Articles and Essays
How to Have Unity in the Church
by Stephen Felker, Swift Creek Baptist Church, Colonial Heights, VA
Scripture: I Corinthians 1:10-17a
Walking through the jungle, a hunter found a dead ferocious-looking rhinoceros with a
Pygmy standing proudly beside it.
Amazed, the hunter asked, "Did you kill that rhino?"
yes," said the Pygmy.
"How could a little fella like you kill a beast like that?"
"I killed it with my
club," explained the Pygmy.
The astonished hunter exclaimed, "Wow! How big is your club?"
Pygmy replied, "There are about 90 of us." (1)
It's amazing what can be accomplished when a group
of people are unified, working for the same goal.
On the other hand, great harm can come when a group of people, including a church, is
divided. We have all experienced quarreling and division before. Division has always been a
problem, even among God's people, and almost every New Testament epistle deals with this topic,
or mentions it in one way or another. Even the 12 Apostles did not always get along with each
other. The problem is common because it is a common problem in all of life. As little children we
would cry, fight, and throw tantrums when we did not get our way. As we grow up, we become
more sophisticated in our quarreling, but the problem is still there. Friends fight, husbands and
wives fight, nations fight. It just seems that quarreling and fighting is a part of life.
The Corinthian church clearly had a serious problem with strife and division. Paul says in
v.11 "that there are contentions among you." The word translated "contentions" (eris) refers to
"strife, wordy wrangling, or quarreling." This word is translated "debate" in Romans 1:29. It is
translated the same way in 2 Cor. 12:20, in the same context as "backbitings and whisperings."
Problems may begin with disagreements, but they are made worse by the wordy quarreling and
arguments that we engage in.
The question is, How can we overcome the problem of strife and divisiveness, and achieve
and maintain unity?
First, the problem should not be ignored in hopes that it will go away on its
own. It needs to be dealt with, or it will spread and get worse. As we see in v.11, "those of Chloe's
household" did not ignore the problem, but reported it to Paul so that it might be dealt with. (2)
Secondly, problem should be dealt with directly, honestly, and carefully through the Word of God.
The Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire Paul to deal with this subject, so that we can find the answers
from this text of Scripture.
Before I share with you the solutions to the problem, I want to share first of all:
I. THE SERIOUSNESS OF THIS PROBLEM OF STRIFE
In any group of people, we cannot avoid disagreement. It's been said that when you have 3
Baptists, you have at least 3 opinions! So I'm not talking today about the times when you realize
you have a disagreement, and you calmly go through a process of seeking God's will, and working
through that disagreement with a common goal of reaching a decision. I'm talking about engaging
is strife, word battles, choosing sides, and engaging in political strategy to see to it that your wishes
prevail in the church. Why should we avoid strife and word battles in the church, and in our other
relationships? I want you to understand the seriousness of this problem so that you will be
motivated to avoid it, and seek to implement the solution that I will share later in the message.
A. Strife Can Divide and Split the Church
In v.10 Paul made an appeal "that there be no
divisions among you…." The word for "divisions" is schisma; lit. a tear; fig. a division, dissension,
split [illustrating by tearing something]. Whenever we engage in strife and debate to achieve a
selfish goal, we run the risk of creating a division or fracturing of the church. The subjunctive
implies that the problem had not reached the point of a split in the fellowship, but if they did not
heed his appeal, it could develop into a complete split in the church.
In v.12 Paul gives an example of how the church had become divided. "Now I say this, that
each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.'"
Paul founded the church. Many were saved under Paul's ministry as founder of the church. Some
liked his intellectualism. Apollos followed Paul (Acts 18:24-28) and had an effective ministry. He
was an eloquent preacher. They loved the way he could preach the stars down. We do not know if
Peter had any direct ministry there. People probably expressed allegiance to him because he was
the leader of the apostles. Or perhaps some Jews had moved to Corinth who were loyal to Peter.
Some Gentiles may have liked the way Peter was bold and tough; they liked the way he pounded
the pulpit when he preached! The last group thought they were the most spiritual. They saw what
was happening, and they claimed Christ as the head of their party, or faction. I'm sure they were
very proud of their head. In Gal. 5:20 we read of heresies (hairesis) as a work of the sin nature,
which refers to taking sides in a fight or dispute and forming a separate party or clique. And there
was certainly a party spirit developing in Corinth around personalities. They formed cliques around
certain men. Instead of a two party system, they had a "four party system!" It is natural to have
special affection for the person who led us to Christ, or for a pastor who has fed us the Word of
God for years. But when you somehow feel superior to other believers because of your attachment
to a leader, that is a work of the flesh. Spiritual pride is not of God.
Some people are like the man who decided he was the only one who was right and kept
looking for the true church. He moved from church to church and just couldn't find a church that
suited him. Finally, he started a church himself and called it "The True Church." One afternoon,
someone asked him, "Well, how many members do you have in your true church?" He replied,
"There are just two of us, my wife and I, and sometimes I'm not so sure about her."
So strife can lead to division and splinter groups. There is another reason why strife is a serious problem:
B. Strife and Division Can Hurt God's People
Again, I refer to the word "divisions." The word literally refers to a tear. Now you cannot tear and divide groups of people without people getting hurt.
Alaskan horses and donkeys encounter the hostility of a pack of wild hyenas in similar
ways. When attacked, the horses form a circle with their heads to the inside, feet to the outside, and
kick their enemies away. The donkeys form a circle too, with their heads to the outside, feet to the
inside, and they kick themselves to death.3 Too often, people get hurt when we engage in strife.
Things are said that shouldn't be said. People need to pick sides, and the fellowship is broken. This
is a serious problem.
C. Strife and Division Can Destroy Our Witness
In John 17:21 Jesus prayed, "that they all
may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world
may believe that You sent Me." Jesus tied church unity to the effectiveness of the church's witness
to Christ. But when the world sees fighting and disunity among believers, it is turned off and
confirmed in unbelief. Division robs the world of a clear, positive witness of the saving power of
Jesus Christ. What a high price to pay for selfishness. I have tried to talk with unsaved people who
attended church when a church fight developed. They walked out of that church and they have
never been back to church. Just try to get such a person back in church or to trust in the Lord for
salvation. It is almost impossible.
In contrast, one of the greatest harvests of souls in the history of the church was on the day
of Pentecost. But one thing that stands out in Acts chapter 2 is the unity of believers, both before
and after the time when 3,000 were saved.
Furthermore, churches that fight will seldom fish for souls. To settle great theological
differences like whether to meet at 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. is like a dog killing a skunk; the fight isn't
worth the price you pay. (4)
So I hope you understand the seriousness consequences of engaging in strife, arguments,
and politicking to get your way. This is a common problem, even in churches. So:
II. WHAT IS THE SOLUTION TO THIS PROBLEM OF STRIFE AND DIVISION?
I want to give you 6 ways to avoid strife and division. Most of these ways apply to any
group of people, including your family.
A. Make Sure You're Saved and Growing Spiritually
Paul said in 1 Cor. 3:3, "For where
there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?"
He is saying that strife and divisions are manifestations of being mere men, in other words, of
people who have never been born again. The source of all fighting is man's depraved, egotistic,
selfish nature. In his letter, James asked, "What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?"
(James 4:1). In essence he answered his question by saying that the source is our selfish desires.
Since the problem of divisiveness and strife is rooted in the sinful nature of man, then we must take
steps to overcome that problem. When problems of contention and strife crop up among the people
of God, they either come from church members who have never been saved, or they come from
immature Christians who have not gained victory over the sin nature.
Notice what Paul says in v.9 right before his appeal for unity he wrote, "God is faithful, by
whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." If we have
fellowship with Christ, we can have fellowship with one another. Because they were one in
fellowship with their Lord, they should be one in fellowship with each other. The source of unity is
the Lord Himself. If we all love Jesus, we ought to be able to get along with one another. As we
allow Christ to fill and control our lives, there will be unity. But when we allow the old sin nature
to control our lives, and when we have a selfish agenda, there will be conflict and division. Our job
is not to create unity but to maintain the unity God has already created and made possible (Eph.
4:3-6). Then, once you are saved, you need to grow spiritually. The only cure for quarreling and
division is renewed spirituality. True spirituality produces humility and unity; carnality produces
pride and division.
So you need to make sure you have died to sin and self, trusted in Jesus as your Savior, and
are growing in Christlikeness.
B. Focus on Christ, not Men
Again, in v.12 Paul stated the problem, "Now I say this, that
each of you says, 'I am of Paul,' or 'I am of Apollos,' or 'I am of Cephas,' or 'I am of Christ.'"
What were the Corinthians focusing on? They were elevating men instead of Christ. Instead of
emphasizing the message of the Word, the Corinthians emphasized the messenger. They got their
eyes off the Lord and on the Lord's servants, and this led to competition.
Notice his response in v.13, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you
baptized in the name of Paul?" Paul wanted no part in the faction named for him. He did not die for
their sins. He was not their Savior. Don't trust in men to keep you close to God. Instead, the focus
should be upon Christ our Savior. Only Christ can save you. Only Christ can sanctify you. So in
order for the church to be unified, it must understand the centrality of Christ. Only Jesus Christ
should have the place of preeminence (Col. 1:18). No human leader, no matter how gifted and
effective, should have the loyalty that belongs only to the Lord (cf. 4:6). Men come and go. Men
may let you down. Only Christ has promised, "Lo, I am with you all the days, even to the end of
Dr. Jerry Vines is a well known preacher among Southern Baptist. When I was 16 years old,
I started going to the church where he was the pastor in Rome, GA. Under his leadership hundreds
of people were saved, and hundreds of believers were added to the church. God moved through his
ministry in a marvelous way. The church loved him, and some in the church were perhaps overly
devoted to him. But after 6 years of ministry, he left us to pastor a much larger church in Mobile,
AL. Listen, pastors come and go. S.S. teachers come and go. Music leaders come and go. You
better make sure you are primarily in love with Jesus. My job as a pastor is to get you in love with
Christ, to get you in fellowship with Christ. I am expendable. Christ is indispensable.
The "personality cults" in the church today are in direct disobedience to the Word of God.
You need to make sure you are not too attached to any human leader.
C. Make Unity a Priority
Paul makes an earnest and passionate appeal here. He says in
v.10, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the
same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in
the same mind and in the same judgment." And notice that in v.10 Paul appeals to the church to
reject division, and strive for unity "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words, Paul is
not just making this appeal himself. Jesus Christ is making this appeal through Paul. In John 17:11
Jesus said, "Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may
be one as We are." He makes 3 more appeals for unity in vv. 21-23 of that chapter. (5) And note the
theological basis for the appeal for unity. God is One. Paul says is v.13 that Christ is not divided.
Therefore, we should be one.
Unity must ever be a primary goal in our church and in our relationship.
D. Repair Division When It Comes
You will not find the perfect church. And as long as
churches are made up of imperfect people, there will be problems with strife and division, at least
occasionally. So in v.10 Paul appealed to the Corinthians "that you be perfectly joined together…."
The Greek word translated "perfectly joined together" (katartidzo) is the opposite of the word
translated "division." The Greek word means to restore that which has been broken or torn. For
example, the word was used of mending a torn net or setting a broken bone. It means to restore
oneness or wholeness to something. Thus, when a tear or break in the fellowship takes place, we
should seek to mend any differences that arise. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to heal and mend
the divisions when they develop. The starting place is forgiveness. We must always be ready to
forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must also be ready to apologize and turn from any
Every great now and then Cheryl and I have had our differences. And I have made some
mistakes along the way that have hurt her. But the secret of staying married for 26 years is the fact
that we mend our differences, forgive one another, and restore the fellowship. And how sweet it is
when you make up!
I'm sure some in my audience need to start the process today of healing a tear in your
fellowship with a family member, or with another believer.
E. Be United in Speech
He says in v.10, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing…." As we see from v.12, they were
certainly not united in speech. Since conflicting speech was much of the problem, Paul appealed to them that they unite their speech.
Now what areas of speech should we be united in? We should certainly be unified in
doctrine. Nothing is more confusing than to hear supposedly mature and informed Christians tell
conflicting things about the gospel. For a local church to be spiritually healthy, harmonious, and
effective, there must, above all, be doctrinal unity. We ought to speak the same message of
salvation. We ought to be in agreement on the great doctrines of the Word of God. Martyn Lloyd-
Jones observed, "It is being said that the chief need of the Church today is to repent because of its
'lack of unity' . . . We would suggest that before she repents of her disunity, she must repent of her
apostasy." In fact, Martin Luther once warned: "It is better to be divided by truth than to be united
How is this possible? First, it comes by submitting our ideas to the Word of God. For
example, there were differences of opinion in Corinth about some theological issues, and Paul
wrote this letter to settle the issues. Many of the theological divisions among Christians would be
eliminated if we all knew our Bibles better and simply believed it.
Secondly, we should follow the
same teachers. Our main teacher should be the Holy Spirit (I Jn. 2:27). But God has also called &
equipped human teachers for His church. There should be consistency among the teachers of the
Church. God has called me to be the main teacher in this church (Eph. 4:11), and all of our teachers
should be in general agreement with what the pastor of a church is teaching. If you know that you
have a different interpretation, come and share it with me before you share it with you class. If I am
wrong, I will change. I've changed my mind a few times before. If you are wrong, then you need to
change. But we surely do not need several strong teachers in a church with conflicting
interpretations, especially on major doctrines of the Bible.
As far as God's truth is concerned, there
cannot be two conflicting views that are both right. Obviously, we cannot know dogmatically what
is not fully or clearly revealed to us (Dt. 29:29). In fact, we are to avoid speculative doctrines and
disputes about mere matters of opinion (Rom. 14:1; I Tim. 1:4, etc.). If I can't preach something
with a high degree of certainty, I usually just don't preach it. And that is a good practice to follow.
Another problem that is related to this is when teachers outside the local church gain a high degree
of influence over certain members inside the local church. There is some good teaching on radio,
TV, & in the book store that is consistent with the teaching of your pastor & church. But there is
also a lot of teaching that is not consistent with the teaching of your pastor & church. Disunity
often results when outside teachers gain too much influence over Christians within the church.
So with the same Bible, and the same Holy Spirit as our teacher, doctrinal unity is possible.
F. Be United in Mind and Purpose
Paul goes on to say in v.10, "…that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."
"Judgment" is from gnome, purpose, mind; opinion, judgment. We are called upon to pursue unity, not only in doctrine, but also in other
areas of church life. Paul said we are to have the same judgment. There should be agreement in the
decision making process. Unless there is a dereliction of duty by the leaders, the church should
accept, and whole heartedly follow, the leadership of the church (Heb. 13:17).
God's people are to follow, not quibble with and question, godly leaders who are one in mind as to God's Word and
will. One of the primary ways the congregation is to influence the decisions of a church is to elect
godly leaders that you can trust and follow. But men who are not close to the Lord and well-taught
in His Word cannot possibly recognize or agree on sound doctrine or make sound decisions. Only
Scripture-taught, Spirit-led men are able to guide a church into the unity of truth and protect it from
The Greek word translated "judgment" can also mean "purpose." There should be unity of
purpose. We should agree on the basic purposes of a church, and together pursue the fulfillment of
those purposes. During our 40 Days of Purpose Campaign, we talked about the primary purposes of
the church. They are worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and evangelism. We need to be
unified on these purposes, and stay focused on these purposes.
Right here in v.17 Paul gives an example of the proper focus on one of the main purposes of
the church. He said, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…." In the
context Paul expresses gratitude that he did not baptize but just a few of the early converts at
Corinth. To administer baptism was not his main work. Baptism is important, but salvation is more
important. You should be baptized if you claim to be a Christian. But preaching the gospel and
believing the gospel is more important.
So Paul is saying here, "Be sure you are united on the same
purpose: winning people to faith in Jesus Christ." If we stay with the main job of the church, we
will maintain unity. If we would busy ourselves with the task of reaching people for Christ we
would not have time to divide over other issues. You show me a church that is winning people to
faith in Christ, and I will show you a church that is unified, because it is unified around that all
important purpose. But too many churches have forgotten their reason for existing, and when they
get involved in secondary issues, problems begin.
One church that I know of that has a tremendous spirit of unity is the FBC of Jacksonville,
FL. One factor in their unity is their focus upon evangelism as their primary purpose. They have
dozens of people going out every week, sharing the Gospel. They have a number of people walking
the isle every Sunday, professing their faith in Christ. The people are united in their purpose.
This leads to the last strategy given in our text:
Don't you want to have a marriage or family that experiences a whole lot more
harmony and unity than strife and division? Don't you want your church to be unified, and have a
loving fellowship? This aspiration is indeed possible!
How? Well remember that the first step to unity and harmony is to trust Christ as your
Savior. If you are already a Christian, you need to make sure you are walking with the Lord, and
growing in love and Christlikeness. Do you need to make a renewed commitment to read your
Bible, pray, and serve the Lord faithfully? Are you committed to making unity a priority? Are you
willing to repair any tear in your fellowship with other believers? Will you initiate forgiveness?
Will you watch your tongue, and make sure you are saying what you should be saying to promote
unity and harmony? Finally, are you committed to the 5 purposes of our church? Let's all be going
in the same direction, and avoid splitting into different directions.
Remember Christian, God has saved you and placed you into the Body of Christ. He has
made us one, as He is One. Unity and fellowship is now possible. So let us claim what God has
made possible, and be obedient to God's call for unity.
1 Reader's Digest, page 114, 4/04 [Illus.#C-883].
2 Chloe was probably a well-to-do lady with ties to the church in Corinth.
4 Wayne Nix. Pulpit Helps, 5/04 [Illus.#C-917]
3 Ramesh Richard, Preparing Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 125 [Illus.#C-1104].
5 "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us , that the world
may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We
are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have
sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me."
Oliver B. Greene, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Greenville: The Gospel Hour, Inc., 1965);
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937);
John F. MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984);
J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible, Vol. 5 (Pasadena: Thru The Bible Radio, 1983);
Paige Patterson, The Troubled Triumphant Church: an Exposition of First Corinthians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983);
Larry Pierce, Online Bible [CD-ROM] (Ontario: Timnathserah Inc., 1996);
Jerry Vines, God Speaks Today: A Study of I Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979);
Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Wise: I Corinthians (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983).
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).
The Causes and Cure of Conflict
Depraved humanity will pay good money to watch a fight, but few of us want to be in a
fight. We do not want the stress of conflict, but the blessing of peace. You may be experiencing
conflict right now in your life. How can we overcome the problem of conflict in our homes, our
churches, and in other groups of people? Well the apostle James gives some insight in our text of
Scripture today. ...
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