Dealing with Divisions

roads-320371_1920As I scroll through my social media feeds, I often click on articles related to issues that interest me. Many of them discuss faith or reactions to current developments in the Christian community. As I process my reactions and try to discern whether I agree or disagree on certain points, sometimes I read the responses of others in the comments sections. If the apostle Paul were to read some of the discussions among believers that I’ve scanned, I believe he would mourn as I do.

Of course, there are going to be times when we disagree with one another as Christians. However, the manner in which we disagree gives the watching world a glimpse of how followers of Jesus are interacting, and often it’s not a good picture—especially when our viewpoints don’t align on anything from the exposed sins of a prominent Christian leader to our interpretations of a particular passage of Scripture.

Online I read hateful words, witness name calling, and watch Scripture bullies use God’s Word as a weapon against fellow believers. The Bible is a sword, but we are called to wield it against our common enemy, Satan, not each other. Through this letter to the church in Corinth, Paul models the need to address conflicts with the recipe for healing divisions among us. Whether we are sparring online, via text, over the phone, or face to face, Paul teaches us that God asks us to strive for unity, especially in the midst of our disagreements.

We don’t have to conform and be cookie cutter Christians who agree on every minute point of doctrine. Of course, theology matters. Paul wasn’t propagating an “anything goes” attitude toward the Scriptures. On the contrary, his letter to the church at Corinth sought to help realign the believers in areas where they strayed from sound teaching, resulting in divisions. The key to finding resolution is in separating preferences from absolutes. Many times we squabble over minutia and miss the big picture.

In chapter one of 1 Corinthians we find two specific dangers Paul addressed that can lead to divisions.

  1. Relational Idolatry   Anything that captures our attention more than God can become an idol, including people. And often the result is divisive allegiances.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

In this instance, divisions is translated from the Greek word schism, which was a political term for “rival parties or factions.” Like members of a political party fiercely supporting their candidate, the Corinthians rallied around a particular Christian leader. As we bridge the gap between the church at Corinth and our local bodies of believers today, we recognize that we too struggle with making celebrities out of Christian leaders.

Many times the people we venerate after hearing them teach, reading their books, or following their blogs desire only to point us to Christ. Yet we like to attach ourselves to human leaders much as the people in the church of Corinth did. Instead, God calls us through Paul’s letter to seek unity. Paul called the Corinthians to be of the same mind or thought (v. 10). The Greek word he used is nous, which is defined as “the mind, comprising alike the faculties of perceiving and understanding and those of feeling, judging, determining.”6 Paul used an additional word to emphasize that God wants us to be perfectly united not only in our minds but also in our purpose or judgment. This Greek word is gnome, meaning “the faculty of knowledge, mind, reason.”7

Judgment has become a negative word today, but let’s remember that God wants us to exercise good judgment. He longs for us to evaluate conversations, statements, actions, and relationships with unity at the forefront. This certainly doesn’t mean checking our brains at the door, but it does mean using our God-given sense to see the harm in getting too attached to a particular human leader.

We can see people venerating these same types of leaders that Paul mentioned in this passage today—the spiritual father or shepherd (Paul), the academic teacher (Apollos), and the bold, authoritative leader (Peter). Others are like those in the last group, who won’t look to any human authority—other than themselves. Yet whenever a Christian leader’s charisma or celebrity overshadows the cross of Christ, danger lies ahead.

How about you? In what ways do you struggle with elevating the messenger over the message? Thank God for good leaders, but remember they have feet of clay.

  1. Outward Signs of Inward Changes    The second danger Paul mentioned has to do with arguments over outward signs of inward changes.

 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  1 Corinthians 1:14-17

Some Corinthian believers sought status based on who baptized them. Though we may not argue about that specifically, church history reveals a lot of schism over the baptismal waters. Some of the greatest theologians in history such as Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and Wesley argued vehemently for what they deemed the correct methods of participating in baptism and communion. Regardless of our practices and terminology related to baptism and communion, we must remember that they are a gift from God, not another brand of strife for the church.

While we may disagree about how we practice these observances, we should be unified in the heart behind them, remembering that they point to Christ. Yet often we argue over the very things that Jesus gave us as tangible reminders of His love and sacrifice. We must guard against elevating form over substance.

When we fight over outward expressions of our faith—such as our preference of worship music, preaching styles, church décor, methods of baptism, modes of communion, or anything else on the long list of things we squabble about—we don’t draw unbelievers to the incredible truth and power of the cross.

When we reflect on the cross and the anguish, sweat, and blood of Christ; the loneliness and pain He experienced when the Father turned His face away; the weight of sin; and Christ’s death and resurrection—all on our behalf—all other disagreements take a backseat. The cross wasn’t a cute logo the early church came up with to solidify their brand. It was an instrument of torture. Like featuring an electric chair or lethal injection on your website, the cross was an unlikely marketing magnet to draw people to salvation. Yet it was God’s perfect plan for atonement. The cross exposes our sins of pride, hatred, and disunity with others. Through the shed blood of Christ we find healing—for ourselves and our fractured relationships in the church.

Typically when I have argued over outward expressions of faith to the point that it causes division, I usually find pride and self-righteousness creeping into my soul. The cross helps us remember who we really are: sinners desperately in need of a Savior trying to get along with other sinners desperately in need of a Savior.

Paul wasn’t advocating that the Corinthians throw out all sound doctrine and teaching other than the gospel message itself. We find Paul later in the letter very clearly confronting all sorts of doctrinal issues. He simply wanted to be sure that the believers in Corinth approached differences from the perspective of the cross. We are called to do the same. Then, with an attitude of humility and grace, we can discuss our varied viewpoints without creating factions and divisions within the body of Christ. The cross helps us reimagine who we really are, aligning in unity all who follow Jesus.

As you think about the outward expressions of inward change in your life (sharing a testimony, communion, baptism, etc.) how do those sacred practices help you remember Christ?

Ask God to bring a nudge of conviction to any areas of relational idolatry or divisions over methodology.

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