Doesn’t God Condone Church Conflict in 1 Corinthians 11:17-19?

This summer at our church I am teaching the material of Redeeming Church Conflicts in one of our Sunday morning adult community groups. Yesterday during class a man said (with a degree of confidence) that the Bible endorses conflict in the church in order to sort things out…who is right and who is wrong. He didn’t know the exact passage but knew it was in one of Paul’s epistles. I didn’t have time at the moment to go into a detailed response but will next week in order to help that man and the others in the class put Paul’s comment into context and perspective.

The verses the man was referring to are those we find at 1 Corinthians 11:17-19:

In the following directives, I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.

In the course of my ministry as a Christian Conciliator I have heard this passage used as justification, authorization, and even biblical warrant for church conflict. But is that really what Paul is saying? It would seem that the one who wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”(Ephesians 4:2-3) would not write something as drastically contradictory as advocated by the understanding of those who interpret the First Corinthians passage above as a license for divisions in the church. Here is where interpretive tools become so important:

  1. Scripture Interprets Scripture
  2. The Importance of Context

Applying the first tool (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), we have seen already that 1 Corinthians 11:19 can’t mean that God authorizes divisions in the church. Not only at Ephesians 4, but Paul’s argument in the very next chapter of First Corinthians (chapter 12), especially beginning at verse 12 where he equates the church body with a physical human body, it is clear Paul is saying specifically that divisions in the church make absolutely no sense and have no place in the body of Christ. Verses 24b through 25 states this very directly:

But God has combined the members of the body (meaning the members of Christ’s body, the members of the church), and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body (meaning no division in the church between its members), but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

Paul makes this lesson emphatically clear when he states at verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

So what does Paul mean when he states, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval?”

The context of the passage answers that question. Paul is giving specific “directives” (verse 17) to the members of this church so that their meetings (worship services) will honor God and not merely demonstrate their spiritual immaturity. Using a number of examples he seeks to correct the self-centered patterns (selfishness) that has led church members to conduct themselves in ways that are inconsistent with the very faith they profess and seek to practice. The first example is that of how communion (The Lord’s Supper) should be administered (Chapter 11, verses 20 through 29). Then he turns to jealously over spiritual gifts (Chapter 12, verses 1 through 11, and verses 28 through 31). Then (after words emphasizing the goal of unity through mutual care and love; Chapter 12, verses 12 through 27, and all of Chapter 13) he turns to the disruptive misuse of the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues (Chapter 14, verses 1 through 25). Finally, in Chapter 14 at verse 26 he asks, “What then shall we say?” Here Paul is now ready to summarize what he means about the foolishness of divisions in the church over these specific matters of worship and life together in the church. And what does he say:

All of these (meaning every element of their meetings over which there has been so much division) must be done for the strengthening of the church. 1 Corinthians 14:26c (emphases and explanation added)

Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit not only to the believers at Corinth at that time but to all Christians of all time, is specifically condemning divisions in the church by instructing them how to cease their infighting by doing worship and life together in the right manner that follows the overarching principle of selflessness (love and care) toward one another, especially when gathering together for worship of their Lord and Savior. He is showing them specifically what “God approves” and what He disapproves (verse 19) concerning those matters that have come to his attention because of their divisions.

God does not endorse division and conflict in the church. His own body… the body of Christ, is one. Rather, he corrects our errors by bringing instruction, which is one form of discipline. We are truly God’s children and eternal siblings dwelling together in His church when we receive such discipline and rejoice in it and don’t attempt to twist it in order to further feed self-centeredness through finding an argument for divisions in that which cannot be divided.

God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. Hebrews 12:10b

– Dave Edling

(This article was originally published in 2012.)


About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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