Fourteen Key Reasons for the Breakdown of Church Unity

This post has a negative perspective to it. I freely admit it.

I addressed the positive perspective of it in a recent podcast.

Sometimes we have to face the reality of a sickness before we are willing to seek treatment. Please read the next sentence carefully. One of the greatest sicknesses in our churches in America is disunity. Indeed, many of the problems we think we have are really just symptoms of the breakdown of unity in the church.

The early church in Jerusalem thrived because it was so unified. Acts 2:47 says: “(They were) praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (HCSB). The phrase “having favor with all the people” refers to those on the outside looking at the church on the inside. They saw a selfless and unified church, and were thus attracted to it.

So what are some of the key reasons we are seeing the breakdown of unity in our churches? Though my list is not exhaustive, allow me to share fourteen of those reasons.

  1. Gossip. Church members talk about one another instead of talking to one another. Paul calls church members who gossip people “filled with all unrighteousness” (Romans 1:29, HCSB).
  2. Actions cloaked in darkness. I recently heard of a church personnel committee and a few church staff members who worked in darkness to fire a pastor without ever meeting with him first or giving him reasons for his dismissal. Then they refused to respond to church members who were asking questions.
  3. Failure to confront church bullies. Some church members seek power in a church they can’t get elsewhere. They are devious and dangerous. They must be courageously confronted.
  4. Self-serving church members. Some church members insist on getting their way for everything from worship style to the order of the worship service. Biblical church membership, however, is selfless and more concerned about others.
  5. Lack of prayer. A church that does not pray together is likely to fragment into special interest groups.
  6. Fear of confrontation. Too many church members would rather sweep problems under the rug than deal with them. I know of one church where two deacons were known to be having affairs. No one wanted to deal with it.
  7. Adopting the hypercritical spirit of culture. This reality is especially true in blogs and social media. I’ve seen many pastors attacked publicly on Twitter and Facebook.
  8. Low expectations. Many churches have no clear guidelines on what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. If you expect little from members, that’s exactly what you’ll get. And some of them will use their idle time to gossip, criticize, and tear down.
  9. No church discipline. The majority of churches with which I have familiarity have no process for church discipline, or they have a process in place in theory only.
  10. Churches known more for what they are against rather than what they are for. This negativity becomes pervasive in the congregation and destroys church unity.
  11. Fear of losing members. I am familiar with one church plagued by a spirit of divisiveness by one particular member. No members have confronted him because they don’t want to lose one of the biggest givers in the church.
  12. Failure to be evangelistic. I have never known a church member who is both evangelistic and divisive.
  13. Power groups. Sometimes the bullies in the church get allies to form power groups. They may be informal groups, or they can be formal groups like elders, deacons, staff, or personnel committees.
  14. The silent and fearful majority. One church member said it is not always good to know the truth. Such a statement is unbiblical and symptomatic of members who let evil exist because they are afraid to confront it.

One of the greatest problems in our churches is the breakdown of church unity. It is insidious, debilitating, and destructive.

Paul urged us “to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keep the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us” (Ephesians 4: 1-3, HCSB).

Jesus said in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The breakdown of church unity is one of the most critical problems in our churches today. Are you part of the solution? Let me hear from you.

Posted on May 13, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Hugh McElroy says on

    Great post! I pastored a church with all of the symptoms listed and then some! The first 18 months went pretty smoothly. We experienced some growth with a few new families which we desperately needed. My wife had organized several new ministries with outreach as a key component. A jail ministry that seen 27 baptized at the local Y that second year. We had Christmas at the church for those incarcerated with their families and served them Christmas dinner. Yet, all those men coming to the church concerned the “regulars” with the wearing out of the carpet! It all went down hill rather quickly and I resigned after 3.5 years and left the ministry. That was 8 years ago. The just recently lost another pastor after only 5 years.

  • Ray Schwartz says on

    Thom – thank you for talking about an epidemic that has swept churches today. After 38 years of ministry, I was bullied, gossiped and removed from ministry without due process by leadership (in less than 24 hours). The charges, concocted in secret, wholly ridiculous , has hurt the church the community and the name of Christ. We treat those in sin with more grace than a pastor we want to step over. If leadership teams and churches would commit to ‘walking in the light’ and applying the ‘whole counsel of God’ fewer situations like this would occur. Your article is on point, thank you for having the spiritual and moral clarity to write it.

  • How would you recommend churches move towards unity once many of these 14 issues occur?

  • Rebel Comentaries says on

    Where does the Pastor fit into all this? You want to blame the church members yet ignore the roll of the pastor not being a servant minister to the members. It is too much Business in the church today.

    • jonathon says on

      >yet ignore the roll of the pastor not being a servant minister to the members.

      Most of what is described is Lashon hara. This is one of those things where preaching against the practice is not enough. One needs to:
      a) help the person who in engages in Lashon hara, to no longer do so;
      b) destroy the culture which creates/encourages the practice;

      It isn’t uncommon for the roots of Lashon hara to be in the church constitution, and/or by-laws, and be well fertilized by the board of elders. So to stamp it out, one has to change all three — the church constitution, the church by-laws, and the entire board of elders.

  • You’re speaking of an individual congregation, where disunity is certainly a great problem. But what about the Church in broader scope? I would like to hear more about how we can knock down denominational walls to gain unity between congregations and denominational groups.

  • Thom, I would add another item to the list. Lack of vision will destroy the unity of a church. Church members need to know the vision of the church. What is our mission? Where are we headed? How will we track our progress to these goals? If there is not an overall vision that everyone in the congregation can easily grasp you cannot have unity. Without a clear explanation of the church’s vision each individual member or faction of members thinks their area of church is the most important.

  • Bynum David Orr, Sr. says on

    Thank you very much for these fourteen key identifiers for disunity in the church Dr. Rainer. I appreciate and value your insights very much. I have recently taught your book “I am a Church Member” in two churches as well. I have recently sudied in my seminary work focusing on discipleshp and see the tremendous need in the church today for taking a genuine intentional and inspirational look into the manner Jesus developed His disciples.

    To me, this is the only way to get each church back on track in America today and turning from the decline in America as a whole.. And that is, to “follow Jesus’ way,” and to “take up our cross daily and follow Him.” To accomplish this, as Dr, Rod Dempsey says, we need the five V’s for new discovery in our ministries:
    1. A Vision for ministry. Are we focusing on the way Jesus did ministry in our church today?
    2. Values, what are our core values in ministry. What are the key biblical passages and priciples the church is to be focusing upon?
    3. Views: What are the key ministry perspectives Jesus had in His miniistry. Are they in place in our churches ministry?
    4.Vehicles, What are the first Jerusalem structures that will drive the disciple ministry process in our churches? What church structires and systems will genuinely accompish the churches vision for minstry?
    5. Verifiers, What is being done to track the progress and measure success in the church? What empirical evidence is used to show the progress of the churches plan?
    These are five key ministry V’s that must be answered and followed to have suceessful disciple making in our church today. If we are focused on doing ministry the way Jesus did His ministry, it will move the church to being a unified church making disciples that impact every church locale in our nation for His glory. Then, there will be no time for disunity, only unified in becoming the church Jesus desires in the power of His Holy Spirit. Let’s start answering the questions to these five V’s for minnistry.

    (Note: You just did my first cousin’s funeral with my father in Nashville in April. My fathers name is Bynum D. Orr. My cousin became friends with you. His name was Frank Keener. Just thought I would let you know we have a little connection through my family.) Thank you for your tremedous minisrty in our world today. I love your books!

  • Could you point me to a resource that details confronting bullies and other sinful behavior in the church? What has been successful? What has not?

  • These 14 reasons are really symptoms of one major reason.

    While churches need better attendance, stronger finances, more involvement, increased membership, and freedom from those 14 symptoms, something deeper is required to tie everything else together. The biblical focus of being church by God’s free grace in Jesus Christ provides that missing something. It involves the biblical formation of Christians within the congregation as a living system in Christ shaped by sound Christian teaching and empowered by the Holy Spirit. .

    Without sound teaching, the body of Christ will lack soundness. This lack of soundness will show itself either in unloving relationships, lack of harmonious teamwork, underdeveloped ministries, or
    deficient individual wholeness.

    We have yet to see a significant movement for applying the Bible and basic Christian doctrine to developing healthier churches. We continue to lean on things of the flesh such a psychology, sociology, business marketing techniques and more. Instead what is needed is applied Christian teaching about being a Christian church and being a Christian that goes deep enough to transform our relationships, our attitudes, our wills,

    First of all this will means regaining the spiritual awareness that Christ is the head of the body, his church. Sometimes, we forget our vertical relationship with God in our pragmatic haste for an active body that is doing good works in the world.

    Secondly, it will mean transformed relationships within what I call the nervous system of a church body, which is the relationships between the pastor, staff, and church leaders.

    Thirdly, it will also mean transformed relationships within the overall church body which I compare to being like the musculoskeletal system (muscles, bones, and joints) of human anatomy.

    Fourthly, it will mean deeply personal transformation of each member’s life in Christ which I compare to the circulatory system. The circulatory system energizes and defends the various subsystems of the human body. The red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients. The white blood cells to fight disease or infection. Apart from the circulatory system, the human body cannot live. The skin, bones, muscles, internal organs and the nervous system all depend upon the blood cells of the circulatory system. In the same way, the soundness of individual Christians is crucial to the sound health of the whole church body. Church health not only involves the corporate life of the church but also the individual members of the body of Christ. As it concerns overall church health, biblical teaching concerning the church touches the spiritual, moral, relational, behavioral, emotional, and physical fitness of each Christian.

    Fifthly, the biblical formation of a church body will demonstrate itself in a church body having healthy ministries for an unhealthy world. I compare this to the skin for it is through the skin that we are in contact with the world outside of us. The skin is the largest and the most visible subsystem of the human body. It covers the connection of our hands, arms, feet, legs to our torso, and to our head.
    The importance of healthy skin for the body of Christ reminds us that through the church, Jesus Christ continues his ministry in the world today. Thus, we are sent forth with both the great commission and the great commandment to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

    A church which has sound health will be seen in well-developed ministries, strong corporate spirituality, loving relationships, harmonious teamwork, outward focus, moral but not moralistic, increasing individual wholeness, and an eagerness to be trained for healthy ministries for a hurting world.

    • Jonathan Dale says on

      Amen, John!

    • Amen John! I am amazed at what some people believe the bible says. I have run into ‘believers’ who believe in multiple chances after death, leaders who don’t follow Matthew 18 when dealing with a sinning brother, pastors who think they are the CEO of the church.
      People forget to keep their eyes on Jesus. They don’t know His Word.

      Solid biblical teaching and pointing people to Christ, exhorting them to lay down their lives and follow Him would do wonders for the church.

  • Church Unity isn’t just important. It is the proof that the Father sent the Son to save us. John 17:20-21.