Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 26: 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 (ESV)
Divisions Among Us
Maybe you’ve been in a crowd where you felt out of place. Maybe you wore something inappropriate for the occasion. Or maybe you just couldn’t find anything in common to talk about. You listen to conversations but have no clue what they’re talking about.
You hear some people talking about astronomy and walk up expecting to fit in because you’ve always loved looking for Orion or the Big Dipper on a starry night. But when they start talking about Schwarzschild Singularities and the Penrose theorem you decide you can’t say anything the others would care to hear about.
So you drift over to a conversation where you hear people mention cars. You’ve always dreamed of owning a nice vehicle where you didn’t have to pay for costly repairs. But they’re talking about things like hemis and E-Bodies, whatever they are, so you wander off again looking for somebody who speaks English.
You hear someone comment on their spectacular mate and suspect you’ve finally found a conversation you can identify with because you know how important your spouse is to you. But then you find out they were talking about how they used some classic chess combination to gain a material advantage in the middle game to force an eventual and spectacular check-mate.
Baseball fans, music fans, theologians, and cooks; Collectors of dishes, coins, art, and books have a language and world of their own. In some situations it can make others feel cut off and alone.
What’s truly sad is when some who claim to be followers of Christ find themselves unable to fit in comfortably with the rest of the family of God.
In our spiritual immaturity we tend to be most at ease around those most like ourselves. Fellowship or even our gatherings for worship can get somewhat exclusive. Sometimes groups within the church tend to only include those who dress a certain way, or share the same background, hobbies, or economic status. There are times when some unique interpretation of a portion of the Bible becomes the test of fellowship, and a reason to judge the those who hold a different view. We need to remember that not all have the same level of understanding of God’s word as others.
While we don’t want to tolerate heresy or those who reject the plain teachings of Scripture, it’s important to respect minor differences in our understanding as we all humbly try to learn together.
As with most things in life, judgments have to be made. When we limit our fellowship based on prejudices and selfish motives we poison the church, obscure the gospel, and make those who need the gospel feel unwelcome.
The Corinthian congregation had a problem with disunity.
Paul wrote in 1:17-19;
17. But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.
18. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,
19. for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
Paul’s concern continues to deal with when people gather as a church. Public worship and times of congregation fellowship were part of God’s plan for his people. Some talk about organized religion as if it’s a bad thing. It was God who organized it to work a certain way, and that way is always good. But fallen humans have often changed God’s order and made it into something different, something bad.
There was something wrong when the Corinthians assembled for public worship. There were divisions and factions among them. This was one of the main reasons that made Paul write this letter. Back in chapter 1 he explained about the report about them which he received from Chloe’s people,
10. I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
11. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.
12. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
Paul had warned them about the false teachers that had come into the church. They were getting people to forget about the unity they had in God’s teachings and promises. They were getting them focused on the opinions, practices and theories of men. As a result, the church was divided into groups each claiming different leaders: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ. The word Paul used here for divisions is the Greek word “schismata” (σχίσματα). We get our word schism from it.
When we stand on different foundations we have little left that holds us together. Without the union of our Souls in Christ, minor things become overly important to us. So the church became divided by cultural and national backgrounds, particularly between those who were raised as Jews and those who were Gentiles. There were also class distinctions because of differences in education, social status and income.
In part Paul believed that what he heard was true: He hadn’t seen it first hand, but he had reliable reports. He also knew that not all the believers were guilty of the things that divided them.
But Paul saw a way the divisions among them could be turned around for God’s glory. In verse 19 he said that there must be factions. The words mean that it’s something necessary. There were purposes in those divisions, good ones, if they let God’s word be their guide.
The word used here for factions is the Greek word αἱρέσεις from which we get our word “heresies”. The word originally meant to take hold of something like when a city is captured, or we seize upon something by making a choice. It came to be used for schools of thought where some group held to some particular view. When the held view that unites people is contrary to God’s word it causes trouble.
In God’s plan, there was a good reason for his allowing these divisions in the church. This doesn’t mean that their divisions were good in themselves. Even things that aren’t good in themselves can be used by God in a good way.
In this case, they were exposing an important distinction in the church.
On the one hand, it exposed the trouble makers. They were the ones who formed factions around unbiblical teachings. They stayed in the church promoting immorality and distorting God’s truth. They also excluded and looked down upon those who were culturally different.
They were tolerating things that shouldn’t be tolerated, and being intolerant about things that shouldn’t divide them.
But, on the other hand, the situation could make those who are faithful to God stand out. Instead of creating a perverse unity with those who are exclusive and in error, they needed to be united around what God called them to be. They were his church, God’s spiritual family.
Paul encouraged them to correct the abuses
that were destroying their church.
20. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.
21. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
22. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
The Lord’s Supper was supposed to be a solemn part of public worship, God gave it to be a covenant meal showing our union in Christ by God’s provision displaying his grace and mercy.
But some had turned it into an exclusive party time. The influential and rich feasted and got drunk, while those of less status were left out and had nothing.
What was left wasn’t the Lord’s Supper any more. It had become a drunken banquet. It was a shameful situation, and it was becoming their standard custom.
They had lost the true meaning of their gathering in Christian Communion at the Lord’s Table. If they wanted to have private parties they could do that in their own homes and avoid desecrating the worship of the church and insulting other believers.
Did they think Paul would have been impressed with their well attended celebrations? He wasn’t. But that’s often the attitude when outward things crowd out our faithfulness to God’s word. Pride in the big party atmosphere and large crowds gives a feeling of success. People feel they must be right if they have big followings and attract the best people.
Church history is filled with deceived people who think highly of themselves because, as one preacher put it, they have more nickels, noise, and noses.
For example: The Roman Church built a rich and powerful empire, expensive cathedrals and had a budget larger than many countries. Their material success and outwardly impressive rituals keep millions in their oppressive grip. Many of today’s mega-churches have traded God’s ways for marketing techniques to become huge. They promote horrible distortions of the Bible, compete with one another like businesses, and exploit the needy for their own riches, popularity, and growth.
But this isn’t just a problem in large institutions like those.
The New Testament churches were small in comparison. The Corinthian congregation and others probably met in homes, not in big auditoriums. But it was there that this problem was already hurting God’s Kingdom on earth.
Divisions and factions often form when trendy appealing ideas and false doctrines take root. Those who don’t agree are often spoken of as lesser Christians, or even as the enemy. Factions form in the churches that often try to degrade and defy the authority God gives to the ordained church leaders. Study groups often form with the sole purpose of teaching against what the church believes.
But there’s also a more subtle divisiveness that hurts even a small and sound church. The guilty members probably don’t even see what they do as being divisive. Are members selective in how they greet and welcome visitors? Do they get together with those with whom they have a lot in common, and ignore others? Are there people left standing alone during refreshment time? Do we turn our worship and fellowship into an exclusive party with our closest friends? but we ignore those who come looking for a church to care for them? those who dress differently? or who look different? or who appear to be less well off?
James 2:1-4 and 8-9 warns us, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
When we get together for worship or in our times of fellowship, we need to be aware of where we direct our attention. We don’t want to be guilty of making some believers feel like they don’t fit in with God’s spiritual family.
Often people pray for opportunities to serve their Lord, then when he brings others into their lives, they’re too busy to notice them, or they judge them unworthy of including them in fellowship.
We have a union in Christ that transcends our cultural, economic and ethnic barriers. As creatures of God, all struggling to live in a challenging world, we have plenty in common with every other person who crosses our paths or visits church. Specially we should have an interest in all who claim to be Christians. Maybe they have a lot of maturing to do, but helping them is our duty.
We should be careful not to shut people out of our fellowship, even when it’s unintentional. There are always times when we can go on and on about special interests in private. But we should never indulge our own interest while we let others feel cut off.
We’ve been greatly blessed in many ways.
We ought to be a good spiritual family made up of friends of all kinds and ages. This gift of Christian family fellowship is to be both enjoyed and shared, not kept for ourselves alone.
As we meet people during the week, when visitors come to church, our job is to include them, encourage them, and make them feel specially welcome. If they are believers in Christ, help them grow and appreciate their part in God’s kingdom. If they are not believers, try to help them learn the power of the Gospel of Christ. We should show how a redeemed person loves others, because God first loved them. We should tell them about the union we have when we believe in the work of Jesus Christ.
We should not be like many of the Corinthians who had a good time partying with friends, but who offended God and created divisions in the church.
When we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, we show our love for God, and that his love is at work in our hearts.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)