed to respond positively. This should be our approach as well.
Sectarianism is a Work of the Flesh
The reason Jesus corrected them was because sectarianism is of the flesh, which is why Paul listed it as one of the works of the flesh:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The word ‘factions’ in the Greek is hairesis (HAH-ee-res-is), meaning “a religious or philosophical sect” and the resulting division it causes. As such, some translations render the word as “divisions,” like the English Standard Version. It’s a “self-chose opinion” rooted in sectarian loyalty—i.e. one’s favored sect—rather than a viewpoint rooted in the rightly-divided Word of God.
There’s nothing wrong with being part of a sect, of course, as long as it’s a healthy and legitimate group. In fact, to go through the foundational stage of spiritual growth it’s nigh necessary to hook up with a specific group; and every group has its governing structure and a list of official doctrines, written or unwritten. To function in this organization believers have to submit to the corresponding servant-leaders and assent to their major doctrines, which doesn’t mean they’ll agree 100% because young believers simply don’t know enough to agree with absolute certainty (and by ‘young’ I mean young-in-the-Lord, not young-in-physical-age; someone could be 75 years-old and be young-in-the-Lord). So there’s nothing wrong with being a part of a sect in this manner. It’s sectarianism that’s of the flesh, as observed with the disciples above. Staunch sectarianism is an arrogant and divisive attitude of superiority and condemnation toward anyone who’s not part of the group in question. This is what ‘factions’ refers to in the above passage.
Believers make a mistake when they join a church/camp/sect and then limit themselves to the official ministers and doctrines therein. By doing so they cut themselves off from any minister or teaching that doesn’t jibe with their group. Why is this a mistake? Because it will bar them from vital biblical information that can bless them and set them free in one area or another. I could list scores of examples off the top of my head. For example, if you join a camp that supports amillennialism and strictly embrace their theology you can pretty much kiss goodbye the awesome biblical truths that reveal the nature of eternal life and everything surrounding it—literal glorified bodies, the new Jerusalem, the new earth, the new heavens (universe), etc.*
When I first became a Christian I visited several local assemblies before finally settling down in a quality fellowship for a decade where I was fed the best spiritual diet you could imagine. Like most people in the beginning levels of spiritual growth (i.e. STAGE TWO*) I thought this church and its camp was the best on earth and in some ways it was; it was a top-of-the-line ministry. However, I didn’t make the mistake of only feeding from the teachings of this ministry/sect. At least half my spiritual diet was from my own studies in the Scriptures, which I supplemented with the teachings from quality ministers inside and outside this camp via books, tapes, radio programs and so on.
* See this article if you’re not familiar with the Four Stages of Spiritual Growth.
Somehow I instinctively knew that it was a mistake to limit myself to one general mindset in the body of Christ and I’ve been exponentially blessed because of it.
Sectarians would argue that doing this creates confusion in believers because they’ll expose themselves to conflicting beliefs. For instance, one camp will say that Jehovah is a healing God and it’s always His will to heal whereas another group will argue that the LORD sometimes heals, but it’s not always his will and so you can never be sure. Yes, facing such contradictions can cause some immature believers to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and use it as an excuse to backtrack to darkness (STAGE ONE). Keep in mind, however, that people like this would’ve likely found another excuse to revert back to STAGE ONE. Let ’em go. Jesus said it’s only those who “continue in his word” and don’t give up who find the truth and are set free (John 8:31-32). God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, not of those who throw in the towel because one ministry teaches one thing and another contradicts it and it frustrates them (Hebrews 11:6).
Biblical Examples of Sectarianism
The aforementioned Greek word for sectarianism—hairesis (HAH-ee-res-is)—appears nine times in the New Testament and is used in reference to the two major factions of Judaism at the time of Christ, the Sadducees and Pharisees:
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party (hairesis) of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party (hairesis) of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The Sudducees and Pharisees were two rigid sects of Judaism, both of which Christ charged with false teachings (Matthew 16:5-12). This doesn’t mean that all of their doctrines were false, of course, but some of them were and they were important matters, not insignificant. For instance, the Sadducees didn’t believe in a future resurrection, angels or demons (Acts 23:8).
In John 5:39-40 Christ told the Hebrews who rejected him: “You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” Why did they reject the Messiah? Because of their rigid sectarianism. While the common people of 1st Century Israel received the ministry of Jesus, the factionalists—the Pharisees and Sadducees—were too blinded and puffed up by their sectarian “orthodoxy” to receive and therefore considered Christ a rival and wanted to murder him!
Interestingly, Christianity itself was referred to as a “sect” by non-Christians during the early church. Notice what the apostle Paul says to the procurator of Judea:
“I do confess to you, however, that I worship the God of our fathers according to the Way [i.e. Christianity], which they call a sect (hairesis).”
While Christianity was thought of as just another “sect” by non-believers, it really wasn’t. It’s “the Way” of truth (reality).
Paul Condemned Sectarianism
Like Jesus, Paul also had to correct believers who were starting to fall prey to a sectarian spirit:
My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. (12) What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
(13) Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
1 Corinthians 1:11-13
Believers at Corinth were starting to separate and look down on others based on their favorite teachers. This is bullheaded sectarianism. Paul corrected the problem by asking if Christ is divided because this is what the sectarian mindset does, it divides. Many believers in the body of Christ today won’t give heed to a word you have to say if you’re not part of their sect or camp. Some will even shun you, meaning they’ll refuse to associate with you or even give you the time of day.
Paul then addressed the fact that some Corinthians insisted that they followed Paul. In other words, they were “Paulites.” This didn’t stroke Paul’s ego, as it would many ministers today. Being a spiritual man, it offended him and he rebuked it by rhetorically asking if he was crucified for anyone or if anyone was baptized into his name. No human leader should be given the accolades and loyalty that belong to the Lord, not even someone as great as the apostle Paul.
Someone might understandably ask: “What’s wrong with the ones who claimed to ‘follow Christ,’ as shown in verse 12?” Nothing per se, as “following Christ” is the non-sectarian attitude all Christians should have, but we need to read between the lines here. The believers in Corinth who claimed to only “follow Christ” were actually saying that, since they followed Christ, they weren’t going to receive from (or submit to) the other genuine ministers in their midst, whether Paul, Apollos, Peter (aka Cephas) or otherwise. This was itself a sectarian spirit, which is why Paul rebuked it.
Paul addressed this problem again a little later in his letter:
You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men?
1 Corinthians 3:3-4
Copping a sectarian mentality is worldly! It provokes jealousy and strife. Those who succumb to it are not “participating in the divine nature,” as all Christians are called (2 Peter 1:4); on the contrary, they’re walking according to the flesh or, as Paul puts it here, behaving like “mere men.” For people in the world this is understandable, and this explains why you’ll see moronic partisans of every stripe on a regular basis, but for believers who are spiritually regenerated and able to walk in the spirit it’s totally unacceptable.
Sectarianism Comes to Antioch
The Bible offers an excellent example of how easy it is for sectarianism to slip into a church and infect the people, not only members of the congregation, but leaders as well.
The church at Jerusalem was established on the Day of Pentecost. It was the first Christian church and there’s evidence that it succumbed to some forms of legalism early on. Perhaps not wholly, but any amount of legalism is too much. After Stephen’s martyrdom, great persecution broke out against the church and the believers were scattered in every direction (Acts 7:54-8:1). Some of these Hebrew Christians went to Antioch, which was over 300 miles north, and shared the gospel with Gentiles (non-Jews). Antioch was in the Roman province of Syria, which is now southern Turkey. The Jerusalem church decided to send a minister up there to see what was going on and chose Barnabas, likely because he was from the same general region (Tarsus). Barnabas had nothing but good things to say about the awesome move of God in Antioch and enlisted the aid of Paul in teaching the “great numbers” of believers there for a whole year. Antioch wasn’t only the first non-Jewish church; it was the first one where believers were called “Christians.” These facts are relayed in Acts 11:19-26.
The church in Jerusalem was basically the headquarters of Christianity and, after some time, they sent Peter up to Antioch to check on the church there. Why? Likely for the sake of oversight since, in a sense, the Antioch church was a satellite fellowship. Perhaps they wanted to make sure it was orthodox.* Keep in mind that many in Jerusalem never met Paul and were understandably suspicious of him due to his infamous past. Another possibility is that some were jealous of this non-Jewish church’s success. Regardless of the reason, Peter visited the believers in Antioch and became so involved that he stayed quite some time, evidently longer than expected.
* By ‘orthodox’ I mean what the word literally means, “correct view,” and not what it has been corrupted into meaning over the centuries of church history.
It’s at this point that “certain men came from James” to the Antioch fellowship; James, by the way, was the Lord’s brother, the current pastor of the church at Jerusalem:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. (12) Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. (13) The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
There’s debate as to whether these men actually came with James’ blessing because the passage indicates that they were infected by legalism. What kind of legalism? The kind that insists on circumcision in order to be saved and encourages Jews to separate from Gentiles in accordance with Jewish tradition. Because of this, some commentators suggest that the men lied about having the support of the Jerusalem church, but the passage doesn’t state this. It literally says that they “came from James.” Besides, Peter was from the Jerusalem church and was, in fact, the previous pastor. Surely he would know if these men were lying about coming from the very church he was a leader!
The reason some commentators suggest that this group lied about coming “from James” is because they find it hard to believe that the Jerusalem church would send a team to Antioch who were infected by legalism, but that’s the insidious nature of this spiritual disease. It can infect anyone, any assembly, anywhere, anytime. In fact, it infected Peter in this very situation, a man who walked with the Lord for three years; a man who led the very first church fellowship on earth; a man who wrote two books of the New Testament inspired by the Holy Spirit. If Peter can fall prey to legalism anyone can!
Peter should have known better, of course, and this is why Paul boldly corrected him in public. Years prior, God gave Peter an amazing vision to show that non-Jews were granted the message of “repentance unto life” and, therefore, Jewish believers were no longer to disassociate from Gentile believers (Acts 10:9 – 11:18). This is why Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Unfortunately, Peter succumbed to fear in this situation. He was “afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” and therefore “separated himself” from the Gentile believers. Peter’s sectarianism was so great that he stopped eating with the non-Jewish believers! How would you feel if you were one of the Gentile believers in Antioch? You’d feel like a lesser Christian than the Jewish ones. You’d feel unworthy, especially since Peter literally walked with the Lord for three years and was the former pastor of the first church on earth! Peter had so much influence that the other Jewish believers followed his example of separating from the Gentile believers, even Barnabas who was a leader at the Antioch church!
Is it any wonder that Paul couldn’t keep silent, that he was so incensed he openly rebuked Peter right then and there?
Make no mistake, although there are many different “camps” of believers in the body of Christ today, there is no place for the sectarianism that Peter temporarily fell prey to. And, please, don’t think you or your assembly leaders are immune to this arrogant spirit of exclusivity and divisiveness; if pillars like Peter and Barnabas can fall prey to it, any of us can if we’re not careful. Needless to say, be on your guard and, like Paul, refuse to tolerate it, in yourself or others.*
* It should be added that Paul had a somewhat different attitude when he was in Jerusalem at the time of Acts 21:17-26. In the center of Jewish culture Paul accommodated it. Why? Because he wanted to insure a peaceful atmosphere in Jerusalem since many Jewish believers were suspicious of him. This was in accordance with Paul’s attitude expressed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where he said, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Rigid Sectarianism is Spiritual Immaturity
When Jesus’ disciples automatically condemned someone outside their group who was simply doing a good work they revealed their immaturity. They were young believers at this point—STAGE TWO. Jesus, on the other hand, was spiritually mature—STAGE FOUR*—and that’s why he didn’t mind one bit that this guy was driving out demons in His name. In fact, Jesus was no doubt elated that someone believed strongly enough to take the initiative and advance God’s kingdom in such an authoritative manner—and the man didn’t even have formal backing!
* If you’re not familiar with the Four Stages of Spiritual Growth see this article.
I see unhealthy sectarianism fairly regularly in the church and it always repels me. Here’s a good example: I worked with a guy for a number of years and, at first, he couldn’t say enough praise about the church he was attending. This is good to a degree. We should have a positive attitude toward the fellowship God calls us to serve; otherwise we should go somewhere else. Yet this guy’s attitude bordered on excessive. He kept trying to get me to come to his church for this or that function when I was perfectly happy at the fellowship I was serving. Then something went sour and he left his church. All his accolades suddenly vanished. Although he didn’t revert to overt backbiting, he now had nothing good to say about his former assembly. A year or so later he found another fellowship and, once again, it was the greatest church on earth and any person who wasn’t going there was somehow a lesser Christian and he looked down on them. He didn’t openly say this, of course, it was just the general vibe he gave. Frankly, this is arrogance—a superiority complex—which isn’t a good trait to develop because “God opposes the proud, but gives his grace to the humble” (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5). A few years later he left that church. Apparently it wasn’t so great after all, huh?
I ran into this same guy recently and happened to mention a minister who functioned outside of the normal Christian circuit. Hostility suddenly flared on his face and it was clear that he couldn’t stand the man. Did this minister offend him in some personal way? Nope. He rejected him simply because he operated outside the typical church circles with which he was familiar. God forbid that the Lord would use someone outside conventional church circuits to serve people most believers would never likely reach!
Anytime you see professing Christians showing signs of staunch sectarianism like this, it signifies spiritual immaturity. It doesn’t matter if they’re elders, pastors, deacons, worship leaders or 80 years old. It’s a one-dimensional, puerile mindset. It’s spiritual tunnel vision. Yes, we all go through a period in our formative years thinking our church or camp is the best and most blessed on the planet, but then we hopefully grow up. Unfortunately, all believers grow older, but not all believers grow up. And that’s why I’m writing this article—to inspire people to grow out of myopic faction-ism and progress to spiritual maturity!
Sectarian Believers argue Doctrine from a Sectarian Standpoint
You may have noticed that certain believers defend or denounce certain doctrines according to sectarian loyalties and boundaries. For instance, someone might denounce something you believe or teach because there’s a group he/she objects to that also teaches it, at least in some form. Or say you teach something that doesn’t gel with the religious tradition of another believer and s/he instantly writes it off as false doctrine without even studying the issue. Let me give you an example: In my book HELL KNOW I have a fairly long section on the Judgment Seat of Christ. A minister wrote me and lambasted me for deviating from Evangelical tradition. As I read his email it became clear that he didn’t even read the section of the book in question, at least not fully. Moreover his scriptural “evidence” was scant and he relied on quoting Evangelical slogans that aren’t actually in the Bible. I wrote him back the same day and explained the matter in detail. The only answer I got back was chirping crickets.
For the record, I’m an Evangelical believer, but I’m not sectarian about it, as was evidently the case with this minister who wrote me. If what Evangelicals teach is thoroughly biblical than I’ll embrace it; if not, I’ll reject it and expose it as unbiblical with clear scriptural support (if I didn’t have clear biblical support I wouldn’t reject it in the first place). The Bible teaches: “Do not go beyond what is written [in God’s Word]” (1 Corinthians 4:6), not “Do not go beyond what American Evangelicals say is truth.”
Here’s a truth that all spiritually mature believers embrace: It doesn’t matter what one group believes or another group believes on any issue; the only thing that matters is what the truth is. Why? Because truth in the Greek is alétheia (ah-LAY-thee-ah), which literally means “reality.” In other words, ‘truth’ simply means the way it really is. My point is that the truth is the truth regardless of what any person or group believes. So when you’re trying to discover the truth on a certain issue it’s irrelevant what this or that sect believes. All that matters is the truth and the truth is the clear revelation of the Word of God (John 17:17) as we continue in it, interpreting in context and in light of the greater context of the entire Bible (John 8:31-32). Here are the four common-sense rules of hermeneutics; that is, Bible interpretation:
- Context is king: Meaning the surrounding text reveals the obvious meaning of each passage
- Scripture interprets Scripture: Meaning every passage must be interpreted in light of the context of the entire Bible and that the Bible itself is its best interpreter. In other words, one’s interpretation of a passage must gel with what the rest of Scripture teaches; the more overt and detailed passages obviously expand our understanding of the more sketchy and ambiguous ones.
- Take the Bible literally unless it’s clear that figurative language is being used: In which case you look for the literal truth that the symbolism intends to convey.
- If the plain sense makes sense—and is in harmony with the rest of Scripture—don’t look for any other sense lest you end up with nonsense: This includes the “plain sense” of the whole of Scripture on any given topic. In other words, if an individual or group comes up with an interpretation that is opposed to the plain-sense meaning that all the passages in the Bible obviously point to on that subject, then it must be rejected. This fourth rule is essentially the other three combined.
These “rules” are really just common-sense guidelines for discovering truth and being set free from religious error. Although the Bible is simple enough that the simplest of persons can receive from it and be blessed, it’s also deep and complex, which means that as believers grow in the Lord they naturally grow in knowledge, understanding and wisdom. As such, one believer might have a grasp on a passage or topic and another might have a fuller understanding. A good example of this can be seen in Acts 18:24-26 where Apollos, a very learned man and powerful speaker, had a limited understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What he knew was good and accurate, as far as he understood it, but it wasn’t a full or complete understanding. Aquila and Pricilla discerned this when they heard him speak; so they took Apollos aside, and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (verse 26).
Staunch sectarians aren’t like this, however; they argue for or against a doctrine based purely on sectarianism. If what you teach doesn’t gel with their sect you’re automatically wrong; if what you teach is adhered to by a group they object to you’re wrong. What the Scriptures clearly and consistently teach on the topic is irrelevant to them (even though they claim otherwise). All that matters to them is strict adherence to their group’s official doctrines. It’s a spiritually immature mindset and decidedly STAGE TWO.
“You’re Not One of Us”
As noted at the beginning of this article, when you get around rigid sectarians the general vibe you’ll pick up is, “You’re not one of us.” This is precisely why Jesus’ disciples tried to stop the man who was exorcizing demons in Jesus’ name in Luke 9:49-50 – he wasn’t one of them. If you’re not officially part of their group sectarians will typically perceive you as an outsider and view you with a suspicious eye. You might even sense them looking down on you. It’s arrogance.
Back in the late 80s I stopped over my boss’ house for something work-related. It just so happened that his church was having a cell group meeting at the time. The lady who answered the door was an elder from the church and she gave me this overtly suspicious look, apparently because I wasn’t “one of them.” It was very odd and I didn’t feel welcome. Shortly later the head elder cornered me in the kitchen and kept robotically asking with strangely dead eyes, “Why don’t you come to our church sometime?” “Why don’t you come to our church sometime?” I’m not making this up.
In a less extreme sense Carol and I have experienced this “You’re not one of us” mentality at a couple of churches we’ve visited over the years. It’s sectarianism, which is a form of legalism, i.e. sterile religiosity or counterfeit non-Christianity.
Sectarians think they have a Patent on Truth
To be expected, rigid sectarians believe they have a monopoly on faith. In other words, they think their group is pure in doctrine and practice or, at least, vastly more accurate than other sects or ministries. For example, in 2001 Carol and I were attending a church where I taught adult Sunday school and a handful of sermons. I was considering getting credentials with this group. On one occasion the top elder and I had to travel by car for over an hour, which gave us the opportunity to really talk. Although we were from altogether different generations and sub-cultures we were both believers and that’s all that really mattered. At one point he made the statement, “Dirk I believe we have the truth,” referring to his denomination. You see, he was convinced that his denomination was the one true Christian sect, pure in doctrine and practice.
God bless this elderly brother. He was sincere, but sincerely wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, they were a legitimate Christian denomination, but they were hardly the most accurate sect in Christendom.
I observed this same mentality in a woman I was corresponding with last year where we discussed a theological issue in detail. Before the discussion got going I informed her that I was open to other viewpoints but wouldn’t embrace anything if it couldn’t be clearly proven from the Scriptures through multiple passages, which is in accordance with God’s Word (1 Corinthians 4:6). Proving something scripturally of course includes disproving arguments based on misunderstood texts that counter the position.*
*NOTE: See the article Berean Spirit — What is It? How Do You Cultivate It? for details.
She was courteous as we dialogued, but she kept insisting that her position was the right one despite clear evidence to the contrary. I cited this evidence and elaborated repeatedly, but it failed to persuade her. We kindly went back and forth as I gave her ample opportunity to prove her position and disprove the evidence that contradicted it, but she wasn’t able to do it. The plain-as-day passages I kept citing were unable to penetrate her indoctrination. Finally, she got upset and said she wasn’t going to write again. To her credit, she was willing to break away from erroneous tradition in certain areas, and I respected that, but one of the most important hermeneutical rules is “Scripture interprets Scripture” and she was unable to support her position in light of the several clear passages that proved it false.
Unsurprisingly, I discovered during the course of our discussion that she staunchly followed some peculiar teacher and the position she advocated was, of course, the official position of this man’s small group. In fact, she often parroted his words. You see? She was believing and arguing from the basis of sectarianism and not from the basis of Scripture alone. When people are like this you can dialogue with them until you’re blue in the face with as many clear Scriptures as you can muster but it’s not likely going to change anything. Why? Because they’ve developed a rigid sectarian spirit and are stubbornly intent on only believing what their preferred teacher or sect advocates, regardless of what God’s Word clearly and consistently teaches.
Rigid Sectarianism Limits and Confines Believers
This is actually one of the worst things about sectarianism in general and especially rigid sectarianism – it can limit and confine the believer and actually prevent him or her from healthy spiritual growth. How so? Practically every church assembly is part of a larger ministry or denomination. The pastor and associates of each fellowship are generally educated and trained at the schools of these sects and understandably espouse the same doctrines and doctrinal parameters. Here’s the problem: What if they’re wrong in certain areas? If they’re wrong that means what they believe is false or, at best, only partially true. The problem with this, of course, is that inaccurate beliefs are false and therefore cannot set the believer free since only the truth can set us free (John 8:31-32). Depending on how rigid the group is about their set of doctrines, the believers in the congregation are limited and confined by the beliefs of the group. Let me give an example.
I was communicating with a brother in the Lord from the other side of the country via email and we started to develop a good relationship over the course of a couple months. We compared insights from our studies and experiences and it was a blessing. One day he informed me that he didn’t believe in the devil or evil spirits, which is nothing new since the Sadducees didn’t believe in them either, as shown in the Gospels & Acts. As a non-sectarian Bible teacher, I know that no one would come to this conclusion by simply studying the Bible. In other words, I knew that this peculiar belief was likely an official doctrine of the assembly or sect he was hooked up with and, sure enough, that was the case.
The fact that he didn’t believe in the devil or demonic spirits didn’t make him an unbeliever because it’s not an essential doctrine to salvation, like the Lordship of Christ. But this belief would certainly limit his spiritual growth in some ways. For instance, it would negatively affect his understanding of spiritual warfare; as well as limit his appeal in the body of Christ, confining him to his peculiar group.
Another good example would be the untold millions of believers who reject the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit because their church or sect is either ignorant of them or, more likely, teaches that they’ve been “done away with” after the first century. Because of this demonic doctrine they eagerly deny spiritual gifts whereas the Bible encourages us to “eagerly desire” them! (See 1 Corinthians 12:1,31 & 14:1). You see? Because of sectarianism, believers in these assemblies are restricted from powerful truths of God’s Word. In other words, sectarianism prevents them from seeing and experiencing life-changing truths.
NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the baptism of the Holy Spirit see the article Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The bottom line is this: Just because a certain denomination, camp or church labels something a “false doctrine” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really an unbiblical teaching. It may simply be a biblical teaching of which they’re ignorant. If this is the case it’s a truth they actually need because it would bless them.
Untold thousands of believers limit their spiritual growth because of foolish sectarianism. It’s often a case of just not wanting to leave the comfort of what they know and currently believe. They refuse to change churches or denominations. They stay where they’re comfortable while others move up the mountain of spiritual growth because they’re willing to go through a little discomfort to reach new levels of glory in Christ.
Along the same lines is a group’s resistance to questions by members within their group. Say a member questions some of the sect’s doctrines or asks why God would do this or that and allow such and such. There’s nothing wrong with seeking answers to questions like, of course, but in many sectarian groups questioning like this would mark the individual as a doubter and that’s a no-no.
Resistance to questions isn’t good because it assumes that the believer, or group/sect, has all the answers and that’s just not the case. Believing in God is merely the beginning of the journey, not the end (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10 & Psalm 111:10). Once a person finds the LORD he or she will have more questions than ever, not the reverse. Jesus said to believers “seek and you will find” not “if you seek answers to questions you’re an evil doubter and must be excommunicated!”
Every day I have questions swirling around in my mind that I seek answers to. Questioning is good because it inspires you to seek & find the truth and, once you discover it – even if it’s in partial form – the truth will set you free (and, by “truth,” I mean the way it really is).
It goes without saying, don’t allow your spiritual well-being and growth to be limited or confined by the rigid sectarianism of any pastor, group, church or ministry.
Rigid Sectarianism Needlessly Separates Believers
Another major problem with rigid sectarianism is that it unnecessarily separates Christians – genuine brothers and sisters in the Lord can’t have close fellowship because of some non-essential doctrine. I see this all the time. Take, for example, a believer from an Evangelical sect who doesn’t believe in faith-based healing and another from a Charismatic camp who does. The former might think the latter is loony or fanatical (even though faith and healing are huge topics of the Bible); whereas the latter might look down on the former for not adhering to what he or she considers the full gospel.
You can insert practically any non-essential doctrine into this scenario and it results in the same problem – genuine believers separated from close fellowship with other believers due to sectarianism. It’s both sad and unnecessary.
In the previous section, I spoke of a brother who told me he didn’t believe the devil was a literal spiritual being, nor did he believe in evil spirits in the obvious sense. Despite this, we were developing a good relationship when he abruptly stopped communicating after the topic came up where I maintained that there is indeed a literal devil and impure spirits and he obviously decided that it was too big of an issue to continue a relationship. Despite this difference, we were kindred spirits who could have had a rewarding friendship in the Lord. Our differences would have been addressed in future discussions when the topic in question came up, hopefully with an open mind, an open Bible and an honest attitude. At the end of the day, people have to be free to seek things out for themselves and draw their own conclusions on their spiritual journey, but this doesn’t mean that your relationship with them has to cease if your conclusions differ. Unfortunately, it did in this case. The brother decided to allow our differences to put an end to our developing friendship. But hopefully he’ll be open to a relationship some time down the line.
Believers cut themselves off from relationships all the time for sectarian differences. Take the lady in the previous section who disagreed with me on one very non-essential issue. When she saw that I wouldn’t embrace her position because she failed to prove it scripturally she got upset and ceased communicating.
It’s for this reason that I’m extremely careful about what I reveal when meeting new believers and trying to develop relationships. I know that if I share something that they staunchly disagree with due to their spiritual upbringing and indoctrination our fellowship will likely end right then and there. For example, if you speak in tongues (which is synonymous with praying in the spirit*) be careful who you share it with and how you share it. If you come across a brother or sister who rigidly rejects this gift they’ll drop you like a hot potato, which explains why I almost didn’t include any mention of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in this teaching.
* Speaking in tongues and praying in the spirit are one and the same; see 1 Corinthians 14:14-15. This, by the way, is not the same as the public gift of tongues, which requires an interpreter.
Does the Bible teach that we should cancel relationships if we disagree on some non-essential doctrine? No. Here’s what Paul taught on the matter:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. (2) One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (3) The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (4) Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
(5) One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
Paul brings up two “disputable matters” in this passage: In verse 2 he mentions the issue of eating everything or being a vegetarian; in verse 5 it mentions how some consider certain days holy – i.e. “holidays” – while others considers every day the same. The person who has the fuller knowledge and understanding on the issue is “strong” while the person with lesser revelation is “weak” (see 15:1).* Regardless, the one who has the fuller understand is not to look down on the one with the lesser because it would be arrogant. Similarly, the one with the lesser revelation must not condemn the one with the fuller. You could insert any non-essential doctrine or issue into this scenario and it would apply.
* Some issues are not a matter of being “strong” or “weak” because they’re issues of preference, like holidays. For instance, I know believers who celebrate Christmas and Easter because these days represent the birth and resurrection of Christ respectively and I know others who refuse to celebrate them for one reason or another. It’s a matter of preference or opinion, regardless of one’s reasons. As Paul taught, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” In cases like this it’s not a matter of one being stronger and another weaker.
Paul concluded the matter with these powerful words:
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Whether someone is “strong” with fuller revelation or “weak” with lesser, we are to accept one another just as Christ accepted us! Furthermore, doing this brings praise to God! Do you want to bring praise to God? Then be sure to warmly accept brothers and sisters in the Lord who disagree with you on non-essential matters.
Nowhere does the Bible say we are to cancel relationships due to non-essential doctrines or issues, like the brother and sister did with me in the above examples. On the contrary, we’re to accept one another.
The only just reasons for breaking relations with other believers (or so-called believers) are:
- If the person advocates false teaching on essential matters, like the Lordship of Christ or the importance of keeping in repentance.
- If the individual refuses to repent of a legitimate transgression (Matthew 18:15-17).
- If the person is incorrigibly contentious or fleshly (Romans 16:17-18 & 2 Timothy 3:1-5). It’s important to keep in mind, however, that in all these cases the offending individual should be prayed for and should receive the warm hand of fellowship if s/he makes a 180 at some point, like the fornicator who repented and was welcomed back into the Corinth church (2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
When you see brothers or sisters in the Lord who are quick to cease fellowship over non-essential issues you can be sure that they’re infected by rigid sectarianism. It’s a form of legalism. It’s sad because it needlessly separates Christians and, just as bad, limits the lives of those with lesser revelation.
What about Godly People who are Sectarian?
I said earlier that there’s nothing wrong with being part of a sect, as long as it’s healthy and legitimate, which means there’s also nothing wrong with being a fivefold minister within a sect, like being a pastor. In fact, it’s easier to minister and pioneer churches within an existing camp than to pioneer as a non-sectarian from scratch for obvious reasons. I knew a minister in the late 90s, for instance, who was pioneering a local assembly and had guaranteed financial support for five full years. That certainly makes it easier to start a church, to say the least.
However, the more spiritually mature a believer is the less sectarian he or she will be. Truly godly believers see the body of Christ with an increasingly universal eye rather than the limited lens of their relatively small group. You’ll come across such believers and ministers in every legitimate camp. While they belong to a sect and operate within its boundaries, they’re not sectarian. There’s nothing wrong with this and these believers are godly and mature, i.e. STAGE FOUR.
Unfortunately, there are some believers in ministry who are staunchly sectarian and they’re definitely not STAGE FOUR. They’re not even STAGE THREE. How do I know? Because to be STAGE THREE you have to be able to think and function independently of your sect/church and these people are unable to do this, which is why they’re so staunch about their sect. Even if someone who’s rigidly sectarian shows signs of genuine godliness—i.e. spiritual maturity—they’re still manacled to STAGE TWO. It may be high level STAGE TWO, but it’s STAGE TWO nevertheless. Such believers clearly have a hand or finger in the next two stages, but because of their blatant faction-ism they’re decidedly STAGE TWO and therefore still spiritually immature to some degree. Here’s how such a person would appear on the Four Stages diagram:
NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the Four Stages of Spiritual Growth see this article.
Understanding the “Communal Spirit”—Good and Bad
There’s a mindset that develops amongst the members of any group, which I call a communal spirit. Every organized group of people develops such a “spirit,” including marriages, families, close friends, clubs, companies, cities and nations. It’s the general social mindset of the people within the community in question and it can be good or bad or somewhere in between.
Church fellowships develop a communal spirit. Take, for instance, the seven churches of Asia Minor that Jesus evaluated in Revelation 2-3. Generally speaking, the Lord accessed these assemblies collectively and not as individuals, which shows that His descriptions were in reference to a communal spirit and not an individual one. The church in Philadelphia, for instance, was known for faithfulness and perseverance whereas the church in Laodicea was known for being lukewarm. Most of the other churches were known for both good and bad traits, like the Ephesians who were acknowledged for their good deeds, hard work and perseverance, but were corrected for losing their passion for the LORD on a relational level.
In the 1800s a white man was assimilated into a Native tribe for years, but later re-assimilated with his own people. He chronicled his experiences in a book where he described the communal spirit that he encountered in the tribe. I forget the name of the book, but he wrote of his experience in terms of being in a “fog.” When he eventually returned to American civilization he felt as if he had “woken up.”
The congregants of a fellowship whose pastor and staff are in STAGE TWO will experience a religious fog. This “fog” will likely increase the longer they stay at this assembly and, consequently, the longer they stay the more difficult it will be to break free of it. Let me give you an example.
There was a big church in my area in the late 80s where the pastor had an overtly authoritarian spirit. I know because I heard quite a few of his sermons on radio and cassette. He had an overwhelming air and it was easy to see why people would follow him, but I didn’t sense any love or joy in his words. I developed a friendship with someone who attended this church for a season. Some of his relatives and friends were members, but they were so wowed by the pastor’s natural leadership qualities that they failed to see his potentially harmful spirit. My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t so wowed. He said he visited the church many times before deciding not to stay. He told his relatives and friends, “He’s a charismatic speaker and all, but I just don’t see any love or joy there.” It wasn’t much later that the church had two mass exoduses over a period of about a year.* By this point the church had a bad reputation in the community and it never really recovered. The pastor died prematurely a dozen years later.
* Not splits, since a split is when those who leave a church start their own church. An exodus is when believers leave and disperse to other fellowships.
Before the breakdown and decline of this church there were red flags of authoritarianism everywhere: congregants had to get the pastor’s approval for large purchases, like a refrigerator; if someone left the church his or her relatives and friends were instructed to cut all ties; people were encouraged to quit their well-paying jobs and start their own businesses; men with longer hair were pressured to cut it and maintain shorter hair length; the entrance gates were closed and the doors locked during services; believers were discouraged from going to the restroom during the ridiculously long Sunday services; various individuals were literally screamed at in front of the congregation if the pastor thought they were going astray; etc. If you ever saw the excellent 1980 film Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, this church was verging on being that authoritarian.
Since the Bible plainly teaches that pastors are not to “lord it over” believers (1 Peter 5:1-4), they have no business telling congregants where to work, how to wear their hair, what kind of car to buy, what kind of clothes to wear, what style of music to listen to, what kind of movies to watch, etc. They’re not the final authority in believers’ lives, God is. Believers should simply be fed the Word of God and encouraged to develop a relationship with the Lord. This includes teaching them important principles, like how to guard their hearts as the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23), not to mention personal sanctification. As believers grow they’ll naturally make their own decisions about these types of things.
At any rate, before the decline of this church it had a communal spirit of arrogance. Why? Because the congregants took on the spirit of their authoritarian pastor. Waitresses at local restaurants would dread the groups of congregants that would come to eat after services because they behaved with a palpable air of pomposity.
My wife and I were part of a fellowship for about seven years. The church had numerous positive elements and I was ultimately accepted as a regular teacher, giving sermons roughly every other week. The longer we stayed, however, the more negatives we observed. For instance, there was toleration of a relative of the pastor who was a pathological liar and ran around the church slandering people, including elders, which naturally created strife and caused quality people to leave from time to time.
I call this the “Eli Syndrome” based on the biblical account of the priest of Shiloh, Eli, and his tolerance of his wicked sons. This is off-topic a bit, but it ties into the main point: Eli’s two sons were “in the ministry” but are described in the Bible as wicked men who had no regard for the LORD and even fornicated with the young women who served at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:12,17,22)! Although Eli rebuked his sons at one point it’s clear that his heart wasn’t in it, so to speak, and his sons continued in their wicked ways (verses 23-25). What was going on? Eli loved his sons, as any parent, but he foolishly only loved them with soft, feminine love. This was a huge mistake and ultimately resulted in God’s judgment, which entailed the premature death of both sons, as well as the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, Eli’s own death, the death of his daughter-in-law and the departure of God’s anointing from his direct bloodline (1 Samuel 4:11,18-22).
This could have all been avoided if only Eli would’ve been willing to love his sons with the necessary tough love, which would involve more than just a half-hearted verbal correction. It would mean a stern public rebuke and removal from the ministry altogether until they humbly repented and proved themselves. Loving his sons solely with gentle love resulted in their deaths whereas implementing tough love would have saved them. Are you getting this? Tough love would have literally saved their lives, not to mention Eli’s ministry. It goes without saying that tough love is sometimes necessary. It’s a good thing, not bad.*
* See the teaching Gentle Love and Tough Love for more details on this topic.
You’ll occasionally see evidence of this “Eli Syndrome” in today’s churches. A pastor will grant status to some undeserving kin, usually children, grandchildren or siblings, which doesn’t necessarily have to be an official position. The pastor will then tend to condone the relatives’ carnal antics, making excuses for them, etc. As long as you get along with these relatives you’ll have the pastor’s favor, but if you dare take a stand against any carnality you’ll be blacklisted one way or another and eventually forced to leave. Like Eli, the pastor may offer a weak verbal correction for appearances sake while the relatives continue to wreak havoc, overtly or covertly. There’s only one sad end to the Eli Syndrome: The corruption of the ministry as sin works like yeast through the dough of the fellowship and the inevitable departure of God’s presence and anointing. If only the pastor would implement tough love!
This is what was going on at the church Carol & I were attending. There were times when I instinctively had to take a break from attending services and I didn’t know why; I just knew I had to take a break and keep my head clear. Of course churches with a STAGE TWO mentality don’t take too kindly to those who take breaks from services, especially if you’re a teacher, and so the carnal tongues started wagging. Nevertheless, when I needed to take a break I took a break and I didn’t ask for the pastor’s permission. This had nothing to do with rebellion, but the simple fact that I needed to rest and get refreshed (I was working a full-time secular job at the time). Whether the pastor approved or not, I had to do what I had to do to stay healthy.
It wasn’t until a few years after leaving this assembly that I understood why I had to occasionally take breaks and refresh. I was instinctively preventing myself from getting sucked into the negative communal spirit of this fellowship. I was wisely keeping the religious fog of that assembly at bay—preventing it from getting its claws stuck in me. Consequently, when the LORD called us to leave after seven years it wasn’t difficult to depart because I never let its negative communal spirit get its clutches in me. If you’re serving at a fellowship and experience such a religious fog you’ll have to be careful to keep yourself from getting sucked into it. Seek the Lord about whether or not you should stay and certainly leave if (or when) the Holy Spirit gives you the go-ahead.
Thankfully, assemblies can have a good communal spirit, like the aforementioned church in Philadelphia, as well as the church in Smyrna (Revelation 3:7-13 & 2:8-11). The fellowship that I went to for a decade from 1986-1996 when I was a young developing believer (STAGE TWO) had a quality communal spirit. It wasn’t a perfect assembly—no fellowship is—but it had a healthy communal spirit and I was exponentially blessed. Ideally you’ll want to hook up with a ministry that has a healthy collective character, particularly if you’re in STAGE TWO. The exception would be if you’re spiritually mature—i.e. STAGE FOUR—and the Lord’s calling you to serve at an assembly and help set them free from a negative communal spirit. Chapter 9 of my book Legalism Unmasked shows how to do this; or scroll down to the section “How to Purge Legalism” in this article.
Rigid Sectarianism is a Red Flag
As noted at the beginning, factionalism can easily be observed in pseudo-Christian sects and cults, like the aforementioned Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. But – again – Mainstream and Evangelical groups can just as easily cop a sectarian spirit. For instance, the church that had the cell group at my boss’ house was of the Evangelical-Charismatic persuasion. Sectarianism is a form of legalism and, as we’ve seen, legalism is no respecter of persons or church/denomination boundaries; it can infiltrate any one, any church, any sect.
Needless to say, if you are part of a group or trying to be a part of a group that shows signs of rigid sectarianism, it’s a red flag. Pray about it and confront it wisely. If you ultimately see no positive change I’d seriously consider heading for the hills.
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