The division of the family is one of the most pressing problems in the western world today. A person’s family is the soil from which they grow to impact their environment, and now more than ever that soil is being poisoned with divorce, homosexuality, materialism, child-abuse and general selfish neglect. The fruit formed from that soil is unsurprisingly bitter: a dramatic escalation in violent crime, increasing gender confusion, rampant sexual promiscuity, further divorce, and further societal decay. The bond between fathers and mothers, parents and children is like an atom – you can’t split them apart without causing disastrous, far-reaching consequences.
Of course none of that is to say that someone of tremendous integrity and moral strength can’t come from a dysfunctional family – surely one can. Examples abound. But regardless of whether one can actually survive and overcome or not, what remains indisputable are the personal pains and peculiar challenges which extend from formative years of family life into adult relationships. Hence the raison d’etre of the Dobson brigade and his culture war. Evangelicals realize that not only Christian witness but societal order depends on husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, parents refusing to exasperate their children and children obeying their parents. We, therefore, more than most, know that unless each member of this institution remains vigilant, the family will be divided, nuclear meltdown will be imminent, and the fall out will destroy civilization as we know it.
Yet this commonly shared sense of urgency about "family values" among us is conspicuously absent in regard to that institution which God deems even more fundamental to the preservation of human society: the Church. The Church is the local and worldwide family of God; the household of the redeemed. Jesus said in Mat. 5:14-16 that the it's humankind’s only light and salt, without which the world would be left in darkness with nothing to stem the tide of rot and decay. Pagan conservatism has often observed that if you divide the family and the world is in big trouble. But according to Jesus and Paul, dividing the Church, the very family of God, strikes at the heart of the world's only hope for redemption. It is the alternative to the society created by idolaters -- it's a new creation, a living preview of kingdom life. The ministry of Jesus is largely mediated through this Spirit-filled community which He rules from the right hand of God's throne. It's health and well-being are therefore vital to the plan of God for the world. The connection between the ministry of Jesus and that of the Church is so organically connected that its likened to husband and wife, head and body, vine and branches.
Jesus directly connected the Church’s visible ONENESS and UNITY to its effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel. John 17:20-23 says, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The mission of the Church, therefore, to some degree depends on our visible unity - the same unity demonstrated by Jesus and the Father - unity of purpose, unity of essence, unity of will, and the unity of mutual joy and synergism. The words "depends upon" are intentionally selected, for they confront the casual distinction made by many evangelicals between the Church's visible unity and the effectiveness of its Gospel proclamation (the former being the object of cynical scoffing, the latter being regarded as indespensible).
Surely the Bible speaks triumphantly about the end of the story, and we know that ultimately nothing can thwart God’s work on earth (as bleak or as dismal as the picture may look at any point in history). But we also know that even though the church can’t be stopped, it can be slowed down. It can be rendered temporarily ineffective. Salt can loose its saltiness and light can be put under a bushel. And that’s exactly the problem facing the Church at present, in all its fragmented shame. The throat of our apologetic posturing and bold proclamation is slit by our mirroring of the world's strife, dysfunction and utter lack of peace. The credibility issue isn't just a percieved problem, it's a real one: is the resurrection power of Jesus real, and is He able to give us the Holy Spirit? The dying world in which we live needs to see our oneness, not just to find therapeutic escape from the fragmentation of their own self-destructing societies; they need to see it in order to beleive that a genuine alternative to idolatrous living really does exist. "Jesus saves" may be the truth, but we give them no earthly reason to believe it.
And people have tried to deal with this problem in a lot of different ways. Some well meaning brothers want to join hands without ever debating the real issues which lie behind our division. Unity, in this frame of reference, is everyone’s duty to minimize disagreements in order to avoid dissension. We all have family members like that – they want peace so badly, they’ll sacrifice just about anything to have it (usually it's your mom). And if you do have family members like that, you know that this kind of peace is only superficial – it’s only skin-deep, and it doesn’t last. Before long, the deeply felt differences among that never get talked about begin to float to the surface, and the illusion of unity instantly evaporates. Moreover, while the conversation at the dinner table may not be heated for these folks, it isn't warm, either. The energy which should be spent on teasing, sharing and genuinely relating is spent on suppressing these deeply felt differences, resulting in sterile, lifeless small talk.
In recognizing the pitfalls of naive ecumensim, some have opted for a different solution to the problem – it’s called the doctrine of separation. If you disagree with a family member with sufficient conviction, you simply extend the offer come around to your way of thinking one last time before packng your bags to leave. Some even go so far as to advocate SECOND-DEGREE separation: that is, if you happen to agree with me, but you also choose to associate with those who don’t, we can’t fellowship together. We’ve all dealt with family members like this too – they respond to disagreements by fighting, getting indignant, and then storming off. When the holidays roll around, the real family politics begin, because if you seem like you’re too sympathetic to someone on one side, the other side will cut you off.
Both of these extremes exist in our worldwide Church family. But the only reason they exist in the Church is because these extremes also exist in our hearts. And that’s why division isn’t just a modern problem for the Church. It’s a sin problem, as old as mankind. Only 23 years after Jesus prayed His prayer in John 17, Paul was forced to write the letter of 1 Corinthians to deal with the disunity that was ripping their church apart. Nearly every other problem in the Corinthian church that Paul addressed in this letter (tolerating gross sin in ch. 5, taking each other to court in ch. 6, hurting weaker brothers in ch. 8-10, disorder in communion in ch. 11, their lack of love in using spiritual gifts in 12-14 etc) had its roots in the problem of disunity, Paul's subject of choice in the first four chapters.
The Corinthians couldn’t manage to worship and minister together as one family, in one accord. So, immediately after his greeting in 4-9, Paul gives 3 resources that wil help the Corinthians sort this mess out. Verses 10-17 introduce Paul's polemic against it by giving an exhortation, a description and an important implication about disunity. The exhortation exemplifies how to approach the problem and identifies a provisional solution, the description illustrates the sorts of attitudes and activities that lead to factions, and the implication exposes just how foolish divisiveness really is. I'll spend some time examining these points in my next few posts: but, just for posterity, here's 1 Co. 1:10-17:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all
agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in
the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning
you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I
mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,”
and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not
crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank
God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one
would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household
of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For
Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness
of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.