There was a small country church somewhere in the Midwest that was once known for its welcoming atmosphere and warm Christian fellowship. When you walked through the door you instantly felt like you belonged. People genuinely enjoyed spending time together. You would often find them gathered together for a potluck, or out in their community serving others side by side. The members were more than a group of people who showed up at the same place every Sunday. They were a family. But over the years something changed. It wasn’t anything specific you could point to: no major controversy over doctrine, but lots of little things began to eat away at their camaraderie.
The decision was made to paint the foyer, but there was trouble when it came time to choose the color. One group insisted the room should painted tan, same as it was before. Others felt that they needed to brighten up the place, and a nice blue shade would add pizazz. They debated the issue for hours, with the two factions trying to rally as many as they could to their side, but when a consensus could not be reached, people left the meeting with frustration and resentment.
Meanwhile, a feud was simmering between two women in the church who had once been close friends. No one knew exactly how their disagreement began, only they somehow managed to offend each other, and were both to proud to seek forgiveness. The ladies sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, and rarely spoke. The pastor once tried to help them mend their broken friendship, but they both accused him of taking the other’s side. Everyone in the congregation did their best to stay out of it.
If this wasn’t enough, there was conflict brewing in the men’s group. Their monthly prayer meetings became a spiritual competition. One meeting they spent the entire time arguing over their favorite preacher. “I like Max Lucado the best, he has a way of explaining deep things in a simple way.” “Oh yeah? Well I like John MacArthur the best. He’s bold and profound.” “Well I’ve got you both beat! I think Charles Swindoll is the best. He has a real pastor’s heart.” They all looked to the new guy, and said “what about you?” “Um, is it okay if I like them all?” he wondered. They shouted: “No!”
These divisions weren’t big or major, but they were taking a toll on the congregation, threatening the unity of church. The people were so busy fighting one another they had no energy for the ministry God gave them.
This is a fictional story, but for many congregations the scenario is all too familiar. The church is meant to be a place marked by mutual love, where believers grow together in the Lord, serving side by side, worshipping our Savior with one voice. But sometimes we allow the attitudes of our old sinful nature to get the best of us. Selfishness, jealousy, and pride can sneak into our hearts, wreaking havoc in our relationships. Instead of resolving conflict, we may allow it to simmer under the surface for years. Rather than pursuing forgiveness and restoration, we might choose to harbor a grudge. We may even treat one another as enemies when the Lord has called us to work together as friends. What kind of witness does that give to the outside world? That’s why the apostles spent so much time urging believers to guard the unity they share with one another in Christ.
This was one of the problems believers were struggling with in the city of Corinth. The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church to address a number of issues, and the first item on the agenda was the problem of division. He had recently received a report informing him that the church he planted, nearly three years ago, was no longer filled with harmony, but now bitter rivalries and petty arguments were threatening to tear the congregation apart. It broke the apostle’s heart to hear this news. He first met the Corinthians during his second missionary journey. He spent 18 months in the city, and had the opportunity to lead many people to the Lord. He taught them to follow Christ, and left them in the hands of godly leaders. When he moved on from the city to other mission fields, he had every confidence they would continue to grow in their faith. But they had somehow gotten off track.
The issue of division comes up several times throughout the letter. In chapter 6 we are told that there were lawsuits between members of the church. Brothers in Christ not only wronged each other, but instead of working things out amongst themselves, they decided to take each other to court before the pagan authorities. Paul couldn’t believe it. Weren’t there wise people within their own fellowship who could help them resolve their differences?
Then in chapter 11 we read about how some of the members were being left out, during their fellowship meals. Members of the church who were from the upper class of society sat on one side of the room feasting, while the poor and needy were stuck in the corner with nothing to eat. This made the apostle angry. Where was their compassion?
Here, in chapter 1, the apostle rebukes the congregation for quarreling spirit. Little cliques, or factions, were developing within the church. Each felt that they were more spiritual… more enlightened… more mature than the rest. Their conflict was not about serious theological issues. That would be different. There are times when believers have no choice but to draw a line in the sand and say “this is a matter of truth, and we are unable to compromise.” But that wasn’t the case. They were arguing over silly things, and it was damaging their testimony. Paul challenged the Corinthians to stop fighting, and remember what brought them together in the first place.
That message is still relevant for churches today. God’s people need to guard our relationships with one another, because divisions hinder the ministry of the church.
Don’t forget we’re part of the same family.
In verse 10 the apostles addresses the fractured congregation saying, “Now I exhort you, brethren…” I think he chooses this word deliberately, to draw their attention to the relationship they shared with one another in Christ. Throughout the letter he uses this same word 38 times, which is more than any of his other letters, by far. He is making a point, reminding the Corinthians they were not only members of the same church, but they were also brothers and sisters in Christ. Somewhere along the way they had forgotten the wonderful truth of the gospel: wherever we come from, whatever our background might be, believers have become children of God, loved by our Heavenly Father, adopted into his family. We’re not strangers, we are brothers and sisters in the Lord. That should mean something to us.
Even if we’re all unique in our own way… even if we don’t always have the same opinions… even if we get excited about different things… there is a bond that holds us together which cannot be broken.
We can picture two sisters who attend the same high school. They have very different personalities, and sometimes that causes tensions between them. But when the older sister sees a bully picking on her younger sister in the hallway, there is no hesitation. She rushes in to defend her. “Hey, are you picking on my little sister? If you mess with her, you mess with me.” The bully quickly scurries away and disappears down the hall, while the younger girl looks up with appreciation and gives her big sister a hug. “Thanks!” she says. “No problem,” her sister answers. “We’re family.”
The passage reminds us that we are family, and family is supposed to stick together, through good times and bad.
A couple of pages later, in 1 Corinthians 12:25, we read about the way brothers and sisters in Christ are supposed to relate to one another. The apostle challenges us to be there for our fellow believers, through all the seasons of life.
“…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:25–26 (NASB95)
That’s how a family should act, with care and concern for each other. If someone is struggling, we walk beside them and share their sorrow and offer encouragement. If someone is celebrating, we’re there to share in their joy. We know there are times when families fall short of that, but this is the ideal. This is how the Lord designed it to work, especially the family of God. This place should be a refuge, where we can always turn, knowing that we are loved.
So don’t be too quick to utter an unkind word about a fellow believer. “I just can’t stand that guy, there’s something about him that gets on my nerves!” Wait a minute! He is your brother, who answers to the same Father as you. If we’re going to spend eternity together, we had better find a way to get along. God loves him, you should too.
We have to be careful about our attitude towards other churches. “We’ve got more members than the church down the road…” “We’ve got a better children’s ministry…” “We more passionate than they are…” Wait a minute! We’re part of the same family. We shouldn’t be jealous of each other. If something exciting is happening at their church, and people are coming to Christ over there, praise the Lord! That means we have more brothers and sisters in our family.
When we find ourselves at odds with fellow believers, we need to keep things in perspective. The things we have in common are greater than any differences we might have. We were saved by the same Messiah. We belong to the same Father. We are indwelled by the same Spirit. We hold fast the same gospel. We follow the same Scriptures. We are family, and so we should value our relationship with one another.
Don’t take for granted how much we need one another.
Go back to 1 Corinthians 1:11. The apostle says,
For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Apparently, the source of their squabbling had to do with their allegiance to various leaders. Some were saying “I am with Paul…” Maybe they felt a special connection to him because he was the founder of their church, or it may have been his emphasis on the Gentile mission that drew them to him. Whatever the reason, they exalted him above all the other Christian leaders. “We are his disciples, and that makes us more spiritual than you!” Others were saying, “I’m with Apollos.” Acts 18 tells us that he was a gifted teacher well versed in the Scriptures who was mentored by two of Paul’s friends, Priscilla and Aquilla. The Lord used him to help new believers grow in their faith. Perhaps some of the Corinthians idolized Apollos because of his eloquence and skill as a communicator. “We are his disciples, and that makes us more spiritual than you!” Then there were some who exalted the ministry of Peter. “Cephas,” was the Hebrew form of the nickname given to him by Christ. We don’t know if he ever visited Corinth, but believers there had undoubtedly heard that he was a member of the 12 who had followed Jesus during the Lord’s earthly ministry. Perhaps some of the Jewish members of the church found themselves identifying with Peter, because of his connection with the Jerusalem church. “We are his disciples, and that makes us more spiritual than you.” Others were saying, “We are with Christ.” This would have been the correct statement except that they were using the Lord’s name in a divisive way. It was as if they were telling others, “we’re the real Christians in this church.”
Paul tells them to knock it off. This isn’t a competition, as if we were trying to see who can make the most disciples. We’re on the same team. Whether it was Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, the Lord had given them a different role part to play in the ministry, but they all had the same goal: to bring people to Christ. The Lord called Peter to share the good news with the people of Israel, and he sent Paul to carry the gospel to the Gentile world, and he made Apollos a traveling teacher. These were all vital ministries. Each of them had a part in the work of the Lord. Where would the church be without their contribution?
In a similar way, the Lord gives us different roles in the life of the church today, and each person is important to the work of the ministry. We’re not in competition with one another, but on the same team, striving towards the same goal.
The apostle makes that clear later on in the letter. Again, turn to 1 Corinthians 12:4-6. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6 NASB95)
Some people have the gift of encouragement. They can tell when someone is discouraged, and are quick to send a card or make a phone call, letting people know that someone cares. Others have the gift of hospitality. They enjoy inviting people to their home, and are the first ones to volunteer to host a missionary who comes to visit. Some have the gift of evangelism. They have the courage to start a conversation about the Lord with strangers, and are always looking for opportunities to invite someone to church. Others have the gift of teaching. They love to explain God’s Word, and help others grow in their walk with the Lord. Some have the gift of music. They love to lead God’s people in worship and praise. Others have the gift of prayer. They are constantly lifting friends, family, and neighbors before the Lord.
These are just a few examples of how the Lord gives us unique strength and abilities to serve him. And every person is needed for the church to carry out its mission. No one can do it on their own.
It would be foolish for us to say, “my role is more important than yours.” We need one another. Paul uses an analogy to make his point. The church is called the Body of Christ, and just like our human body there are many different parts that are all required for things to function as it should. In your body you have eyes that allow you to see. You have ears that enable you to hear. You have feet that carry you from one place to another. You have hands that make it possible to carry things. All of these different parts are necessary. If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? If the whole body were an ear, how would you see? If the whole body were a foot, that would just stink! The parts of the body cannot say to each other, “I don’t need you,” because every part is necessary, and has been placed there by God to serve a vital function.
So when you’re feeling proud about how special you are, and find yourself looking down at those around you, remember how lost you would be without them. You need others as much as they need you. That should be a humbling thought. None of us are more important than the others.
Or if you’re feeling small and insignificant, this is a very encouraging passage. It is a reminder that you are needed. You have a special place in the church. God made you with unique strengths and abilities to serve him, and things wouldn’t be the same without you.
The Corinthians were quick to exalt some and dismiss others, but God calls us to value one another. Every person has a vital part to play in the life of the church. We can let each other know how much you appreciate them. “Thanks for singing today, that was a blessing to me.” “Thanks for the phone call last week, it meant a lot.” “You’re doing a great job with the children.” “We appreciate your work around here; the place looks great.” Those little statements can mean a lot to someone.
Don’t lose sight of our mission.
Go back to chapter 1. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 the apostle says, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”
There was no question what Paul’s priority was: preaching the gospel. He never stopped talking about the cross, because he understood this is the only message that has the power to change lives. He didn’t have the time or the patience for silly arguments, because there were so many people out there who needed to experience the love of Christ, and he was determined to go to them. That was his mission.
This is the reason he was so frustrated with the Corinthians. They were so busy arguing over minor things they had lost sight of what was truly important. They forgot why the church exists… to preach the gospel… to carry the good news of Jesus to the world around us. If we’re focused on that, and we make it the priority of our church, we’re not going to have time to get hung up on trivial things. How can we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by foolish arguments when there were so many lost and hurting people who need to hear about Jesus?
Just picture a couple of lifeguards at the swimming pool. Their purpose is to keep watch over the people in the water and rescue anyone who is in trouble. But what if the lifeguards lost sight of the swimmers, and started arguing with each other over silly things. One of the guys says to the other, “what kind of sunscreen do you use?” “I think Coppertone does a good job of shielding me from the UV rays. I haven’t had sunburn once this summer.” “Really? I like Neutrogena. It not only protects my skin, but moisturizes at the same time.” While they are debating sunscreen, they fail to notice the guy in the deep end calling for help, frantically waving his arms as he goes under. What would think if you witnessed that scenario? You would wonder, “what kind of lifeguards are you? Don’t you see that there are people who are drowning out there? This is serious, and that there’s no time to waste!”
Do we realize how serious our mission is, and understand that there is no time to waste? We can’t afford to stand around and argue about silly things when there are people all around us who need the Lord.
Philippians 1:27 says to “…conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
That’s a great phrase, striving together. It reminds us that we’re part of a team, serving the Lord side by side, united by a common purpose. We’re either striving together in the work of the ministry or we’re striving against one another at the expense of the ministry. Remember the mission.
I feel very blessed to be a part of this congregation. I really believe there is a positive spirit in this church. We have so many people willing to jump in and help out in any way you can. We love spending time together, and there is a warmth in our relationships. I commend you for that. But we cannot allow ourselves to get too comfortable. Scripture urges believers to maintain the unity of the Spirit of the bond of peace.
Relationships take work, and conflicts are bound to arise from time to time. That’s okay, what important is how we respond. We can let those conflicts come between us, or we can use those opportunities to draw us closer together.
The passage urges us to check your attitudes. Have you been harboring a grudge toward a brother or sister in Christ? Is there unresolved conflict that needs dealt with? Do you find yourself arguing over minor issues? If so, ask God to change your heart.
Consider the difference between major and minor issues. There are some things that are so important we cannot compromise. But there are many areas where believers can agree to disagree. It helps to keep those things in perspective.
When problems arise, deal with them the right way. Don’t ignore it, or bury it under the surface, hoping it will blow ever. Seek forgiveness and be willing to forgive.