But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:24b-25).
When we speak of “divisions” in the church, we normally gravitate toward divisions on account of false doctrines, on account of attempting to impose a liberty (or the lack thereof) on others, or on account of pushing a “hobby horse” or some other issue regardless of its substantive importance in the faith. Such division is lamentable, but sometimes sadly necessary; Christians are to mark and have nothing to do with those who advocate for false teachings (Romans 16:17-18). The church in Ephesus was commended for not tolerating false apostles, and the church in Thyatira chastised for tolerating the false prophetess “Jezebel” (Revelation 2:1-7, 18-29). We hate to see people fall away from the truth, and we must gently and meekly correct those in opposition, praying that God may grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Yet, in the New Testament, the Apostles are concerned about many other forms of division. We see this manifest in 1 Corinthians 12:24-25: as Paul speaks about division in this passage, division has far less to do with doctrine and much more to do with a lack of openness, love, and mutual honesty/accountability.
This is an important lesson for us. We have become well conditioned to be on the lookout for divisions regarding doctrine, and yet if we act in unloving or discouraging ways toward our fellow members of the Body of Christ, we create divisions. When we withhold ourselves from the brethren, not confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16), not allowing others to bear our burdens (Galatians 6:2), and in various ways composing ourselves in ways aloof from our brethren, we are the authors of division within the body.
In the world such types of division are natural. Humans are a tribal lot; we generally have a small circle of people we trust, and we learn through the experience of hurt and betrayal to know when to close off and avoid accountability in relationships. This natural tendency has been exacerbated in the Western world over the past few generations; we are more withdrawn from our fellow man than ever before. We do not interact with others as we travel; we can go through the day and barely physically interact with anyone. We have technology designed to bring us together but it only does so at arm’s length. By default we live in a sort of division because our culture has enshrined individualism as the greatest good. Meanwhile, we are starving to death emotionally and spiritually, because we are not being nourished by the support system that we all need, for we are made in the image of God who is one in relational unity, and we need strong relationships with others to not only survive but flourish (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:21-23).
And so, if divisions would be healed and made rare, members of the Body of Christ must have “mutual care” for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25). The Body of Christ is not one only by its very nature: it’s something to which we must diligently apply ourselves. We can only be one in the body of Christ when we work toward that end, being open with one another, accountable to one another, seeking to both be a source of encouragement and to gain encouragement within the body. But that is only possible when we decide to open up, to express vulnerability, and truly and fully connect and relate to each other as fellow Christians. That demands a willingness to trust even though betrayal is not only possible but highly likely. It requires reorientation, a way of life very different from that in our current society.
We understand the dangers of doctrinal division; how can we jointly participate in Christ if we are not agreed upon what it means to do so (1 Corinthians 1:10)? Yet the dangers of other forms of division are no less acute. If a congregation is divided into factions supporting different persons or methods, or as a legacy because brother Smith said a discouraging word to Sister Jones twenty years ago and real forgiveness was never manifest, how can that local congregation function in a healthy way that glorifies God and truly encourages its members (1 Corinthians 1:11-13, 3:3)? Such a congregation essentially is already two or three churches who happen to come together at the same time and place, and often to their harm, for no matter how well things may seem to go, that division is always the sixty ton elephant in the room. Likewise, if a congregation agrees on what is true but everyone just looks to family members in the church for connection and support, how can that congregation function in a healthy way that truly manifests itself as the spiritual family of God (1 Timothy 3:15)? What would happen if Christians not affiliated with one family or another attempted to join and be part of such a congregation, and how could such a congregation effectively incorporate converts from the community into their association? Or what if a congregation has doctrinal agreement but gives comparatively little concern for the health or strength of the association and community among its members? In such a congregation there is great division, for it is really a host of atomized individuals or family units who agree to meet once or a few times a week but otherwise have noting to do with each other. Such is no longer a church but a country club, and even then, a poorly functioning country club at that. How will such a congregation be able to provide support and encouragement when difficult days come for some of its constituent members or in the life of the congregation itself? How can they provide an environment of true spiritual flourishing when the members of the Body seem to have little connection with each other, however intended or desired?
We would never want to be responsible for dividing the church on account of matters of doctrine, and that is well and good.
But if we allow open divisions to fester and do not work to make peace and heal, we perpetuate the division of the Body of Christ.
If we because of fear or pride refuse to be open and vulnerable among fellow Christians, and presume that we can keep to ourselves, we divide the Body of Christ.
If we prefer physical family or friends to the exclusion of other members of a local congregation, we divide the Body of Christ.
If we do not work to incorporate new Christians into the life of the congregation, we cut off new growth and thus divide the Body of Christ.
We do well to be concerned about the dangers of doctrinal division, but we should be just as concerned, if not more so, regarding the condition of divisions which may exist among the members of the Body of Christ. We must give great diligence to encourage all Christians to strive to break down the barriers of pride and fear and be willing to truly live in community, to share in life with one another, to associate and be accountable toward each other. We commit evangelistic malpractice if we put all our efforts into converting members of the local community but do not intentionally work to make sure they are acclimated and assimilated into the community of the members of the Body of Christ. The stronger the connection to the Body of Christ, the better chance of spiritual growth and flourishing; the weaker the connection to the Body of Christ, the more likely such a person atrophies, gets discouraged, falls to temptation, and for all intents and purposes is divided from the rest and ready to be cut off. Not for nothing does Paul continually exhort Christians to give diligence regarding their connections and association with fellow Christians (Romans 12:3-18, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). We do well to be concerned regarding all potential divisions in the Body of Christ, and strive to make peace and grow together with the saints to the glory of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry