1 Corinthians 11:17-19 (ESV)
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.
Factions and divisions in the church are sad, but not in the way you might think. There certainly have been those who look at passages like the one above and argue that any sort of division within the church is an evil thing. And, truly, there must be something wrong for there to be factions as there were in Corinth.
However, let us not make the mistake of assuming that both sides in a divided church have to be in sin.
Paul says in verse 19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” What did Paul mean when he said this? Was he happy about the divisions in the church at Corinth? No, he was not happy, because the division indicated the presence of sin in the body as a whole. However, he also recognized that factions had to exist, because some in the church were genuine and rightly following God while others were clearly not genuine and not rightly following God. Thus, a division had to be present in Corinth so that those who were following God could continue to do so.
We never want to cause division. We never want to break fellowship or develop factions. However, we want most to follow God. We want to obey Scripture. Where other believers are willing to follow Scripture too, we will not be divided. But, when there are significant issues, and where others do not follow Scripture in those significant issues, there will be divisions among us; it is unavoidable.
By no means am I suggesting that we look for ways to divide. Nor am I suggesting that we should be so smug as to assume we are the ones in the right every time that a division in a local body or denomination surfaces. However, I am also not suggesting that we pretend that there is no reason for a division or that dividing is never acceptable. At times, believers who hold firm to Scripture will have to stand their ground and in some way separate from those who are compromising on the word of God.
What, then, should we learn here? I think we can certainly understand from the passage above that those who oppose the existence of denominations cannot be completely correct. Denominations exist because of genuine differences on doctrine, and this must happen. Nor can we say that, within individual churches, there cannot be genuine differences that cause believers to separate. Of course, in every instance, our desire is that all will trust in the word of God, rightly handle and apply that word, and come to the one, true, biblical conclusion. But, when we do not come to that conclusion, out of a commitment to the word, there will be divisions. We will divide along the line of Scripture, and this is not wrong. It is sad that it must happen, but it indeed must happen.
Christians, are you willing to be bold enough to follow the word of God, even when that causes you to stand apart, even from those you love? Please do not see that question as affirming divisiveness, as God condemns sinfully causing frivolous divisions. But, if fellow believers begin to affirm what Scripture condemns, are you willing to set yourself apart after genuinely trying to help your brothers and sisters return to the word? When fellow believers begin to condemn what Scripture affirms, are you willing to try to persuade others otherwise and then stand apart from them if they will not repent?
These thoughts are heavy, and they must be approached with humility. We need to be gentle, gracious, and very slow to divide. Yet, we must see in the word of God that, though divisions are sad, they are at times unavoidable. Let us be committed to God through his word. Let us stand on Scripture rightly interpreted. Let us trust that God will help others to understand and follow his word as he works sanctification in their lives. Let us be ready to be shown by others that our own interpretations and handling of Scripture needs to improve. But, when we cannot be convinced by the word of God that our position is not that of the Lord himself, let us stand with the Lord, even if that puts us at odds with others we genuinely know to be believers
How do we do this? What might it look like to divide from others from whom we find ourselves disagreeing? That requires wisdom, as different levels of wrong make different levels of division necessary. It may be that we still fellowship in the same church, but we know that we are not agreed (consider differences such as drinking alcohol in moderation versus total abstinence from alcohol or differences between expectations of a pre or post-tribulation rapture as examples of such a category here). It may mean that we affirm that others are believers, genuine and godly believers, but we cannot fellowship in the same church; and we or the others must remove ourselves from the local body based on a significant doctrinal issue (consider a disagreement on an issue such as infant baptism to be this level of issue). At times, we may have to stand apart from others who, when we see their doctrinal stance, we can no longer affirm that they can be in Christ with such views (consider those who deny the physical resurrection of Jesus in this category). And, as I said, this all requires great wisdom to know what issues fit into what categories.
Divisions exist. We wish they did not need to. But, sometimes, dividing is the only way to show who is indeed following the word of God. This is a sad but true reality of a church that lives in a fallen world. And, it is a reality that will pass away with the return of Christ and a perfected knowledge of the Holy One and his ways. Let us long for that return of our Lord and let us live with a gracious firmness when it comes to the word of God in the present.