1COR1v10to17: DIVISIONS IN THE CHURCH AT CORINTH
(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)
There are few passages in Paul's epistles as relevant as this to the church situation today. I deals with the curse of Protestantism - the formation of endless fractures in, and the increasing fragmentation of, the church. Although much of Paul's teaching is taken very seriously, particularly the first 10 chapters of Romans, his advice to the Corinthians about church unity is all but ignored.
(B) The situation at Corinth
Factions had developed in the church who identified strongly with leading figures in Christianity. Paul wrote: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; v12. Perhaps as a reaction to this there was another group, no better than the others, who said, "I follow Christ." v12.
To understand what was happening it is instructive to look at each faction separately.
(1) The devotees of Paul.
Paul's preaching was simple. This is how he described his policy: When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 1Cor2v1. This clear, straightforward, intellectually undemanding ministry would appeal strongly to uneducated folk.
Paul also made in very clear to the Gentile converts that they had been set free from the rules and regulations of Judaism. Paul's wonderful, liberating message was: You are all Sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus ...... . There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal3v28. This would appeal to any who valued liberty above almost anything else.
(2) The devotees of Apollos.
Apollos the scholar, orator and teacher from the great university city of Alexandria with his deep knowledge of the Old Testament attracted intellectuals - or those who thought they were! (See exposition on Apollos.)
(3) The devotees of Peter.
Peter was a 'proper' apostle. His appeal was to conservative Jewish Christians and to Gentiles who were proselytes of Judaism before converting to Christianity.
(4) The devotees of Christ.
Corinth was a 'charismatic' church. It contained many who claimed the gift of prophecy. Those that had a word from Christ were inclined to butt in during church meetings. They couldn't wait! Jesus had spoken to them and his message must be heard - and not only heard, but also acted on without question.
All these groups exist today. They can often be found within the same local church as was the case at Corinth.
(a) There are those who are content with a simple gospel message Sunday after Sunday. They love to hear of what Jesus has done for them but are less enthusiastic about being told what they should do for him. These Christians rejoice in their freedom and privileges but can overlook their obligations and duties. Much is made of the love of God but it is a love without discipline or obedience.
(b) The church is not without its intellectuals who revel in 'deep' preaching. The emphasis with them is on the 'word' rather than 'works'. They despise the teacher who uses stories and illustrations. These Christians want to hear something original, clever or profound. Nothing pleases them better than to hear the 'Doctrines of Grace' expounded.
(c) Most denominations contain traditionalists. Amongst the Anglicans and Roman Catholics there are devotees of medieval vestments, ancient forms of service and age old ceremonies. Christianity without ritual would be like Christmas without the trappings - unappealing.
Among the Grace Baptists, the Christians I know best, there is an element who are determined not to stumble in their ways from the ancient paths. Jer18v15. They believe the only inspired Bible is an Authorised Version. The hymnbook that was good enough for their grandparents is good enough for them. The order of service is set in stone and like one of the Ten Commandments cannot be broken.
The discerning reader will probably realise that I have little sympathy with this faction!
(d) Finally there are the irritating charismatic Christians who have a hot line to Jesus. He tells them everything from whom their friends should marry to the colour of the shoes they should wear.
Of all groups in a church these can be the most disruptive! This is the faction most likely to leave and start up their own fellowship. It is significant that in AD 95 Clement of Rome indicates that the other three groups persisted in the Corinthian Church but not those who took orders directly from Jesus. They had doubtless gone elsewhere!
Why did factions develop in the church at Corinth? There are at least 5 possible reasons:
(1) Partisanship is the way of the world.
The Corinthian Church members were aping the world in following their favourite teacher or preacher.
It hardly needs saying that partisanship exists today. There are Wesleyans, Lutherans, Calvinists and Arminians. Sadly, just as there is a hooligan element amongst the supporters of English Premier Division football teams there is a militant, fighting faction amongst the followers of Calvin, Luther, Wesley and Arminius.
Many Christians adopt the values of the world in desiring a single leader for their church - preferably one that is likeable, affable, approachable and multi-talented. This very strong desire for one man or woman to be in charge flies in the face of the model given us in the New Testament where several elders exercised a joint leadership.
(2) Factionalism makes life more interesting..
The rival groups in the church at Corinth, based as they were on strong personalities, introduced a competitive spirit into the fellowship. Emerging differences led to lively debates and animated discussion. Effort was expended to recruit new members and to become the leading party in the church. There are undoubtedly some Christians who enjoy intrigue, church politics and power struggles.
It is sad when Christians get bored with Jesus and serving him - when the effort that should be put into winning souls for Christ is spent winning battles with fellow believers.
(3) Differences do exist between Christian leaders.
There are also dissimilarities of style, personality and conduct between Christian leaders. Paul was highly independent and would not accept hospitality. He insisted on paying his own way - except at Philippi. Peter was happy to receive hospitality and monetary gifts. It is inevitable that some leaders appeal more to one Christian than another.
I found this true in teaching. Some children responded warmly to my methods and personality - others did not. Unfortunately for me I appealed most to unruly, unacademic boys and not to prim, hard-working, clever girls. I discovered that even the least popular teachers had a few children devoted to them. Almost every teacher had something to offer to someone. Where I was weak another colleague was strong. In this way teachers in a well-run school meet many different needs.
This is how it should be in the church. It is just so easy to disparage a preacher or leader that you do not much like or in some way disagree with. We should realise that the preacher that does so little for us may be a great blessing to someone else. Peter, Apollos, Paul, John and James complimented each other. Sometimes we need to be reminded of our security in God the Father who called us. On other occasions we need chivvying up and told to endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. Every Christian teacher has something valuable to offer.
(4) The desire to be special.
We are special if we believe in Jesus and have received him. Our membership of God's family is all that matters.
(5) Belief in Jesus was not enough.
(a) For some it was the person that baptised them. The members at Corinth were taking pride in being baptised by Apollos or Peter or Paul. In the circumstances Paul was actually pleased that he baptised so few.
(b) For others a spiritual gift made them special. It seems from what Paul wrote later in the epistle that a group of Christians were very proud of being able to speak in tongues.
(c) A conservative faction adopted a legalistic attitude. The best of Christians were those who abstained from food sacrificed to idols and were generally very particular what they ate. I have met several modern day representatives of this group. Many years ago I was entertained by the managing director of a factory who spent a long time telling me how respected he was by his business associates for being a teetotaler and non-smoker. In this respect he outshone Jesus himself!!
(D) Paul's reaction
Paul was aghast even though all the different factions still worshipped together. There had been no schism, yet still the little apostle is appalled. What would he think today! He surely would be amazed and horrified at the hundreds and hundreds of different protestant denominations, the pride and prejudice that divides Christians, the sheer unbrotherliness of so many Christians towards those they disagree with and above all the separate communions. It is a total disgrace that a Roman Catholic can only take communion with other Roman Catholics.
What does Paul say to the Corinthian Christians? He makes three points in the strongest of terms:
(a) Is Christ divided? v13.
(b) There are not lots of different Jesus's. There isn't an Anglican Jesus, a Roman Catholic Jesus, a Brethren Jesus, an Assemblies of God Jesus or a Grace Baptist Jesus. There is only one Jesus. He is the living head of all the different groups and he wants those groups to be one as he and the Father are one. So, why the unfriendliness, suspicion and denigration? Why do we fight each other when we should be united against the common foe?
All Christians, every single one without exception, owes their salvation to one person alone - Jesus. We are united in need. We have precisely the same need - to be saved. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. There is only one Saviour, only one atoning work, only one way to benefit from it - total submission to him, reliance upon him and love for him. We should be united by our dependence upon Jesus and our total belief in him.
Communion should be the focus or our unity. We shouldn't argue that we will have communion with Christians from other traditions if only they abandon error and agree with us. All genuine Christians should be prepared, without preconditions, to take Communion together. There shouldn't be any barriers. We need to gather round the table to remember what we have in common: our sin, our Saviour, his sacrifice for sin and our so great salvation through faith in him. David Prior in his commentary on 1 Corinthians is absolutely right when he writes: Communion is .... where we BEGIN to demonstrate that unity which is God's gift to us through the reconciling work of his Son.
(3) Were you baptised into the name of Paul? v13.
Many years ago now a girl wanted to be baptised at Pioneer Camp - a Christian camp for young people. We constructed a baptismal pool out of bales of straw and black polythene. Pastor Joseph Hewitt baptised her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This caused a furore amongst certain Grace Baptists who argued that baptism was the prerogative of the local church and could only be done with the authority of the local church. They appeared to forget the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch! The Ethiopian was baptised far from any church by a mere travelling evangelist in the name of the triune God.
(E) Paul's appeal.
(1) Paul appeals to brothers not enemies or strangers. I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. v10.
(2) He appeals, not on his own behalf, but in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul knows that Jesus demands the unity of all believers. It is this that should be a central doctrine of every church. (See part D of exposition on John17.)
(3) Paul pleads for what seems today totally unattainable. Paul is emphatic in his request that the Corinthians: Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 1Cor1v10.
Paul does not say tamely that we must agree to differ! That is about as much as we seem capable of at present. No, he expects the Corinthians Christians to be perfectly united in mind and thought.
How can this be achieved? There are two possible approaches:
(a) We have to concentrate upon what unites us - the person, teaching and work of Jesus. When I read commentaries on the gospels by scholars who accept the inspiration of the Scriptures there is a very large measure of agreement among them notwithstanding the different denominations they belong to. The agreement is so great that it makes the existence of the separate denominations utterly pointless.
(b) We should try to reach agreement where we differ. For this to happen there has to be:
(2) An understanding of how the differences arose.
(3) An acceptance that we could be wrong or, perhaps, partially right. There are some issues that are very complex and that are not addressed in a systematic way in the Bible such as the relationship between God's Sovereignty and man's responsibility.
(4) A commitment to listen to those we disagree with.
(5) A steadfast resolve to reach agreement and not just to win the argument.
(6) A willingness to change. There has to be changes where disagreements exist for Christians to end up one in mind and thought.
(7) A much greater desire to arrive at the truth than to defend our status, reputation or authority.
Is this ever going to happen? If anything, matters go from bad to worse. The number of separate groups, with their special insights into the mind of Christ, multiplies year on year. New churches spring up in Britain made up of Christians unable to work within the old denominations.
I suppose, faced with such a huge and worsening problem, we feel powerless to do anything about it. I have been trying for years to get my own Association of Churches to be less exclusive - without any success! However, within the local church at least, we can try to follow the advice of Paul: If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. AV. Romans12v18.