A man found himself stranded on a desert island. One night, a ship came ‘very close to the island’ and they saw his signal fire. As the morning light came up, a rescue boat was sent to the island to retrieve the man. As they were gathering his things, the rescue party noticed three separate buildings.
One man inquired, “So, this is your home?” “Yes”, replied the survivor, “I built it with my own two hands. Noticing the second building, another asked, “What is that building used for?” “Oh,” replied the stranded man, “That is my church. I built it with the sweat of my brow.”
Finally, another man asked, “So, what is that third building over there used for?” “Nothing”, replied the man, “It’s empty. That’s where I used to go to church.”
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Peter is translated Kiaphas in Greek and it means rock or stone. Here, Jesus was not saying every church should be called St. Peter; instead he was referring to the testimony that Peter just gave.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus was saying, ‘On this rock, – or this foundational truth spoken by you, – I will build my church.”
Then in Acts Chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, we see the birth of the Church of Christ. Acts 2:42-44 reads, “They devoted themselves to; the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread – and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe ‘at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles’. And all the believers meet together in one place – and shared everything they had.”
This is what Jesus prayed for, which is recorded in John 17:23, “I in them and you in me. May ‘they’ be brought to complete unity, to let the world will know – ‘that you sent me’ and have loved them – even as ‘you have loved me’.”
I doubt Jesus ever envisioned that the Christian church would eventually be divided into 27,000 to 33,000 competing denominations across the globe, as it is today. How did this happen? Let me explain…
A couple of years ago, there was a twitter survey that asked the question, ‘What caused fights, schisms or conflicts in your church’. The responses blew up the internet. In a few cases, it had something to do with theology, but not many. Overall, it was minor things, like…
- Several churches split because worship times changed or the temperature in the sanctuary was too hot or too cold. Others have split over moving plants, lecterns, flags or moving the piano from one side of the room to another.
- Several churches have split over whether to have homemade food or ‘store bought food brought in’ for carry-ins. And whether drinks should be allowed in the sanctuary. One church split because ‘one member hide the vacuum cleaner from others’.
- One church split because members could not decide ‘what was more important’; land for a cemetery – or land for a children’s playground.
- There have been major fights began over the type of coffee served (decaf, regular, Starbucks or Folgers), – the number of stalls in a women’s restroom, – whether there ‘should be a clock in the sanctuary’, whether a file cabinet should be black or white – and over how many drawers (3 or 4) it had.
- There have been numerous fights over the name of a room, – or which picture of Jesus should be placed in the foyer. Again, there have been many arguments over who has ‘a right to keys’, – who uses the copier or whether they will use a screen for announcements and lyrics in worship. The list is endless. I would laugh, ‘if it didn’t want to make me cry’.
But the truth is; divisions were brewing, right from the beginning of the life of the church. Most of the earliest churches had to deal with conflict and disunity. The Church at Corinth was known for being highly dysfunctional. In Paul’s first letter, he writes to the Church of God in Corinth, grace and peace – and says that he always thanks God for them. But he quickly turns to ‘the trouble’.
In verse 10 Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you ‘agree with one another so that there be no divisions among you’ and that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”
Chloe appears to be a prominent widow in Corinth and her sons or servants carried a message to Paul ‘about her concerns’. It is clear that she was an important and a highly recognized person, for her name to be mentioned in scripture.
Corinth was a significant city in the ancient world. It sat on an isthmus between two seas, it had 2 thriving seaports on each side. Goods from Corinth were exported all over the Roman Empire. Corinth was known for its lawlessness, paganism, and for having a large community of ladies of the night. Being a catch all for scoundrels and thieves; to call someone a “Corinthian” was a terrible insult, implying they were given over to immorality and drunkenness.
So, ‘know one was surprised’ that there might be arguments in Corinth – but Paul knew it hampered their witness – and so, he tried to address it quickly. Paul writes, Vs 12-13
“What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas or (Peter)”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
To be divided means to break down into small parts, separate, cut off, splinter or fracture. In this case, it had everything to do with the church leader. Who should they follow? Each group had its own bias and wanted to divide others. While Jesus is the ultimate authority, he does equip leaders and teachers. He used his disciples to share ‘the word’ – and uses leaders and pastors who are still called today.
Over the years, this question has often reared its ugly head. We call it the cult of personality. Just fill in a pastor’s name _____________.
While many of these leaders are wonderful, others have taken an unfortunate fall from grace. The Apostle Paul ‘knew this could happen back then’ and he knew his own weaknesses. A real leader of God doesn’t seek to get the credit – but keeps pointing to Christ.
And when a church focuses on its own needs and desires, at the expense of others outside, it also turns away from Jesus. Minor issues become major roadblocks – and Christ becomes divided. When the heart of the Church stops being Jesus, – the life-blood stops pumping.
In their book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Philip Yancey and surgeon Paul Brand describe division in the body of Christ like this, “Using the analogy of the human body, there are some diseases that can spread infection through the body of Christ. When that occurs we start to fight among ourselves – or we lose our equilibrium and find ourselves unable to stay balanced . . .” As a result, like the body, we have a disease, a tumor, a cancer, – a mutiny that overtakes the body of Christ.
The people at Corinth no longer agreed on their own core beliefs. They were vying for control. And where ‘they used to see friends’, now all they saw were enemies. As a result of following these ‘different personalities’, the church at Corinth was deeply divided. Not because of the fault of the leaders but of the people.
These same ‘type of squabbles’ tear apart families, marriages, businesses and long term friendships. When we ‘no longer keep the main thing, the main thing in our lives’; they often spin out of control.
Jesus said it like this in Matthew 12:25, “Every kingdom divided itself will be ruined, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”
In CS Lewis’ book ‘The Screwtape Letters’ he writes, “The devil is a liar. Lies, more than anything, are central to his strategy.” The adversary wants us to bicker over minor things and drive wedges between us. He knows we are strongest when we are united and that is the last thing he wants.
The following is from a newspaper article that came out in Maryland, in August of 1999…“100 years of Christian fellowship, unity, and community outreach ended last Tuesday ‘in an act of congregational discord’. Holy Creek Baptist Church ‘was split into multiple factions’. “The source of dissension is a piano bench which still sits behind the 1923 Steinway piano to the left of the pulpit.
“At present, Holy Creek Congregation will be having 4 services each Sunday. “Since the head pastor is not speaking to the associate pastors, each will have their own service, – which will be attended by fractioned members. The services are ‘far enough apart’ that neither group will come into contact with the other.”
The truth is, these kinds of problems were arising in the Church in Philippi, the Church in Thessalonica – and the Church at Ephesus. Paul writes to the Church of Ephesus in Chapter 4:2-6,
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort ‘to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
To keep our focus, we must have the mind or attitude of Christ (Philippians 2:5).
One important distinction; ‘while Paul is warning us against divisions in the church’, he is not speaking against diversity. We are all different and we need all our gifts to balance the work of the church. In fact, some conflict is good; it keeps us from getting stale and complacent.
Being very concerned about ‘the rise of denominations in the church’, John Wesley tells of a dream he had. In the dream, he was ushered to the gates of Hell. There he asked, “Are there any Presbyterians here?” “Yes!”, came the answer. Then he asked, “Are there any Baptists? Episcopalians? Methodists?” The answer was Yes! each time.
Very distressed, Wesley was then ushered to the gates of Heaven. There he asked the same question,… and the answer was No! There were no Baptists, Episcopalians or Methodists in heaven. “No?”, Wesley asked, “Who then is inside?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians here.”
1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”
If we begin to see one another as God’s blessed Children, maybe we can see others in love, – the way Jesus sees us.
Your assignment is…try to see everyone you meet this week, with the eyes and the heart of Jesus. That includes family, co-workers, folks who annoy you – and even your enemies. It also includes others from different faith communities.
Focus on Christ, ‘so others will know us by our love’ and our respect for one another.
Then invite someone to join you on Sunday Morning so they may see what a united Church looks like.
1 Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”