Friday, 30 October 2009

Divisions in the Church

No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. (1 Cor. 11:19 TNIV)

Divisions in the church are a result of sin. Ever since Babel, mankind has been cursed with a sectarian spirit. Even the church in C1 Corinth, under the influence of the blessed apostle himself was riven by sectarianism. You'd have thought they'd all unite as a body under such infallible Scriptural teaching, but no. "I am of Paul" cried some, "I am of Apollos" shouted others, and still others "I am of Cephas".

How does Paul deal with such sinful division? In chapter 1:10-28 he appeals for unity under the message of the gospel.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.(v10)
Yet later in the same epistle in verse 11:19, Paul concedes that divisions, sinful though they are, serve a purpose in the mysterious providence of God. These divisions serve to show "who have God's approval."

To highlight his point it's helpful to look at what Paul doesn't say. He doesn't say something like "In all your divisions you are each providing a different perspective on truth and piety. When all these perspectives come together, they form a wonderful, rich and varied tapestry highlighting God's truth." In other words, not every sect has something relevant to say. It's kind of trendy today to speak of the different denominations of the church as providing a manifold witness to the truth of the gospel. Yet such gobbeldygook rests upon a hermenuetic of uncertainty and an overly chastised epistemology.

For instance, how do the various strands of the church provide a different perspective on the truth of justification? Rome says faith plus works, Geneva and Augsburg say the opposite. Are both sides right? Rome speaks of two streams of revelation, Geneva and Augsburg speak of only one. Are both sides correct? Pentecostals affirm the continuation of supernatural prophecy, while those bound by the Westminster Standards deny this. Are both camps providing different perspectives on truth? Oh please. This type of crap is just a watered down version of postmodernism's maxim that all roads lead to God.

Or take church worship as another example. The Reformed believe in singing only inspired texts, while the rest of evangelicalism will sing anything but inspired texts. Are they both correct? Rome believes in the sacrifice of the Mass, while Protestants see it as a horrible blasphemy. Are they both following the leading of the Spirit? If the Spirit leads me to pray to Mary, while He leads you to embrace the exclusivity of Christ, is He playing games? Is he Bi-polar? Clearly not.

The purpose of divisions according to the apostle is to highlight those who are genuinely blessed by God (v19). The apostle believes that the validity of certain church practices should be self-authenticating. For instance, it's obvious that getting drunk during communion isn't pleasing to God, so those who abstain from booze during worship are obviously approved.

So to sum up, first, divisions in the church function as a mysterious providence as to who has God's approval; they don't all witness to different aspects of an unattainable truth. Second God's approval of certain parties among the divided is self evident. Third his approval rests upon those who uphold the purity of the gospel through right preaching of the word and proper administration of the sacraments.


Donald Ferguson said...

I was wondering.

What is the difference between a disagreement and a division?

Does it matter whether the division is over a primary or secondary issue?

Who gets to decide on what is ‘self authenticating’?

Where can I find a Calvinist Baptist Presbyterian Contemporary Church with gifted preaching, a balance of old and new music, an aesthetically pleasing building, good community links and a large car park?

Nick Mackison said...

I suppose a division is a disagreement that has resulted in sectarianism.

I don't understand the second question.

The text doesn't say explicitly what constitutes God's approval. Nevertheless, Paul does, in the same passage, commend those who uphold the purity of the Lord's Supper.

Donald Ferguson said...

You need to be much clearer here. Exactly what differentiates between division and disagreement? What do you mean by ‘sectarianism’?

I ask for precision because disagreement exists in every church I know. If this becomes sin when it manifests itself as sectarianism then we need to define our terms very clearly in order to deal with it. What behaviour constitutes this sin?

I also struggled to understand the application of what you were saying. How does this apply to a local church? Do we appeal for unity? Do we enforce unity? When we appeal for unity ‘in the gospel’ does that imply unity on the fundamental truths of the gospel?

Differences over fundamentals of the gospel can result in Christians within a Church or denomination working together to defend the truth. Is that sectarianism? Is it right to divide over ‘the mass as a sacrifice’ but wrong to divide over what we can sing?

It is surely right and proper to distinguish between disagreements over the nature of the gospel and disagreement over secondary issues such as ‘head coverings’ or ‘hand waving’ during worship! A failure to make this distinction has in the past led to individuals being forced out of a church because of their ‘divisive’ views and churches themselves dividing because disagreement over certain secondary issues was considered intolerable. I need to know that I can express a view on a secondary issue that others disagree with without being accused of trying to split the church – of sectarianism.

In other words, disagreements over primary and secondary issues have to be handled differently and distinguished theologically. You seemed to lump all types of disagreements together!

Finally, I am still no clearer on what you mean by ‘self authenticating’.

Nick Mackison said...

I suppose I did lump all types of disagreements together! I was analysing division as a broad category, although I suppose in my head I had it as it manifests in denominational differences. Wasn't thinking too much about differences within a single congregation.

It's right too to distinguish between primary and secondary order issues, although this was a blog post, and I was firing out a short, sharp thought without introducing qualifications.

Regarding application, and here I should have been explicit, certain forms of ecumenism are plain daft and innapropriate, especially when one denom says X about the gospel while mine says Y.

I suppose I used the self-authenticating terminology to describe worship which is pure and untainted with godlessness. There are forms of worship which resemble pagan revelry, or incorporate pagan practices and there are those which don't. Those which don't have a self-evident power for want of a better expression; simple worship, Christ-focussed and Gospel centred.

Good hunting!

Donald Ferguson said...

Good answer Nick. I tend to think more about local church applications as I might be able to do something about them! However, it is also right to consider the wider implications of such passages.

John Thomson said...

Ver good blog Nicky.