3 Ways The Gospel Can Divide A Church

by Jared C. Wilson April 7, 2016

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household." – Matthew 10:34-36

A curious thing happens when a church and its shepherds are committed to this radical notion of gospel-centrality. If we will focus on the biblical Jesus, we will tend to be motivated to reach and primed to attract the same kind of people the biblical Jesus did. And while most church folks like the ideas of mission and church growth, when the rubber meets the road in your proclamational engagement, you will find quite a few of those same agreeable souls eager to pump the brakes.

Why does this happen?

Well, the same gospel that by its nature unifies also tends to divide. We don't usually expect this kind of division in a local church — we are typically otherwise fearful about conflict arising from music styles, programming choices, and personality types — but the gospel can divide a church just as easily as it might a family. But actually there's nothing more prone to stirring up mess than the grace of God that has arrived to create order.

Whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, people get poked in the idols. And people don't like that.

How does this happen?

Here are 3 common ways the gospel might cause division:

1. The gospel critiques the self-righteous.

The very news of the good news is that we are saved not by our works but by Christ's work. Our righteousness merits us nothing. In fact, our righteousness can very often "get in the way" of our believing in and enjoying the finished work of Christ. People who are very much preoccupied with their own performance, how they come across religiously, or their position in the church as based on their gifts, intellect, tenure, or social standing often find the regular and copious teaching of grace discombobulating.

I once followed up with a long-time church lady on a sustained absence from worship, and was surprised to hear her say she had stopped coming because we had a certain man serving as a Sunday morning greeter. I asked her if he had hurt her in some way or if she knew of some ongoing sin in his life we ought to be aware of. She couldn't really speak to either of those concerns but instead said many people in our small town remembered what he was like (before his salvation) and so it was not good for our image to have him be the first face somebody saw.

Before he came to Christ, he was sort of an "angry cuss" and given to drunkenness too. He was, by God's grace, not like that any more — in fact, many of us who only knew him post-conversion only knew how incredibly friendly and joyful and generous and helpful and eager-to-serve this guy was. But she could not forget his past. He was not the "right sort."

She said to me, "I just like things black and white. This is too much gray."

Really, it was the opposite. The gospel had washed him white as snow, but in her mind the "math" of the gospel didn't add up. It messed with her sense of propriety and religious decency. She was suffering from what Dane Ortlund calls the "moral vertigo" of the gospel.

You will see this happen quite often among the self-righteous and the religiously proud, and in fact, if you preach grace hard enough, you will begin to expose over time self-righteousness and religious pride in people (maybe even yourself) where you didn't even know it existed.

2. The gospel frustrates the hobby horse riders.

It's not just those who love the Law too much who get aggravated by gospel-centrality, it's also those who love anything else too much! Pastor long enough and you will meet a variety of interesting and relationally-taxing hobby horse riders. A brief survey of the kinds of people you will meet in your church neighborhood:

The culture warrior who's frustrated you're not patriotic or political enough.

The end-times junkie who's frustrated you're not eschatological enough.

The self-styled academic who's frustrated you don't really "dig into the meat" of the Greek participles or whatever.

The activist who's frustrated you don't give people enough social justice for homework.

That is a very small sampling. Really, there can be as many frustrated people as there are hobby horses, but those are some of the more common ones. I've been hounded by theology nerds, accused by culture warriors, and worn out by the activists. You cannot expect the preaching of grace to always be met with grace in return. You should in fact expect that being single-minded about the gospel to frustrate those whose minds are set on something else.

3. The gospel irritates those who don't want to change.

The gospel announces that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but this faith, as the Reformers say, isn't alone. Sanctified works flow from the sanctified heart. The gospel actually changes us. The Holy Spirit actually changes the hearts of sinners who now want to please God and grow in the likeness of Christ. That's just one way change is effected by the gospel of Jesus.

But a church that embraces the gospel as its one thing begins to change too. Its preaching and teaching changes, and thus its discipleship and its counseling. Its interests change, its emphases change, its reason for being changes. And it will grow — if not numerically, at least Spiritually.

It has become a ministry truism — because it's true — that church folks want to change until they actually do. And every church says it wants to grow. But actually growing will show whether that's true or not. Most people don't like change. People who are not set on the gospel especially don't like change. So when the gospel begins to change a church, and as the gospel grows a church, it cannot help but change — you can't grow and not change! —  this really freaks people out.

I asked for a meeting once with a couple whose complaints and criticism (against me and against the ministry in general) were beginning to concern me. Most of these complaints were carried out behind my back and only later revealed by third parties or heard through the grapevine. So I began by asking if I had offended them in some way or hurt them, if maybe their complaint was driven by something I had done that I wasn't aware of. They could not put their finger on anything specific I had done to deserve their complaints. Instead, the husband offered this: "The church has changed. It's not the same as it used to be."

He only elaborated briefly, but apparently the church had grown enough numerically that it didn't feel the same as it did "in the good old days." He didn't know everybody like he used to. This obviously made him uncomfortable. It made him uncomfortable enough to seek to subvert the ministry and the growth of the church.

These are not uncommon divisions. And they can prove subtly problematic and increasingly toxic in a church, especially when people disturbed by the gospel begin to gather likeminded grumblers and gossipers. It doesn't take a majority of people to split a church, in fact. It only takes a determined minority working against an unguarded, unprepared leadership. If you are committed to gospel-centrality, in fact, don't ever assume this couldn't happen to you. In fact, you should prepare for the powerful gospel to do its glorious sorting of belief from unbelief.

And you should use these challenges to further encourage your resolute centrality on the gospel! Another concerned church member who once hijacked a church meeting with some out-of-the-blue concerns that were new to me said to me when I followed up with her privately: "Jared, we know your thing is the gospel. And you do that really well. But sometimes we just need to hear other things."

Whenever your church, your fellow leaders, or you yourself get tired of the gospel's meddlin', that's when you know to bring a double dose.

"Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?" — Galatians 4:16

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