There Must Be Divisions
1 Corinthians 11: 17-19
“I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.”
Paul is writing to a fractious congregation. They are divided over who should be the leader, who has the most important spiritual gifts, and who gets pride of place at their communal meals. At the root is the question, Who really has the Spirit of Christ? Paul says that differences among the people of God reveal which of us have God’s approval.
If we pull this verse out of context, then we could make it mean this: Differences come about so that one side can be clearly right, and the other clearly wrong. Then—to use Paul’s own imagery—the vessels of glory are clearly separated from the vessels of destruction (Romans 9:19-24). Divisions happen so that one can be shown righteous and the other unrighteous.
I think this challenging verse from 1 Corinthians 11 has a different meaning.
In the verses above, Paul is on the cusp of condemning the Corinthians’ practice during communal meals, and two chapters away from his profound proclamation about the primacy of love (1 Corinthians 13). The root principal at work in the whole letter is giving up oneself to bless others, even in the midst of deep disagreement. It is the image of “Christ crucified” which defies the “wisdom of this world” (1Cor1:18-25). When divisions arise, Christ is revealed not first and foremost in a decision about who is right and who is wrong; Christ is revealed first and foremost in those who will enter disagreement in self-giving love. Divisions reveal God’s approval, because God’s approval rests on those who love others in the midst of painful disagreement.
Our presbytery has just concluded an assembly at which we voted on significant issues. In the debates on constitutional amendments and policies, I heard clear disagreements about the role of various confessions, the role of binding policies, and the bounds of sexuality. I heard clear disagreements about interpretation of the Bible. As voting on these items reveals, divisions abound.
I thank God for what I experienced as civil discussion and debate at that meeting. I thank God for my sisters’ and brothers’ ability to stand and articulate clearly the words that God has given them to speak, without anger or bitterness. I respect immensely the words spoken with fear and trembling, in candid desire to honor both God’s sovereignty and human experience.
And I grieve that there are yet divisions among us over such important issues.
But our wrestling over these important issues does not surprise me. And I am filled with hope that our wrestling, characterized by love and patience, is in fact revealing God’s approval. Given the whole span of the history of Christ’s Church, I believe it is unwise to predict that suddenly we will all come to agree on any given issue. I suspect, with some sadness, that we shall still see an enigma when we look in the Church’s mirror (to use another of Paul’s images). We will not soon comprehend how Christ will bring to harmony the tensions we presently feel.
But our ability to love reveals Christ among us. It is his Spirit, not our outward agreement on particulars, that makes us one. This is true of the Presbytery, the congregation, and the global Church. I take hope from this even as we struggle to sort out the beliefs and work that Christ has given us.
As we continue to wrestle, to speak, and to work, please hold fast with me to the faith of Christ, the hope in Christ, and the love of Christ among us.
In Christ with You,
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