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, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. -1 Corinthians 11:18-19
The church takes a lot of heat and often gains a rather poor reputation for her internal strife. After all, shouldn’t followers of Jesus be the most loving, kind, loyal, friendly, or, most of all, nice people in the world? It sure seems like it. Even the unbelieving world holds us to a higher standard of morality and loving our neighbor than they do themselves, and why shouldn’t they? Christians, after all, are the ones who have actively entered into the battle against sin and have adopted “love your neighbor as yourself” as being in the same vein as “love the Lord your God.”
But Christians fight. With other Christians, no less. And they can fight bitterly, sadly. There is no local church free from strife, and we know it, and the world knows it, and they laugh about it. And while strife isn’t something we should seek, and we have indeed been called to walk together in the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace, there is one other way to interpret conflict and division that does not see it as something to be avoided at all costs, but rather understands that conflict is part of the necessary growth of a church.
Yes, I said it. Conflict is part of the necessary growth of a church. I didn’t find it in Purpose Driven Church, but it’s true nonetheless. Not all conflict, you understand, and I’m not advocating hiring an associate Pastor of Conflict Initiation as part of a long-term growth strategy. But one of the verses to which my pastoral heart runs in moments of division is 1 Corinthians 11:18-19, because it shows the positive side of conflict. My Dad calls this “the Messy Must,” and I think that’s probably the best way to describe it.
“There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Division is necessary, Corinthians. And the division serves a purpose. Conflict in the church, it seems to me, is usually understood as two equally guilty parties unable to overcome those ethereal and undefinable “irreconcilable differences.” After all, it takes two to tango, and God forbid Christians tango, therefore, conflict ought never happen. One of my dear friends recently explained a conflict within his church to the elders of a more “progressive” church, and no matter how he framed it in terms of sin, confrontation, and rebellion, the only thing these other elders could hear was “you just can’t get along, right?” Church conflict in our time is something both parties have gone halvsies on, there is no category for useful, proper, beneficial, necessary conflict.
But some conflict is necessary, and it’s necessary for the health and the growth of the church. The stormy seas of conflict and division reveal something the mirror-flat waters of placid unity do not – who is actually “genuine”? Conflict reveals those who are genuine, and those who are the opposite of genuine, which I take to be false believers, hypocrites, or to use a good Puritan term, mere professors. But why does it take conflict? Wouldn’t a spiritual gift evaluation do the trick? Or just ask the evangelist whose hand he saw, that should be sufficient for determining the “genuine”!
Paul must be telling us that the way a person conflicts with or divides with another person reveals something in a very compelling way that other circumstances won’t. The genuine must conduct themselves in conflict in such a way that his/her genuineness is “recognized,” or obvious. And that, I propose, is because the work of the Spirit bears fruits of the Spirit in conflict, and those fruits don’t necessarily look like immediate cessation of hostilities. Likewise, the unregenerate in the trauma of division must demonstrate their lack of the Spirit in such a way that it is, or should be, obvious to all.
Conflict is revealing because conflict tears off masks and exposes hearts. In my years of pastoral ministry, nothing has shown me the condition of a person’s heart (especially my own!) like good old fashioned church league softball. Oh sure, it’s easy to show up to church in a suit and pray publicly and serve the Lord’s Supper, but try hitting in the winning run in the bottom of the 7th only to be called out at first when you know you beat the throw by half a step. If there’s a mask on your soul, it’s gone in that moment, and you’d better be genuine, because everybody is about to know the truth!
Conflict is accompanied by the powerful emotion of anger, and anger can wear no mask. Anger is so powerful that it’s duration is limited – don’t let the sun go down without ceasing to be angry, and I think God tells us that because He knows that while anger is sometimes appropriate, we can’t control anger for any extended period of time without it fermenting into something really ugly. When you see an angry man, you see into the depths of his soul. And that’s true in the negative sense, like Herod getting angry and throwing John in prison, and positive, like Jesus being enraged and overturning tables or Paul dressing down Peter in Galatians 2. And when, in those really difficult moments of church life conflict happens, Paul instructs the church to keep their eyes open during these moments, because it is in these trying times that you will find out who is genuine, and who isn’t.
Corinth was a mess – we know that. And Paul didn’t delight in the divisions and conflicts there, in fact, 1 Corinthians exists in part because he was trying to help put an end to their silly fights. But in the midst of talking about the abuse and misuse of the Lord’s Supper, like pigging out and eating all the food before everyone else shows up, he puts this interpretation on it – these divisions are necessary. Silly as they are, painful as they are, they’re necessary. Corinth, of all places, needed to know who was genuine. Who could they trust? Who could they look to for someone who was, without a doubt, a leader filled with the Spirit, as opposed to the self-serving ones? These divisions served that purpose, and did so in a very powerful and clear way.
There’s no sense in looking for conflict or stirring it up where it doesn’t exist. Living at peace with all so far as we are able is a great command. Pursue peace. But messes happen, and in fact they must happen. They’re messy, but they’re necessary. They’re the “Messy Must,” and they, by the grace and providence of the Father, serve the church well, if we will allow them to do so.