Why Do We Have Divisions?
What’s the problem with the church? Someone said, “The problem with the church is that it has people!” This is funny, I think. But the reality is that Christians in church inflict wounds and emotional trauma on one other. If we have been in church long enough, we experience recurrent problems of conflicts, quarrels, divisions and factions. These weaken the church, spread disunity, and displease God.
Why do we have divisions in church? Surely this happens for a multitude of reasons which are all rooted in our sinful pride, along with interpersonal, racial, cultural and prejudicial blind spots. But let’s look specifically at the church at Corinth and see if we might discover the cause of divisions there, and how Paul dealt with it.
Apparently, divisions occured in Corinth because members of the church aligned themselves with their preferred, particular leaders, including Paul, Apollos and Cephas (1 Cor. 1:12). In response, Paul began to explain to them how they should view their church leaders. More fundamentally, he described who and what a church leader is.
Is the Christian leader above the rest? Many think of a leader as someone who is highly exalted, elevated, or elite. But Paul says, “…men ought to regard us as servants of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:1). According to Paul, a Christian leader is a servant. Paul had already said this earlier: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe” (1 Cor. 3:5).
But some Christians in Corinth did not view their leaders as servants. Rather, they elevated their leaders, regarding them as special. Then they formed cliques, divisions and factions based on their preferred leader. When some chose Paul as their leader, he was not flattered, but angry, and he rebuked them, saying, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:12,13)
Are you in or are you out? In following their preferred leader, they failed to see Christ as the ultimate leader and head of the church (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22). Their functional leader was another human being. Then trouble began as they divided themselves among Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. Paul stressed that a Christian leader, however great, is a mere servant, not a highly exalted or special or elite person whom they should side with or boast about. When this happens, their attitude becomes “Are you with my chosen top leader Paul, or are you with your ‘lesser’ leader Apollos?” In other words, “Are you in, or are you out?” Many damaging divisions in the church have arisen from this.
My supremacist view. I have spent my entire Christian life of 30 years in one church. I love UBF and its leaders, especially those who taught me the Bible, discipled me and mentored me. But without realizing it, I developed a supremacist view of my church and its leaders. Subtly, or even blatantly, I began to look down upon other churches. I despised mega-churches, thinking that people in them must be “nominal Christians,” whereas we in UBF were part of an elite corps equivalent to the Marines or the Navy Seals. I despised churches that were involved in social justice causes such as feeding the homeless, thinking that my own work focused on raising Christian leaders for the next generation was far more important.
I didn’t realize that I had an elitist mentality until one day, one of my kids said to me, “I grew up thinking that UBF is the best church in the world and the only true church in the whole world.” I was appalled and wondered, “Where the heck did that idea come from?” Then I looked in the mirror.
Jesus’ revolutionary view of leadership. Jesus said in Mark 10:42-45: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In those verses, Jesus explained the difference between worldly leaders (like the Gentile rulers) and biblical or Christian leaders. Worldly leaders boss people around; Christian leaders serve others at the high cost of painful personal sacrifice. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest leader, because he gave his very life in order to love and serve wretched sinners. Yet many Christian leaders throughout history have led like worldly rulers, exercising authority over others in the church. Then it becomes unclear whether Christ or the church leader is the head. It becomes unclear whether the final authority rests in the words of the Bible or in the leader’s words and opinions.
The Christian leader’s main task. The task of the Christian leader is not to rule over the church. Rather, Paul said that the Christian leader has been “entrusted with the secret things of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The ESV says, “the mysteries of God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:7,Paul mentioned “God’s secret wisdom.” Here, Paul is saying that a Christian leader’s main work is to reveal/proclaim/declare “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Why? It is because “Christ and him crucified” is the focal point and key to all of God’s secrets and mysteries and wisdom, which is to save sinful man from eternal condemnation in hell (John 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:9). This can only happen through “preach[ing] the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). This is only heard from “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). Paul’s main point in all of his teaching was to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23).
Because a Christian leader has been entrusted with such a great task, he must be faithful to this trust with all his heart and his life. Paul says, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Like Paul, a servant leader does not try to control people in his church, but he is faithful to proclaiming the mysteries God had graciously entrusted to him.
Unless you are dead or dying… Over the years of shepherding Bible students, I thought that my Bible students’ attitudes and obedience toward my directives were a direct indication of their spiritual health. Once a member of my fellowship had a massive toothache that needed continuous ice pacts on his jaw to numb his pain. He asked me if he could be excused from worship service. I said to him, “Unless you are moribund and hospitalized, or on your death bed, you’d better come to church!” So he came with his ice packs and with palpable anger and distress on his face. Nevertheless, I was proud of my firm, absolute “shepherding” and “training.” I thought he was a promising, growing disciple, because he “just obeyed.” I used my position of leadership to make him do what I wanted, rather than embracing him, and patiently proclaiming to him the gospel of salvation. Looking back on some of the things I have done, I am shocked that anyone has remained in this church with me and my authoritarian style of leadership.
Autocracy and oligarchy. John Stott wrote an excellent book on Christian leadership based on 1 Corinthians 1-4 titled Calling Christian Leaders: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry. Stott spoke throughout the world for 35 years and observed many church leaders. His conclusion? “…it is my firm conviction that there is too much autocracy [or oligarchy] in the leaders of the Christian community, in defiance of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, and not enough love and gentleness. Too many behave as if they believed not in the priesthood of all believers but in the papacy of all pastors.” (I added “oligarchy,” which is not in Stott’s quote, but which I felt expanded and clarified the nature of authoritarian church leadership that Stott observed.) Sadly, our present-day church and its leadership model is not much different from that of the troubled Corinthian church.
The church in Corinth was divided because of unbiblical views of Christian leadership. Church members thought of their leaders as “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11). Some criticized Paul and tried to discredit him in order to exault their own leadership over him. They failed to honor Christ as the head of the church, and they promoted their own leadership and authority more than they proclaiming the gospel. In this way, they created and perpetuated divisions.
What have you experienced? Do we have problems with divisions and factions stemming from poor models of leadership? If so, what can we do about these problems that will promote unity rather than further division?