The Apostle Paul wrote, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor 1:10).” I was born into a divided Christian home. My father was Roman Catholic. My mother attended the Methodist church. They rarely went to church together. The Greek word for “divisions” is schismata. Schism is the history of the church. It has always been my question, “Why can’t Christians stay together and get along?”
In the context of 1 Corinthians 1, the cult of personality had infiltrated the church at Corinth. Different groups formed around different leaders in the church. Allegiances were drawn up and divisions set in. Paul had a vested interest in the church at Corinth. He had planted the congregation, and they were about ready to excommunicate him because jealous intruders had persuaded the congregation to turn against the great apostle.
Paul’s strong encouragement is a call to come alongside one another (parakalo). Periodically, someone will stand up and make a call for unity. For example, when the decay of American culture was in full degeneration in the 1990’s, some evangelical leaders and some Roman Catholic leaders got together to try and show some unity on some social issues. The result was nothing but harsh criticism for them.
Paul is insistent, “that you all agree.” He offers no exceptions. In fact, the basis for his call for unity is the very name of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, if you consider yourself a Christian, you must agree for the sake of the name of the one we are claiming to gather around. Granted, Paul’s context was a local church in one locale.
In a past pastoral job search, I was interviewed by a man in Sioux Falls. He provided some helpful information about a church in a small community that was interested in interviewing me further. On the community web site, they had a very handsome web page with all of the churches in the community.
Exactly the right information was there, and even an attractive picture of each church building. One could click on a link to each church’s own web site. There were ten churches to choose from. Most of them had excellent facilities, based on my own observation of the photographs. The problem is there are only 1,300 people in the small town. The irony hit me when I was asked by the church, if I, as a pastor, was willing to work together with the other pastors and churches in the community.
One can only imagine the resources that could be harnessed if churches could find some physical unity, even sharing church facilities (something Southern California churches do pretty well). Here is proof that too much of church identity is tied up in a building with a sign on the front door. Christians shun this stereotype, but how many churches in your town have chosen to forsake their physical plants for the sake of global missions or some other worthy use of resources? This does occasionally happen, but it is because there are no people left in the church.
Paul also encourages unity, with no divisions, by having the “same mind.” Clearly, the church has been given the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), by having received the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we should be thinking what Christ is thinking. We have the Word of God, which reveals the mind of Christ. We have the Spirit as our Teacher, to help us understand God’s will found in God’s Word.
In the context of our passage, Paul is arguing for no divisions. This is God’s will. In the context of the early church, local churches sprouted up in various locations. Even in Paul’s epistles to the different churches, and Jesus’ admonishment to the churches of Asia (Rev 2–3), one detects great variety in the personality of each congregation. The circumstances in each place were slightly different, too. Obviously, there must be some factions to weed out heresy and false teachers (1 Cor 11:19).
People with the same mind agree with one another. The triune Godhead of three persons is in perfect agreement. Everything purposefully done by One these Three carries full support of the other Persons. When Jesus came into the world, He had full support from His Father and the Holy Spirit.
Paul adds this “same judgment” to the list of reasons we should operate in unity with no divisions. What is the purpose of the church? First, it is to glorify God. This is done when we have the same mind and the same purpose. Second, it is simply to be who we are as God’s called out people (ekklesia). Third, the purpose of the church is to fulfill God’s plan for us. What is that plan? While Christ is being formed in each one of us (Rom 8:29), we are to go into the world to be witnesses (Acts 1:8), and to make disciples as we go (Mt 28:19–20).
What is the message received when we have so many different local bodies of believers? At first glance, it appears that the church of Jesus Christ is nothing but a family of people who cannot get along with one another. If you were to go into the various churches in your community, or even just study their web sites, you would actually see the unity. Most local churches are doing roughly the same thing. Some may be more focused on the social gospel, others on missions, or a third, on worship styling, etc. There is some element of all these things in every local church.
Having the same mind, means we are following the same instruction manual. This manifests some creative differences and some practical ones. In larger urban areas, one can find great preaching pulpits. This is more difficult in small rural areas. The reason for this is the career of the pastor. When a gifted pastor is discovered by a bigger congregation, his allegiance to his flock is rationalized away, and he moves to the big city to further his influence. Fascinating are the exceptions to this rule. Thomas Boston of Ettrick in Scotland is a case example of a very capable man, who remained in the most rural of locations.
The problem in Corinth, and the problem in all of the scenarios we could call to remembrance is the world in the church. Every Christian who reads her Bible can identify Corinth as the “worldly church” filled with “carnal Christians.” She may not be so quick to identify her own local church in the same way.
Has your church ousted its pastor in the last ten years? Has your church split for some reason in the last ten years? Has your church experienced a sharp decline in attendance in the past ten years? Has your church expanded its physical plant in the past ten years in anticipation of growth, not necessarily because you were bursting with too many people?
Was there a discussion to do a church plant, instead of a building project because you were bursting with too many people? Were those new people the product of your local missionary and evangelism endeavors or because your church puts on a better show and attracted people from other congregations?
Note the last paragraph was nothing but questions. We need more questions in the church to serve as a filter for sifting the world from the church. If Satan was given permission to sift Peter, there is no reason for him not to have permission to sift our local churches to see what we are made of. Only by tribulation after tribulation do we have a picture of the real Job.
When the church is afflicted, we have a better picture of what comprises a local congregation, or even a denomination. How many denominations have been put to the test over charismata, women in ministry, homosexual inclusion, and mega ambitions? In the past, the dissolution of the Seattle mega-church, “Mars Hill” was breathtaking to watch. What impressed me most was the willingness of the church leadership to let the ship sink. By allowing so many church attendees to find new church families, Mars Hill bolstered a great number of churches in the Seattle metropolitan area. It begs the question; how many other mega churches could be positively dissolved to help the churches in their communities?
Church leaders must determine what it means to be a worldly church. They must then put their own churches to the test. Removing worldliness is painful because it is the process of destroying sacred idols. Those who worship at worldly altars in the local church will likely be offended, as when a righteous king would be moved to destroy the pagan high places in Israel.
Purifying the church is really the action or actions we call, “Reformation.” At times, it is a major movement, as in the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes it is forwarded by a new lead pastor, like when David succeeded Saul. It may be finding the Scriptures, like in the days of Josiah. It may the exodus from a denomination gone worldly wild, like Moses leaving Egypt.
When you really begin to think about purging the world from the church, you think of the heroes of the faith in the Bible. There is a way of seeing reformation in each obedient leader. Reformation was the message of the prophets. Jesus Christ is the classic reformer. He made all things new.
The imperative for agreement is stated. There are to be no divisions. Where we find divisions, we find the world in the church. Paul’s remedy, as we have seen is to operate under the same Spirit, who brings us the same mind, and leads us in the same judgment. In this way, the promise from Paul is, “that you will be made complete.”
In conclusion, I have read enough church history to know this “no divisions ideal” is unlikely in our fallen world. However, at times, I have seen glimpses of heavenly accord when Christians worked together in love to achieve a kingdom purpose. They were of the same mind, and they found the place of agreement.
As they humbled themselves and yielded to the Holy Spirit, good things happened. No doubt, being a party to such an experience is a blessing from heaven and a great spur to press on toward the mark of the high calling in Christ Jesus, for which we are all called. In the next church meeting when the next decision is to be made, may your question before the final vote, resound, “No divisions…agreed?”
Spokane Valley, Washington
April 27, 2021