“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Does that sound familiar? In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Paul addresses a problem that still exists today. That problem is the lack of unity in the Christian church. The Corinthian Christians were divided into factions based on who had baptized them instead of being united in the faith and the Gospel. They identified with different leaders because in that culture, a person’s name was more than a label. A person’s character and power were tied up in his name.
Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. His letter reawakened and strengthened the Corinthians’ faith in Christ. Paul confronted the Corinthians in love as a Christian brother. He spoke in one letter to all the factions and they were able to listen to what he said. He followed the first step that Jesus laid out for resolving conflict in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul addressed the individual factions, one on one, as a group. If necessary, he would have had to follow the second step of involving two or three outsiders and (if necessary) the third step of dealing with the entire church in Corinth as a group.
Sometimes Christians are divided over issues that are small or insignificant. In order to maintain unity, we must not “sweat the small stuff”. In many communities, churches will not work together because of often secondary doctrinal issues. They may agree on the Gospel, the Trinity, the believer’s baptism, but slight differences in eschatology or women in ministry lead to division.
I read a joke that I think illustrates this. Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!” Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
The church in Corinth is a metaphor for many churches today. Many of them have the potential for division. This potential is real and needs to be dealt with. The desire for unity is not new. In John 17:11, 22 Jesus prayed for the unity of His followers before His crucifixion. The lack of unity in any church can be traced to a weak commitment to a doctrine or a commitment to the disunity of doctrine. Unity needs to be based on loyalty to Christ instead of loyalty to a particular preacher or a particular doctrine. Loyalty to leaders leads to disputes.
Pastors are called to preach the Gospel and bring people to unity in Christ, not to build a faction or a cult around themselves. That is why Paul did not baptize many people. He was true to a purpose to preach the Gospel’s message-the freedom that faith in Christ offers. The light of God must be shared, not stored. The world is called to Christ and not to any of his servants.
The Christian church needs to be united in preaching the Good News-plain and simple. Its very message is the dynamic of God. Billy Graham kept his sermons simple and to the point. He always pointed people to the cross as the way of salvation.
There are some signs that Christians are becoming united. They are able to agree on what is important and lay aside the non-negotiable parts of the faith. They are becoming united when it comes to issues such as salvation by faith alone and the deity of Christ. They have learned to love those who disagree with them. Love will overcome all divisions, especially when it is combined with prayer. Division makes the church’s mission harder to do.
One sign of our unity is baptism. Baptism is an outward sign of the inward acceptance of Christ. When we accept Him, we desire to be like Him. We renew our minds so that we can apply what we have learned so we can be more like Him. In other words, we need to think alike. Rival groups must learn to come to an agreement. All of this can only happen when we truly submit to Christ. When we take our eyes off Jesus, the Body of Christ is broken. We need to focus on the lost and the hurting. We must work together or die.
Working in a tri-lingual, multi-congregational church is difficult. Each congregation is uniquely different based upon culture, language and generations. But in the end, our focus is on our common faith. We have a weekly prayer meeting that is in all three languages. We do combine joint services bringing together everyone to worship God in three languages. It is important that churches are diligent in keeping unity in spite of the differences each may have. Jesus gives us a spirit of unity and in return, the church must take seriously any serious threat to its unity.
Unity is always held in the midst of diversity. It brings together many ideas, viewpoints and personalities around a common, unifying theme or concern such as relieving poverty. There is room for differences of opinion when we are seeking unity provided that the differences are given over to the achievement of the common goal.
Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to stop their petty feuding and embrace the unity in Christ that brought them together. They benefitted from different teachers and came from different backgrounds and generations and social classes. They had unique histories and lives, but they had one thing in common. They were led to the same place of the wood of the cross and the water of baptism.
We are like the Christians in Corinth. We come from different backgrounds, generations and social classes. We have different histories and lives, but we have one thing in common. We are also led to the same place of the wood of the cross and the water of baptism.
So how can this unity be lived out practically? We need to be in agreement in the essentials of the faith. We need to be in agreement to the message of the Gospel. We need to be united in mind, understanding, judgment, purpose and will.
In other words, we have to set aside our sinful nature if we want to be united in Christ. We have to go back to the most basic purpose of the Christian faith and mission – love God, love each other and share the hope God has placed in our hearts. This is seen in our worship and devotion to God, expressing kindness and love to one another through forgiveness and grace. We have to work through conflicts and avoid slander and gossip.
By being united in Christ, Christianity is much stronger. In the words of the song that was made famous by the group “Brotherhood of Man” in the 1970s: “For united we stand; Divided we fall; And if our backs should ever be against the wall; We’ll be together; Together you and I.”