What is the Cause of Church Splits?

Nobody enjoys a car wreck, but we all inevitably slow down in traffic to peer out the window as we drive by, attempting to ascertain what happened and to (hopefully) learn something that will prevent such a tragedy from happening to us.

With over 20 years of full-time ministry under my belt (plus another 20+ as a pastor's kid), I've seen my share of ugly wrecks in church world.  I'm sure you've also heard the stories -- usually whispered around a kitchen table -- of a minor church disagreement erupting into a full-blown church split that affects lives and livelihoods, leaving a black eye on the local Body of Christ.

The stories of church splits are never fun.  Real people get hurt.  Reputations are slandered.  Hurt and heartache can echo for years due to unhealed wounds.  And nobody wins: not the church of origin nor the newly formed congregation that results from a church split.

Perhaps by looking at one church split story, we can all learn how to better guard our unity within the church that Christ bled for (Acts 20:28).
This story is my story.  You see, eighteen months ago, I went through a church split as the lead pastor (and founding pastor) of a church I love dearly.  

I barely survived the trauma of what one of my counselor's diagnosed as a "mass casualty event" (Yes, I said counselors plural.  Even pastors need therapy to ensure they are emotionally-healthy.).

The first thing you should know about church splits is this: at the time of this church split, even though I was the Founding Pastor, I had no idea what was happening behind my back. 

My wife and I were not privy to the cruel whispers and private gossip sessions engulfing our staff team and then spilling out into the membership during the COVID lockdowns.  

Looking back, I wish there was some sort of ministry alarm that would go off and alert a lead pastor when he is in danger of facing a church split.  But, there isn't one.  You usually have no idea that a church split is happening under your nose until after it has already occurred and the damage has been done.

My wife and I were completely taken by surprise.  We were focused on the primary crisis of navigating COVID lockdowns and frantically fundraising for our staff team.  During a crisis when I was putting out fires from COVID, I would look behind me for a bucket of water to be handed up to me... only to realize there was nobody behind me helping.

During this insane season of the COVID crisis now layered with an internal insurrection, I thought and truly believed that a minor misunderstanding at the staff level could be easily resolved with one honest and simple 5 minute conversation (and I still believe that to this day!).  

Unfortunately, when you're the lead pastor and staff members try to hijack the church out from under you, behind-the-scenes conversations and condemnations move quickly behind the pastor's back and rumors can spread like wildfire on Facebook.
So, in the interest of helping church leaders who read this blog and sparing you from the immense pain and hurt and betrayal of a church split in the future, allow me to ask and answer the main question: What is the cause of church splits? 

In a word: factions. 

Factions arise when there is a pile-up of disgruntled people who build up a case that becomes a driving fantasy.

Factions are driven by the What If:

  • "What if my assumptions are correct?"
  • "What if the rumors I've heard are true?
  • "What if my pastor - the same guy who led me to Christ and baptized me - what if he is actually a rotten person?"

Factions sadly live their lives on something that has not actually happened.

Factions thrive on anger.  Why anger?

When someone is hurt or experiences pain in their life, the person will often seek to numb the inward pain with outward anger. 

Anger is always secondary to a deeper hurt.  Anger allows the brain to release key hormones that soothe and numb the pain.

When someone is driven by anger, they can become emotionally-flooded.  This makes peaceful resolution difficult.  Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul wrote:

"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently."  (Galatians 6:1)

When angry people pile-up, you have a faction.  Factions are very manipulative and will often warp facts to fit their narrative.  Because anger arousal is high, it is difficult for the faction to parse facts from fiction.  

This is why the Scriptures warn believers against bitterness:

"See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." (Hebrews 12:15)

When factions form, conflict is inevitable.
The solution involves honest, gospel-centered conversation:

"Contrary to our instincts, hard conversations usually don't kill relationships.

They save them.

It's choosing the short, life-saving pain of surgery over the longterm, fatal pain of cancer."
(Josh Howerton)

Galatians 6:1 and Matthew 18:15-17 say to go to our brother.  
Ephesians 4:25-27 says to go without delay.

If a faction shuns/ghosts/refuses you, you can still forgive them.

Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a choice.

You have the rightful choice to untether your heart from their hurt.

"You can forgive even if the person who wronged you is unrepentant.

You can repent even if the person you've wronged won't forgive you.

But there can be no reconciliation without repentance from the wrong and forgiveness from the wronged."

(Jared Wilson)
"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."
(Ephesians 4:3)

At the church I love, we have decided on three proactive approaches to head off the forming of any future factions.

For what it's worth, here is what we have learned from this heartbreaking experience:

1. We will always choose conversation over condemnation.

2. We will always seek to maintain the relationship over trying to win an argument.

3.  We will always speak with honesty, not hypocrisy.

And as always, I choose to remain open and ready to meet with anyone, anytime, anywhere with a humble heart and a listening ear.

Jonathan Herron

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