Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Unity Standard

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul 
seems to blatantly contradict himself. Near the
opening of the letter, he writes, "Now I am entreating you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all may be saying the same thing, and there may be no schisms among you, but you may be attuned to the same mind and to the same opinion." Here, Paul entreats fellow believers to be unified - especially with regards to what they say and think. Yet, ten chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 11:19, Paul writes, "For it must be that there are sects also among you, that those also who are qualified may be becoming apparent among you."

At first glance, it seems that Paul is providing opposing instructions. He first instructs believers to be unified to the extent that "there may be no schisms" among them, but then reminds them that "it must be that there are sects" among them to prove who is and isn't qualified. Knowing that Paul did not contradict himself, how can we possibly make sense of what he writes?

To begin, we must realize that Paul was presenting an ideal goal to his brethren. Following his guidance for unity, Paul cites the reason for his instruction. He writes, "For it was made evident to me concerning you, my brethren... that there are strifes among you. Now I am saying this, that each of you is saying, 'I, indeed, am of Paul,' yet 'I of Apollos,' yet 'I of Cephas,' yet 'I of Christ.' Christ is parted!"

The problem in Corinth that led to Paul's call for unity was the lack of recognition of whom they were "of." As members of Christ's body, their lack of firm identity caused the Body to break down to the point where Christ was parted. As a result, Paul called them to unity so that the Body would be whole.

Later, when Paul stated the seemingly contradictory truth that sects are necessary, he did not downplay the importance of striving for unity. Interestingly enough, the necessary sects Paul describes actually promote unity. By making apparent who is and is not qualified, each member is encouraged to function with his or her God-given strengths so that the Body functions just as it should. This "weeding out" process went so far as to even "give up" certain ones to Satan "for the extermination of the flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5). In giving up these members who harmed the Body, the Body became more unified.

If we are to imitate Paul as he instructs, we must recognize what it means to continually strive for unity. As unity is naturally achieved when all members are in agreement, we would do well to focus on how to deal with one another when we disagree. We must have a clear understanding of which sins are worthy of giving another up, if necessary, and which ones require a less severe approach. Far too often, we place any and every sin in the "worthy of giving another up" category. As a result, our judgments lead to Christ being parted rather than unified, just as with the Corinthians. We forget that faith is given to each in measure (Rom. 12:3).

Fortunately, Paul gives us some clear guidance for knowing which standard to use when confronting and, in rare cases, giving up others. The majority of this guidance appears in Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus - two leaders in the Body. To Timothy, Paul said, "Herald the word. Stand by it, opportunely, inopportunely, expose, rebuke, entreat, with all patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). To Titus, Paul said that a "supervisor" must be "unimpeachable" so that "he may be able to entreat with sound teaching as well as to expose those who contradict" (Titus 1:6-9).

What does Paul mean, though, by "those who contradict?" Following verse 9 in Titus, he gives the answer to this question: "For many are insubordinate, vain praters and imposters, especially those of the Circumcision, who must be gagged, who are subverting whole households, teaching what they must not, on behalf of sordid gain" (Titus 1:10-11). In verse 13, he reiterates this by charging Titus to "be exposing them severely, that they may be sound in the faith, not heeding Jewish myths and precepts of men who are turning from the truth."

Clearly, the biggest culprit in Paul's mind was anyone who taught a message contrary to his evangel of grace - and, in particular, a Jewish, works-based evangel. This is further proven in Paul's words to the Galatians: "If anyone is bringing you an evangel beside that which you accepted, let him be anathema" (Gal. 1:9)! What false evangel did the Galatians accept? A works-based evangel from members of the Circumcision! For trusting this false message, Paul called the Galatians "foolish" and "bewitched" (Gal. 3:1)!

Today, most members of the Body consider all sins to be egregious. Indeed, many members have not studied the Scriptures thoroughly enough to develop a concrete understanding of what even constitutes "sin;" thus, they are not qualified to rebuke another brother, let alone give him up.

When we consider the words of Paul, our apostle, without personal bias or presuppositions, we discover that 1) we should strive for unity to the greatest extent possible, 2) we should recognize that sects are necessary for that unity to occur, 3) we must study the Word thoroughly to know, without a doubt, which sins are worthy of rebuke and possibly giving one up to Satan, and 4) the most detrimental problem is a member teaching a works-based evangel.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill