“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” -I Corinthians 3:1-3, NKJV
The Apostle Paul addresses church unity throughout his New Testament epistles, and in I Corinthians 3, he ties it directly to spiritual maturity. According to Paul, if a congregation is characterized by “envy, strife, and divisions,” it is “carnal” and spiritually immature. If he were alive today, what might Paul say about your church?
Much has changed in the twenty centuries that have transpired since Paul wrote his first letter to the church at Corinth, but one thing hasn’t: human nature. Human beings in the first century struggled with envy, strife, malice, hard-heartedness, bitterness, anger, dishonesty, gossip, slander, etc. in the same ways that human beings do in the twenty-first century. And these sins worked their way into first century churches just as they do into twenty-first century churches. But where many churches today ignore or (worse) accept all this, Paul called the first century Christian churches to confront sin and division head on.
He repeatedly chastised the Corinthian Christians for their divisions, strife, and moral failures. He told the Ephesian Christians to “walk in unity” and to speak with humility, grace, and edification in mind (Ephesians 4). He instructed the church members at Philippi to do “everything without grumbling and complaining” (Philippians 2:14) and to focus on the positives in life (including church life) rather than the negatives (Philippians 4:8). And he told the church members in Thessalonica to love, pray for, and hold their leaders “in the highest regard,” while being at “peace with each other” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13).
To the Apostle Paul, it was totally unacceptable for a Christian to stir up strife in a church (or for a church to allow a member to get away with doing so). Right after encouraging them to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to “mark” and “keep away from” those who “cause division” in the church (Romans 16:16-17). Paul told Titus, his young protégé in the ministry, to admonish and, if necessary, “reject” a person who causes division in the church (Titus 3:10).
It was also unacceptable to Paul for God’s people to allow conflict to compromise the work of the Lord. This is among the reasons he told the church in Philippi to give their anxieties to the Lord and to focus on those things which are “noble” and “true” (Philippians 4:6-8) and it’s why he told Titus to “avoid foolish controversies” as they are “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). Paul himself lived by this standard, when he refused to let his disagreement with Barnabas over John Mark stop the Lord’s work (Acts 15:36-41). His decision to split with Barnabas actually created two ministry teams, instead of one. Paul understood (painfully, I’m sure) that sometimes ministry separation is necessary to avoid greater conflict and pain…and to keep the work of the Lord moving forward. This is why it’s not always a bad thing for a person to leave a church. While all reasonable attempts should be made to work through disagreements and clarify misunderstandings, sometimes the God’s work is best served by church members moving on. The work of the Lord must take precedence over personal differences.
Paul isn’t the only one to address these issues. The Holy Spirit inspired many of the Bible’s authors to lay out very clear guidelines for handling differences and conflicts (Psalm 139:23-24; Proverbs 15:18; Proverbs 18:13; Matthew 7:1-2; Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3-4; Ephesians 4:29-32; Philippians 2:3-4; Colossians 3:13; James 1:19; I Peter 3:8) as well as principles for church governance (Acts 6:1-7; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11-12; I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1; I Peter 5:1-4). As for how church members should interact with and treat their church leaders (particularly when they disagree with them), the Bible’s got that covered too (I Thessalonians 5:12-13; II Thessalonians 3:1-2; I Timothy 5:17-19; Hebrews 13:17).
None of us, of course, is sinless. And most Christians, especially those who have been in church a long time, have found themselves involved in improper conversations and/or have fallen short of God’s standards on some occasions. And it certainly isn’t appropriate to initiate church discipline proceedings for every single infraction or every single time someone falls short. Patience, grace and forgiveness are commendable, but not avoidance or denial. Some situations must be dealt with. To mix metaphors, we shouldn’t swat flies with a hammer, but we also shouldn’t sweep problems under the carpet.
The right approach is mutual support and accountability. As the book of Galatians makes clear, we are to pray for each other, encourage one another, and bear one another’s burdens, so that we can help restore each other when we fall or (better yet) help each other avoid falling in the first place! And that is precisely what all churches should be committed to doing. Christians need one another. We need to support one another. And if we want our respective congregations to be godly rather than carnal, need to encourage one another toward love, unity, and peace in Jesus’ church.