Unity versus Uniformity

Scriptures: Acts 18:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

In the message today, I hope to achieve three things.

  1. To talk about division in the church, and reasons for division, and what is perhaps healthy versus unhealthy
  2. To look at our oneness in Christ, our unity in Christ
  3. To remind us that unity does not mean uniformity, that we don’t all move in lockstep

It is something that plagues all churches everywhere, as we see from the very beginning. The Corinthian church, even as long as Paul had been with them – he was there for a fairly long time, long enough to set up trade with his friend – they had a lot of problems. He had to write two letters, long ones, to address all the issues.

It’s important for us to look at those issues and see what we can draw from them, and how we can solve some of those problems, that Paul dealt with in his letters.

The French novelist and playwright Alexander Dumas once had a heated quarrel with a rising young politician. The argument became so intense that a duel was inevitable. Since both men were very fast, and superb shots, they decided to draw lots, the loser agreeing to shoot himself.

Dumas lost. Pistol in hand, he withdrew in silent dignity to another room, closing the door behind him. The rest of the company waited in gloomy suspense for the shot that would end his career. It rang out at last, and his friends ran to the door, opened it, and found Dumas with the smoking pistol in hand.

“Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened,” he announced. “I missed.”

That was a creative way to end that argument. But we have to admit that most arguments don’t end happily. Instead, frequently, regret, bitterness, and unfinished business seem to be the heartbreaking results.

At Corinth, we see in this first chapter, the church was divided into four groups that had congregated around their leaders. There was the group that followed Paul, the group that followed Cephas (or Peter), the group that followed Apollos, and of course, the “we’re the only real followers of Christ” group.

Those who followed Paul appreciated and focused on the liberty that Paul preached, the grace that freed us from sin. They sometimes misinterpreted that, and thought it meant freedom to sin instead of freedom to not sin.

There was the group that followed Peter, and they were the traditionalists. Everything had to be done the way it’s always been done. They were all Jews, no doubt, or converts first to Judaism. I won’t say that they were Judaizers, requiring that everybody be circumcised before being baptized. But certainly they lived lives that were very faithful to the Jewish tradition, and they felt that that was necessary.

There was the group that followed Apollos. That is not the Greek god, but rather there was a man whom Paul found – it’s mentioned in Romans – and he was a very gifted speaker and evangelist. There were many that were swayed and converted by listening to him.

And there’s the “we’re the only real followers of Christ” group as well, who followed no one, but their own interpretations.

The problem, as it is introduced here, is a follower problem rather than a leader problem, in that the followers are at fault. In each case, the issue is really one of pride. Each group feels that it is superior to the others. Because of this feeling of superiority, they had split into factions, into cliques.

It is something that is very easy to do, I think particularly in small churches, because we’re family churches, mostly. You have families, and tribe, and clan. So they gather together. Then if one steps against the other, you immediately have a division in the church.

Actually in bigger churches, that may happen, but it’s buried under the greater whole. But by the same token, when there’s division in a small church, it impacts them more greatly than it would in a larger church.

They were each following somebody else, other than Jesus Christ. One of the people I read said that he thinks one of the most dangerous groups of all is the last, the “real followers of Christ.” It’s true that we should all be followers of Christ, but we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so.

This fourth group is no less proud or arrogant than the others who are condemned. I’m afraid that I understand Paul all too well in the fourth example. Those who think of themselves as being of Christ also think of the rest as being not of Christ.

We see that, sometimes, in denominations, even. I liked a joke once, where there was a group of new people, new arrivals into heaven. Peter was taking them on a tour on the streets of gold, and they were walking along, singing praises to God, singing hymns, and all of a sudden, Peter went “Shhhh!”

He led them in silence past this wall-in estate area, and when they got past that estate area, he said, “OK, everybody can begin singing again.” So everybody began singing again, but someone that was close to Peter said, “Why did we have to stop singing?” Peter answered, “That enclave is for the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”

There are folks that are certain that Catholics aren’t Christian, that they’re not of Christ. They’re wrong in that, of course. There are divisions, particularly denominationally, that occurred because of doctrinal differences.

There’s a difference between the kind of divisions that were occurring in Corinth, versus the kind of divisions that lead to separation into denominations, and sometimes within a denomination. We need to understand that differential.

If the division is because of the understanding of Scripture, and both sides have researched it, both sides have very firmly believe that they understand what the Scripture says, then there may be a necessity for splitting from one another, separating from one another.

We saw that in our own denomination, back in the 1967 Confession. The PCA split off from the PCUS, and we became PCUSA, and it was over the ordination of women as elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The PCA felt very firmly that ordination, based on certain passages in Scripture, was only for men, that leadership role. We felt very firmly that God gives the gifts equally to both sexes and the call as well. And we could point to various Scriptures – one of our passages today talks about Priscilla, and Scripture refers to her in the context of leadership in a church.

So there may be differences like that. And I think that God uses those denominational differences, as I go on a rabbit trail here for a moment, because I think it enriches the diversity and the witness of the church.

I like to tell people that when we look at denominations and we look at the overall body of Christ, that each denomination serves its purpose (some of which I’m not so sure about).

For instance, the Baptists and their ilk have the spine of the church. They’re the ones that are more militant, but they’re willing to stand firm for their faith. They stand up and they speak out. They have, it seems, no fear.

Then we have the Catholics, and I think that they give us a wonderful sense of the transcendence of God, and liturgy and worship. While we may not agree over Communion and the position of priests, and we split at the time of the Reformation back in the 1500’s over the power of the church, in terms of interpretation of Scripture and its authority, the fact is that you attend a mass, you understand our God is transcendent. He is a holy God and we are coming into a holy presence, and we need to be aware of that and not take Him too casually.

Then you have the more Pentecostal churches, Assemblies of God, charismatic. They have a wonderful sense of the Holy Spirit and His presence and His power in our lives, that can be so exciting and uplifting. And so different from us “frozen chosen.”

You have the Methodists and their sense of determination, and their sense of balance as they work toward the goal of perfection. Wesley believed that we were actually able to be perfectable here on earth, in our faith. We might not stay there long, but we could reach those moments. (As a good Calvinist I disagree entirely.)

And then the Presbyterians and the Reformed, if you look at them through the centuries since the Reformation, we are the ones who are intellectuals, the deepest theologians. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have our moments. Jonathan Edwards was a Presbyterian minister, and he brought the Great Awakening to the American colonies. That was a movement of the Holy Spirit, waking up the church when it had become moribund.

But we are known because we love to think about God. We love to think about Scripture. We love to understand. That’s our strength, in our heads, as long as we don’t forget our hearts. So all the denominations play a role, and I think God uses them, and those divisions are made for thought-out reasons.

But so often they’re not. So often a church is in trouble and is separated and divided because of the individual foibles and desires of the people involved. Whether they want to be exclusive or not. If you think yourself superior to all other believers, or boast because they follow Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ.

Those who boast of following Christ are effectively declaring themselves to be the leaders, and those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. They don’t need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves without any help from others. These autonomous folks are the most frightening group of all.

Because once you set yourself above and outside the church as a whole, you decide you can interpret without any kind of boundaries or warrant, then you can easily go astray, as your interpretation of the Bible, amazingly, just fits right in with your own preconceptions. Isn’t that wonderful? “The Bible always says exactly what I think is right.” It’s not challenging.

But you see, the church was divided there. The word that was used to describe the division is schismata, from which we derive the word schism, which means to tear or rip. The idea here is that the church’s unity was being torn and ripped to shreds.

This is unnatural, for the church’s natural status is oneness. The Lord Jesus designed the church to be a functional unity that works together, and as the liturgist noted, we are united together by what Christ has done for us on the cross.

No matter what our differences, no matter whether we think we should sing praise songs or gospel hymns or the old hymns, whether we should use organ or piano or praise bands, whether we should have the service at 9 a.m. or 10:30 a.m., or what should be the color of the hymnals. Yes, I have seen a church that had a major section leave the church because of the color of the hymnals.

Whether it be the color of the carpeting, when it’s being remodeled. Whether it be people talking in the church, either during the service or before the service when they should be rather be talking outside in the fellowship area. Whatever those divisions are, whatever those things are tend to set us off – I like to call them pet peeves – they should be overwhelmed by our oneness in Christ, in the body of Christ.

Those reasons are never good reasons for staying separate from the body of Christ. Those reasons, however annoying the pet peeves may be to us, are what destroy our church and its witness to the world. Because what we see as failure, and we repent from, those outside the church in the world see as hypocrisy. They use that, then, in much the same way that we do in the church, to think that they’re better than us.

But the fact is, we’re all the same before Christ, before God. There’s no greater sinner or lesser sinner. There’s only sinners. The ground, as the hymn says, is level at the foot of the cross. And one person’s desires are really no better than another person’s desires.

So Paul appeals to the church. He encourages them persuasively that something must be done about these divisions, for Paul is already recognizing that these disagreements are not over faith and doctrine, they’re about conflicting desires. His encouragement is that they would all agree. Literally, if you read the Greek, he wants them to “all speak the same thing.”

For when they would all speak the same thing, it would be then that they would be perfectly united and made complete. They would be restored to the unity that they were designed for. We are to speak with one voice, one heart, one mind, about Christ and the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

We do need to understand that this unity in Christ – and this should go across denominations, it should go within the church itself – this unity in our declaration of who Christ is, who God is, what Christ did for us, and what it takes to be saved, doesn’t mean that we all have to be automatons.

Again, so many times in the world, they have this view of Christians, that we’re all in a groupthink situation, that we all are somehow locked in, then when they see that there is diversity in here, they are either confounded or dismissive.

But the fact is, Paul, in this letter to the Corinthians, later on, addresses this very issue, when he uses the very well-known analogy to the church as a body. He speaks of there being eyes and ears and noses and – I wanted to be the big toe that he mentions.

He says if there is an eye, does that mean that it is better than an ear? That the ear doesn’t belong? Or if there is an ear, does that mean that the nose shouldn’t belong? No. Because he says that if the body was all eyes, then there would be no hearing, and if the body was all ears, then there would be no smelling.

Everyone and all their gifts and all their ideas are required for the fruitful running and witness of the body of Christ. Everyone has something to contribute. And that diversity is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

I think that as we reach out and we go past our natural boundaries, our natural cliques, our natural desires and attractions, that we begin to increase in that diversity and improve our witness to Christ. Sometimes it requires a radical change in our minds and our hearts, almost a cataclysm on its own.

I call myself a Nebraskan. I lived most of my childhood there, and I went for my undergraduate degree to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Just like the University of Iowa, it had these little ag farm things, like across from my neighborhood in Muscatine where there’s eighty acres and the students farm it and all that.

They had that kind of setup in Nebraska, and because the prairies were so prevalent in Nebraska, they did a study on the prairies. Because one of the things they had noted is that biodiversity was dropping in the state of Nebraska.

Biodiversity is a fancy word, for those of you why may not know, that refers to the number of different species – animals, bugs, plants – that are there. So they wondered what might be going on. One of the things that they came to the conclusion of, that they looked at, was that we put out fires so fast, because we don’t want them to get out of control.

So they deliberately lit a burn on, I think it was a forty or fifty acre area of plains. The kind of old-fashioned plains, where they let the grass grow up to six-foot-tall or whatever it was they had. Then they checked the plains after the burn, and they discovered something amazing. Within a few weeks after the fires had ripped across that area, burning everything to ash, there was new growth.

And the biodiversity was greater than it had been before the fire, as new creatures moved in. New beings came to be. New growth and plants. Plants that had been overwhelmed and smothered by this six-foot-tall grass suddenly were blooming and blossoming and taking root.

Sometimes it takes a cataclysm, and a change in our own attitude and hearts, to achieve that newness of growth within the church. When those new people come, we have to be careful not to set ourselves apart from them, but stay focused on our witness and oneness in Christ, recognizing them equally as believers and people in need of forgiveness and the love of Jesus.

We are to be one when it comes to doctrine. We are to be one when it comes to our concern and care of one another, and we are to be one when it comes to our attitude, and that attitude is one of forbearance, forgiveness, encouragement, lifting up of each other.

We face enough trouble and trials from the world at large. We don’t need it in the church. It’s to help us stand against the world, to help us affirm and strengthen our faith in Christ.

We can discuss, frequently, things that we would like to change. I’m always inviting people to committees. Because that’s the way we Presbyterians institute change, whether it be the Worship Committee, the Stewardship Committee, the Mission Committee.

This is where you can have an opportunity to be creative, to give of your gifts, whether it be liturgists leading in worship and exercising their gift there, or singing in the choir, or playing in the handchime choir. Lots of opportunities to plug in, while still maintaining our unity of witness. Lots of opportunities to invite others, to bridge the gaps that may otherwise be between us.

My prayer for you is that you would look to yourself, and recognize your foibles. Recognize when the issue you have, that irritation you have, that makes you think, perhaps, about not coming to church this day, or that you know of someone who’s not coming to church for some reason or other, that it doesn’t lead to an us-versus-them kind of clique.

My prayer for you is that you would recognize our oneness in Christ, and that together, each one individual in our faith and our understanding, we have a witness to Christ without parallel. If we just gather together faithfully to celebrate, to worship, and to work, in the name of the Lord Jesus, then there’s no way we will not accomplish the commission of Christ: to create disciples, to teach them all that he has commanded, and to hear those words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” someday.

And I can promise you this as well, if we do this, if we focus on this, that God will get the glory, always and ever. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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