Works of the Flesh: Sects
The Apostle Paul proved as concerned for the general conduct of the Christians in Galatia as he did the particular challenges of the “Judaizers”; he wanted them to avoid the “works of the flesh” and to manifest the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17-24). He listed the condemned “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul has now turned to discuss “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, and rivalries.
As we explored divisions, we noted its Greek term, dichostasia, is similar in meaning to hairesis, variously translated as “sects,” “factions,” “parties,” or, when dichostasia is translated “dissensions,” “divisions.” Our English term “heresy” derives from Greek hairesis; the latter is defined by Thayer as:
1) act of taking, capture: e.g. storming a city
2) choosing, choice
3) that which is chosen
4) a body of men following their own tenets (sect or party)
5) dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims
The core idea of hairesis is a choice: thus, to choose to take a city, or to choose to follow after another path from what has been accepted. In 1 Corinthians 11:9, Paul declared how factions (hairesis) had become evident within the church in Corinth; in 1 Corinthians 3:3, Paul had chastised them for manifesting dissension (dichostasia), both relating to the party spirit described in 1 Corinthians 1:11-12: “I am of Apollos”; “I am of Cephas”; “I am of Paul”; “I am of Christ.” In the New Testament hairesis is generally used to describe various “sects,” or “factions” within a greater whole: the sect of the Sadducees (Acts 5:17), the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 26:5), and twice to refer to “the Way” of the Christians while they were considered to be a sect among Jewish people (Acts 24:14, 28:22). Thus, while hairesis can refer to factions or parties within a congregation, we will speak of it primarily in terms of the development of full-fledged sectarianism: the formation of rival groups and the doctrinal disagreements that lead to those developments (as Peter warned against in 2 Peter 2:1).
From the beginning God’s purpose has been to reconcile all people to Himself and to one another in Christ (John 14:1-3, 20-23, Ephesians 1:1-3:12). Paul strongly exhorted Christians to be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), indicating unity in the faith was not a given or guaranteed. Just as Jesus had endured disagreement and disputations with fellow Israelites in His life, so after His death and resurrection false doctrines would proliferate alongside the truth of the Gospel. The Galatian letter itself warned its recipients to not fall prey to false teachers promoting a false gospel that would lead away from Christ and toward condemnation (Galatians 1:1-5:15). The Apostle John would have to warn Christians to reject any who denied Jesus’ incarnation and considered them as antichrist (1 John 4:1-6). John presumed many such persons had “gone out” from among Christians (1 John 2:18-23); Jude was concerned that similar false teachers would attempt to remain among faithful Christians, seeking to encourage some to go astray (Jude 1:3-16).
The Apostles maintained a consistent witness about the dangers in the future from false teachers and thus sectarianism (1 Timothy 4:1-5, 2 Timothy 4:1-6, 2 Peter 3:1-4, Jude 1:3ff). We have records from early Christians in their disputes and arguments against those who taught falsely and had developed various factions and sects: the Montanists, the Marcionites, and the various Gnostic groups, all in the second century. Early Catholicism would develop from false teachings and practices beginning at this time and following; for most of the first millennium sects developed on the basis of various teachings regarding the nature of God and the nature of Jesus (e.g. Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism).
The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church separated in 1054; in the West various movements and sects would arise throughout the medieval period, culminating in the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Beforehand Catholics maintained the conceit of representing the bulk of Christendom; within a century after the Reformation it could no longer seriously be maintained. From the 1600s to the present day we have witnessed the proliferation of denominations and denominationalism in Western Christendom: all kinds of different religious organizations professing the name of Christ, divided by all kinds of reasons which might be imagined under the sun. Many bear the names of their founders: Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites, Wesleyans. Many are marked and named by church organization: Congregationalists, Presbyerians, Episcopalians. Some bear the names of distinctive doctrines or practices: Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Pietists. Many factions and parties remain underneath each umbrella: many different associations and organizations often divided by geography or culture as much as any doctrinal particularity.
Thus the world of Christendom provides a sad testimony to the power of sectarianism and the party spirit; in the eyes of many “Christianity” is a hodgepodge of different groups all arguing and fighting with one another over all kinds of details. Thus it is not surprising to see the cultivation of a spirit of ecumenism among many such denominational groups: a form of “unity-in-diversity,” the belief that the differences in doctrines and practices between various denominations are not a roadblock to unity, that different denominations can recognize the “diversity” within “various Christian tradition” and can respect these differences, and therefore that all these Christian denominations, despite the differences in doctrine and practice, are all valid portions of the Body of Christ and their members are true and faithful Christians.
It is good for Christians to strive diligently to maintain the unity of the Spirit; unfortunately, ecumenism does not strive for true unity, settling by declaring as “essential” what already finds broad agreement, and considering matters of liberty all the things which continue to divide the various denominations. This is not the relational unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23. It is declaring victory in defeat, for these groups are not really one. We will not find those for whom Jesus prayed in the sectarian thicket of modern “Christendom.”
We do well to remember that the factional and party spirit is condemned as a “work of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20; we must not give it justification or quarter. The response to the prevalence of denominationalism ought not to be the creation of a new sect for those “of Christ.” Paul provided no praise or commendation to the party in Corinth which declared, “I am of Christ”; they were found as guilty of carnal thinking and sectarianism as the others (1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21). We must recognize and confess how the party and factional spirit which led to the tangled thicket of modern “Christendom” is the problem, and to thus resist any call to maintain a party and factional spirit against “the denominations.” God is not glorified if we fall prey to the very spirit we are called upon to reject.
Instead, we must strive to be the people for whom Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23. We must listen to what the Apostles testified regarding Jesus and His Kingdom, trust in Jesus, and strive to become one with Him and with one another as God is one within Himself. We then can strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, to seek what is good for one another, care for and love one another, and embody Jesus toward one another and those beyond (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:1-3, 11-16). We should not yoke ourselves with those who have not accepted the Gospel in Christ but have pursued false gospels; we also should not reckon ourselves as just another sect among sects, but welcome all who will put aside all other names and parties so as to glorify God in Christ together in one voice. God in Christ is honored in relational unity; only the Evil One is glorified in sectarianism and division. May we become one with God in Christ and one another now and for eternity in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry