Okay, maybe abomination is too strong of a word, but I had to get your attention. There have been a few questions/thoughts on my mind for some time now regarding church disunity: How can the body of Christ be a body if it is dismembered? I suppose a person could argue that a dismembered body is still a body, but then how can it function properly if the pieces are disconnected? Interestingly, the idea of denominations (divisions) didn’t start with the Reformation. Paul discusses the same topic in 1 Corinthians; however, based on what he says, I don’t think he’d approve of where the church is today.
Before getting to the heart of the matter (1 Cor. 3:1-7), let’s briefly run through how Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians. He first identifies himself as an apostle of God (1:1), one who has been given authority within the church. Then he mentions how the church in Corinth has been sanctified by Christ (1:2) and continues to describe how they’ve been well-endowed with gifts (1:7). Verse 9 describes how they were called by God into fellowship with Jesus Christ. Paul’s message has been positive thus far towards the Corinthians. If you look at Paul’s other letters they typically open with what the church is doing well followed by exhortation. In vv. 10-15 Paul begins his exhortation: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul continues to say that he was sent to preach the gospel, “not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1:17). He explains that the gospel is foolishness to the world, but to those who have been called, this gospel is their (our) salvation. Those who boast should boast in the Lord, not man (1:31).
In chapter 2, Paul discusses the role of the Spirit in his gospel message: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (2:3-5). The Spirit also plays a significant role in the lives of all Christians, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual (thoughts) with spiritual (words)” (2:11-13; NASB translation adds the words in parentheses). Think about this for a minute. As Christians we have the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who searches the depths of God (2:10). We can know God’s will because we have His Spirit, and Paul affirms that we have the mind of Christ (2:16). So why are we so divided? Why do we have differing beliefs that keep us from communing with one another? Paul, Peter, John, and Luke taught the same message to the church, and I believe that the Gospels agree. Maybe what Paul says next to the Corinthians will shed some light on these questions.
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (3:1-7). As we read earlier the Corinthians had many gifts, and 2 Cor. 8 indicates that they were financially stable. So what was the problem with this body of believers? If we look again at what Paul says, notice that he points out their spiritual condition. He uses the analogy of milk and solid food. He first gives them milk to drink, which makes sense when people start their Christian walk. The problem is that the Corinthians should be maturing and ready for spiritual food, but they aren’t. They’re still babies, so to speak. What keeps them spiritually immature? Their own flesh (3:3). They allow jealousy and strife to remain among them. Paul also points out that he and other messengers of God are simply that, messengers. GOD is the one who causes the growth. Another example of a messenger was Martin Luther. During the Reformation, he stood up against the Catholic Church because of his own convictions while studying Scripture. This was the beginning of Protestantism, but from what I’ve learned about Luther, he didn’t like the term Lutherans. It wasn’t until after his death that his followers began to identify themselves as such. Each denomination starts with the beliefs of one man or a group of men. Now, I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t discuss or defend their beliefs. I think we’re all grateful for Luther’s boldness and willingness to search the Scriptures for himself. He followed God’s Word despite what he had been taught his whole life. I believe this is something we should do. What I am saying is that men create denominations, not God. God uses people as messengers to teach His truth, and this truth should not contradict itself if we all have the same Spirit.
Let’s flip ahead to 1 Corinthians 12. In this text Paul talks about spiritual gifts. He says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:4-7). This passage is insightful because it demonstrates that all gifts, ministries, and effects from these things derive from the same place: God (note the allusion to the Trinity). This also means that if two people claim to have the same gift, but they somehow contradict each other, there needs to be a reexamination of Scripture. Because we have the same Spirit, gifts, ministries, and the effects should be consistent. Paul lists different gifts in 1 Cor. 3:8-10 and then adds some important information: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things (the gifts), distributing to each one individually just as He wills. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many” (3:11-14). The beauty of being part of the body is that we all have our roles to fulfill. Each member of the body is important, but we have to be unified. What’s even more interesting is that one member of the body is not more important than another. We may think church leaders are more important, but consider vv. 21-26, “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
What if we functioned this way? What if we cared for the WHOLE body this much? This includes all followers of God in every denomination. What if we worked out our disagreements instead of splitting? When we continue to divide, it only leads to bitterness, anger, malice, etc. It also allows room for the enemy to take root and prosper among us. Instead of having three churches right next to each other, why don’t we have one meeting place in a town and have community? Imagine if we could provide for each other’s needs by using our own talents, gifts, finances, material possessions, etc. (Note: I’m NOT referring to socialism in any way. I’m talking about believers helping other believers). There wouldn’t have to be just one or two leaders preparing a message every week (less stress), but we could learn from a group of leaders (elders and deacons; 1 Tim. 3) and from each other. Not only would the church be free from divisions, but the world would be dumbfounded to see Christians actually functioning as a unified body. I’m not sure if all Christians are interested in such a change, but what about you?
Do I think denominations are abominations? Not necessarily. Do I think they have allowed the church to be a light to the world? Yes, albeit a dim light. We are called to bring truth and be a BRIGHT light. I think each denomination holds a facet of truth, so why not bring it all together? Let us wrestle with the tough issues. Let us not be so greatly influenced by our culture that we change our theology to fit current trends. Paul writes in Eph. 4:1-6, “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance (note: “tolerance” is in the context of having patience, not simply tolerating everything people do) for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Notice the emphasis on unity, and how we are to act towards one another. Among other instructions, Paul adds in vv. 31-32, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” Even though I’ve only looked at two NT churches, it seems clear that there were disunity issues even in the first century. However, they were supposed to change their hearts and attitudes towards one another. A couple of millennia later, I think the challenge is still the same.
Well I have written much, but I’ll end this post with a song I wrote almost five years ago. It begins by imploring God to help me fix myself, and then continues by asking God to forgive and help the church make a change so that we can be conquerors (spiritually) in this world.
Conquer (originally written December 2, 2009)
Peel back the layers.
Dig down deep,
And pull out the best of me. (Oh)
I am tired of my selfishness,
A revealing disease.
Oh God, please, discover the best of You in me.
I can’t go on like this with such bitterness as my companion.
Change me from within.
Break my life from sin.
Give me new eyes so that I can see clearly.
Wars are raging between the Bride for whom you died.
Oh God, why? (why)
Jealousy, anger, brokenness.
We can only ask for Your forgiveness.
We can’t go on like this with such haughtiness as our companion.
Change us from within.
Break our lives from sin.
Bring us together.
Make us whole again:
Teach us how to love, to serve, to laugh, and dream.
Give us strength to rise when we fall.
We will conquer all.
We will conquer all.
We have conquered all because You are the power in us.
I hope you’ve been encouraged by the Word and challenged by my questions and thoughts. Let us keep uplifting one another in love.
© Lauren Heiligenthal