“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.” (1 Corinthians 1:10–11, NASB95)
Most churches have a Doctrinal Statement of Faith along with some other guiding principles for them as a local body of believers. While they may be closely aligned to countless other churches, these statements are adopted by the church and they serve as guiding positions to govern their oneness. And, in cases where there might even be some disagreement they might even have a statement somewhere in their governing documents that adds in some form, “In the interest of preserving doctrinal and practical unity, members shall not propagate, teach, nor manifest doctrines and practices that would be divisive or conflicting with the doctrinal positions approved of by the Elders.”
There are many distinctives aside from doctrine that mark churches. Some of them are their form of governance while others might be related to translation, tradition, culture, worship style, and even the frequency of the ordinance of Communion or how they conduct baptisms. In addition to these, there are all of the issues of personal preference. Any of these things can and do provide opportunities for disagreement, and sadly enough have been used to even split and close the doors of churches.
We are all charged with accurately handling the Word of God, and the leadership of the church is given a special charge in this regard as its shepherds and overseers. Scripture does have a great deal to say about how we are to walk with each other, particularly in areas of disagreement. While Paul would expand on the areas of disagreement and contention among the Corinthian believers both in the next few verses and the later chapters, Paul began with urging and instruction concerning an overriding principle that was to guide their interactions. That principle is the oneness that they shared in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote as an apostle of Jesus Christ, but here he invoked the very name of Jesus Christ to stress the urgency of the matter. In our culture today, it is common to hear God used in conversations in harsh, negative or scornful ways. One of those phrases that I thought of as I read this verse was, “For Christ’s sake, would you please just get along!” This was in essence what Paul was probably saying to them, though not as we so frequently hear it. “Considering who you are in Christ, stop your arguing and pursue oneness in Him.”
As we will see in the next few verses, factions had started to develop and allegiances were being formed. These factions and allegiances were leading to division and even argument. Paul wrote to them to look first to Christ and to the oneness that they shared in Him. Some of the other stuff he would walk through with them later in the letter, but from the get go they were to remember that it is God who called them, and it is God who is faithful to do the work in them that He started. They needed to be compliant in the process, and not fight against Him and each other.
The local church is more than a club with a constitution and bylaws that are subject to the discretion of man. The local church is a part of the greater church which is the body of Christ. And, as the church, we have all been given the Word of God as our foundation for doctrine and function. Doctrinal unity in the local church is particularly essential. Once we wiggle on that we put ourselves on a subjective slippery slope for the whims of any member or influencer in the body. The church needs to be first and foremost comprised of believers who take their stand on the precepts of God declared in His Word. Secondly, we need also to be a people who formulate our actions together based upon the wisdom principles of God’s Word. In other words, where Scripture does not specifically tell us what to do, we look to the Word of God and wisely decide. So, often in church division it is this later area when precepts and principles are ignored that we allow practices to become divisive.
At the center of this kind of life together is humility. Paul wrote, “Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:1–11, NASB95)
We are not to compromise truth, but we are also not to get prideful about our grasp of it. It seems like the Corinthians believers had some legitimate differences in understanding. But rather than working together to resolve them or even to set them aside (if they were not central), they chose to argue and become divisive. This is not how it should be. They were called as one in Christ, and they were expected to preserve that unity as they turned to Christ, the teaching of the apostles as they had it then, and the Word of God to seek to come to a good resolution. And, where they could not figure it out or when they did not clearly see an answer, they were to look to Christ to help them walk as one even in the uncertainty. It was Paul’s charge as an apostle to help them come to a clearer understanding, one which we benefit from today.
God’s Word is not give and take. It is not something from which we pick and choose a list of principles by which we as individuals and as a church are going to live. We develop doctrine from the Word of God, and our understanding of that doctrine forms a framework from which we function. But even as we function, we are to do so as one according to the grace that He has shown to us such that we encourage one another according to truth, knowing that He is faithful to guide our steps and to give us what we need.