Now, dear brothers and sisters, I appeal to you by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ to stop arguing among yourselves. Let there be real harmony so there won’t be divisions in the church. I plead with you to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.NLT
Time out! Like a frustrated coach watching his team bicker on the court, Paul called for a time-out. He saw the danger of divisions and arguments. The Corinthian believers’ lack of unity was obvious. They may have been playing in the same “uniform,” but they were doing as much as the opposition to bring about their own defeat. The problems weren’t so much differences of opinion as divided allegiances. They were arguing over which position on the team was most important in a way that made them ineffective as a unit. They were on the field, but out of the game.
Divisions between Christians work like brick walls and barbed-wire fences to undermine the effectiveness of the message that believers are to proclaim. Let’s focus on our coach, Jesus Christ, and the purpose he has for us. Let’s strive for harmony and keep arguments about allegiances off the team.
The word for “divisions” that Paul uses here literally means “plowed up.” That’s what had happened to the “sweet, sweet Spirit” of the church at Corinth. It had been plowed up.
Things were so bad that Paul devoted four chapters of his letter to this one issue. In fact, Paul says, “I appeal to you” —using the same term we find in John 14 when Jesus describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit when he comes alongside of us as Comforter. Paul is saying, “I’m coming alongside of you right now. I’m coming alongside of you as a friend. I’m coming alongside as someone who cares about you and I’m appealing to you. You’ve got to understand that you’ve got a huge problem.”
And notice there are two aspects of this lack of unity he speaks of. He says that they need to be perfectly united in MIND and THOUGHT. Mind and thought. That phrase “perfectly united” comes from a word that was used to describe the mending of broken fishing net. It could also be used to describe a physician who sets a broken bone in order for it to heal. In short, it’s a healing term. It’s the idea of taking something that’s broken and healing it and restoring it. It tells us that Paul knew there were some relationships in this church that were broken and that needed to be healed, their unity needed to be restored in mind and thought. When Paul uses this phrase, I believe he was saying two things. First, when he said “united in mind,” he was referring to the essentials of our faith, the non-negotiables of Christian doctrine, like salvation, issues of the identity of God, issues on sin, etc. And when he said, “united in THOUGHT,” I believe he was referring to the non-essentials, those areas where Scripture is not black and white—areas of opinion that are open to discussion. He was saying he wanted them to be able to agree to disagree; and sometimes to do it without being disagreeable—because thanks to their freedom in Christ, they didn’t have to share the same opinion.
It makes me think of a scene from the Spielberg film, Lincoln. Throughout the film Secretary of war Stanton and President Lincoln had their squabbles, their disagreements. But as they stood in that 19th century “situation room” waiting for the telegraph machines to report the outcome of a major battle—they stopped arguing and grabbed each other’s hand. They disagreed over many things, mostly unimportant, but they were united on the essential belief that the war must be won. The fact is churches don’t usually split over ESSENTIALS. Sadly, they usually allow their unity to be plowed apart by disagreements over trivial, non-essential things.
When churches have “unity in the essentials, freedom in the non-essentials and love in all things”—when they are united in MIND and THOUGHT—they enjoy a wonderful unity that makes them a powerful tool in God’s kingdom.
We must remember: Unity is VITAL. Without it we are impotent as a church. Unity is that important. It is a precious thing that must be protected.
The church at Corinth had its fair share of typical quarrels but its main problem was the fact that it had allowed itself to be torn into various factions little subsets or cliques or personality cults or fan clubs—each centered around a particular church leader. In essence they had stopped focusing on the message, the essentials—and had begun focusing on the messenger.
- One group rallied around Paul. They were saying: “I follow Paul; Paul rocks!”
And most likely the people who were saying that were the founding members of the church in Corinth, the charter members of the church in Corinth—people who saw Paul as their spiritual father. He was the FIRST pastor and they rallied around him.
- Another group came along and said: “I follow Apollos; Apollos is the man.”
We know from other Scripture, that Apollos was an incredibly gifted communicator who started teaching after Paul left town. Many became followers of Jesus under Apollos’ ministry. Acts 18:24-26 says Apollos had thorough knowledge of the Scriptures—he spoke with great fervor—he spoke boldly and people were just drawn to him. Evidently that led people to say things like: “We’d much rather listen to Apollos than Paul. Apollos just makes the Scriptures come alive. We are so moved by his warmth and his sensitivity and his charisma and his sense of humor when he teaches. Apollos, he’s the man.”
- Then there were those who followed Cephas or Peter.
These were probably the traditionalists in the church, those who had deep Jewish roots. They probably weren’t too comfortable with those Gentile believers who had been converted out of paganism and paid very little attention to their Jewish traditions and customs. Maybe they followed Peter because they knew he was one of the original twelve that Jesus handpicked. And Peter preached at Pentecost! He helped BIRTH the church so he was their man.
- The final group followed Jesus.
We may hear this and think, “Finally somebody’s finally got a little maturity and perspective here. That’s what it’s about, just follow Christ.” But in reality in the church in Corinth, this was the most dangerous group of all because they actually claimed to be more spiritual than everybody else. They were the spiritual elitists who were saying they didn’t need to submit to human spiritual authority like Paul or Apollos or Peter; they could just listen to Jesus. And they were just as divisive as the other three cliques, probably even more because they weren’t really focusing on Jesus. They were focusing on a holier than thou self.
We still struggle like this today. With so many churches, programs and styles of worship available today, believers can get caught up in the same game of “my preacher is better than yours!” “My church offers more than yours.” They follow personalities and even change churches based on who what program is popular. To act this way is to divide Christ again. But Christ is not divided, and his true followers should not allow anything to divide the church. Lets’ not let our appreciation for any teacher or writer, program or ministry lead us into thinking that one church is better. Believers’ allegiance must be to Christ and to the unity that he desires.
Paul goes on to explain that the Corinthians needed to do away with these factions—and unite around Jesus. He asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” In other words—they needed to get back to keeping Jesus and His cross the main message. If our church ever stops focusing on the message of the cross, if we orient ourselves around anything else, we are in trouble and cease to be a church.
In 1914, not long after the sinking of the Titanic, Congress convened a hearing to discern what had happened in another nautical tragedy. In January of that year, in thick fog off the Virginia coast, the steamship Monroe was rammed by the merchant vessel Nantucket and sank. Forty-one sailors lost their lives in the frigid winter waters of the Atlantic. During cross-examination it was learned, as the New York Times reported, that the Monroe’s captain, navigated with a personal compass that deviated from the standard magnetic compass. He had never adjusted it so that it steered true. This tragedy illustrates the consequences of mis-orientation. The reminder for us is this: we need to constantly make sure our church is oriented around Jesus Christ and His message of salvation through faith. In other words, Jesus is every church’s magnetic north.
Let’s be united in Christ!