When the Church Should Divide and When It Shouldn’t


1 Corinthians 3:18-23

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”;20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.


To those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people (i.e. “us”):

I’m a Methodist! I’m a Baptist! I’m a Roman Catholic! I’m a Pentecostal! I’m an Anglican! I follow Wesley! I follow Calvin! I follow Arminius! I follow Luther! And on we go.

Could Paul possibly be addressing us as we read over the shoulders of the Corinthian church? I don’t want to make a sweeping and over simplistic analogy and application here but I think it bears some consideration. In this letter Paul is chiding the Corinthians for dividing themselves up and opposing one another based on the particular leader they associated with. All of them were seeking to get a leg up on wisdom and knowledge in ways that would make them superior to one another. They were importing this mentality of a superior position based on the superior teaching of their particular teacher or spokesperson. This was exactly how they operated in the world in their pursuit of “sophia,” or worldly wisdom, before they became followers of Jesus. They brought this same approach right into the way they approached the gospel. I don’t so much think we are dealing with the issue of false teaching at this point in the letter (that’s coming!) as we are dealing with a divisive and thereby destructive way of approaching the gospel.

In a sense, each of these groups were claiming a superior brand of the truth over and against the others. So my question: How is this different from the way the church (notably the Protestant church) has operated for the past 500 years? I think we are somewhere upwards of 20,000 different denominations or distinctive groups across the Body of Christ in 2015. Now, resist the temptation to interpret me as saying something I am not saying. I do not meant to say we should all uniformly agree on every point of doctrine and teaching and such. There are essentials that comprise the orthodox Christian faith, and there are a variety of matters on which we can respectfully differ without divisiveness. In fact, these ways in which we differ often amount to things we emphasize more than others and can hold the potential to become greater complementary gifts to each other. For instance, the Calvinists bring us a focused vision of the glorious sovereignty and Kingship of God in all things while the Wesleyans bring into focus the character of God’s sovereignty through the lens of the Fatherhood of God. We could go on with this kind of complementary distinctiveness ad infinitum and it would be a very profitable exercise.

Do we differ to the degree of holding some serious arguments? Absolutely! But we need not divide over it and attempt to distinguish our superior version over and against each other. Is division then always wrong? By no means!

Permit me what may be perceived as a digression by some but to others will be understood as a word fitly spoken for the times in which we live. When one group among us decides to depart from the essential orthodoxy of the Christian faith or they take positions which erode and undermine essentials like the authority of Scripture or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection, we need not so much decide to divide as we need to discern that division has happened. It can either be reconciled or the divided parties must go their respective ways and get on with being the church and proclaiming the gospel as they understand it—with the confidence that we can all entrust ourselves to the One who judges justly and his ultimate resolution—which we may or may not see in our lifetime. At times in the history of the Church such matters have taken centuries to sort out. In these rare cases where a house is divided over matters of core orthodoxy, it simply cannot stand. It will implode under the weight of its own conflict. The appeal for unity at all cost in the face of actual division over orthodoxy can itself become a type of heresy which destroys the church from within. And to be clear, it will not destroy the church (which is indestructible), but it will devastate people by the force of unwitting deception and lead to broken lives and the shipwrecking of priceless faith on the shoals of the spirit of our times.

Back to the primary point at hand: Let’s follow our Wesleys and Calvins and Cranmers and so forth as our spirit resonates with their teaching and vision for the advance of the gospel, but let’s avoid distinguishing and dividing ourselves over and against one another according to who we follow. Hear Paul clearly on this point:

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

What if we looked upon all these traditions and leaders as belonging to all of us in the sense that we all bring particular gifts that can enrich the others, help us see our blind spots, cause us to temper our overstated strengths and to be shored up in our under recognized weaknesses? The Kingdom of God does not grow by conformity but through a unified and celebrated diversity.

All of these are ours, and we are of Christ and Christ is of God!

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end, Amen. Amen.


Our Father in Heaven, thank you for the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ. Thank you that the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. Give us the courage to recognize when our differences threaten to compromise this foundation. Otherwise, forgive us for the way we allow differences to divide us. Come Holy Spirit, and give us the gift of a gentle yet unwavering conviction on all things essential, a generous posture toward one another on all matters non-essential, and a penetrating and incisive wisdom to discern the difference. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


1. Have you or the part of the church with which you most align distinguished yourselves by deprecating the parts of the church with which you have disagreement? Have you tended to follow a particular leader (i.e. Wesley) while disparaging another (i.e. Calvin)? What might repentance look like for you? What would it mean to follow your particular leader without boasting in them?

2. What gifts do you see in receiving the influence of teachers and movements which you have not heretofore given credence or pride of place? What can we learn from the Pentecostals? from the Calvinists? from the Mennonites? from the Wesleyans? What are we afraid of or what keeps us from opening ourselves up to these influences? from recognizing we are playing on the same team?

3. How do you either resonate with or reject the permissibility of separation over matters of irreconcilability as relates to points of orthodoxy or around issues that erode or undermine the historic orthodox Christian faith? Do you see the difference between creating or advocating division and recognizing and responding to division that has already happened?