Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (
1 Corinthians 1:10)
Can you identify the source of this quote? It is, “A house divided cannot stand.”
You and I immediately recognize these to be the words of Abraham Lincoln articulated in the debates surrounding the Civil War conflict, in which these United States were being ripped apart.
Civil war is about as destructive an enterprise as any nation or family can experience. It tears at the fabric of personal identity. What has the potential of being synergistic, the whole unit being much greater than an individualistic adding up of the parts, is dissipated. The individual parts–whether states, family members or church members–cluster into cliques that fight each other in tribal warfare, destroying the creative possibilities that come from authentic unity within diversity.
As we know, Abraham Lincoln did not originate this concept. He was quoting Jesus Christ who said, “‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand'” (
The Apostle Paul had mastered that concept. He was quick to see the cracks in the wall of the Corinthian church. Word had come to him at Ephesus that the church he had founded in Corinth, and had pastored for almost two years, was in trouble. Something needed to be done. So when his first effort at communicating with them, that lost letter of which we talked last week, didn’t do the job, he wrote another letter. We call it 1 Corinthians. He writes not a casual letter but one with enormous urgency. He is addressing people who are drifting into a potential schism, church split. If you have ever been through one, you know how horrible they are!
I remember one that took place in the presbytery where I ministered in South Florida in the late ’60s and early ’70s. A particular local church was divided right down the middle. It even divided families. A husband sided with one group, and the wife sided with the other. Some parents ended up together on one side of the issue pitted against their children on the other. I observed as the ministry of a well-meaning pastor was destroyed. Very sincere lay persons on each side of the issue had their spiritual life bludgeoned out of them. The saddest thing of all for me, though, was to watch one of the most respected, mature pastors in our presbytery moderate the commission assigned to deal with this divisive situation. In the three years he endeavored to lead this commission in discovering the facts and addressing in a peacemaking way the issue, he literally aged twenty years. His shoulders became stooped, lines creased his face, as he devoted his life to uniting a house divided. The cost of division was enormous within the life of that local church. And the ongoing conflict was destructive, taking its toll even on outsiders who were assigned to help bring mutual understanding and peace.
Paul had heard of the divisions in Corinth. Now he is prepared to take action.
Let’s look to see how Paul approaches his message of rebuke.
Last week, we saw Paul begin to deal with the situation in the opening words of his letter to the church at Corinth. He establishes his authority, reminding them that he was one who had been called by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.
Charles Swindoll sketches a homey fantasy with which you perhaps can relate: Picture yourself driving home after 12:00 midnight, yearning to bring that long, tiring day to a close. You are in your own neighborhood. There’s not a car other than yours driving on the streets. So you decide to simply slow down at that last stop sign between you and your house. No need to stop. No one is in danger. You pull into your driveway only to be surprised by the headlights of a car pulling in behind you. The man gets out. He greets you in a friendly way, saying, “You sure missed that stop sign, didn’t you?” You chuckle back, “I sure did,” to which he responds, “I just happen to be a plainclothes policeman representing the City of Newport Beach.” Immediately, your smug self-satisfaction turns to concern. Here’s someone who speaks with authority.
Paul spoke with authority to the church at Corinth, as he is prepared to warn them about disunity, which in the long run could be quite costly.
Sensitive to these fellow Christians, Paul addresses them as persons who are “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. . .” (
As distressed as he was about their circumstances, and as prepared as he was to address confrontationally their weaknesses, he doesn’t lose sight of who they are and how God views them. He gives thanks to God for His grace — that unmerited favor that has redeemed them through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. He gives thanks to God for His riches — those enormous resources that have helped cultivate them in the faith. He gives thanks to God for His gifts — the fact that they are charismatically endowed with everything they needed to function as individuals in Christian community and as a Christian community in a pagan society. And he thanks God for making them blameless, equipping them for the Day of Judgment, so that their position before God will be clean and pure.
I guess we could take a cynical look at Paul, saying that he certainly knew psychology. Some compliments up front will soften the blows of rebuke.
Perhaps he’d read The One-Minute Manager that emphasizes the importance of precise, specific stroking, as well as precise, specific critique.
Whatever his logical reasons for beginning his letter this way, I’m convinced that he also intuitively wrote out of a loving heart for these brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ who were headed toward a self-destructive explosion if they did not receive some warning. He gives as strong a word of encouragement as can possibly be given when he states in
Paul is talking to believers. He is writing to people who are part of the family. I love the words of Today’s English Version, “God is to be trusted.” This One who called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ can be trusted to deliver all He has promised. It is a powerfully heavy theme. Paul is saying to the Corinthians, and to the believers in the Newport Harbor area, that whatever the messed up situations of our lives, individually and corporately, there is hope. Things may not look hopeful now. There are problems that you see that blind you to God’s possibilities for the future. And there are problems that you do not see. By the time you become aware of them, you could end up quite discouraged. But this one, who later on in the letter refers to “seeing through a glass darkly,” declares a vision to the future that is crystal clear, in which God will have brought to conclusion that good work which He had begun, even though there might be some very painful, self-inflicted wounds experienced in the process.
In the early 1970s, I was preparing to lead a group to the Holy Land. A marvelous woman by the name of Lillian Clark applied to join this group from the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church. There were only two problems. Mrs. Clark was in her mid-nineties, and she was legally blind. She literally begged me for the opportunity to make the trip. She stated that she was willing to pay the way of someone who would be her eyes. This person would room with her, help her get around and would describe what we were viewing. I reluctantly agreed. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I don’t believe that any one of the over 1,000 people whom I have been privileged to take to the Middle East over the last 47 years appreciated it more than did Mrs. Clark. She trusted the eyes and the descriptions of her roommate. She listened carefully to the guide and to my additional briefings. She made the most within the limitations she confronted, seeing visions in her imagination described by her companion that were beyond her capacities to see in reality.
Even so, Paul endeavors to sketch in the darkest moment facing the church at Corinth that vision of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in the midst of rebuke, that faithfulness in which He provides grace, riches, gifts and blamelessness to people who don’t really deserve it on their own merit.
Paul now hits the issue head on with his appeal to unity.
After giving these words of affirmation, he makes the transition in the form of exhortation. He writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (
The word “appeal” in the Greek means to tenderly come alongside and urge them to change their ways. He refers to them as brothers and sisters. This is a family relationship, and he makes his exhortation in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again, he states the authority with which he speaks. That authority is Jesus Christ. He calls on them to agree. He urges them to put aside divisions. He calls upon them to be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
The last thing God wants for His people is division. The word in the Greek is the word schismata, which literally refers to a garment that is torn apart. He appeals to them to have agreement that they may be united, literally being knit back together again. This is a medical word describing that knitting together of bones that have been fractured, or joining together of a joint that has been dislocated. God yearns for His people to live in Christ-centered unity.
Paul doesn’t beat around the bush. He calls it the way he sees it. The church at Corinth had been torn apart by quarreling. He does not speak in broad generalities difficult for people to understand. He states it exactly the way it was. He writes,
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (
There were four factions in the church at Corinth. I see them as local manifestations of reoccurring syndromes facing churches.
One was the founding-father syndrome.
There were those who prided themselves in belonging to Paul. This is probably the Gentile party. Paul had always preached a Gospel of Christian freedom and the end of bondage to the Law. It is quite possible that this group had turned their liberty into license and were using their new-found Christianity as an excuse to do what they liked. They had forgotten that true freedom in Jesus Christ brings with it the privilege of a Christian ethic. They had forgotten that they were saved, not so as to be free to sin but to be free not to sin.
In addition, they had a pride of ownership. They were the first Christians at Corinth. They were the ones who came to faith in Jesus Christ through Paul’s preaching and teaching. They were the old-timers, the ones who had founded the church. They remembered the good old days when they were few in number but everybody knew everybody else, and they were one happy family. Then things changed. Paul left. A new pastor came. No one would ever be quite as good as good old Paul. So they established a clique. They stood in judgment of the new pastor.
Two was the outstanding-preacher syndrome.
These were the followers of Apollos. You can read about him in
Three was the one-true-interpreter-of-the-faith syndrome.
These persons prided themselves in being followers of Cephas. This is the Jewish form of the name of Peter. These people most likely were Jews. Because of their familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures, they liked to have the Christian faith expressed in a more Hebrew way. They sought to teach that a person must still observe the Jewish law. They lifted up the law and, in the process, they whittled down grace. We have no official record that Peter ever visited Corinth. He may have, and even may have been accompanied by his wife. We don’t know. It didn’t really matter to these people. They dreamed of Jerusalem, the Holy City. Some may have lived there at one time. They were eager to receive any bit of news from the Jewish capital. After all, Peter had actually walked with the Savior. Paul had only met him in visionary form on the road to Damascus. Were they ever an exclusive group!
Four was the I’ve-got-you-all-topped-because-I-personally-know-the-boss syndrome.
Have you ever seen one of these characters? They are something else! This person has a direct pipeline to God. He tends to be intolerant. She’s a self-righteous person. This one needs no earthly leader. William Barclay describes them as persons whose real fault is not in saying that they belong to Christ but in acting as if Christ belongs to them.
I can spot these people. So can you. They are present in every church. They function with a self-righteous arrogance with their nose up in the air, looking down on all the lesser Christians who don’t really know the truth, who aren’t really as pious, who aren’t really as pure. They carry themselves with the air that “after all, I belong not to Paul or Apollos or to Cephas, but to Christ! As a result, I’m superior to the rest of you!”
I find it comforting to know that the early church had the same problems we have today. Too often we idealize what it must have been like to be exposed to the original apostles. N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, titled Paul for Everyone, declares, “It’s a sobering thought that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a single family those who had obeyed its summons.”
I probably don’t need to elaborate on the kind of factions that can mark the life of a church. You know the founding pastor has a luxury. He or she is the one who calls together a small group of people. They tend to be an affinity group. They are drawn together by common interests. They have an immediate identity with the leadership style of that founding pastor. What this group lacks in history, physical plant and finances, it makes up for in enthusiasm. God pity the next pastor who has to follow a successful founding pastor. Generally, the founding pastor has organizational gifts. His successor, if successful, will often be a better preacher and be the person who leads the church on to greater effectiveness, both in consolidating the ministry that is already there and reaching out to a much different element of the community. And then that person’s successor comes into a community marked by multiple components.
It has been my privilege and responsibility to, three times now, follow three very successful pastors.
As a 27-year-old, I was called to the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Florida, which had been founded by Daniel Iverson, a great southern Presbyterian pastor and author of that hymn, “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me.” He was followed by Lane Adams, who built the physical building and expanded the evangelistic outreach of that congregation. His successor was Ben Haden, one of the most captivating and articulate expressors of the Christian faith, who went on to be the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and for decades was heard weekly on radio and television.
Then they ended up with me, a young pastor just two-and-a-half years out of seminary, of whom nobody but the members of the Pastoral Nominating Committee had ever heard. At the congregational meeting that called me, after two-and-a-half hours of heated debate, I received a 25 percent negative vote. When one person stood and graciously made the motion that my call be made unanimous, 25 percent vociferously refused. At the end of my first year when I left town for a week to attend a conference on evangelism hosted by Billy Graham, a group petitioned the Session to have me removed as pastor, because I “didn’t preach the Gospel.” What they really meant was that I didn’t preach the Gospel either quite the way or quite as well as Dan Iverson, Lane Adams or Ben Haden. All three factions made up of enthusiastic followers of each of those three men might not agree on everything, but they did agree on one fact — they didn’t want this new young fellow, John Huffman. Ultimately, they came to love and trust me as they had those others. But for some it took a while, and the factions were distressing to me.
You see how easy it is for factions to develop.
Then, after six years of ministry there, at age 33, I received a call to become the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although there was congregational enthusiasm about my call, I discovered after I was installed that I had been the compromise candidate to some on the calling committee. The Pastoral Nominating Committee represented four basic groups in that 200-plus- year-old church pastored by only ten senior ministers in all those years. In this case, there was not a division centering around the most recent illustrious predecessors named Maitland Alexander, who had ministered there 1897-1926, or Clarence Edward Macartney, who had been there 1927-1952, or Robert Lamont, who had been there 1952-1973.
In this case, the factions were theologically oriented. There were the “charismatics.” There were the “ultra-Calvinists.” There were the “Presbyterian denominational loyalists.” And there were the “broad evangelicals.” Each of these groups had a possible candidate or two who would have ideally suited their desires. But none of those persons would have met the expectation of the other three groups. So they finally agreed on John Huffman, who certainly was not anti-charismatic, nor anti-Calvinist, nor anti-denominational, nor anti-evangelical. I was open to the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. I was reformed in my theology. I was loyal to the denomination. And I was broadly evangelical. What I discovered after I was installed was that each of these groups had expectations of me, and I could not live up to all their expectations. It was a good five years, as I carved out my own style of ministry. But a few in each of these four groups would periodically come and express to me their disappointment that I did not measure up to their expectations.
When I accepted a call to St. Andrew’s 27 years ago this past July, I discovered that this church, too, had its unique constituencies. Some were charter members who remembered the earliest days with Tom Gibson. Some were so enriched by the ministry of James Stewart, a true community pastor. Some were so inspired by the uplifting preaching of Charles Dierenfield. And then came along a bit different character in John Huffman.
Each of these churches was unique in their component parts, each with tremendous potential for schism and disunity, and each with tremendous potential for powerful unity in the Holy Spirit of God. I thank God for each of these churches, because I have been able to witness in person what it is for people to come together in Christian unity in spite of their diversity.
Just what is this unity?
Let me assure you that it isn’t peace at any price.
Absolutely not. God is not interested in producing carbon-copy Christians. Later on in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul will emphasize the importance of diversity.
Nor is this unity peace at any price to the exclusion of biblical truth.
Paul will go on in his letter to be vigorous in his adherence to doctrinal purity and godly lifestyles. He is not prepared to avoid conflict, so as to enable a superficial sense of unity.
This unity that Paul describes is the establishment of a central focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
He brackets this paragraph in which he makes such an eloquent appeal to unity with introductory and concluding words that call us to center our lives on the Person of Jesus Christ. In
I’ve discovered through the years that the more sincere and earnest we are in our faith, the more difficult it is to have unity.
People who do not have a deep conviction don’t get too excited about doctrinal matters and lifestyle issues. People who are sincere in their faith, holding high the Bible, tend to see tolerance of varied viewpoints as compromise.
How sad it is to see how Christians carve each other up. I’m convinced that the more serious one is about something, the more difficult it is for that person to be tolerant and understanding of someone else. The less seriously someone takes the matter, the easier it is to be tolerant. I’m convinced that’s why the more dedicated a group of Christians you have, the more difficult it is for them to get along. Tolerance can be viewed as compromise. Love can be seen as the dilution of the true faith. That’s why the New Testament puts such a strong focus on truth and love functioning in creative, dynamic relationship.
It’s important that we avoid that ripping and tearing apart of the body of Christ that comes from factions engaged in rugged battle with each other. How sad it is to see churches made up of quarreling people, that contention, that battle, that rivalry, that political and domestic strife that can be so destructive of a Christian community.
How sad it is to see that kind of contentious spirit in the body politic. Washington has increasingly become a place known more for quarreling, political warfare, than civil discourse.
Perhaps we can take some lessons from previous eras in politics. I used to enjoy watching President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. You couldn’t find two people much more different in their political ideologies. Tip O’Neill was an old-time liberal Democrat from Cambridge, Massachusetts, straight out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Deal politics. Ronald Reagan was a man who faithfully, over many years, nudged the Republican Party from the eastern establishment philosophy of a Nelson Rockefeller past the middle-of-the-road conservatism of a Richard Nixon to a quite doctrinaire conservatism. Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan during the daytime would argue publicly on issue after issue. But they learned not to take it so personally. They came out of the fiercest of public encounters into a quiet anti-room, where they would sit back, share a drink and swap a few stories and muse on their mutual love of America and the deep-seated values of our democratic traditions, which they both embraced.
How many of the conflicts in the Christian church are based on true theological convictions? How many are based on temperamental differences or some fine-tunings of theological and philosophical understandings? How many of the conflicts are based on deep-seated convictions? Or how many come from petty, egotistical concerns? I don’t know. I doubt that you know. But I do know that God doesn’t ask you and me to have unity at any price. What He calls us to is a singleness of purpose. We are to maintain our unity in spite of our individuality. Our central focus is to be Jesus Christ! We are called to be of one thought and one purpose in His service. We are to tell the Good News. We are to glorify Jesus Christ. After all, who died for you? Was it Paul? Was it Apollos? Was it Cephas? No, it was Jesus. And this Jesus will be owned by no one or no powerful faction. This Jesus wants to own us and deploy us in His service.
I’d like to conclude by pointing out a pattern for dealing with any problem within a Christian community.
We could learn from how the Apostle Paul handled this problematic matter in a way that can help us deal with problems in our churches, our homes, our para-church ministries and with Christians doing business together in any other realm of activity.
First, frankly acknowledge the ideal of oneness in Christ.
Paul begins with his words of encouragement. That’s the starting point for dealing with disagreements between believers. That’s what he’s talking about here.
He’s not talking about some basic truth issues that distinguish between faithfulness to Scripture and denial of biblical teaching. He’s talking about the issues that cause factions between brothers and sisters in Christ. He’s talking about those cliques that develop over personal preferences and emphases on the personalities of various leaders.
He says our oneness in Jesus Christ is much more important. We shouldn’t allow these kinds of disagreements to break up our relationships.
I’ve had to work hard at this through the years. I remember my first several years here when one of my valued friendships with one of our St. Andrew’s members became strained. I didn’t understand the full extent of it at the time. I held my ground on a matter of conscience. The other person held his ground, viewing it also as a conscience issue. By the time we finally entered into conversation, the issue had heated up to the point that we did not take adequate time to reaffirm each other in Christian love. I was threatened. I thought I was right. I became defensive. I did not do the homework necessary as a prelude to engaging the issue. I simply engaged the issue only to exacerbate the problem and to insensitively make it all the worse.
A break came in my fellowship with this brother in Christ. He left St. Andrew’s. Two years later, we had lunch in an atmosphere of Christ’s healing love. Whatever the big issue had been had dimmed in its importance compared to our sense of loss of each other’s friendship. I’m not certain I could have done anything that would have satisfied him, but I could have taken a little more leisure time to reaffirm our oneness in Christ. We serve the same Lord, and whatever the issues were, whatever the intensity of feelings were, whatever we shared on those issues that separated us, our oneness in Christ was more important.
Second, state the problem as fact that exists, not elusive rumor.
Paul began with gracious words. Then he states the facts as they had been reported to him that there was quarreling among the brothers and sisters. He mentioned the four cliques by name. He repudiates that self-indulgent part of him that could pride himself that one of the cliques bore his own name. He refused to side with them. Too often, we deal with tough issues using an avoidance mechanism. We talk in vague generalities. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we refuse to call a spade a spade. We avoid specifics. We only become more hurtful in the process.
Third, identify the source of information.
Paul mentions that it had been reported to him by Chloe’s people. Perhaps these were her slaves. Perhaps he had received a letter or had conversation with traveling members of her household. We are inclined to use general statements, such as, “People are saying that. . . .” Paul was willing to identify the source of his information, even as he was willing to state the specifics of the problem with precision.
Fourth, acknowledge our differences and agree to work through the messy stuff.
Some say never do anything until there is complete unity. That can be a manipulative device, because the people who don’t want to do anything get their way. It’s important to establish our oneness and then hit head-on the issues on which there is disagreement.
The same goes for our homes. One of my friends told me that it wasn’t until he and his wife confronted head-on in love their son’s drug problem and told him that they were committing him to a drug rehabilitation program, and unless he came out of that willing to participate in long-term help, they would have to take more drastic action and send him away to a distant drug rehabilitation center for the entire next school year. Out of this tough, confrontal love came healing of relationship in that family. There is now unity, not uniformity, where before there was disunity, brokenness, schism.
Unity? Yes. That’s the stuff of authentic family living in the home or the church, and it comes most specifically when we keep our individual and corporate focus on Jesus Christ.
I’m reminded of the words of two hymns we know.
One calls us to:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full on His wonderful face.
And the things of this world will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.
The other reminds us that:
We are one in the spirit,
We are one in the Lord.
And we pray that our unity may one day be restored,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love!
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.