In 1 Corinthians, Paul says something stunning, "There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that the approved among you may be recognized." (11:19) Unlike other factions in Corinth based on loyalty to teachers, God "approved" of one faction. They weren't dividing based on loyalty to Paul, Cephas, or Apollos; they were loyal to God.
What were the distinctives of this "approved" group?
To find the answer, we need to look more deeply at the underlying church problems exposed in 1 Corinthians.
First, Corinth was failing to unite around the truth of Jesus' resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:12, "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, 'There is no resurrection of the dead'?" If you read ahead in that chapter, you will see that Paul doesn't go on to say, "That's fine as long as you don't get too divisive about the way you say it." Nor does he say to those on the other side, "You who believe in the resurrection should accept these people, regardless of their view of the resurrection."
Why? Because this doctrine is central to the gospel itself, as stated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-6. Even today, this issue stands as a crucial litmus test for genuine faith in Christ.
The approved faction of Christians in Corinth stood firm on the gospel.
Second, Corinth was failing in their submission to the authority of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul writes, "For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ." Through the Spirit, we have access to the God's mind in the word of God.
About his own writings, Paul says, "We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people." (1 Cor 2:13) Paul insists that the Corinthians listen to his instruction because it comes from God himself. A church cannot live for Christ if it doesn't accept the full authority of the Bible.
The approved faction in Corinth submitted to the Bible's authority.
Unlike the rest of the church, they did not submit to superior rhetoric, but only to the witness of God himself through Paul (1 Cor 2:1).
The third problem in Corinth was a lack of condemnation of sin. 1 Corinthians records for us that, in that church, immorality, lawsuits, prostitution, and paganism were being sanctioned by many of its members. Paul condemns each one of them and the insists that those who regularly practice such things won't inherit the kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10).
Paul's point is simple: the church can't condone behavior which is prohibited in God's kingdom.
The approved faction stood firm against sin.
That's why they wrote a letter to Paul asking for his insight into their church's concerns (1 Cor 7:1).
Let's recap the marks of godly division: standing firm on the gospel, submitting to God's word, and standing firm against sin.
For Christians, these categories address issues that are legitimate reasons for division within the church. Not finer points of doctrine, not esthetic debates, not preferences about when and how the church conducts services. These are secondary issues that, while important, are not fundamental to Christian life.
This is helpful to us because some Christians may be fearful of being too divisive while others may be overzealous in their willingness to divide fellowship.
If you err on the side of being too divisive, recognize that not all doctrines are equally important. Of course, everything the Bible says is important. But someone can be saved without understanding the correct mode of baptism; they can't be saved without knowing that Jesus died for our sins. So if you are divisive beyond what Scripture tells you to divide over, you create more problems than you solve. Don't place all doctrine on the same level of importance. There are many noble hills for a Christian to die on. Commit your ways to the Lord and let Him direct your boldness to the doctrines that matter most.
If you err on the side of timidity, understand that standing up for these core truths of the gospel could lead a false-professing Christian to true faith in Christ. Your boldness could expose an error that prevented someone from knowing God. There is nothing more loving than patiently exposing an error so that someone can truly know God.