Christian Denominations (II): Division in the Old Testament Church

We concluded our last article explaining the difference between the church as the body of Christ and the church institute. The church as the body of Christ is made up of only those God had chosen to eternal life in Christ. It is made up of only believers who are united to Christ by a true and living faith. The church institute, on the other hand, contains both believers and unbelievers. Not all the children born to believing parents are elect. Not all believe. Likewise, others who are not truly believers join the church for various carnal reasons. Jesus addresses this in His parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13.

Because of this harsh reality, the carnal, unbelieving seed in the church institute can multiply and eventually attempt to control the course of the church. Error is taught and/or worldly-mindedness characterizes the life of many of her members. Then unbelievers create strife and division in the church while the believers struggle to maintain the truth in doctrine and walk. Division is never pretty! It divides families and friends.

It creates suspicion, animosity and incessant quarrelling. The church no longer is a place of peace and joy. This is why the church is always admonished to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). But when error creeps into the church in doctrine or walk and the church becomes divided over these matters it inevitably leads to a split. When this occurs new denominations are created.

The multiplication of denominations is not new. It did not begin with the Reformation of the 1500s as some accuse. It began already in the Old Testament when the kingdom of Israel separated itself from the tribe of Judah and the house of David forming its own institute. We want to examine this event because it teaches us much about the formation of denominations.

The congregation of Israel was assembled together at Shechem. At the head of Israel stood a man named Jeroboam. Jeroboam had been a powerful man in the kingdom of Solomon. We learn in 1 Kings 11:28 that Jeroboam was a man of valour and was industrious. Because of his ability, Solomon made him ruler over all the charge of the house of Joseph, that is, over the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Jeroboam, therefore, was a man of great influence over the northern tribes of Israel. But all this changed when Solomon learned that the prophet Ahijah had informed Jeroboam that God was going to make him king over ten tribes in punishment for Solomon’s sin. Solomon then sought to kill him and Jeroboam fled to Egypt.

But Solomon was now dead and Rehoboam his son had gone to Shechem in order that all of Israel might coronate him as the next king. Jeroboam now stood before Rehoboam and placed the demands of the ten northern tribes before him. “Lighten the taxes and we will serve you! If not, we will secede.” Three days later Rehoboam in his foolishness refused to give in to the demands of the northern tribes. Instead, he made the taxes heavier and threatened an even more severe punishment on those who did not pay.

This prompted the first division in the church. We read the response of the northern tribes through the mouth of Jeroboam to Rehoboam’s action in I Kings 12:16, “So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents”. Jeroboam soon was chosen king over these ten tribes just as Ahijah had prophesied. Since then the house of Israel was divided: bitterness and hatred, division and strife, even war. So great was the division that took place.

There are two reasons the Bible reveals for this division.

The first reason was apostasy. Jeroboam and the ten tribes used as a pretence the lowering of taxes. But this was only an excuse to separate from Judah – one that would make them appear as if they were justified in rebelling against Rehoboam. The real reason for separation is found in the verse we just quoted. “What portion have we in David! Neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse!” No? Really? No portion or inheritance in David? Surely, the people of Israel (and especially Jeroboam) knew the promise of Jacob years earlier to Judah his son in Genesis 49:10: , “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be”. Indeed, God had appointed David as the heir of Judah’s tribe to receive this blessing of God. We read of God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16, “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever”. To forsake the house of David was to forsake the Christ that would come out of his line. It was to forsake the Shiloh. The ten tribes turned away from the only possible way of salvation from sin found in the coming Messiah.

Further, the ten tribes forsook the temple in Jerusalem, the place of God’s abode where alone the proper worship of Jehovah could be found. Instead, Jeroboam built two temples furnished with golden calves in Dan and in Bethel. The citizens of the northern kingdom from this point on worshiped Jehovah by means of these images – a sin from which this kingdom never departed. The ten northern tribes, the kingdom of Israel left Judah because she had become apostate! And as time went on, though she was still called by God’s name, she departed deeper and deeper into error and sin.

The second reason for this separation, however, was divine. God willed it. Yes, God willed the split that took place in His Old Testament church at this time. We know He willed it, first of all, because God told Solomon He was going to do it as punishment for Solomon’s sin of marrying heathen wives and worshiping their gods together with them. We know God willed it, in the second place because He sent the prophet Ahijah to Jeroboam and informed Jeroboam that he would be the next king over the ten northern tribes. We know that God desired this division in the Old Testament church, in the third place, because when Rehoboam raised a massive army to force the ten tribes to return, God sent the prophet Shemaiah to speak with him. The word of God through Shemaiah is recorded in 1 Kings 12:24, “Thus saith the LORD, Ye shall not go up, nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel: return every man to his house; for this thing is from me”.

Why did God will such a horrible split to take place in His Old Testament church? Because of the apostasy that had enveloped the northern tribes. They no longer had their sights set on the coming Messiah who alone could deliver from sin. This was not true of everyone in the ten tribes, of course. Even in the wicked days of Ahab there were still in Israel 7,000 that did not bow the knee to Baal. There were even a few yet in Israel who at the time of Hezekiah heard the call to come and worship Jehovah in Jerusalem in the temple. But the church institute now embodied in the kingdom of Israel (the ten tribes) had embraced error and steadily declined until God took this church away into captivity never to return. Judah needed to be preserved from this apostasy.

One other matter we learn from this history. God did not want His true church (Judah) to instigate peace or join hands with the false church (Israel). Several generations later Jehoshaphat king of Judah joined in league together with Ahab of Israel by means of an arranged marriage between his son and Ahab’s daughter. He and Ahab then went out to battle Syria together. In that battle Ahab was slain and Jehoshaphat barely escaped. After Jehoshaphat returned from that battle he was visited by the prophet Hanani who spoke this word of God in 2 Chronicles 19:2, “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD”. God had separated the apostate church from His faithful church. When an attempt was made to make peace while overlooking the differences, God was angry!

We will return to this matter in our next article to learn what this history teaches us about God’s purpose for division among denominations.

Written by: Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma | Issue 43