The Church Divided

The Church Divided

Daniel M. Horner

Mr. Daniel M. Horner resides in Thousand Oaks, California, where he seeks to serve the Lord. He has been a past contributor of written ministry to Focus, and in this article he provides us with some helpful thoughts on the subject of sectarianism.

Should we not have fellowship with those who disagree with us? Should we not read Charles Spurgeon and other great saints because they were off in their “ecclesiology”? Is Martin Luther not worthy of study because a denomination was named after him? Is soul-winning the only task of the Church? Should only “ordained” ministers teach doctrine? Is teaching the leading gift to the Church? Or tongues? Those who answer “yes” in mind or spirit to any of the above questions are really guilty of the sin of sectarianism, and are divisive, hindering the Church’s oneness in the Lord. But, then, the early church, in all its supposed innocence, also had similar problems, especially at Corinth.

There a number of denominations were in the making — the “Paulites,” the “Apollosists,” the “Cephasites,” and, of course, “The Church of Christ.” But Paul, that projected leader, states in 1 Corinthians 3 that this is all of the flesh. Let’s take a look.

First, let’s look at the people at Corinth in 3:1-4. Paul still calls them “brethren” and doesn’t separate from them, even though they were “carnal,” thus avoiding the very sectarian attitude he is condemning. He does not, however, gloss over their wrong with a saccharine sentimentality, but says forthrightly: (1) you are carnal; (2) you are immature; (3) you are still on spiritual “Pablum” when you should be enjoying “filet mignon” (vv. 1-2). Because of this immaturity, their conduct was not what it should have been, resulting in (a) envy; (b) strife; and (c) divisions. They gave little evidence of the “new man” (Ephesians 4:23-24), but walked almost as if they were “natural” men and women (1 Corinthians 2:14). And a lot of this fleshliness had sprung from the fact that they were drawing away from Christ and following some man—good men, too (viz. Paul, Apollos and Peter).

Let’s stop for a moment and analyze these Christians in the church at Corinth. What is the main distinction between their fleshly living and spiritual living? It is the self-life. Instead of denying self as Christ commanded (Luke 9:23), the Corinthians were self-assertive and self-seeking. This is also evident at other points in the letter, as in their behavior at the Lord’s Table or in their disputes over spiritual gifts. Thus they began to bite and devour one another, and the assembly was filled with jealously and strife. It was not a pretty picture, but then the flesh never is.

As Richard Baxter wrote:

I have often thought, Why is it that as Christians men live together in love; but as parties, when they come to the interests of their sects, they hate, revile, and persecute one another? And I answer it thus: because as Christians they give no ground of hatred to each other; but as sects and parties, they leave God’s way and show their selfishness, and are inclined to injure one another, and so do again suffer by those whom they have injured. But the wisdom from above is pure and peaceable.

As we said, the Corinthians were following good men, but the people’s whole spirit was a divisive one, and not one of learning from these men’s examples. And that’s the essence of it — a right spirit. Certainly we can learn much from all godly men, but the moment we begin following them blindly, and excluding those who don’t, we are walking in the flesh, and it will be sure to issue in the works of the flesh. It is even possible to divide the Body of Christ by saying we follow “Christ alone” (1 Corinthians 1:12). In the early days of the so-called “Brethren” movement, as the truth of the oneness of the Body of Christ broke over believers’ souls, there was great blessing, but soon theological nit-picking set in (or as A.W. Tozer called them, “cookie-cutter Christians”), and soon divisions were formed over some pet dispensational theory, or over some teacher with another shade of truth, or there was a spirit of self-righteous superiority towards those who didn’t divide “unto Christ,” and the precious unity was lost. We can establish our assemblies as “unto Christ” and still be horribly sectarian. After all, as Baxter quoted James 1:17, “the wisdom from above is pure and peaceable.” It is possible to be right, yet have a wrong spirit. Nothing will test our real spirituality more than someone disagreeing with us. And what does it matter a hill of beans if someone sees the truth of sectarianism, yet his life manifests very little of the spirit of Galatians 2:20. Gurnall puts it so aptly:

Pride made these professors at Corinth take sides; one for this preacher, another for that, as they fancied one to excel another. And this is not the way to thrive. Pride destroys love, and love wanting edification is lost. Zanchy tells us of one at Geneva, who being desirous to go and hear Viretus, who preached at the same time with Calvin, answered his friend, ‘If Paul were to preach, I would leave Paul himself to hear Calvin.’

Or consider what G. Campbell Morgan said:

I have long felt that, whereas I stand foursquare on the evangelical faith, I have no patience with those people whose supposed fundamentalism consists in watching for heresy and indulging in wicked self-satisfaction because they have an idea that they alone ‘hold the truth’ — hateful expression! Whereas in many ways I agree with their theological position I abominate their spirit.

An interesting historical sidelight here is that of the life of the great Puritan dissenter, Roger Williams. Strong on separation, he successively withdrew from the Church of England, from the churches of Massachusetts, and finally from everyone but his wife. At this point he realized his goal was unattainable; complete purity was impossible. An enlarged heart for the Body of Christ replaced his previous narrowness, and as Governor Winthrop, a previous antagonist, wrote: “Having, a little before, refused communion with all save his own wife, now he would preach to and pray with all corners.”

Sad to say, I am afraid that in our day some leaders would encourage this Corinthian party spirit, and even find it flattering, but not so with Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3:5-7, we look at the leaders in Corinth, and whereas we are appalled by the Corinthian people’s attitude, we are ennobled by Paul’s. Look brother, he says, don’t you realize who we leaders are? We’re simply diakonois or “servants” (not “ministers” as in the AV translation. the word “minister” has an entirely different connotation today). Even our gifts and talents, says Paul, did not eminate from anything in ourselves but came from God. We each are doing our own job, but it’s the Lord’s field, not ours, and He is the One who gives the increase. So don’t glorify us; we’re not really anything; God is all. Give Him the glory.

What a blessed attitude is exhibited here! Paul was certainly following the footsteps of Christ, who had said: “But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). Certainly the beloved Apostle Paul possessed “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:1-8).

As a contrast, compare what is said of Diotrophes in 3 John 9 & 10: “I wrote unto the church, but Diotrophes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words; and not content with that, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.”

The contrast with Paul is rather stark, is it not? If you are a spiritual leader, which is a closer picture of you?

What, then, are the lessons to be learned?

    1. Don’t follow man. Those of us who at times have attempted it have some bitter and disappointing experiences to relate.

    2. Don’t glory in division. Rather, our hearts should be broken if we cannot truly say, “We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.”

    3. Grow up. Perhaps we should say, grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:13). It is a sure sign of spiritual immaturity to be blindly following human leaders.

    4. Be spiritual. Set aside the works of the flesh, including the sectarian spirit. Develop the spiritual side of your being (John 4:24). Walk in the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).

And through it all, keep in mind the words of John Ryland:

O Lord, I would delight in Thee,
And on Thy care depend;
To Thee in every trouble flee
My best, my only Friend.

When all created streams are dried,
Thy fulness is the same;
May I with this be satisfied,
And glory in Thy Name.

No good in creatures can be found
But may be found in Thee;
I must have all things, and abound
While God is God to me.