Paul’s Advice: When to Unify and When to Separate

by Tom Terry

If there is one topic or theme that prevails throughout the book of I Corinthians it is unity. I Corinthians deals with many significant and difficult issues including leadership, wisdom, spiritual growth, marriage and divorce, spiritual gifts, love, and the resurrection of the body. But one of the themes that runs through the book is unity. The Apostle Paul, the author of I Corinthians, regarded the unity of the church so important that he dealt with the subject right at the beginning of his letter, and then nearly every other topic he addressed had something to do with, or became an example of, or life lesson about the unity of the church. Paul wanted to unify the Corinthians believers around Christ and certain core principles of the faith.

As Christians, what unifies us? Are there times when it is permissible for Christians to be divided? Must Christians always be in agreement about everything? Why did the Apostle Paul regard unity as so important?

Corinth was an important trade city in ancient Greece. It was situated on the Isthmus of Corinth between the Iconian and Aegean Sea. Corinth was a vital center of commercial trade, with a population of more than half a million people by the time the Apostle Paul established a church there in 51 A.D. Other than its value as a commercial hub, Corinth was known for its idol worship, slavery, and most importantly, its rampant immorality. The Corinthians were idol worshipers and their regular religious practices often included an ample supply of male and female prostitutes who worked in the religious temples and on the streets. It was not uncommon for a religious temple to have more than a thousand prostitutes in its employ. Virtually every kind of immorality was openly available in Corinthian society. It was in this dark culture that the Apostle Paul planted a church of new believers. And like any young inexperienced church, the Corinthians often brought the sins of their culture with them into their service of the Lord. In fact, there were many cultural and false religious practices within the Corinthian community that, for the Corinthians, were similar to their practices within the church, and so, they easily syncretized their pagan and sinful cultural practices into their expressions of Christianity.

It was because of these difficulties in the church that the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians designed to help correct the cultural and spiritual problems that threatened the life of the church he planted.

When the Corinthians came to faith in Jesus Christ, part of their new identity as Christians—as is also true for Christians today—was to separate themselves from the sinful and destructive practices of their culture. One of the ways Paul addressed this was to emphasize their singular identity as Christians—their unity in the faith. When Paul wrote his letter the Corinthian church was divided over personalities such as those who taught them the word of God. “I have been informed, concerning you…that there are quarrels among you. Each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas.’ Has Christ been divided?” – (I Corinthians 1:11-13).

The Corinthian’s unity as a church body was damaged because of their divisions over the well-known leaders of their day. Paul wanted to counter this tendency to focus on earthly leaders and re-orient the Corinthians toward the person of Jesus and the principles he taught them. “I exhort you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment…For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” – I Corinthians 1:10, 18).

The Christian church must be unified around its head, Jesus Christ. God’s wisdom, Paul taught, was necessary for the church to be unified. “The ??fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” – (Proverbs 9:10).

God’s wisdom is not like the wisdom of the world system. The wisdom of the world is grounded in the self. Whatever makes one happy, or wealthy, or healthy—these are the things the world is after. In one sense, there is nothing wrong with happiness or wealth or health. However, our chief aim in life should not be these things, rather, our relationship with God through Jesus Christ should be paramount in our lives. It is, after all, possible to be happy without wealth or even health. And it is possible to be wealthy or healthy but have no happiness. In Christ these things are balanced. But to be sure, it is Christ himself that must be the Christian’s first priority.

So what exactly is the wisdom of God? Paul provides some insight. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace” – (James 3:17-18).

Wisdom, godly wisdom, is necessary for the church of Jesus Christ to be unified. The standard practices of the world like exalting personalities, pursuing selfish desires, and personal ambitions do not establish unity among Christians—in fact, worldly pursuits can often divide the church rather than unify it. Christian unity is first established upon the person of Jesus Christ. “No man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” – (I Corinthians 3:11).

While all Christians can and should be unified around who Christ is, it is not enough to be unified solely based upon that knowledge. Additionally, unity must also established through godly attitutudes and behaviors. “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” – (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Divisions over personalities, as Paul was addressing, demonstrated worldly or human wisdom instead of godly wisdom. Paul made it clear in his writings that who brought them to Christ was far less important than the fact that it was Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, that actually worked salvation in the Corinthian’s lives. Therefore, the Corinthian’s divisions over non-essential issues demonstrated spiritual immaturity. “I, brothers, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ…For when one says ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?” – (I Corinthians 3:1,4)

While it is generally true that wisdom brings unity and unity is critical for the church to function properly, there are times when believers divide themselves for good reason, even times when it is necessary to temporarily withdraw or separate oneself from another believer. We might say it this way: There is a difference between dividing over people and dividing over principles.

There is one example provided in I Corinthians by Paul when it is acceptable to divide with a fellow believer. In I Corinthians 5 Paul mentions a Christian in the church who is guilty of gross immorality. Because that person was not repentant about his behavior, Paul ordered that person to be put out of the church until repentance took place. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and not mourned instead, so that the one who has done this deed would be removed from your midst…I wrote to you not to associate with any so called brother if he is an immoral person…remove the wicked man from among yourselves” – (I Corinthians 5:1-2,11,13).

It should be noted that this was not a permanent separation. Paul’s goal in ordering this separation was to push the offending brother away from his sin so that he could later be restored to the fellowship and supported by the very people who urged him out. There are other examples when Paul urged a separation because of sin: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” – (TItus 3:10).

“Keep away from every brother that leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us…If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” – (II Thessalonians 3:6,14-15).

The point here is that if there is anything that Christians can divide over it is the issue of sin. If there is a Christian who is living in sin and refuses to repent even after being appropriately confronted, then godly Christians must separate from that person in order to do two things: Protect the moral integrity of the church, and help push the sinning brother away from his sin through carefully exercised church discipline. Even in these cases where separation is necessary, the ultimate goal of such discipline is not permanent separation, rather, it is eventual restoration and support for the offending believer.

Jesus taught that when a brother is in sin and refuses to repent that he must be treated as a tax-gather or Gentile. In other words, while the church must separate itself from such people who claim to be Christians yet openly live in sin, that person must be treated as an unbeliever. What are Christians supposed to do to unbelievers? Love and evangelize them!

Paul’s admonishment of the Corinthian church to treat an incestuous brother this way did exactly as it was intended. The pressure and embarrassment of being separated from the church body drove this man to repentance and restoration. In a second letter to the Corinthian church Paul rejoiced over the outcome of their actions. “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him” – (II Corinthians 2:6-8).

There is a second issue in which is may be permissible to divide: that of doctrine.

Doctrine is teaching that instructs us in what we are to believe and how we are to apply what we believe to live our lives. Sadly, there are many kinds of teaching that even though they may be well-intentioned, are destructive to the Christian church. But what kind of doctrine is permissible to separate over? And how does a church discern when it is permissible to separate from a brother?
Some doctrines are not so critical that they must divide believers one against another. For instance, some Christians believe that the rapture of the church will happen at the beginning of the tribulation period. Some Christians believe it will happen at the end of the tribulation. This is not a critical area of doctrine to divide over. The core teachings of Christianity still exist for both groups. Believers can be flexible with one another on such issues and should preserve their unity even if they have disagreements over such interpretations that are less significant than others.

One example of division in modern-day Christianity is the issue of prosperity theology. Prosperity theology is a teaching that Christians must always be wealthy and healthy. It teaches that Christians are entitled to these things. It teaches that Christians who are not wealthy or healthy are living outside of God’s plan for their lives. They teach that suffering and sacrifice are not for Christians. Often, teachers of this theology earn large amounts of money from their ministries, and live luxuriant lifestyles while many of their followers struggle financially.

If Christianity could be described as a tree, we can say that there are many branches on the tree. Some are thick and strong and fed directly by the roots. Other branches are thinner and smaller, farther away from the roots. Prosperity theology is a part of the tree of Christianity. However, it’s branch is cracked and damaged, not receiving the full and proper nourishment it needs from the root. Prosperity theology affirms that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins. It affirms his deity, suffering on the cross, and resurrection. However, what it teaches about the meaning and application of these things is different from rightly grounded theology. Therefore, we might say that the branch of prosperity theology is part of the tree, but it is cracked and broken. It is in need of tender care and repair.

There are many Christians that are part of prosperity gospel churches. They are genuine believers in Jesus Christ, but have been carried away by the desires of the world syncretized to their Christian faith. For their own preservation and spiritual integrity, Christians involved in prosperity gospel churches should seek fellowship elsewhere.

Division, whether it is over a small matter or a large one, is always difficult. It should not be the normal experience of Christians who are following Jesus Christ except in the most extreme of cases. It is supposed to be the nature of Christians, through the Holy Spirit, for believers to be unified in common cause. Our sinful nature, our human selfishness, may want to divide or withdraw from others from time to time, but it is our new nature in Christ that fights against these urges in a desire to be unified with one another. In fact, it was for unity that Jesus prayed before he was lead away to his death. It is sometimes said that the last words of a dying man are his most important. If this is true then we can see how important it was to Jesus that we be unified. “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in me through their word; that they may all be one; even as you, father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me…I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you have loved me” – (John 17:20-21, 23).

You may have noticed that I’ve essentially said two things: One, that Christians must be united, and two, that Christians, in some cases, must be divided. It may seem like I am speaking contradictorily. On the contrary, I am speaking with a single voice, the same voice provided to us in the scriptures.

Christians must never, ever, be unified with or give place to sin within the church, or a perversion of the Gospel within the church. Yes, Jesus prayed that we must be unified. But at the same time God’s word instructs us to hold fast to what is right and to reject what is wrong—what is sin. The scriptures instruct us that “Love rejoices with the truth.” When this is our attitude then we are unified with Christ.

Can we be unified with Christ and tolerate sin in our lives or in the life of our churches? May such a thing never be! To excuse sin is to push Jesus off the throne of our lives. A commitment to Jesus and the excusing of sin cannot co-exist. In fact, in I Corinthians Paul urges us toward unity, but throughout the book he also chastises the Corinthians for their excusal of sin.

The strongest point that the Apostle Paul seems to be making in his introduction to I Corinthians is that human wisdom divides, but Godly wisdom unites. It is possible for people to be united over sin or non-spiritual things. There are many things that unite people in our world. Some are united over political philosophies and politicians. Some people unite over a common social cause or community efforts. Some people are united over the history and heritage of their country or culture. Some people are united over philosophies and false religions. Yet all of these things will one day pass away, along with the temporary unity they create. Politics changes over time. Politicians come and go. Social causes ebb and flow. Communities change and some even disappear. History and heritage are good, but also change over time. Philosophy and false religion are doomed to eventual failure for not being connected to the truth of Jesus Christ.

The scripture teaches us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God’s love and his reality will never pass away. In a world of transient beliefs and activities, one thing remains constant and dependable—Jesus Christ. The human wisdom of the world, philosophies, history, heritage, even culture, all vacillate, change, and even disappear. These things are transient, but Christ is transcendent. As history has taught us, at some point unity based upon the transient will falter and die. But unity centered on Christ and his word will always remain. Jesus Christ is supreme over all.

Let’s recap the main points we’ve learned:

The church must be unified around its head, Jesus Christ. A unified church honors Christ and functions the way God intended
Godly wisdom is necessary if the church is to unified. The wisdom of the world puts the self first, but godly wisdom puts Christ and others ahead of our own desires

Divisions over non-essential issues demonstrates spiritual immaturity

There is a difference between dividing over people and dividing over principles. We must always preserve the core principles and truths of Christianity as those which unify the body of Christ, even if other issues may threaten to divide us

Human wisdom divides, but God’s wisdom unites. Godly wisdom is more than the taking of an intellectual position, rather, godly wisdom seeks to serve Christ, serve others in his name, and exercise godly behaviors. Used by permission.

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