What is Sectarianism?
The word sectarianism comes from the root sect, from which also comes the word section. Sometimes, those who carefully adhere to one particular sect feel hatred… towards those of other sects, no matter how closely related their ideologies are.
Growing up in India during the ’80s and ’90s, my parents came from different Christian denominational backgrounds. This gave me insight into two of these denominations at an early age. My mother’s denomination was steeped in nominal Christianity but had a rich historical tradition; my father’s denomination was steeped in legalism and sectarianism but had a fervent desire for holiness. The sectarian nature of my father’s denomination was not based on any major theological differences but purely on many man-made traditions and rules, which gave them an air of superiority over other denominations. Though the sectarian attitude was off-putting, even for a child like me, it rubbed off on me as I grew up in that denomination. I remember growing up thinking about how anyone could “truly” worship God without adhering to our denominational framework.
This sectarian mentality within Christendom is not a new phenomenon. It has always been there—even when Jesus was still ministering on this earth. According to Mark 9:38, he was once approached by his disciples, who came to him with a strong complaint. There was this “other” fellow that did not follow them, who was doing ministry and using the name of Jesus.
Maybe John and the other disciples were expecting Jesus to reprimand this person and identify his disciples as the only true followers of Jesus, their teacher. On the contrary, Jesus corrected them with his answer (see Mark 9:39).
Based on his reply, we can infer that our Lord Jesus teaches us not to forbid anyone from God’s ministry just because they do not belong to a particular organization or denomination. Our Lord doesn’t need to get our approval before he chooses to act; if he desires to use someone not associated with our organization yet does it under his name, then that is his will. Sectarianism is forbidden strongly among Christians by the words “whoever is not against us, is for us.”
God of Unity:
The devil is not only the father of lies, but also the author of division. He deceived the first humans into rebellion against his perfect plan for them. Ever since, humanity has been in discord with each other. Families and nations are splintered by constant division and conflicts at every turn.
Contrary to this division, our God wants all of his children to dwell together in unity. His heart for harmony is expressed beautifully in Psalms 133.
Psalm 133:1 – “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil that was poured over Aaron’s head, that ran down his beard and onto the border of his robe.”
In Exodus 30, we see that God gave clear instructions to Moses on how the anointing oil was to be prepared. This special oil was used to anoint the high priest, and it contained a mixture of myrrh, cinnamon, cane, and cassia in olive oil. In Psalms 133, the Psalmist compares this special anointing oil with the state of unity among the brethren or believers in Christ. Just like the mixture of various exotic spices soaking in olive oil, the body of Christ is an entity of blood-bought saints from varying backgrounds and ethnicity coming together to live in harmony.
Jesus made unity a clear part of his message. In his passionate, high priestly prayer found in John 17:22, Jesus prays to the Father that we may all experience this oneness.
As believers, our assembling, perfection, and unity are found fully in Christ. Only in him do we find the barriers brought down and all of us being made into one family. This unity among believers will serve as a conduit for Christ’s love to the lost world.
Unity in Essentials:
There are some truths in life that you wish you had learned much earlier. One of those moments came to me 12 years ago while living in the U.S. At that time, I worked for a bank, and I had to commute a long distance everyday. I listened to a radio program called “Bible Answer Man” during the commute. Hank Hanegraaff, the host of that show, taught me many important things related to the Bible. Learning how to interpret Scripture using Scripture and understanding the whole counsel of God are some of the things I still treasure.
When I first heard Hanegraaff mentioned this quote(often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo), I was amazed at the wisdom that was packed in this concise statement—and it forever changed my outlook on how I view other Christians.
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity…”
Let me break this quote further. Believers must be in absolute agreement concerning the essential doctrines. If anyone does not believe in the core essential doctrines of Christianity, there is no fellowship. As far as the non-essential or secondary doctrines go, there is room for strong internal debate within Christians, but it should not prevent us from having true fellowship — and all of these things should be done with love.
When Should We Divide?
We live in a time where false teachings abound, and Satan is waging a fierce war against the truth and the Church of Jesus Christ. In Jude 1, we are asked to contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.
Jude 1:3 – “…But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people.”
These essentials listed below, along with a belief and supreme confidence in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine.
- A Triune God; the deity of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- The virgin birth of Christ.
- The sinless life of Christ.
- Substitutionary atonement – Adam’s rebellion brought death to us all and tainted every aspect of our being. God, however, has provided redemption through the atoning work of the “Second Adam,” Jesus Christ.
- Bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
- Return of Christ- that Christ came to earth once to bear the world’s sins, so too he will return again to gather the elect and restore all things.
- Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
We should all be united around these foundational truths. Where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation or fellowship. This is when we get up and walk out the door.
Strive to Make Peace with Other Believers:
When there is an agreement in the essential Christian doctrines, we need to refrain from dividing with fellow believers. Yes, we can have internal debates, but at the end of the day, we should agree to disagree and look for ways to work together to advance God’s kingdom.
Romans 12:18 – “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”
The Church of Jesus Christ is diverse. It spans all continents, with numerous nations and tribes. The landscape is similarly diverse with multiple denominations when it comes to secondary doctrinal differences. Should not all Christians conform to Christ and thus be like-minded in all doctrines? Ideally, yes. But, in reality? No. Christ is sanctifying all his children in varying degrees, and all are not yet conformed fully in both doctrine and practice. Sometimes, these differences result in the formation of different churches and denominations to maintain a good conscience toward God. But such divisions should not be the end of harmony between us (see Romans 15:5). We must not permit these differences, important as they are, to destroy our peace with one another. Let us accept each other just as Christ has accepted us, in order to bring praise to God.
Romans 15:5 – “May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.”