Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
Divisions. Quarrels. Factions. Those words describe unhealthy churches. But sadly, those words describe a great many churches. And, to be honest, those are words that have described this very church. While it may be tempting to dance around it or gracefully skip over discussing this issue, it’s reality. So it’s important that we accept texts like the one we have this morning as God’s word for us at this very time. We need to tackle them head on in order to learn how to become the church God would have us to be.
This morning I want us to look at what the Bible says about divisions. Particularly, I want us to see what divisions do. Here in 1 Corinthians, Paul gives us two answers. Divisions prevent the church from being the church. They can quite literally turn the Lord’s Supper into “not the Lord’s Supper.” But divisions also prove the church. They separate the true from the counterfeit. And so, while divisions, in and of themselves, are bad, God has a purifying purpose for them. As we look at both of these perspectives this morning, I would like for us to see how we can cure divisions by letting them show us who we really are and what we really need. Divisions should drive us back to Christ.
Divisions Prevent the Church from Being the Church
Paul says, “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor. 11:17). And then, “when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (vs. 20). The state of the Corinthians’ division was so bad that it wholly corrupted the Lord’s Supper, turning it into something else entirely, and this caused their gatherings to make them worse not better.
Think about the foundational nature of this criticism. If you come together in the church with division and judgment in your hearts, you actually have the power to counteract and even nullify the Lord’s Supper.
Why is this the case? It’s because, as we said last week, the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be a testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and judgmental divisions are contrary to that message. They contradict it, and thus they make any-such profession an empty and hypocritical one.
This is the sort of thing that James criticizes intensely. In James 2, he says that anyone who shows preference to the rich over the poor will be judged harshly by God. Then, in chapters 3 and 4, James explains where this spirit of division comes from. He says that, “bitter envy and self-seeking” are “earthly, sensual, and demonic” things (James 3:14-15). Then he asks, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (James 4:1). Again, we see that proud, judgmental, divisive behavior reflects the old man, our old sinful nature. It is wholly contrary to the spiritual life we are called to live in Christ.
Quarrels come from our desires, our lusts. This doesn’t only mean erotic desires. The word lust was originally broader than that. It means a craving, a hunger. It means coveting. The “desire” James is talking about is our internal desire for self-fulfillment apart from Christ. This is what he goes on to explain. He says:
You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (vs. 2-3)
The “lust” here is a desire to be filled in some way other than by God. It is a focus on the “self,” which puts the “self” at the center of everything and sees “fulfillment” as merely pleasing the self without considering God’s purposes, God’s revelation, and God’s glory. And so this is a desire that can never be realized. The lusting heart will never be filled. It only grows worse and worse.
This sort of longing can take two forms. It can take the bubbly, large, and outgoing form that is quite obvious. The alpha personality that is dominant in conversation and pursues satisfaction by conquest is one example of this. But this sort of longing can also take a more negative form as well. After all, pride and insecurity are two sides of the same coin. And so some spiritually covetous people are very quit and self-reserved. They don’t dominate people or overtly take things from them. But they are still stuck on themselves. They think about themselves all of the time, about their grievances, who has done them wrong, or even their pain and sorrow. They do not give this to God and ask Him to use it to sanctify them and glorify Himself. No, they hold on to it and grow more and more grieved, more and more bitter. They long for some sort of fulfillment, but it is a longing that can never be filled.
And so proud people and insecure people are both quarrelsome people. They are judgmental, harshly judgmental. And they constantly create division. They do this because desire wars against their members and keeps them in a constant state of hunger, a constant state of unfulfilled longings.
This is why divisions prevent the church from being who it is supposed to be. They are always standing in the way of its calling. You can’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper if you’re really sitting there stewing. You can’t show for the Lord’s death and volunteer yourself for martyrdom for the sake of the gospel and in solidarity with your neighbor if you’re really just thinking about yourself the whole time.
If this is your story, your description, then you must find a new source of fulfillment. You must redirect your thoughts and desires away from yourself, away from both your strengths and your weaknesses, and on to Christ. Confess this sin to God and ask Him to take it from you. And ask Him to fill you up with Himself that you might be full. St. Augustine put it his way, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Or back to James:
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. (James 4:7-10)
Divisions Prove Who Is True
Divisions do something else, though, and this is very important. Divisions prove the true members of Christ and make them manifest to everyone who is watching. Paul says this, “there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). This is an astounding verse. Does it really mean what it sounds like it means?
Divisions are a product of sin, and so wherever sin is, the possibility for division exists. We wish this wasn’t the case, but it is. We have to remember this whenever we preach about unity. Unity is good, and it is a good goal, but perfect and lasting unity is not possible as long as sin continues. This means that we must seek unity by means of truth and righteousness and not at the expense of them.
Viewed from one perspective, then, not all division is bad. After all, who was history’s greatest divider? It was Jesus. Yes! Jesus said that He came to bring division:
I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. (Luke 12:49-51)
Isn’t that incredible? Jesus came not to bring peace but division. He didn’t do this in the sinful way we just mentioned. He didn’t have lusts which created the fighting. No, He spoke the truth. It was his audience which possessed the lusts. But Jesus knew that this was the case, and He knew that there was no way around it. No, He set father against son. Jesus went right through division, right to the cross.
The righteous will bring division whenever they deal with sinners. This is what Paul means when he says that those who are “approved” will be “recognized.” In fact, the word translated “approved” had a very interesting connotation in Paul’s day. The word is dokimoi and it was associated with trustworthy money changers. Donald Barnhouse explains:
In the ancient world there was no banking system as we know it today, and no paper money. All money was made from metal, heated until liquid, poured into moulds and allowed to cool. When the coins were cooled, it was necessary to smooth off the uneven edges. The coins were comparatively soft and of course many people shaved them closely. In one century, more than eighty laws were passed in Athens, to stop the practice of shaving down the coins then in circulation. But some money changers were men of integrity, who would accept no counterfeit money. They were men of honour who put only genuine full weighted money into circulation. Such men were called “dokimos” or “approved.” (Romans, pg. 18)
This means that Paul is using a word that has to do with integrity. Divisions arise in the church to separate those with integrity from those without it. Divisions show those who are trustworthy and genuine, and those who are counterfeit. How do divisions do this? Well, they do this by testing us. They make our true character manifest by the way that we conduct ourselves during the quarrel and by how we emerge from the division. Do we remain in the truth, or do we use the division as an excuse to go after our own desires? Do we emerge from the division with honesty and fairness on our side, or have we discredited ourselves by the way we treated others during the controversy, by selfish and nasty behavior, by unfair and unkind words, and by hostile aggression?
Divisions divide. They separate. And they separate those who are true and trustworthy from those who were putting on airs. This means that while divisions are always to be mourned, they are also to be embraced when they come. Divisions cannot always be avoided, and so it is better to go through a division with truth and faithfulness than to sacrifice both in a vain attempt for false unity. Let us not “heal the hurt slightly, saying ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Divisions prevent the Body of Christ, but they also prove the Body of Christ. We must always remain humble. We must not desire divisions. But we must also remain true. And, sometimes, we must not avoid divisions. This means that while divisions are a mark of an immature and failing church, they can also be the mark of a church seeking to leave immaturity. They can be the mark of a growing church, of an improving church. And if you would like to be a part of that improved church, if you would like to enjoy the blessing of having been purified and approved, then you must conduct yourself the right way while the division is happening. You must not feed your lusts during divisions but instead must keep a holy fear of God before your eyes at all time, and you must maintain a servant’s heart, seeking the good of the larger body before your own.
The Cure For Divisions
So, then, what is the cure for divisions? Well, in some sense the division is the cure. We can’t forget that. That’s what Paul has said, and it is what is going on in Corinth. Even the judgment that befell the Corinthians was a chastisement that spared them from being condemned (see verse 32). There’s a chance, a good one actually, that the Corinthians who died because of their unworthy participation in the Supper were still saved. The chastisement hurt, and it divided them from the rest of the group—it took them out of this world! But Paul does say that it is a chastisement meant to prevent condemnation. It’s a tough medicine. Of course, we wouldn’t want to deny that there could have been outright false professors as well, and for these, the treatment was more like an amputation, and they ended up being the limbs that got amputated. The body was cured by removing the infected parts.
But Paul also gives us a cure by presenting us with the gospel. He takes us back to the original meaning of Jesus’ Supper, and that is that Christ’s body is broken for us. Christ’s blood is the blood of the New Covenant. It is poured out for the remission of sins, and it is given to us, for us. If we truly understand this, and if we truly believe this, then our hearts will be transformed. And when our hearts are transformed, our lives are transformed as well, so much so that we cannot continue to treat our brothers with contempt. If we truly believe the gospel, we cannot be proud. We cannot judge our brothers. We must, instead, sacrifice ourselves, even our rights, and let mercy triumph over judgment.
Quarrelsome people are always prideful people. They always have a very high view of themselves and a rather low view of others, particularly the competency of others. That’s why they are quick to quarrel. Things are always obvious to them. Things are always very simple. They are right, and the other people are wrong. In fact, the other people are outrageously wrong—so wrong that there can be no honest explanation for it. Any flaws in our own self are small things, understandable and excusable. But flaws in other people are really big deals. In fact, I can’t believe someone hasn’t done something about this situation already! Why, I never!
The story of the Cross is the opposite of all of this. The story of the Cross is that our sins were a big deal. In fact, our sins sent Jesus to the Cross. Our ordinary, understandable, explainable sins crucified the Son of God! If we believe this, then we can’t wink at our own sins. We can’t explain them away as no big deal. We ought to mourn and lament them, and if we are mourning and lamenting them, then we ought to be able to mourn and lament the sins of others, and truly so.
Our normal tendency is to be prosecutors against the sins of others and defense attorneys about our own sins. We are very thorough and consistent with other people. We pay lots of attention. But for ourselves, we come up with all sorts of reasons why the charges don’t stick. The case isn’t clear. The other guy is inconsistent. It’s not really a big deal. We ought to reverse this. We ought to be stricter on ourselves than others. We ought to be quick to defend others, quick to decide that the sins of others are not a big deal. We ought to be hard on ourselves, and we ought to presume that the fault is on our side first. We should judge ourselves so that we will not be judged. And we should remember that “the judgment we use to judge others will be the judgment that is used on us” (Matt. 7:2). “Judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
Perhaps we should say that divisions show us who we are, they teach us about ourselves, each of us. They hold up a mirror before our faces, and give us occasion to contemplate the true state of our hearts, our motivations, and whether we are harsh judges or merciful servants. In this way, then, divisions drive us back to the cross. They show us our great sin, how we fall short of the glory of God and commit the very same sins of envy and covetousness that put Jesus to death. And so divisions show us our great need of a Savior, of someone who brings grace that forgives our lusts and warring passions, who brings grace that empowers us to live new lives of holiness and love.
Divisions can be a symptom of our sin, but divisions can also be God’s scalpel. Don’t miss what’s happening—what God is doing—when divisions appear. Instead, let us learn humility and dependence upon God. Let us learn to have our desires and longings fulfilled in Him. And so, let us learn to love others and, in that way, dwell together with them in unity.
Let us pray.