The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the early church in Corinth because he had received some news regarding the divisions in the church. Paul knew the church well because he had led the early Christians there to faith. This news concerned and dismayed him greatly, so he wrote urgently to them in order to advise them.
He started with a greeting of peace and blessing (1 Cor 1: 1-3) and thanksgiving for them (1 Cor 1: 1-9). This was to express his intention to bless them. Then he addressed his first concern, which were the reports he had received of disunity and church division. He had heard of quarrels amongst them regarding who they claim to follow, “One of you says, I follow Paul, another, I follow Apollos, another, I follow Peter, still another, I follow Christ” (v 12). He told the church that their quarrels made no sense because they were all followers of Christ, not the individual preachers or teachers who claimed to follow separate personalities. Paul named 4 groups of people; those who claimed to follow himself, those who claimed to follow Apollos, those who claimed to follow the disciple Peter, and those who claimed to follow Christ himself. The quarrels here probably had nothing to do with the “leaders” themselves and indeed Paul was appalled that anyone should claim to be his follower as an excuse to separate themselves from the full body of Christ.
Paul’s advice against church division and disunity is as important today as it was in the early church. In this situation, the people of the Corinthian church had quarreled for reasons they claimed were due to their allegiance to a particular leader’s validity, but this had nothing to do with the truth. Often when people quarrel and decide to leave the church body, the reason they give has little to do with the actual problem. We often hide behind “holy” reasons or excuses so we can feel better about our sin. There could be many reasons for division in church. I can think of feeling hurt or offended, pride, jealousy, hidden sin, misunderstanding, insecurity, loneliness, lack of discipline, lack of evangelism, fear of confrontation, personality clashes, power struggles, the need for control, neglect, apathy, disobedience, dishonesty, fear of losing members and endless other possible reasons.
Be watchful. Church division is destructive. Rebellion, disobedience and disunity lead to the corruption of the church. There are numerous warnings against disunity amongst believers in the Bible. We are told to keep watch against it. For example, Romans 16:17-18: “I urge you brothers and sisters 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. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naïve people”. Romans 16:19-20 tell us “to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil and the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet”. 1 Thessalonians 5: 11 teach us to “encourage each other and build each other up”.
We are mistaken if we believe that being committed to our church fellowship is optional, depending on how we feel, or what we get from it. Being committed to your church fellowship is a witness of Jesus’ unity with His Father (John 17:22-23). This is how God has designed and commanded it. A divided church, and a person divided from the church, is not likely to be an effective witness to the world. If we know God’s command but deliberately keep on sinning, Hebrews 10:26-27 tells us very clearly that “there is no sacrifice for sins left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”. 1 Corinthians 12: 12-28 describe how we are all integral parts of God’s body. We need and support each other. We should have an equal concern for each other. We suffer together, we are honoured together and we rejoice together. This is the gift of being part of the body of Christ. It is crucial to remember that the maintenance of a healthy fellowship with believers should always be the priority above pride, offence, self-interest, or the need to be right.
Have you ever experienced the sweet joy of close fellowship? Can you describe how it felt to be part of a group of believers whom you felt close to, whom you could trust and rely on? Have you also had to go through the experience of church division and the breaking up of fellowship? Do you recall how this felt? If you have been through this, you probably felt pain, betrayal, bewilderment and anger. This is natural, because division in church is not part of God’s plan. It is the tearing off of parts of a body. No wonder it feels painful! However, the sweetest joy that you felt in good, close fellowship is a brief taste of what our fellowship will be like in heaven. God intends us to have close fellowship with each other and with Him for eternity. Take some time to pray daily for your church fellowship and for the members of your care group. Pray for God’s protection over this fellowship and pray that it will be an effective body of Christ to do God’s work and to be a light of hope in the world.