One of the biggest complaints about Christianity, or that which is perceived as Christianity, is the division among its adherents. There are so many religious organizations claiming to be Christian, yet there’s no agreement. Even within the Lord’s church division exists. Hence the question, “Why should I be a Christian when you all can’t even agree amongst yourselves?”
Can there really ever be unity? Yes, there can. Actually, unity isn’t just a good idea; it’s commanded! Consider 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. In this passage, Paul identifies a problem at Corinth. “It hath been declared unto me of you…that there are contentions among you” (v. 11). What contentions, quarrels, disagreements were happening? “Every one of you saith…I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.” They were dividing over their leaders and which one had converted them! This is the spiritual equivalent of two kids arguing, “My dad can beat up your dad” when their dads are friends! All four of these men taught the same thing. This was about pride, which should never exist in the Lord’s church (1 Tim. 6:4 says the proud man “knoweth nothing”)!
These factious brethren in Corinth were still brethren. We aren’t told in this chapter of any doctrinal differences being taught, only that they were claiming different leaders within the church. So, even if two groups are teaching the same thing, just divided by leader affiliation, it’s still sinful. For members of the Lord’s church, that means we must always strive to “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
In the religious world, there seems to be an unlimited number of opposing doctrines being taught in the name of Christianity. And the usual way of dealing with these differences is to not deal with them at all—just agree to disagree, or simply say “we’re all taking different paths to the same place” (which allows them to accept and even revel in their disunity). But clearly this is not what God says! Notice verse 10.
The command (i.e., the solution to the problem in v. 11-12): “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name (authority) of our Lord Jesus Christ….” This isn’t just Paul’s opinion; he appeals to Christ’s authority. Next, he expresses the requirement of unity and he does so four times in this one verse!
“That ye all speak the same thing.” He was obviously referring to our doctrine. Those who profess to be Christians should never be saying/teaching different things.
“And that there be no divisions among you.” If we all speak the same thing, there should be no divisions! How can there be? All who claim to be Christians should look alike, doctrinally. In the church, there should never be groups, cliques, etc., holding to different beliefs or following different leaders, even ones who are not divided. This creates division where it doesn’t otherwise exist!
“But that ye be perfectly joined together” (i.e., made complete together). All the members together make up the church; we ought to feel incomplete without one another. So, how are we to be one? How are we to be “perfectly joined together”?
“And in the same judgment”—this refers to our knowledge, advice, and decision-making. We can and should come to the same doctrinal conclusions.
But how can this be done? This clearly is not simply agreeing to disagree; it’s true unity in thought, belief, decision, and practice! According to so many people with whom I’ve studied over the years, this verse presents an impossibility. “Pie in the sky” is the phrase I’ve heard to describe this; it’s just not realistic!
But God doesn’t give impossible commands! Instead, He tells us how; and it implies a standard of authority—God’s Word. Colossians 3:17 teaches us that we must do everything with Christ’s authority. 1 Peter 4:11 says “if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (i.e., according to the Scriptures). Recall that 1 Cor. 1:10 says to “speak the same thing.” Therefore, we must speak only according to the authority of Christ, which is found in the New Testament, not only in His words, but in the words of His inspired apostles (cf. Luke 10:16).
Paul’s reasoning for this command of unity is found in verses 13-17: because Christ is not divided in any way! “Is Christ divided” (v.13)? No! Where division exists, both parties cannot both be right! Either one or both are wrong, either doctrinally or for causing a division in fellowship (as with these Corinthian brethren).
As a side note, Paul goes on to say in vv. 14-17 that, because of this pride in the Corinthian church, he was glad he’d only baptized a few, so people wouldn’t claim that he baptized in his own name. As we think about the disunity in the “Christian” world today, the incorrect views regarding baptism are certainly at the heart of the division between the Lord’s one church and all others. Most believers claim one is saved without baptism, thereby assigning a far lesser importance to it than Scripture does (cf. Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). But here, if baptism doesn’t matter, why did Paul bring it up? He did so in regard to the Corinthians’ arguing about the leaders they followed, i.e., those men who’d been instrumental in saving their souls. If their baptism wasn’t the point at which they were saved (as the above scriptures demonstrate), there’d be no reason to bring it up. Paul’s reference to it actually shows the vital importance of baptism.
So, what happens when unity doesn’t exist?
First, we must recognize that there can be no unity between light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-16). The Lord’s church cannot have unity with those who are not Christians, whether they be members of denominations or those who have no religious affiliation. 1 Corinthians 1:10 explicitly condemns division in the body. And “division” is the foundational meaning of denominationalism. 1 Corinthians 11:19 states that, where truth and error exist, there must be division. This is not desirable; it’s simply a reality. If a person or group refuses to obey the Bible (particularly the plan of salvation and baptism), then we cannot pursue unity with them. We can and should, however, pursue future unity by teaching them the truth and encouraging them to put away religious error and obey the gospel.
What about a lack of unity in the church? This was obviously the situation Paul was dealing with in Corinth. These were brethren, having obeyed the gospel, but were now beginning the process of division. And division can arise over doctrinal or optional matters.
When the division is over matters of opinion (optional matters).
There will be issues that are a matter of opinion (e.g., when there are multiple expedient ways to fulfill a command). Some examples are time of worship, order of worship, location of worship, old songs or new songs, number of songs/prayers, length of sermon, etc. Love should be the motivation in these matters (cf. 1 Cor. 8). Here we can agree to disagree. We cannot, however, bind laws God didn’t bind (e.g., eating in the church building, located preacher, Bible classes, number of communion cups, etc.). When we bind where God has not bound in these matters of opinion, this becomes legalism, which is sin and therefore becomes no longer a matter of opinion!
When the division is over matters of doctrine, we cannot just agree to disagree. This is how denominations form. Both cannot be right. We must be willing to study the issue with open minds, without being prideful (God resists the proud–Jas. 4:6)! If a brother (or brethren) doesn’t accept the truth, we must reprove him (Eph. 5:11) and restore him (Gal. 6:1) to the best of our ability. If he still refuses, Titus 3:10 says “A man that is a heretic (factious, divisive) after the first and second admonition reject” (i.e., disfellowship cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; Rom. 16:17). Failure to do so can divide and destroy a congregation.
A member has the responsibility to confront false teaching, to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). This was written to Timothy; but Timothy was also told to take what he’d heard from Paul and commit it to faithful men who would teach others (2:2). So, sin must be confronted.
A member has the responsibility to leave. If the congregation won’t change, eventually its “lampstand” will be removed (i.e., its status as a congregation of the church of Christ; Rev. 2:5). 2 John 9-11 teaches us that, where they do not hold to the doctrine of Christ, we cannot be a part of them or we will be “partaker of his evil deeds.” Too often these days, otherwise sound members are remaining in congregations that teach error and have fallen away, and thereby partake of their sin by their affiliation. These brethren need to make the right decision to remove themselves from such congregations.
The above instructions are biblical but in no way exhaustive. Many situations arise that can jeopardize unity and must be handled to the best of our ability. Division is not pleasing to God. However, true unity exists when both parties are walking in the light (1 John 1:7). This is the key. Each of us must live our lives in obedience to the truth of the Scriptures. Then we cannot help but have peace. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psa. 133:1).