6 Big Things That Divide Christians

Today I post about the things that divide Christians. On Monday I’ll post about the things that are bringing us together.

One of the dominant attributes of Christianity today is that its adherents can’t seem to agree on much; or at least, we fight about things more loudly and publicly than we agree about things. This is sad, but probably inevitable. Since Christ’s time on this planet, his followers have been arguing about almost everything. It’s nothing new, though certain technologies (the blogosphere, Twitterverse, etc) seem to amplify it today. We argue about all sorts of things—small, large, petty, important. We argue about “essentials” and “nonessentials,” and even about who decides which is which. The following is my solemn reflection on the things that divide us the most these days. What can we do to have better dialogue about these things?

1) Homosexuality. This is an explosive issue and is only going to get more explosive within the Christian church in the years to come. It’s the single biggest challenge facing the church. What to do about gay marriage? Gay ordination? Homosexuality in church congregations? Legal issues related to non-profit status? There are Christians on all sides of the issue, and it’s not an easy one to have civil, loving discussions about. It’s an issue that has already divided countless denominations, led to splits/schism, and created a sort of line-in-the-sand litmus test between conservatives and liberals.

2) Universalism. The recent blow-up over Rob Bell’s Love Wins is just the tip of the iceberg on this one. Shortly after Justin Taylor’s first “shot heard round the world” post about “Universalist?” Rob Bell, theologian Scot McKnight wrote on his blog that “Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today.” It’s an issue that gets right to the heart of the question of orthodoxy. Are Christians who believe God will eventually save all humans (Muslims, Atheists, etc) indeed heretics? Lines have been, and will be drawn in the sand on this issue.

3) Politics. The hyper-partisan atmosphere (fueled by a media that feeds on divisiveness) of contemporary politics has already wreaked havoc within Christianity, where Christian leaders and many churches seem to be more vocal about aligning with one or the other side of the political spectrum. As the evangelical left continues to grow, and more and more Sarah Palin-type Republican “Christian” politicians scare younger evangelicals away from the GOP, the tension will only become more apparent. Generational and regional divisions will only be amplified, as will the rural/urban disconnect.

4) Evolution. This has been a divisive issue for a long time, and continues to be. If the recent Christianity Today cover story on the historical Adam is any indicator, there are going to be some serious showdowns in coming years between the theistic evolution / BioLogos camp and the more conservative anti-Darwinist camps among evangelicals. As science continues to raise questions about biblical claims (about creation accounts, floods, etc.), the classic tension between science-faith is only going to become more exacerbated.

5) Women in Ministry. Evangelical writers and students like to talk about this issue in terms of “egalitarian” vs. “complimentarian,” but essentially it’s a debate about the role of women in church. Can they be leaders? Pastors? What kind of pastors? Are there distinct roles for men and women, both in the married relationship and in the church? This issue always gets Christians riled up, and denominations have formed (more or less) around their position on this issue. The recent pseudo-debate among Christian women discussing “Christian feminism” (see posts by Rachel Held Evans and Caryn Rivadeneira) is but one recent example of how explosive questions of women’s roles in the church and society can be for Christians.

6) The Internet. This may seem like a strange thing to blame for divisiveness, but I’m more and more convinced that the Internet and its accompanying glut of niche communities, insular blog networks and an almost requisite mode of mud-slinging discourse has caused all sorts of fragmentation and dissension in the church. The Internet has made neo-Calvinism a “thing,” given rise to theological flame wars, and contributed to the rendering-obsolete of the local church. In our RSS, follow-who-you-want world, we consume media and discourse that more often than not simply affirms our established positions, and it’s easier than ever to identify ourselves in terms of the particular beliefs that set us apart, rather than those that bind us together with the larger Christian world.

What other things would you include on this list?

29 responses to “6 Big Things That Divide Christians

  1. Spots and wrinkles indeed. I think you nailed it. The adversary is using these highly charged issues to weaken the unity of the Body of Christ. Theses issues are ministry opportunities that should inspire discussion, not hate. We ought to go back to what the word of God says about these issues and be the church that God birthed by His Spirit. Agree to disagree on the debateables and move on.

  2. I always appreciate how you lay out these types of issues. The most intriguing point is the internet. The neo-Calivinism movement was barely a peep when I became a Christian ten years ago and now it is like the thing and if you aren’t apart of it, i.e. Charismatic, Arminianistic, etc. you are in the wrong. Before you could simply disagree and worship Jesus, now it feels like the war between England and Rome.
    Back in the day, young adults gathered at events like The Call, One Day and other things to seek Christ and now everyone is segmented. I am really down about that I guess. Good post.

  3. Brett-

    You nailed it as denominations, blogs, pastors are drawing lines in the sand over these six issues. What I wonder is how are christian evangelical colleges (wheaton in particular) leading or tackling these issues….or should they be. I would be curious to know what your impression is of the roll christian colleges should play in this arena.

    Malin Friess

  4. Why is it that no one understands figurative language any more? #4 shouldn’t even be an issue; there’s no need to force some kind of literal truth onto parabolic language. I don’t believe that the creation stories of the Bible are literally true – and given their inconsistency, I don’t know how anyone else could, either – but they do hold a lot of truth about how the ancients saw the world. I’d argue that the real challenge for us as contemporary Christians is in finding the truth that speaks to us from those words in our current context.

  5. While these may very well be the “national” issues that continue to divide Christians, each context has its own set of issues. For instance, here in Boston, numbers 3-5 aren’t things that divide orthodox Christians. I really only come up against those when I go back to my denomination conferences in the South. Boston has also had legalized gay marriage since 2004. While that doesn’t make it a non-issues, it makes it a different issue for individuals on both sides.

    I think the biggest divisions will be traced back to the urban/suburban/rural differences. If you ask urban Christians on the coasts what the issues are, you are going to get different answers than what’s happening in the South or midwest.

    • Agreed. When we lived in San Francisco, Christians hardly even discussed #3-5. They had opinions about them, but they weren’t hot topics. We now live in Alabama, and holy crap–just say the word “Gay” and Christians reach for the boxing gloves.

      I think Ben Rey would agree with this. If you want to really see American Christian’s get divided, ask them about service to the poor and marginalized. Should we invite homeless people over for dinner? Should your church have a ministry for sex addicts? Is it ok for Christians to buy luxury cars?

  6. Agree with all of these. Another one to add I think would be the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. Things seen pretty divided between charismatics and mainstream evangelicals on this one issue. I think it will get more pronounced with the increasing popularity of IHOP and others.

  7. Great observations. I might be able to think of a couple others but none bigger than these 6.

  8. Whoops, I’m Mr. Anonymous who replied to Ben Rey.

  9. Though this may fall under politics, I believe that immigration is a huge divisive issue in the U.S. church.

    I would also point out that the divisive issues you listed are largely descriptive of the church within the United States, but in my opinion, not the global church. I’m not sure that many of our brothers and sisters around the world have had the “luxury” of dealing with issues like the internet when they are facing persecution and poverty.

    • I think you might very well find that alot of your brothers and sisters “around the world” have more luxury than you imagine and are perfectly fit to deal with issues like the internet. I know as I am one of those “brothers and sisters around the world”. I don’t think you are entirely wrong, the global church does have more pressing societal issues to deal with but at the same time Americans must stop seeing the rest of the world as the wretched of the earth. I live and am from one of the poorest countries on this earth. This doesn’t mean that I am poor myself or that I am not aware of and struggling with the issues mentioned in this post. After all I am here on this blog aren’t I?

  10. I would say the debate on the Holy Spirit is fairly recent when looking from a historical perspective; only in the last 100 years has it become an issue. All of these things are definitely divisive and will only get worse. I would also submit music and worship styles. While this falls in the “open hand issue” category, try telling that to some people. The enemy has definitely used this to divide churches and generations.

  11. Calvinism vs. Arminianism is a huge divisive theological stance for ages. And multi-site campus churches vs. autonomous churches is another huge issue in our time.

  12. Anchor MAN!!!!! Not Anchor WOMAN!

  13. Holy Spirit. The “charismatic” label is about as bad in some churches as being called an atheist. Huge need for reconciliation, cool-headed reading of the Scriptures and letting go of some control.

  14. These issues differ not only between denominations, but regionally, like a few other commenters suggested. Place has a lot of influence in this discussion, because urban, rural, and suburban communities all have different demographics of people to serve. You talked about it being amplified with politics, and I’ve experienced that deeply. Living in the city, “pro-life” has come to mean “all life” to me, as I see people suffering from poverty and disease daily. My parents and other folks I know who live in suburban areas don’t come into contact with this as often, and this affects their political alliances for sure.

    The rural/urban disconnect, as you put it, spurs and perpetuates division more than we give it blame for.

  15. These issues differ not only between denominations, but regionally, like a few other commenters suggested. Place has a lot of influence in this discussion, because urban, rural, and suburban communities all have different demographics of people to serve. You talked about it being amplified with politics, and I’ve experienced that deeply. Living in the city, “pro-life” has come to mean “all life” to me, as I see people suffering from poverty and disease daily. My parents and other folks I know who live in suburban areas don’t come into contact with this as often, and this affects their political alliances for sure.

    The rural/urban disconnect, as you put it, spurs and perpetuates division more than we give it blame for.

  16. Christopher Benson

    Brett ––

    Well done. Your list of things that divide and unite Christians seems perceptive and accurate. However, I would make this one caveat: most of what you listed (2-5) tends to divide Evangelicals more than Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox.

    If I were to add one more divisive issue for Evangelicals, it would be biblicism as described by sociologist Christian Smith in his new book, “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture” (Brazos). Professor Scot McKnight says, “I believe this book is the biggest challenge evangelicalism has to face, and I mean honestly face. In essence, he argues that what we believe about the Bible (biblicism) is undermined by how we actually read the Bible and how we practice the Bible.”

    Although I am reluctant to lay blame, I do think many neo-Calvinists are responsible for turning non-essential issues (egalitarianism vs. complementarianism, evolution vs. creation) into essential issues over which Christian fellowship should unite or divide. We should remember these wise words from British theologian Oliver O’Donovan whenever we are tempted to call it quits:

    “The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert.”


  17. I don’t know if I’d add anything. I might enlarge the categories (which would render them less meaningful, I suppose). I think sexuality divides evangelicals in general- not just homosexuality. I think pornography is eating the church alive, and it divides us insidiously. It’s not an issue, prima facie, that divides us. But, it divides our community by being the sin behind many other things relationally. Porn is killing the church more than many of those other issues. I meet and counsel with several men as a pastor, and invariably, nearly all of them struggle with porn. Some habitually, others occasionally.

    What I’m saying is that this isn’t a public issue that evangelicals are divided on, where they could take a stance on one side of it or another. I think evangelicals are against porn, but if we’re discussing real reasons for division, porn is why so many marriages split, why so many friendships are shallow, and why small groups in our churches never disclose real issues. I think it’s THE division in the church.

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  19. Brett,
    Thanks for this. I would say that these are issues in the American Church. As far as issues among American evangelicals, you nail it.
    An issue that you do touch on, and that is related to all six, is who’s in and who’s out in the Church. Ecumenism is not a concern for some because the only people who are “in” are people in their circle, while for others, it is a pressing issue.
    Also, it’s spelled “complementarian”.
    Thanks again Brett.

  20. You’re Wrong!
    No! You’re Wrong!

    In Christian Love,

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  22. Why can’t Christians debate these issues without being accused of being divisive? Answer: Biblical Illiteracy. Too much focus on subjects and not enough on what the Bible says or how to study and interpret it. Most of the debates/discussions I have with other Christians is sadly lacking of Biblical references to back one’s position. (This is true of both sides.) We need to stop using “This is what I think or feel” as the standard Christian default.

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  24. War: i.e. Just War theorists vs. pacifists. Ironically, the divide over war is a relatively quiet one in that those standing on either side tend to leave the other be with both sides deeming the other hopelessly convinced of idiocy. Now more than ever Christians need to address this issue and work out what the Bible says if we are ever going to be able to speak against the new “Holy Wars” that are being waged against present day “evil-doers.”

  25. All good points thus far… to zoom out a bit, I think ecclesiology is an up and coming issue for the American Church. I see an increasingly visible, though perhaps not as emotionally charged, divide between what one could call the sacramental/liturgical/ecclesial Christians vs. the more individualistic/non-sacramental Christians. Big questions at stake in this discussion: does Christ manifest Himself through an historic institutional medium with established rituals, sacraments, and liturgies? Or does He manifest Himself directly and immediately to each believer on an individual basis apart from form, matter, and institution?

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