When God’s People Are Divided
Division, Conflict, Unity
Chuck Swindoll recounts this little piece that seems to be the battle cry for many,
Believe as I believe—no more, no less;
That I am right (and no one else) confess.
Feel as I feel, think only as I think;
Eat what I eat, and drink what I drink.
Look as I do, do always as I do;
And then—and only then—I’ll fellowship with you.
(Chuck Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life, p. 286)
We smile at the absurdity of this self-absorbed mindset, yet we know that this sentiment is more prevalent in the church than we would like to believe. The problems of division and conflict have plagued the church since its inception. It was the first problem that Paul addressed in the church at Corinth.
Paul considered this problem to be so significant that he devoted the first three chapters of his letter to it. This morning we will look at Paul’s words to the church. From those words we will draw some applications for our lives.
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Cor. 1:10)
Paul sets the standard for what we are to be as a Christian fellowship. He uses three different phrases to describe the unity that God desires.
Agree with one another
No divisions (or schisms) among you
Perfectly united in mind and thought
It sounds good but we tend to shrug these statements off as something that is unrealistic. It seems like an impossible standard. But it really isn’t. Parents who are successful raising their children have learned to agree that they will present a united front. When there is a disagreement about how to handle something they will try to talk things out between them first and when that is impossible, they will back each other up. Good parents know that it is a tendency of children to try to divide and conquer. They look for the weakest parent and exploit that weakness. For the child’s sake, parents must never let this happen.
This doesn’t mean that parents always agree on things. Just the contrary. Parents often approach issues of discipline and responsibility differently. Each has had a different background that leads them to believe that a certain approach is better than others. However, parents understand that they need to put their differences aside in order to raise their children.
Paul is not suggesting that the unified church will never disagree on issues. I believe diversity is healthy . . . it keeps us honest. Diversity is not a sin. Division is. Though we must be united on basic issues of the faith we should be flexible and (dare I say it?) tolerant in other issues.
Pastor John MacArthur wrote,
What the Lord laments and opposes, Satan applauds and fosters. Few things demoralize, discourage, and weaken a church as much as bickering, backbiting, and fighting among its members. And few things so effectively undermine its testimony before the world.
When the people of the church fight, the reputation of the church suffers and God’s glory is tarnished. Our job is to put our differences aside and focus on the main thing: the glory of God and the power of the gospel.
Paul zeroed right in on the issue at hand,
My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 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.” (11-12)
Apparently the church was divided among different factions. The congregation was lining up behind different teachers. Some followed Paul, most likely these were Gentiles, many of whom had come to faith under Paul’s ministry. Others followed Peter, likely those who had some kind of Jewish background and resisted the freedom the Gentiles seemed to relish. Still others declared allegiance to Apollos. Apollos was most likely the second Pastor of the church in Corinth (after Paul). He was known for his rich speaking ability and this would have attracted the educated.
The last group claimed to “follow Jesus”. It appears that Paul was confronting a group that thought of themselves as a superior group that “didn’t care about theology . . .they just wanted to follow Jesus”. If these people were really following Jesus they would have been bringing the church together rather than helping it become more divisive.
I don’t know how these divisions were impacting the church. Undoubtedly, the various groups considered the other groups to be “less spiritual” and perhaps even questioned the salvation of those who disagreed with them. Perhaps the church was starting to look a little like the United States Congress, filled with party line politics that seems to keep anything from being accomplished.
People have their celebrity pastors today. There is a tendency to take the words of a favorite teacher and give them a sense of infallibility. There are a number of “superstars” in the Christian community: Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, Kenneth Copeland, TD Jakes, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus and a host of others. There is nothing wrong with having a favorite Bible Teacher. However, what is wrong is when you begin to claim that your teacher is right and all the others are wrong. The teachers’ job (cf. v. 17) is to “preach the gospel”. The teacher should be pointing people past himself to Christ and His Word.
Please notice something. There is no indication that Paul, Peter or Apollos encouraged or desired this rabid devotion. I believe people like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Wesley would be horrified that there were people who were called Calvinists, Lutherans or Weslyans. These men were not trying to gain followers for themselves. They were trying to proclaim the whole counsel of God. They wanted to point people to Jesus.
Paul confronted the problem of divisions in Corinth with three simple rhetorical questions so that they would have perspective
1. Is Christ Divided? (obviously not)
2. Did Any of these men die for you? (No)
3. Were you baptized into their name? (I certainly hope not)
Since none of these “mere men” had anything to do with our new life in Christ, they should not be the object of devotion. We need to remember that even the best of men are only men at best. Paul’s reminds us that the only person to whom we should declare loyalty, is Jesus.
Paul used verses 14-17 to tell us that he didn’t baptize many people. It was not that Paul thought baptism was insignificant; his point is that he was not trying to build a following for himself. He was more than content to preach and let others do the work of baptizing.
I think two questions naturally raised by Paul’s counsel. The first question is How Far Do we go with this Unity?
There are those who advocate that we ignore all doctrinal disagreements and form one unified church. While I would agree that the fact that we have a myriad of denominations or different kinds of churches illustrates that we are prone to pettiness, we must not be too quick to skim over some of the differences.
At the end of the book of Romans, Paul wrote,
“17 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of niave people.”
In the book of Jude verses 3-4 we read,
I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
From these two passages it is apparent that there are times when we must stand against what others are teaching. It seems to me that the Bible teaches that there MUST be agreement on primary or essential doctrine. Essential doctrinal issues would be: the nature of Christ, the sinfulness of man, the authority of Scripture, the way of salvation, the literal resurrection of Christ and the future literal return of Christ. When there is not agreement in these areas we must contend for the faith. We can’t simply overlook these things. These are doctrines which we are to defend. If there is a departure from these truths, we must severe our fellowship. In other words, if a church abandons these essentials, it is no longer a Christian church, and we are right to leave that church.
Secondary differences are those that relate to non-essential issues: the mode of baptism, the frequency of communion, theories about the end-times, styles of worship, the expression of spiritual gifts, preferred version of the Bible, church polity, and other Issues like these are all secondary. Personally, I believe it is wrong to fight over these differences of opinion. There is room for diversity in these areas. As we discuss these things in a civilized manner we can grow in our faith.
It appears that the problem in Corinth was not about essential doctrines. The problem was either over secondary issues or was because of petty interpersonal issues. These issues should be resolved for the sake of Christ. Too often we turn the lists around. We argue passionately over our preferences even as we ignore serious departures from the faith.
How Should we handle Conflict Situations?
Since it is inevitable that there will be conflicts in the body of Christ (just like there are conflicts in any home), let’s look at how to preserve the unity of the church at times like this. First, let’s talk about what we should NOT do. It is always wrong to:
- Gossip and slander others
- It is wrong to have “secret meetings” to lobby support for your position
- It is wrong to draw unwarranted conclusions. For example, if someone doesn’t’ agree with your preference we need to be careful that we don’t conclude that the person is “obviously” not a true believer? This is the equivalent of saying that no one can go to Heaven unless they believe as I believe.
- It is wrong to engage in personal attacks. Personal attacks beget other personal attacks. The damage from such actions create wounds that seem to never heal.
Paul gives us a good example of how to handle a problem. His criticism is general. He identified the problem, acknowledged the source of his information, and identified why it was wrong and did it without allowing it to became personal.
Unfortunately, as sinful people, we tend to view every disagreement as a personal contest. We look at a disagreement as a win or lose proposition, and we want to win. Voices increase in volume, anger boils, and we become more intent on winning than on searching for the truth.
Let me be even more practical. The first thing to do when there is tension in a church is to take a breath. Nothing good comes from people who have lost control. Ask yourself some key questions,
- Is this an issue with eternal importance?
- Have I brought this to God in prayer?
- Is God trying to teach ME something?
- Is it possible that the problem resides in me? Is this an ego problem? Am I making my preferences the standard for everyone else?
- Is this an issue I should simply overlook?
- Is this worth risking hurt feelings and a possible church split?
- Would Jesus Spend His Time on This?
Learning to show respect and love to each other even when we disagree is, I believe, the key to Christian love and maturity. Let’s take one example: worship music. There seems to be more conflict about music than anything else today. The style of music used in worship is certainly a secondary issue. When one kind of music is considered worshipful and another is not we are guilty of making our preferences the standard of truth. I think it is a sign of love in a church to be able to recognize that some people love hymns and others love more contemporary choruses. It seems like an expression of love to sing both kinds of music.
The Apostle Paul spent a good portion of time in this letter addressing the issue of divisions in the church. Paul knew that squabbles in a church diminish the testimony of that church. Grumbling among believers makes it very difficult for those outside the church to believe the message of God’s incredible love. Paul did not want anything to cast a shadow over the magnificent message of the gospel.
Satan happily will do everything he can to encourage conflict and division in the church. He will attempt to get us to feel that these disagreements over tastes and preferences are really “essential matter”. They are not! Satan loves to destroy churches (or their testimony) from the inside out. We must resist his temptation.
We can learn about love and we can talk about love but it will mean nothing until we practice it. If you take a science class you often have the classroom lecture and the lab work. The lab is where you test or experience what you have been told. It is where you really learn. I believe the Christian faith is like that. We have classroom time when we study the Bible. Our lab time comes when we live out these commands within the body of Christ.
True Christian love starts by making room for the personal preferences of others. If we really understand God’s love, we will celebrate what we hold in common in Christ while we continue to leave room for differences in our preferences, understanding, and our passions (the things that are most important to us).
Let me get painfully personal as we apply Paul’s words.
Are you nursing an old hurt? If so, it’s time to let it go. It’s time to forgive. We are told to forgive each other person as Christ has forgiven us. So let it go. Get over it. Move on.
Are you a person who likes to “stir the pot”? Do seem to get energized by a conflict? Then you need to confess this before God and ask Him to help you to develop a passion for unity rather than division.
Have you concluded that you have the things of God “all figured out” and anyone who disagrees with you is obviously wrong? If so, you need to confess your pride. You need to consider the possibility that you may be the one who is wrong.
Do you feel like you have to correct any misstatement another person makes? Do you see yourself as the “policeman of truth”? If so, you need to get over yourself. Learn to cut people some slack.
Do you relish news that another church is having trouble? Confess your hardness of heart and learn to weep over any conflict in a church, knowing that such conflict hurts all those in the body of Christ.
Do you get together with those who seem to always complain about what is going on (or not going on) in the church? If so, you need to put a stop to the grumbling or find yourself another group that won’t lead you into sin.
Do you sit in worship and get angry because of some issue going on? If so, then it would be better for you to worship elsewhere where you could truly worship and not poison the worship of those around you. There are times when we may need to quietly leave a church. We may need something different in our life.
God has made the unity of the church a high priority issue. We would do well to do the same.