Though it comprises diverse gifts, ministries and local expressions, there is one Church. “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ’I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Cor 3:1-4)
There is a lot about the first-century church—in Corinth or any number of other cities mentioned in the New Testament—that contrasts with our 21st-century church. For example, in the opening sentences of this letter, Paul greets “the church of God in Corinth”—church singular. They may have met house to house, but these were just geographical distinctions, not spiritual ones.
I once lived in a rural county of New York state of less than 25,000 in which there were four Christian bookstores. Why such an unlikely distribution? Because, as one assistant pastor in a local church told me, “We just want something for our people.”
Our people? Am I included in our people? Or is it your people, to be distinguished from my people? This gets very confusing.
I also recall a conversation where I explained to someone I belonged to a nondenominational church. The woman, a registered nurse, looked puzzled for a moment and then said, “I don’t get it. You have to believe in something.”
You could call the church in Corinth nondenominational in a sense because there were as yet no denominations as we know them (and, as indicated by the nurse’s remark, now take for granted). But the seeds were present, as Paul wrote, in “taking pride in one man over another” (4:6).
If we’re honest with ourselves, the tendency to make value judgments like “I follow Paul,” are associated with a sense of superiority. But Paul said just the opposite: “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12).
The passage at the head of the post also undercuts the pride of association with gifted ministers or ministries. In the intervening centuries, it’s more accurate to say we’ve grown apart rather than grown up in the faith. In fact, a prolonged attachment to this or that faction in the church is almost a guarantee of prolonged immaturity.
Let me explain by describing “a tale of two ministries” that should have remained one.
In the 1980s and 90s I was involved with a church that was associated with two other modest-sized fellowships in western New York. Before I moved away in 1995, I was an elder and teacher in the church, usually taking the midweek service. Although we were legally incorporated and affiliated with an international fellowship of churches, we were basically independent in our daily operation.
Long before I became a part of the church, there was a group of believers that formed a fellowship in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. Two of the ministers—for simplicity, I’ll call them Pastor A and Pastor B—tended to come down on different sides of the love of God and the holiness that God requires.
I think, if you’ve been a believer for any length of time, that you’ll recognize certain truths about the kingdom of God that are held in a kind of tension: mercy and judgment, predestination and free will, to cite a couple of well-known examples. You can proof-text all day and never resolve apparent dilemmas that have existed for 20 centuries.
Pastor A and Pastor B collaborated for a while, despite their differences, until something gave way—I don’t know the particulars, only that the outcome was a split leading to the formation of two separate, diverging fellowships. Naturally, those who agreed with Pastor A’s views went with him and the same was true of Pastor B (i.e., “I follow A” and “I follow B”).
In the wake of this was hard feelings, grumbling and, as Paul described in Corinth, “measuring and comparing themselves with themselves.” The more partisan the individual the more divided they were from their former brethren.
Years after this split took place, I slowly began to realize how out-of-balance the approach of Pastor B was. So, one Sunday, on the spur of the moment, I drove up to Pastor A’s church (now affiliated with a nationwide denomination) for a worship service.
As I listened to Pastor A preach, I began to realize how out-of-balance his teaching was. As I sat there, somewhat in shock, a single word came to me—adulterated.
To adulterate something is to reduce its quality by adding something inferior. That includes watering down. If you take a savory soup or stew and keep adding water to it, eventually it loses its flavor.
You do the same thing when you isolate one part of the kingdom of God or God’s character in its relationship to “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). Mercy and love to the exclusion of obedience and judgment, for example. Or vice versa.
When we separate, it reduces the social tension that accompanies two factions who sincerely, even zealously, advocate and try to live out their convictions side-by-side (generating a great deal of friction in the process). But it also removes something that is meant to be irreducible, the tension that is built into our knowledge of who God is.
A spring attached to a screen door works by tension. You push the door open only so far before the spring returns it to its original position. Disconnect or break the spring and the door is at the mercy of the wind, banging against the house or the door frame.
Pastor A and Pastor B belonged together, as did their respective followers. They could have kept each other in check. It may only be for a time, long enough for iron to sharpen iron, but often the person we end up liking the least is the one we need the most.
If we try to run away from this, we will probably succeed, just as Israel “succeeded” in getting the king they asked for. But it comes at a cost: We remain “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).