A Disregard of Doctrine: Sect Mentality10 min read
As an introduction to our topic, we are going to define what Scripture means when it speaks of “divisions and heresies (sects).” When God condemns sect-mentality, does He means that all denominations should put aside differences and subscribe to the idea of Ecumenism so that Christianity has no more groups within itself? Though Scripture does not adhere to the idea of denominationalism for reasons that we won’t look into now, it also does not support a blurring of doctrinal differences to support superficial unity. Aside from that topic, we would be more profited to understand the problem as being in the context of the local assembly. This is the level at which Scripture deals with the subject: so must it be the level of our dealing.
Regarding the question of what a sect it, we should notice the word underlying “heresy” in the King James. It is hairesis: at it’s base it means “that which is chosen,” but in a broader sense “a body of men following their own tenets.” The sect that Scripture here envisions is not simply a group, but one following personal preference, and thus a group disregarding God’s Truth as its basis. Mr. Ironside bits the proverbial nail on the head when he defines heresy as “a school of opinion set up opposed to the truth of God.” In Acts 5, the Sadducees were called a “sect,” because they formed a system originating with man. A group committed to God’s Truth cannot Biblically be called a “sect of Christianity”: God has already given it a name, which is “House of God” – the Pillar and Ground of the Truth – the assembly. God has one way of doing things: man has many ways. Men must group into a sect, because man by nature has no absolute standard of truth within himself and can at best find a few others who believe similarly, forming a sect. That is rooted in a lack of absolute truth and an elevation of human preference as the standard. When it comes to God’s assembly, however, there is a contradiction when sects arise; for then we have, on the one hand, God defining truth and, on the other hand, man defining it. Which will it be for us? Truth always brings unity. It is when someone feels ashamed of it that sect-mentality arises.
How Scripture Treats the Issue
Romans 16:17-18 is very clear: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.” This lays out (1) the source of sect-leaders (those which serve their own bellies), (2) the identification of sects (contrary to sound doctrine), and (3) the means of sect-formation (deception of the simple by fair speeches). Notice also 2 Peter 2:1-2 – “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.” This adds to the Romans passage by laying out the severity and extremity of these false schools of opinion that may arise.
In 1 Corinthians 11, however, we see a case which doesn’t deal with false prophets invading, but with a natural division among the people in their different thoughts. Paul says “For there must also be heresies (sects) among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” While he does not condone the frame of mind that was among them, he does show that God was using it to purify the assembly in a way and show who were the truly faithful ones. First John 2 adds in verse 19 to the subject by saying “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have surely continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” Notice in the following verses the key of knowing that the ones who left were in the wrong: “you have an anointing from the Holy One” and “you know the truth and that no lie is of the truth.” So then, the key in seeing the acceptable ones by God’s standard when it comes to factions is this: the Truth of God illuminated by the Spirit of God. We are not left guessing when it comes to whether a sect is right or wrong: God says “I’ve shown you in my Word. And I have given you the means to understand it.” There are times when it is right to break away from a system, such as God in earlier days called out men and women from the established Church of England unto the Biblical assembly pattern. However, this was not a sectarian movement, but rather it was a reclaiming of truth. On the other hand, there are times when it is wrong to break away from an assembly because the motives are indeed sectarian in nature. What makes the difference as to whether it is right or wrong to break away? It is this: we must break away from that which denies/subverts/disregards God’s Truth as absolute and authoritative, but we must cleave in unison to God’s people who uphold it in the closest way possible. God’s Word makes the difference, no exceptions.
Preserving Consistency Amongst Assemblies
With these things in mind, we need to address the issue that various debates have arisen within assemblies, and questions have been raised as to head-coverings, the place of the unlearned, the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper, and many other things. Because these issues are at least mentioned in Scripture, we need to understand that God obviously has a standing of them if He has taken the time to speak of them in His absolute, undiminished, eternal Word. The only way they would be non-issues is if God had not spoken of them in Scripture. So then, it doesn’t become a mere matter of what we define as non-essentials versus essentials, but rather an understanding that God has said something and we want to follow it. This is the point at which types of sects divide: on the one hand we have formation of sects within assemblies on the basis of “liberty issues,” that is, things which Scripture does not directly address in some form. Then there are sects which are based on doctrinal issues, of which Scripture does speak directly.
“Liberty-issue sects” are often formed because of legalism and are rooted in one’s personal conviction regarding an issue that Scripture does not address directly, whether through precept, principle, or pattern. These really should never have formed in the first place, because questionable issues need to be dealt with in grace – not in a boycotting of someone with slightly different convictions or opinions.
However, there are some sects which form in assemblies due to calling doctrinal issues “issues of grace” or “questionable opinions,” when really Scripture does speak clearly on the issues. These objections to doctrine are usually rooted, not in the desire to stay close to the pattern, but to compromise based on personal preference. Division will then sprout between those who want the pattern and those who want the preference.
At the point of seeing either type of sect form, the assembly immediately needs to respond Scripturally in the name of preserving doctrinal unity. This response does not include a shoving of opinion down the throats of God’s people. Rather the response is Biblical teaching on the issue from what is seen from Scripture. Thus, we must establish a few principles on which each assembly must base itself and its teaching in order to prevent sectarianism.
- The assembly must know its need for each member to be on the same doctrinal basis. This is not simply an acknowledgment of the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, and the cross. It goes deeper than that. The assembly is collectively the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, and thus for a collective group to be a single entity, each individual must play an active role in it. And if each is to maintain such a role, he must understand doctrine.
- The assembly must teach and uphold the whole counsel of God, not just a part of it. Notice how Paul does not call the assembly “a pillar and ground of truths,” but of “the Truth.” Truth is one body of teaching, and we have no right to divide it into essentials and non-essentials. It is an insult to say that some of God’s Words are more eternally significant than others. It is to say that God’s authority is arbitrary and that it is unknowable whether or not we should take Him seriously when He is speaking speaking. God has spoken: it is truth. It is all final. Many compromise sects are rooted in the thought that some of Scripture is optional to obey, that God was not specific when He wrote it and simply inserted some things arbitrarily without any authoritative significance.
- Each assembly must approach every issue with the mentality that Scripture always trumps our preferences. Some things may be easier for us, like throwing away the head covering, disregarding commendation letters, and switching to individual emblems because we like our space, but it is really just not about us. If the assembly were about us and our preferences, it would be a club, not the house of God. We are gathered as assemblies for His sake and unto His name, and if we want something different we should have joined a fraternity instead. Every time we face another issue, we go to Scripture first, not what the biggest voice in the assembly says, or what the most people want. If we would be simply satisfied with God’s Word, sects would not so easily form. And when we are dealing with issues, even if Scripture speaks on it once, God’s one word should be infinitely more precious to us that a million of our preferences. To say otherwise is to deny the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. “God has spoken once, yea twice; yet man perceiveth it not,” implying that once should be enough for us, because it is from God.
In conclusion, it is acknowledged that this article is longer than normal: that is mainly because the centrality of Scripture in our assemblies is at stake. And the centrality of Scripture is really proportional to our devotion for Christ. How solemn. May God preserve us in the days to come from minor squabbles because of legalism and yet also from compromise because of our own preference. These will surely affect the fruitfulness of our assemblies in more ways than one.
Some would say “approved” refers to man’s approval; however, here it is clearly God’s approval. Firstly, the word is always used in a positive sense in Scripture, regardless of who is doing the approving. It denotes favorability and acceptableness. The spirit of Paul’s letter at this point is quite less than positive, and so would the word be if it referred to man. Secondly, the majority of times this word is used in Scripture, it is God’s approval that is in mind, and if not that, the rest still denote the favorable nature of Christian character. Here it would not be Christian character if men were approvers, because they would be supporting their factional “heads.”