“But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.”
– 1 Cor 11.17-19
We talk so much these days about unity that the up-and-coming generation (and probably most of generations Gen X and younger) are beginning to value tolerance and acceptance over Truth. We would not dare to be so arrogant as to claim that what I believe the Scripture to say is Truth, this is just “my interpretation” and you are entitled to your own opinion. We are going to start and build churches that avoid those things which cause denominations to split, because “all that matters is Jesus”. The Bible, after all, means different things to different people, right?
There are some tertiary and even secondary doctrines over which we should not fight. Do you believe that Jesus will return before, after or halfway through the tribulation? I have my belief, but if you disagree with me, that is all right because there is no salvific significance to the discussion. I am no more or less a Christian or in love with Jesus because I believe one thing and you another. We both believe in the resurrection of the dead, in which our hope is founded, and we both are trusting Jesus for salvation and for redemption at the end of the age.
Paul, in this passage, opens the discussion with a debate which should be non-divisive, and closes with one that should be. The church was arguing over the mandate of women covering their heads for prayer. Paul argues that her long hair is a woman’s covering and glory, however he says “judge for yourselves” (1 Cor 11.13). It’s not a big deal. God gave her a natural covering, but if one desires to wear a scarf, too, then her submission is honorable.
He then makes the statement that there must factions or divisions amongst Christians, so that those who are approved – those who are right – will be evident. That which should be divisive, he explains, is that the church was irreverently and sinfully taking the Lord’s Supper, in that each one was eating and drinking – some getting drunk while some went hungry without food. He states that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11.27). He instructs that every one must examine himself and his heart before taking the Lords supper, because if you take it in sin, you drink and eat judgment upon yourself (1 Cor 11.29). He says, “you do not judge the body rightly”. You must judge yourself, and you must judge the factions within the church and discern, according to Scriptures, which is right.
Moving to a new city is fun and exciting, but it is also difficult at times – in particular to find a church and build solid community. I went to seminary of one denomination, but the new city where I have moved has very few congregations within that denomination. In looking at churches in the area, I have noticed that many non-demoninational churches, for the sake of being inclusive, do not have a statement of beliefs available for church seekers. They, in fact, do not even have one written. I also learned a lot about other denominations from my background whilst on the hunt!
There are things in which we unify. The Gospel is foundational and non-negotiable. There are things on which we might disagree but can still stand united. If a woman feels convicted to cover her head when she prays, or all of the time, she should cover her head in clear conscience and stand next to her sister whose hair is her covering from the Lord. However, if there is a faction within your church who is dishonoring the Lord’s Supper by eating in excess and not feeding his poor brother who is hungry, this is a division-worthy issue. If there is a faction who does not examine and repent of sin before coming into a worship service, this is worth breaking fellowship if and when the outlines of Church discipline have been followed, offering such a one a chance to repent.
The Scriptures were written for our instruction. They are infallible and inerrant and with careful study of the context and intention they can be discerned – and at times the discernment is that God’s thoughts are above our thoughts and not for our understanding. But God is not a God of confusion (1 Cor 14.33). There are applicational issues that are not worth fighting or dividing over. And there are minor interpretational issues – especially ones such as the prophecies for the end times – that are also not worth dividing over. But sin is intolerable. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that if a person says he is a believer, but is unrepentant in sinful lifestyles or choices, we are to not even eat with him (1 Cor 5.11). And the foundational doctrines of salvation are not to be compromised.
But everybody sins. Right? Who am I to judge someone else? Yes, we all fall into seasons of sin. We all make a wrong decision here and there. We all still are at war with our flesh (Gal 5.17). But that is the point of the church. To call one another to account. To push one another on to maturity. To know one another well enough to ask the tough questions, to open to answer the tough questions and grow in holiness. All in love. All to the glory of God. We do not chastise or kick out a brother or sister for sinning. We remove a brother or sister from our midst for being unwilling to repent for his sinning. If he chooses to embrace sin over the will and mandates of God. If he, when confronted for his sin, says “I don’t care what God says about this”. Seventy times seven is the amount of times we offer forgiveness and acceptance to a brother who sins, when he repents (Matt 18.22). And it is in our humility and repentance that we ask one another and push one another on to love and know God.
Do you know what you believe? Do you know what your church believes? Do you test everything that you hear against the Scripture (Acts 17.11)? Are you growing in maturity (Heb 6.1)? Are you growing in holiness (1 Peter 1.16)? Do you unite when we need to unite and divide when we need to divide? Trust God. Obey. So that the one who is approved might be known.