by Elie Haddad
Jesus taught His disciples an important principle in Luke 11:17: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” In the following verse, Jesus applied this principle to Satan: “If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?” The context was that some people were claiming Jesus was casting out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Would this same principle apply in other situations? Would this principle that Jesus teaches apply to the church as well? Can we treat this as a warning, or even a prophecy, if we do not heed the teachings of Jesus?
I am troubled by the increased divisions we are witnessing globally in the church today, divisions driven by politics, by doctrine, by practices, by denominational polity, by power dynamics, by differing interpretation of Scripture, or by conflicting worldviews. What are we to do with these differences? How can we resolve them or manage them? I realize this is not a new problem and a lot has been said and written about this theme. Moreover, it is impossible to treat this topic thoroughly in the span of a short blog post. My aim here is simply to reflect on some biblical principles and to offer a few ideas to think about.
To begin with, as I deal in this blog post with a negative aspect of church life, I do not want to pass over the fact that Jesus is also growing and maturing His church all around the globe. There are beautiful examples of the church being a faithful witness to Christ in difficult places. I just came back from a trip to Sudan. I always come back from such trips inspired and encouraged. Witnessing how God is using the church to draw people to Himself and to shape communities is always an amazing sight to behold.
In addition to all the familiar passages about unity, the New Testament is full of pictures of how we ought to behave as the body of Christ. Surely there is allowance in the New Testament for necessary disagreements and divisions. This is expected in a fallen world. However, it has become too easy for us to disagree and divide despite the clear mandate for unity presented in Scripture.
In the first place, we should take our cues from the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity are always working together in perfect harmony. As we are created in the image of the triune God, working together in harmony should be the norm.
Then there is the metaphor of the body of Christ, in which we are all interdependent members despite our differences. The New Testament never talks about bodies of Christ. It is always in the singular, the body of Christ. Members of the same body, no matter their differences, need to figure out how to work together in harmony. Anything less is a sign of a sick and dysfunctional body.
The New Testament gives us hints on how the members of the body of Christ ought to function together. One hint is the concept of one-anotherness. The New Testament writers, especially Paul, use the Greek reciprocal pronoun allelon, frequently translated one another, 100 times, even though a lexical search for the pronoun in Greek literature of the time indicates that it was not commonly used. Love one another, honor one another, accept one another, serve one another, carry one another, bear one another, forgive one another, value one another, spur one another on, etc. This concept by itself, when taken seriously, can dramatically change the way we function in the body of Christ.
Another hint in the New Testament of how to live in unity is the concept of fellowship, koinonia. We are used to thinking of fellowship as members of our churches, who are like each other and happen to like each other, spending time eating, drinking, or having a good time together. However, in the New Testament the term is frequently used in the context of ministry, such as “for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now,” (Philippians 1:5). Some translations use the term partnership for koinonia. Koinonia takes place as members of the body of Christ are engaged in ministry together.
Similarly, the concept of love directs us in how to function with unity. The chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, is frequently used in weddings to teach on marital love. However, this chapter on love is found in between 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 14, which both discuss the various members of the body of Christ and their functions and giftedness. The love discussed in 1 Corinthians 13 is expected of us toward each other in the context of church life and ministry. Taking fellowship and love seriously as requirements for doing ministry together can also dramatically change the way we function in the body of Christ.
Earlier it was established that the body of Christ is always singular. Likewise, Paul makes other precise grammatical choices to give us further hints on how we ought to function together within the body. One example is Romans 12:1-2.
I appeal to you (plural) therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed (plural) to this world, but be transformed (plural) by the renewal of your mind (singular), that by testing you may discern (plural) what is the will of God (singular), what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Paul here is addressing the community. However, he is referring to one sacrifice, one mind, and one will of God. I find this a fascinating use of grammar by Paul. Another example is 2 Corinthians 3:2-3.
You yourselves (plural) are our (plural) letter of recommendation (singular), written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are (plural) a letter (singular) from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Here again, the church community presents one letter from Christ. It is not the case that each group can have their own letter. There is one letter from Christ that the diverse church community is called to present to the world. What powerful images Paul uses here.
What I conclude from studying these passages in the New Testament is that working together in unity is not optional. Working together is the essence of our faith. It is a matter of obedience; it is clearly the will of God. It is also a matter of integrity; it is the only way that we can be true to the nature of the body of Christ.
Granted, there are exceptional situations where disagreement and division are called for, but why has this become the norm? Why has it become so easy to accurse or anathemize or demonize one another? Why has it become standard practice to label and categorize one another? Has what we value become more important than what God values? Have we not learned that our behaviors are dividing the body of Christ? Why are we still some for Paul and some for Apollos? Paul’s answer to us today would still be: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).
I suggest that we need to examine our own behavior before we blame others, that we repent of our divisions and for how we have smeared the image of Christ. I suggest that we need to go back to Scripture. God has provided us with many tools to counter the divisive work of the devil. I suggest that we exhibit charity to one another, that we never cease respecting and listening to one another. I suggest that we sincerely pray, trusting God with the task of running His church. After all, there is only one acceptable way of relating to one another, God’s way. The stakes are high. “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined.”
Elie is the president of ABTS and is fascinated by the work of the Spirit and repulsed by the work of the flesh in and through the church.