We live in a divided world. It seems like many people wake up ready to fight over everything from politics to skin color, sports teams, religion, human rights, family and marriage, and more.
But it’s not just in the world. We have division in our churches and denominations as well. Division is so common that if you’re not experiencing it now, you’ll be experiencing it soon.
But it does not have to be that way. Sure, we will always face the temptation to be divided, just like we are with any sin, but we can do something about it. We can stay united in a divided world. But how do we do that?
Do we just need to “tolerate” each other more or care less about sin? Do we need to leave a relationship or church that has division and go to one that has fewer issues? Does everyone just need to think like us?
Dealing with specific issues might be worthwhile; they are just symptoms of an underlying problem. A problem that Paul the Apostle dealt with in his first letter to the Corinthians. So, let’s turn our attention to Scripture to learn some principles of how we can stay united in a divided world.
What Does the Bible Say?
Paul knew all about conflict and division, especially before God transformed his life. In this letter, he was writing to Christians in the city of Corinth that were “sanctified” or made righteous in Christ Jesus and “saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (v. 2). He was not dealing with the problems in their culture, but rather problems in their church.
Paul cared much for them as their pastor. Notice how he addresses them in verses 4-9:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul prayed for them, gave thanks for them, and encouraged them. He called them enriched, gifted, guiltless, in fellowship with God, and sustained to the end. The same can be said about all Christians.
So, what did Paul find wrong with them? We can sum up most of their issues with one word: division. In the next few verses, he wrote:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment [of right and wrong]. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers(vv. 10-13).
What Kind of Quarreling?
“What I mean is that each one of you says ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12).
They were treating different leaders as celebrities to be elevated and followed. They idolized Apollos (an excellent communicator), Cephas (the Aramaic name of Peter and a strong leader), and even Paul himself. Although they were godly men, heroizing them upset Paul so much that he wrote:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)(1 Corinthians 1:13-15).
Paul’s rhetoric here reminds us that he was writing a letter by hand with no backspace on his keyboard. As he was pouring out his heart, broken over their division, he explained that whoever baptized them was not important. Instead, who died on the cross for them was most important. That is why he continued in verse 17:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
As we consider this passage, we understand that Paul is preaching that since Christ was not divided, we must not be divided either. We are called to be united. But that unity in our homes, churches, and with Christians across our world will only come through one word: focus.
Focus on what? This passage gives us four focal points that, if we rest our eyes on them, will lead us to unity.
1. Focus Our Attention on Jesus, Who Speaks to Us
Paul was not speaking from his own authority as an apostle or pastor but rather from the authority of the one who called him: Jesus.
Jesus spoke the world into existence, spoke to the prophets, priests, judges, and kings throughout the Old Testament and the apostles and followers in the New Testament and now he speaks to us primarily through the words that they wrote down (what we call the Bible) and the Holy Spirit that explains, illuminates, confirms, and applies those words in the hearts of every believer.
In the same way, what our favorite pastor, celebrity preacher, politician, or even we, ourselves, think about an issue is not important. It matters what God says in His Word.
One of the major ways we see churches divided today is because they have gotten away from what the Scripture clearly says because it doesn’t sound “nice,” it is counter-cultural, it calls out our sin, and because our enemy has blinded our eyes from the relevance of it. But if we do not have God’s Word, then we have no truth to live by.
2. Focus Our Identity on Jesus, Who Died for Us
Paul called out the Corinthian believers for basing their identity on human leaders and teachers. But even though he, himself, had a position of spiritual leadership and influence; he pointed out that he did not die for them. Only Jesus did that.
It is often very helpful for us to listen to the teachings of preachers, teachers, and other wise Christians in our lives. But we have to put them into the right perspective. If they distract us away from the biblical gospel and other “kinds of gospels,” then we must tune them out.
We are not followers of some (fill-in-the-blank) preacher or celebrity, and our identity is not in our denomination or affiliation — we are followers of Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us.
3. Focus Our Worship on Jesus, Who Saves Us
Paul was dealing with people that lost their focus and mistook their baptism (a means of obedience and worship) as more important than the sacrifice by Jesus himself.
This reminds me of the time in Exodus 32 when the Children of Israel lost sight of God and melted their jewelry down into a golden calf to worship. And not coincidentally, they blamed their exodus from Egypt on “the man” Moses instead of God.
We criticize them (and rightfully so) for losing focus so quickly and becoming idolatrous, but we are guilty of doing the same. We often forget who Jesus is and what he has done for us and begin to emphasize and even worship the very elements, tools, and instruments that God gave us to use to worship him.
We may not worship golden calves, but we put our emphasis on buildings more than the Jesus we gather in those buildings for, translations of the Bible more than what God said in the Bible, and the style of our worship more than the God we worship, the music we play more than the Creator of music, the songs we sing more than the One who gave us breath to sing, the finances we save or spend more than the Great Provider who gave us our resources, and ministries in the church more than the ministry of the church given by Jesus.
We tend to have prayer meetings where we meet but don’t pray; Bible studies that turn more into in-depth studies of our opinions, and outreach events where we just gather with our friends.
We all struggle with this. We are “prone to wander,” as the old song says. The Bible calls it idolatry. Ouch.
4. Focus Our Life’s Mission on Jesus, Who Sent Us
Paul declared that his goal was not to baptize but to preach the gospel. While baptism is an important step of obedience, it is simply an outward response of God’s work in someone’s life.
Whether it was in a kiddy pool or the Jordan River, it is a personal expression that others (including the pastor or Small Group leader or parent or mentor that baptized us) get to participate in and celebrate.
Jesus did not save us so we can live focused on baptism or any other extension of our faith like communion, marriage, music, jobs, or hobbies. Those may be good, but they are not our mission. Jesus gave us our mission: to make disciples by teaching others what Jesus said and did.
Several years ago, I went on a mission trip with several churches from different denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Wesleyan, Church of Christ, advent Christian, and Mennonite to name a few. Amazingly, we didn’t argue once about doctrine. Do you know why? We were so focused on our mission that we did not have the time or energy to argue. We found great unity in our focus.
That is why Paul resolves our passage with this powerful statement in verse 18:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Why Does This Matter?
Unity for us, our homes, and our churches can only be found in a singular focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we lose focus, we sink like Peter, scatter like the disciples, idolize like the Israelites, split like so many churches, and lose our witness to the world.
This does not mean that we will never discuss different ideas. It means that we will use the energy and emotion behind our discussions (and even arguments) to fuel our path to unity. Our disagreements can be opportunities to fine-tune our focus on Jesus and remove dissensions and divisions.
I heard a phrase recently that I bet most of us have heard or said before. Someone told me that his high school football team: “had great players, but we just didn’t play well together.”
It doesn’t matter if we have Apollos, Cephas, and the Apostle Paul on our church team — if we do not have a laser focus on the gospel, we will not accomplish what God wants for us where he has planted us.
The poet Helen Lemmel said it best in this short refrain she wrote about 100 years ago:“Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Let me ask us: where is our focus?
For further reading:
What Does it Mean ‘A House Divided Cannot Stand’?
5 Prayers for Our Country to Heal the Nation
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/franckreporter
Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.