Want Your Church to Enjoy Unity? Let the Gospel Do Its Dividing Work.
When I became a lead pastor, I preached the gospel enthusiastically, but I didn’t understand its winnowing power or how positive that process would be. Like all pastors, I didn’t want division. I wanted unity and inclusivity. But that’s not how ministry works.
Everyone in the first century knew what John the Baptist meant when he predicted that Christ would winnow his church (Matthew 3:12) because everyone in the first century knew the purpose of a winnowing fork. Farmers used it to separate the wheat from its chaff. They tossed the grain into the air, the wind blew the lighter chaff to the side, and the heavier wheat fell to the threshing floor.
In other words, the gospel was Jesus’ winnowing fork that separated people into two piles—wheat and chaff. This is what Simeon meant when he warned Mary that her child would be “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel ” (Luke 2:34). In his adult years, the response to his ministry was usually “a division among the people” (John 7:43). It was the same for Paul: “And the people [of Antioch] were divided” (Acts 14:4).
Faithful gospel ministry means preaching the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). That includes God’s infinite grace, mercy, and love. These truths seldom divide. It also includes God’s holiness, his wrath, the inflexible nature of his justice, and the reality of eternal conscious torment in hell. These truths tend to cause division. Nonetheless, I regularly preached the gospel, fully confident that “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Trusting God, I expected fruit—and it followed.
But something happened that I didn’t expect: the gospel winnowed my congregation, and though it was sad, that “winnowing” proved to be a blessing.
THE GOSPEL DIVIDES
The gospel is inherently divisive. It affects both unbelievers and saints. Believers respond with joy. Others respond with anger, condescension, disgust, or apathy. Sometimes, unbelieving visitors will walk out in the middle of your Sunday sermon. Sometimes, professing Christians will, too.
Why? Because the gospel commands us to humble ourselves and renounce dependence on our good works. It commands us to submit to sovereign grace. This message is humbling, and our pride doesn’t like to be humbled. The gospel winnows the church by offending pride. After all, the God behind the gospel is not what unbelief expects. He is the Narrow Gate (Matthew 7:12), who saves only the obedient (Matthew 7:21), and threatens unbelief with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in eternal fire (Matthew 13:42). Paul was clear on this issue: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16).
Sometimes the work of dividing the wheat from the chaff is instantaneous, but it’s usually gradual. Some folks will show up and then slowly fade away after they’ve grown increasingly offended or disgruntled. But some will stay. I’m thinking of a cultural Catholic who started attending. He wanted to know the difference between Protestants and Catholics. We eventually met for coffee. After I explained the gospel, he became agitated. “If this is true,” he said, “then my Roman Catholic parents aren’t in heaven.”
“God doesn’t want you to worry about your parents,” I answered. “You don’t know for sure that they rejected the gospel. Your job is to submit to the good news, and trust that God has done the right thing with your parents.”
A few weeks later, he returned with his wife. At first, he came once a month. Then twice a month. Nine months later, he was coming weekly. At the end of the year, he asked to be baptized. Praise God, his experience is not unusual.
DIVISIONS THAT BUILD UP
As strange as it sounds, every church—yes, even every credobaptist church—is composed of the converted and the unconverted. Pastors need to be aware of this because the long-term presence of lingering unbelief muddies the waters. But one benefit of preaching the gospel is that it motivates the departure of unbelievers and irresistibly attracts true believers. This process is painful and sad, but it’s necessary. After all, a congregation with a high number of unbelievers will often be divided, joyless, contentious, lukewarm, and uncommitted.
But the more we let the gospel separate the wheat from the chaff, the more spiritual unity we’ll experience. In fact, it’s unlikely that a church will enjoy unity unless it has first let the gospel do its dividing work.
Once this happens, the fruit will come. A unified church full of believers who are growing in the Lord will be more evangelistic, more attractive to the watching world, more generous financially, and more welcoming to unbelieving visitors. In their book The Compelling Community, Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop sum it up this way: “The exclusivity that fuels a blazing hot community of believers can do far more gospel work than watering down the breadth and depth of commitment in order to feel inclusive.”
What opposes this winnowing work? In my experience, the main obstacle is the fear of man. We fear what people will think about us after they hear what we think about the Bible. A second obstacle is the aforementioned pain of separation. Simply put, it hurts when people we love who don’t know the Lord leave. To keep them around, the world, our flesh, and the Devil will tempt us to compromise crucial truths. But for the long-term health of our church, we must let the gospel do do its winnowing work. We must persevere in the faith and embrace rejection for the lasting joy of a greater unity.
Jesus winnowed, Paul winnowed, and the apostles winnowed. For 2,000 years, pastors have seen how the gospel faithfully preached separates the wheat from the chaff. This process is painful, but to those who press on in faithfulness, God promises a rich reward. Never forget that “it is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6), and that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5).