If there is a main theme to my blog so far, it is that God desires to be known to the world through an interconnected people. Advancing this thought sometimes feels like tilting at windmills, because the barriers seem so many and so high. The church is marked particularly by how fragmented it is, by the denominational lines and the separation – even animosity – between different groups.
Division happens for a few reasons, among them tradition, adherence to doctrinal positions, and preferences. Of these, tradition is often abandoned when the division is revealed to be based on nothing more than “we’ve always done it that way”. If it’s not abandoned, it will typically break down into one of the other two categories. If you are separating yourself from other Christ-followers, it is probably because you think they have important errors in their understanding, or because you have personal preferences that are more important than your allegiance to Jesus.
Now, if you are rankling a bit at this (or just curious and thoughtful) you might recollect that Paul said some things about divisions and factions and those who are approved, and you might be flipping over to 1st Corinthians chapter 11 to remind yourself. I’ll flip over there with you, and let’s take a look together.
Here you go (from the New King James version) – 1 Cor 11:17-22:
“Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. ”
The really curious statement is this: “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” Is Paul saying that it is good to divide, and that in dividing, the ‘good guys’ – those who are approved – will be made clear? As in, “we, in our rightness, must separate from you heretical ones, and by separating from you we will clearly shine as the truth-bearers and be in God’s good favor”?
I don’t think so. Let’s work through it, and hear what Paul is saying:
Verse 17: “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse.” Paul’s concern is in how those coming together conduct themselves with respect to each other. It is not for the better – to glorify the Lord or to build one-another up, but for the worse – for divisiveness and selfishness.
Verse 18: “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.” Paul hears that there are divisions among those who are gathered. He doesn’t speak here of the nature of the schisms, though he talked in chapter 3 of those ‘of Paul, or Apollos, etc’, and could be referring to that, or perhaps to different convictions as to food, or days, or the other issues discussed in the epistle.
Verse 19: “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” Here Paul says this curious thing, that there must be these different factions, or parties, among those in the assembly in Corinth so that the ones who are approved would be recognized among them. Some questions come to mind: What does it mean to be approved? Who does the approving – God, or man? What is it that makes the approved ones recognizable? Is it the correctness of their doctrine?
Hold those questions in your mind while we read a few more verses.
Verse 20: “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Paul points out that the intentions of those gathering is not what it is claimed to be. They are apparently not gathering for the purpose of remembering the Lord, based on their behavior.
Verse 21: “For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” The reality is that they are coming together to feed their flesh, and in the pursuit of the feeding, they are not showing the most basic sort of love to one another. Rather than care for the saints and honor to the Lord, they are showing selfishness, disrespect, gluttony, and drunkeness.
Verse 22: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.” Paul reiterates his lack of praise to this assembly in this matter and takes them to task for the deplorable conduct of the believers toward each other.
So, we see Paul talking not about doctrine, but about demonstrated lack of love. I think that the approval is for those who put love of others at the top of the list. The approval comes first from God, but certainly will come from Christians, too, if they have eyes to see. Again, I do not think that the approval has anything to do with correctness of understanding, at least not as we take it. I think it has to do with the maturity of the believer (a different sort of correctness of understanding), and the ability to express love in the face of differences. The reality is that factions will happen because of human frailty and immaturity, and they are ultimately useful because they are the context where love is tested. It’s how we respond to the factions that makes all the difference.
So, again my question is, what is it that makes apparent those who are approved or acceptable in this setting of division, selfishness, and dishonor? I think it at least includes this:
- In the face of schisms and divisions – people separating into groups based on identification with a man, or a preference, or a conviction – the approved one would be one who would identify with Jesus Christ alone, would respect the convictions and weaknesses of others, and would seek to recognize those who the Lord has incorporated into His body even when it is not in keeping with his own preferences and convictions.
- In the face of selfishness and lack of care, the approved one would be the one who demonstrates selflessness and concern for others.
- In the face of dishonor toward the Lord, the approved one would model honor and reverence toward the Lord.
There have to be selfish divisions so that those who are mature in the Lord can stand out as the ones who will not be pulled into this camp or that, but who will share in the Lord with all those who are part of His body. I pray that we would have a desire to move away from our preferences and pride, and move toward the humble and others-honoring posture that marks the life of our King.