Causes of Disunity
Old Testament prophets repeatedly called upon the people of Israel to obey God’s instructions. Disobedience and carelessness would lead to apostasy and disunity. Obedience to God’s laws was intended as a means to preserve the people from the natural consequences of sin and to sanctify them in the midst of many foreign nations. Following God’s will would create harmony among the people and strengthen their community resolve to withstand the inroads of the pagan and evil worship practices that surrounded them from almost every direction. God’s intention was for His people to be holy and to be a witness to the nations around them.
As the Lord said to them after delivering the Hebrews from Egypt: “ ‘Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” ’ ” (Deut. 4:5, 6, NKJV).
No question: were they to remain faithful, His people would be greatly blessed and would have been a blessing to others. Unfaithfulness, though, would lead to a host of problems, disunity being just one of many.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 13.
The history of the people of Israel is filled with stories of disobedience and anarchy, followed by a return to God and obedience, and then followed again with more disobedience and conflicts. This pattern repeats itself again and again. Each time God’s people consciously followed His will, they were blessed with peace and life. Each time they disobeyed and followed their own ways, their lives became miserable, filled with wars and conflicts. Even before Israel entered the Promised Land, God had predicted this pattern and offered the solution to avoid such dire consequences to their existence.
What is amazing in the book of Jeremiah is how God is seen as loving, merciful, and generous toward His people in spite of their rebellion, division, and idolatry. God constantly is inviting His people to return to Him and to repent from their wayward actions. Again and again God promised restoration and hope for the future.
“ ‘ “Return, backsliding Israel,” says the Lord; “I will not cause My anger to fall on you. For I am merciful,” says the Lord; “I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God, and have scattered your charms to alien deities under every green tree, and you have not obeyed My voice,” says the Lord’ ” (Jer. 3:12, 13, NKJV).
Jeremiah’s words were spoken at a time of general neglect of God’s Word. Although some reforms were started in the time of King Josiah, most people felt no spiritual urge to continue in faithful obedience to God. Their sins, idolatry, and self-centered lives were causing spiritual and political ruin. The more they regressed from doing God’s will, the more dreadful would be their future prospects. Yet, through Jeremiah, God pleaded with them. God had a better future in mind for them, and He longed to bring them back to prosperity, unity, and health. But this could come only if they would live by faith and all that true faith entails.
Stories from the book of Judges show the numerous negative consequences of Israel not following the Lord’s will. Soon after Israel entered into Canaan, people began to pattern their spiritual lives on the false religions of the Canaanites surrounding them—exactly what they were told not to do! Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only problem they were facing either.
Talk about a recipe for division and disunity among God’s people. The unity of the nation was to be found in their loyal obedience to the Lord of the covenant, the covenant that they had entered into with God. By doing, however, what was right in their own eyes—especially as they were being influenced by the surrounding nations—they were on the sure road to disaster. We are all fallen beings, and if left to our own devices, if left to follow the inclinations of our hearts, we’ll surely wander from the path that God calls us to walk on.
“The Lord had through Moses set before His people the result of unfaithfulness. By refusing to keep His covenant, they would cut themselves off from the life of God, and His blessing could not come upon them. At times these warnings were heeded, and rich blessings were bestowed upon the Jewish nation and through them upon surrounding peoples. But more often in their history they forgot God and lost sight of their high privilege as His representatives. They robbed Him of the service He required of them, and they robbed their fellow men of religious guidance and a holy example. They desired to appropriate to themselves the fruits of the vineyard over which they had been made stewards. Their covetousness and greed caused them to be despised even by the heathen. Thus the Gentile world was given occasion to misinterpret the character of God and the laws of His kingdom.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 20, 21.
The path of apostasy, and its dire consequences, didn’t happen overnight. But the wrong choices and decisions that accumulated over the long centuries finally led to some terrible consequences for God’s people.
“Had Rehoboam and his inexperienced counselors understood the divine will concerning Israel, they would have listened to the request of the people for decided reforms in the administration of the government. But in the hour of opportunity that came to them during the meeting in Shechem, they failed to reason from cause to effect, and thus forever weakened their influence over a large number of the people. Their expressed determination to perpetuate and add to the oppression introduced during Solomon’s reign was in direct conflict with God’s plan for Israel, and gave the people ample occasion to doubt the sincerity of their motives. In this unwise and unfeeling attempt to exercise power, the king and his chosen counselors revealed the pride of position and authority.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 90.
The story of Rehoboam and his rash and unwise decision to impose more conscripted labor on his people is a sad event in the life of the kingdom of Israel. The king sought counsel from two groups of advisors, but his final decision to follow the counsel of less experienced young men his own age brought a catastrophe on the kingdom that his father Solomon and grandfather David had built during the preceding 80 years. The advice that the king should intimidate the crowd by declaring that he is tougher than his father was foolish counsel. The young advisors believed that to be sympathetic of the people’s demands for less rigorous labor was not the leadership style the king should adopt. He should, they said, present himself as ruthless and cruel instead. In the end, he showed himself to be a bully and undeserving of his people’s allegiance and faithfulness. Hence, a division occurred among God’s people that never should have been there and that was never God’s plan for His people.
Unfortunately, the issue of disunity among God’s people didn’t end even in New Testament times.
For example, the first four chapters of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians are an appeal for unity. While in Ephesus Paul heard that various divisions had erupted in the church at Corinth. Thus, he begins his letter with a lengthy address on church unity and the need to avoid schism. Paul is concerned about this development, and he seeks to provide inspired counsel to remedy this unfortunate situation.
Paul became concerned for his brothers and sisters in Corinth when someone from Chloe’s people told him about the divisions and quarrels among them. His opening words show the depth of his concern: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you.” His solution was to remind them that, as Christians, they were to be joined together “in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10, NKJV). Whatever exactly was causing this contention and division, Paul wanted it stopped.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christians are called to follow Christ, not a human being—however talented or gifted or called that person may be. While they seemed to have divided themselves along “party” lines, the apostle stated unequivocally that such divisiveness was not according to Christ’s will. He asserted that Christian unity is centered on Christ and His sacrifice on the cross (1 Cor. 1:13).
Christian unity finds its source in the truth as it is found in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and in no one else, no matter how “worthy” a mentor or preacher or leader that person might be. At the foot of the cross we are all on the same level ground. Our baptism is into Jesus, who alone can cleanse us from sin. However, we must work toward this unity in Christ in practical ways.
What this should say to us is that as Seventh-day Adventists, we cannot take for granted our unity of faith and mission. Divisions and quarrels can undermine the unity of our church today unless the love and lordship of Christ unites us to Him.
During his ministry Paul often faced opposition, and he knew that it would be difficult to preserve the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his farewell to the Ephesian elders he drew from the watchman analogy in Ezekiel 33:1–6 to tell fellow leaders that they also were responsible for safeguarding the gospel. They were to be faithful shepherds of their congregations.
Paul’s use of the expression “savage wolves” to describe false teachers (Acts 20:29, NKJV) is reminiscent of Jesus’ similar warning that false teachers would disguise themselves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). These false teachers did arise soon after Paul spoke this warning, and they preyed upon believers in the Asian churches that he had established. In Ephesians 5:6–14 and Colossians 2:8, we see some of Paul’s warnings to churches in Asia Minor.
In his Second Epistle to Timothy, Paul also warns Timothy, who is responsible for the church at Ephesus, against errors in the church and godlessness in the last days.
First, Timothy should know his Bible, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NKJV). The antidote to these useless disputes and speculations is to correctly understand and teach the Word given by God. The truths of the Bible must be rightly interpreted so that no part of the Scriptures will be set in opposition to the entire picture presented in the Bible, and also to prevent misinterpretations that may cause one to lose faith in Jesus. Irrelevancies and secondary issues are to be subordinated to the principles of God’s Word that actually will prepare believers to live a victorious life in Christ. Paul’s second recommendation is for Timothy himself to “shun profane and idle babblings” (2 Tim. 2:16, NKJV). Trivial and speculative topics are not to be part of Timothy’s teaching ministry if he is to be considered a worthy and faithful minister. These types of conversations lead only to more ungodliness and do not edify the faith of believers (2 Tim. 2:16). Truth alone leads to godliness and harmony among believers. The reason Timothy must avoid and urge his people to avoid such errors is that they sweep through the church like a disease (2 Tim. 2:17). In the end, obedience to the Word of God is the antidote to false teaching (2 Tim. 3:14–17) that could threaten the unity of the church.
Further Thought: Ellen G. White, “The Rending of the Kingdom,” pp. 87–98, in Prophets and Kings; “A Message of Warning and Entreaty,” pp. 298–308, in The Acts of the Apostles.
“The Lord desires His chosen servants to learn how to unite in harmonious effort. It may seem to some that the contrast between their gifts and the gifts of a fellow laborer is too great to allow them to unite in harmonious effort; but when they remember that there are varied minds to be reached, and that some will reject the truth as it is presented by one laborer, only to open their hearts to God’s truth as it is presented in a different manner by another laborer, they will hopefully endeavor to labor together in unity. Their talents, however diverse, may all be under the control of the same Spirit. In every word and act, kindness and love will be revealed; and as each worker fills his appointed place faithfully, the prayer of Christ for the unity of His followers will be answered, and the world will know that these are His disciples.”—Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 483.
Summary: In the Bible we find situations that led to disunity. When God’s people lived in faithful obedience, the dangers of disunity were greatly diminished. Bad decisions made in the time of the judges as well as from the reign of Rehoboam opened the door for division. Even in New Testament times, the potential for disunity remained. A proper understanding of God’s Word and the sanctified effort to obey it are the best protection against disunity and schism among us.