Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Christ Divided?

According to Marin Marty in his book The Christian World: A Global History there are approximately 3,800 different Christian church groupings in today’s world. When I was in Spain I once had an agnostic Catholic ask me, “How can I know that the Christianity that you talk about is true when there are so many branches of Christianity around the world? If you can’t agree with other Christians about what is true, how could you ever possibly convince someone who does not follow Christianity?

When Paul came to Corinth for the first time in Acts 18 what he would have discovered a city less than a hundred years old that was bustling with activity. Corinth had an ideal location on an isthmus between two seaports that were four miles apart. Ships traveling from east to west preferred to unload their wares in one port and deliver it over land to a boat in the other port. Traveling south around this isthmus was particularly dangerous so shipping the good over land was the preferred method. This caused Corinth to be a major cross-roads of all kinds of good and services. Along with it’s new wealth and lack of traditions and heritage Corinth was a city known for its licentiousness. It would be comparable in reputation to a modern day Las Vegas or Amsterdam.

During Paul’s time there he encountered opposition among the Jews, but the Proconsul of Achai made a ruling that in essence said that Christianity was a part of Judaism. This legal precedent opened the doors for Christianity to spread across the empire. Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth making disciples and preaching the Gospel before moving on to other ministry fields.

While Paul was ministering in Ephesus he heard reports from multiple sources on the state of the church in Corinth. He finally addressed the church with the letter of First Corinthians. After an initial greeting to the church in Corinth he immediately confronts them based on what he has heard.

It is interesting to me the way in which he confronts them. He begins by saying “I appeal to you…”. He could have said I command or decree but instead he invites, encourages, and implores. Paul follows his own advice of correcting and rebuking with gentleness.

After putting forth an invitation he says the same thing to them three different ways. Whenever something is stated three times in three different ways it is obvious that it is important and that the author wants to avoid any confusion in what he is saying. First, he encourages the believers to agree with one another. Second, he states that there should be no divisions among the believers. Third, implores them to be united in mind and in thought.

The Corinthians had been quarreling and had lost focus on the one thing that they had in common. They began to focus on small externalities of faith and would claim that they followed a particular brand of Christianity. Some said that they followed Paul’s version of Christianity. Some said they followed Apollos’ version. Apollos was reputed to be a great orator and philosopher. Some said they followed Peter’s Christianity, some speculate that he had more appeal to the working class. And then of course there were those who claimed that they follow Jesus. One must wonder if this was a group who was genuinely seeking to be Christ followers or if they were just trying to out trump the others as to who had the best celebrity baptism.

Continuing on in his gentle rebuke, Paul appeals to logic. He asks them a series of rhetorical questions to point out the how ludicrous their arguments are. While they had been focusing on what made them different, Paul brings back into focus what it is that unites us. Again he makes his appeal in threes. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? All three answers point to Christ and how he is not divided. Basically, he is asking, “Why are you willing to be divided over baptism when we all find the same salvation in Christ?”

Then, in verse 17 Paul takes one final blow at the basis of their quarrels. He says that while they were fighting over whose baptism was better that baptism takes a back seat to the Gospel. You can’t have baptism without the Gospel and Paul was sent to preach the Gospel not baptism. They were fighting over a minor issue, a secondary issue and were allowing that to divide them. By focusing their time and energy on the wrong things they were not only forgetting the Gospel but were emptying the cross of its power. Ouch!

Recently I read a book called The Heavenly Man, which was an autobiographical account of the growth of Christianity in modern day China through house churches. This book reads like a modern day story of Acts. One of the things that was very interesting to me was that at the beginning of the church planting movement the only thing these small house churches had were a couple of copies of the Bible. When the Bible was all that they had, these churches worked together in unity, praying for one another and ministering together. This was going on for years and then some well-intentioned missionaries brought along some additional denominational material, which was spread among different groups. As different house churches received books and pamphlets from different denominations something very disheartening happened. They began to say we can’t pray or work with you because you don’t believe the same as us about baptism, or the working of the Holy spirit, or eschatology. As these churches began to focus on their differences factions, schisms, splits, and quarreling became the norm.

As we think about Christian unity we must realize what it is not. Christian unity is not accepting any belief or idea that comes along as valid and true. Christian unity is not a relativistic idea that says whatever you believe is ok for you. Christian unity does not mean that we unquestioningly hold communion with people from every so-called “Christian group, sect, or cult”.

True Christian unity means that should not quarrel and fight with fellow believers over secondary issues when we are all saved through the same Christ. Like Paul we should step above the fray and in humility hold up everything to the light of Christ’s work on the cross. We should be quick to focus on what unites us and cautious about focusing on minor things that might divide us. Focusing on secondary issues weakens the church as well as empties the cross of its power. A church divided brings confusion to the world, to people like my agnostic friend in Spain. However, a church united in the love of Christ is the best witness the world will ever see!