1 Corinthians 1:10-13 (ESV)
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.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
As Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians, he quickly calls for unity in the Corinthian church. It appears that the church has become factional around the favorite teacher of the different groups. But Paul wants the church to stop such division, understanding that Christ is not divided.
The reason that this struck me this morning is that it is the other side of the coin from the last quiet time reading I did. Last time, I considered Paul’s command for the Romans to watch out for promoters of false doctrine and to avoid them. There, Paul was clearly calling for a division in the body when dangerous doctrine was involved. But here, Paul calls for the people to pray for unity in the body and to avoid dividing over little things that are not important.
In the modern church, one might see the same sort of factionalism. With the popularity of authors, bloggers, and Internet preachers, it is no surprise to see groups drawing lines in the church—I follow Sproul, I follow Piper, I follow Mohler, I follow MacArthur, or I don’t like one of the above.
So, we see, especially in comparing this to Romans 16:17-18, That there are valid and invalid reasons for division in the church. When the issue is doctrine of an appropriately high level, division is necessary and right. When the issue is personality or when the doctrine is not of significant importance, division is inappropriate.
Again, I go back to the fact that we need real wisdom. Where is the line? I would guess that, depending on your personality, the line is either lower or higher than you realize. If you are the kind of person who wants to separate from every believer who does not see every doctrine as you do, you probably need to calm down, to exercise grace, and to have mercy. If, however, you are someone who only wants unity, I would guess that there are issues over which you should be separating from others, but which you are not for the sake of a unity that does not honor Christ.
I still find Albert Mohler’s three levels of theological triage to be helpful in this discussion. There are first level issues which are doctrines that, if you do not believe them, you are not saved. There are second level issues which may prevent us from being a part of the same local church, but which would not make us believe that one another is lost. Then there are third level issues which are issues on which believers in a local body can disagree and still be in happy fellowship.
An example of a first level issue would be the resurrection of Jesus. If a person denies that Jesus rose from the grave, literally, physically, bodily, and eternally, they are not saved. Paul makes that abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 15. To deny the resurrection is to deny the entire Christian faith. If someone denies this issue, you cannot call them a brother or sister in Christ.
A second-level issue could be the issue of baptism. For many, it is impossible to be a member of a local church body where the practice and teaching of baptism differs from your view. Thus, a Baptist is unlikely to join a Presbyterian church, even though faithful Baptists and faithful Presbyterians can respect each other greatly. We will often worship together and learn from each other at conferences and other such events, but our practice of the ordinance of baptism prevents us from being in the same local body. And, this makes sense, as Baptism is a big issue in the life of the local church, having much to do with who is or is not considered to be a believer or who is allowed to be a member of the congregation.
A third level issue might be the age of the earth. One person in a local body might believe that the earth is less than ten thousand years old while another believes modern scientists who argue that the earth is billions of years old. Both may believe in creation and oppose any type of macro evolution. If these believers are kind to each other, they could be members of the same local body. This is not to say that the age of the earth debate is unimportant—I think it to be significant—but it may not be a doctrine that should separate us in the local body.
The hard part, of course, the part that requires wisdom, is determining what level a doctrine is on. Some are easy. Some are harder. Examining your personality here is important. Are you the kind of person who makes everything a second or even first level doctrine? If so, you probably are too harsh. Do you think everything is a third level issue? Then you probably are not doctrinally serious enough.