Human beings today are plagued by an ancient problem: To put it mildly, we have trouble getting along. That’s why there’s no shortage of wars, conflicts, arguments, and fights in our nation and around the world. Although we hope this would not be the case among Christians, the sad reality is that churches experience disagreements and divisions—and they have since the beginning.
The first church I ever pastored was situated in a mountainous area of North Carolina, where people from various clans lived. The animosity between them was so great that a clan-related death occurred almost every year. I soon realized some homes were receptive to my visits, while others were not. I knew my efforts would never be enough to mend the broken relationships.
Even in the church, the members of the various clans separated themselves by sitting in different sections and refusing to have anything to do with each other. There was only one thing that was going to unite them. Instead of addressing their problems directly from the pulpit, I just started preaching the Bible week after week, and gradually things began to change. Those who at one time shunned each other started to get together and talk.
They weren’t divided over the Bible but over petty arguments. Therefore, when all the preaching focused on Christ and His Word, they discovered their unity in Him. After all, Jesus Christ was the one who put them together in one body, and He was the only one who could keep them together.
The Problem of Disunity
Long before that small congregation existed, another church struggled with the problem of disunity—the one in Corinth. It wasn’t because they were ignorant of truth. Paul affirmed them as true believers who had been enriched in everything through Christ: grace, speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). The problem was that their behavior didn’t match their relationship with Him.
Jesus Christ was the one who put them together in one body, and He was the only one who could keep them together.
Some strife was found in almost all the New Testament churches, primarily because of false teachers who tried to undermine what the apostles taught. But the problem Paul addressed in the first part of his letter to the Corinthian church was their disunity based on personal preferences. This may seem like a minor issue, but in reality, it’s evidence of a mindset Paul later labeled as “fleshly” or carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). Instead of growing in Christlikeness, the Corinthian believers were consumed with their own selfish and sinful desires. And when there is carnality in the heart, there will be corruption and confusion in the church.
Therefore, Paul began his exhortation with an appeal: “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 Corinthians 1:10).
Paul based his appeal on the authority of Jesus Christ. That’s why he exhorted the Corinthians “by name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is synonymous with His authority over His church. He alone is the basis for our unity with one another because He has placed us in His body, the church, of which He is the head. Therefore, when we affirm Jesus as Lord, it implies our mutually agreed submission to His rule over us individually and corporately.
God’s objective is unity. Since the Corinthian believers were all one in Christ, they had no legitimate grounds for dividing themselves into factions, yet that was exactly what they were doing. They’d sacrificed togetherness for personal preferences regarding teachers. Some preferred Paul, others favored Apollos or Peter, while yet another group claimed to follow only Christ (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). The body of Christ cannot be segmented, nor can Jesus be parceled out as though His person and work come in various packages.
When we affirm Jesus as Lord, it implies our mutually agreed submission to His rule over us individually and corporately.
Therefore, Paul told them they should “all agree” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The Greek word is legēte, which means “to speak the same thing.” This didn’t mean that they had to see eye to eye on every minor issue, but as a congregation, it was important that they agree to essential biblical doctrines, to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and community, and to Christ’s message and mission for His church.
In the same verse, Paul said there should “be no divisions among you.” The Greek word is schisma, which means “a rip or tear in a garment” or “alienation and separation of people.” To understand the severity of this problem, consider how the following Greek words demonstrate the tragic breakup of a church body or of any relationship:
Stasis—”A strong disagreement” (Acts 15:2). This is the term used to describe the controversy between Paul and Barnabas regarding whether to take Mark with them on a missionary journey.
Dichostasia—“A standing apart” (Gal. 5:20). The disagreement may lead to a separation between two parties, and this type of animosity in the church is listed among the deeds of the flesh.
Hairesis—“A choice, option, or sect” (Acts 24:5). At this point, there is a disunion in which the separation becomes firmly established. In today’s terms, this would refer to a church split or a divorce. (It is interesting to note that this Greek term is also the root of the word “heretic.”)
The Corinthians were in the dangerous third stage of division. It probably began much as it does today, with a disagreement between two members. Instead of working through the issue, the individuals start avoiding each other. Eventually, they may begin to gather others to support them in their disagreement. Before long, the two groups are so settled in their positions that neither will budge on the issue, and the church is in danger.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to be “made complete” or joined together instead of moving apart.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to be “made complete” or joined together instead of moving apart. The Greek word is katartizó, which means “to repair or mend, to restore, or to set right.” This word refers to mending nets in Matthew 4:21, and in the medical field, it is used to describe knitting together fractured bones or repairing a dislocated joint.
Disunity in a church is not only painful for the members; it also dishonors Christ Jesus, the head, and ruins the testimony of that congregation. Although the world is full of conflict and animosity, this should never be a characteristic of the body of Christ. As we each submit to His headship and are conformed to His likeness, we will find our unity in Him—our perfect source.
Photo-illustration by Patrick White