(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

In this passage Paul repeats himself. He goes over much the same ground as he covered in 1Cor1v18to25 where he derides worldly wisdom. This indicates just how seriously he takes disunity in the church.

When Paul refers earlier to the divisions at Corinth by accusing Christians there of saying, I follow Apollos .... I follow Cephas ..... I follow Paul, he is being disparaging. The phrase he employs, 'I follow', was not used to describe the relationship between a pupil and an esteemed teacher but the relationship between a slave and his master or a child and his parent. Paul is, in the words of Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, dismissing the factions as low-class childishness.

The apostle's brutal put down of Corinthian pretensions was justified because he was dealing with a ruinous tendency. It is highly likely that his uncompromising, forthright approach antagonised the parties in Corinth. It seems that the divisions persisted and were still in evidence at the turn of the first century. However, I rather feel that whatever approach Paul had adopted the outcome would have been the same!

(B) The worldly values Paul opposed.

These can be summarised as:

    (a) The desire for a single earthly leader of an individual's own choice - someone who could be identified with and followed.

    (b) A tendency to take sides - to rally behind one personality or another.

    (c) Partisanship - where people with a common objective divide on how best to achieve it.

    (d) The formation of factions with attending disunity, competition and conflict.

This worldly wisdom is evident today in academic circles and especially in politics. I suppose most English politicians share common objectives - the safety, prosperity and freedom of the subject. Yet what divisions exist! Even the Labour Party consists of Blairites, Brownites and a few remaining Bennites.

Yet, sadly, nowhere are these worldly tendencies more conspicuous than in the church!! If Paul returned to the 21st century it would not be materialism, consumerism or individualism that would appal him most but factionalism.

We witness this worldliness where:

    (a) A local church with a charismatic leader grows by attracting Christians from other churches. Quite often such fellowships become rather pleased with themselves, self sufficient and disinclined to co-operate with smaller neighbouring causes.

    (b) Christians are unable to accept collective leadership. This was the norm in the early church but now, except in a few fellowships, the world's model of one man being in charge is followed.

    (c) Partisanship is rife. Wherever Christians are proud to be Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, reformed, liberal, evangelical or fundamentalist worldly values predominate. Christians should not rejoice in what makes them different from other Christians. In the judgment of Paul this makes them guilty of low class childishness!

    (d) Exclusiveness is practiced. Christians who exhibit a 'them' and 'us' mentality have entered the world of parties, cliques and cabals. I know of religious magazines that cater for a certain readership and will only publish items that conform to the views of their readers. Are their readers so insecure that they cannot be challenged by a different point of view? Roman Catholics will not take communion with non-Catholics. Presumably this is because non-Catholics are not proper Christians!

    Exclusiveness, whether practised by Roman Catholics or Reformed Baptists, is far removed from the inclusiveness of Jesus who said: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." John6v37.

(C) What are the evil consequences of factionalism?

There are at least five:

The internal divisions that appeared amongst the Corinthians have been remarkably persistent: intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, traditionalists and boastful charismatics. Today, the divisions in Christ's church have been formalised and amongst Protestants continue to multiply. Disunity is the cardinal sin of Protestantism and obduracy that of Roman Catholicism. Both disunity and obduracy are the sick offspring of pride. Why on earth are there so many kinds of Presbyterian - Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian, 'Wee Free' and even a break away group from the 'Wee Frees'? Jesus wants all believers to be one!

(2) Narrowness.
It seems that after each split the seceding church focuses for its distinctiveness upon a smaller and smaller band of doctrine or practice. Eventually secession occurs over trivialities. Is it necessary for fellowship between Baptist churches to be broken over whether or not to allow only baptised believers to take communion? The tragedy is that Christians get obsessed with the issues that divide instead of focusing on Christ who unites.

Another kind of narrowness, of which I am guilty, is a preoccupation with our own local church. We should take an interest in other fellowships and what is happening worldwide.

(3) Pride.
Paul told the Corinthians: So then, no more boasting about men! 1Cor3v21.

Christians should respect, support and cherish their leaders but it ill becomes them to boast of their pastor's gifts to believers whose pastor is far less talented and successful.

We shouldn't be proud of what makes us different from other Christians. I know a few Christians who boast of being Authorised Version, Grace Hymns and 'Thee and Thou' men - as if it matters! I fear there are believers who delight in the fine buildings in which they worship, their academically highly qualified leaders, the refined language of their liturgy and the splendid music of their choirs. In the final analysis none of that matters either.

(4) Stagnation
Where the extremer factions cut themselves off from other Christians they are liable to stagnate. It is very dangerous to avoid inter-church fellowship. Christians can easily end up in a religious backwater - cut off from the flow. Backwaters rapidly become swamps! There are plenty of examples of sects that slowly become ineffectual and die out.

(5) Dislocation
Paul compared the church to a body. The existence of divisions in the church is comparable to the leg operating independently of the foot and the arm wanting to go in a different direction to the hand. The result is a body in disarray. It is not long before the limbs are out of joint. The body is injured, maimed and marred. It ends up deformed and grotesque.

The church today is in this condition. It never speaks with a united voice. Different factions are pulling in different directions. It has become a travesty of what Jesus intended. This is why Paul attacked with such vehemence the destructive tendency he discovered at Corinth.

(E) Paul's threefold cure.

(1) Be humble.
If anyone of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. v18.

What does Paul mean by this? He is saying that the only way to acquire understanding is to admit your ignorance. In order to produce my website I had first to admit to total ignorance about the subject and attend a 60 hour course to learn how to do it. After 37 years teaching I had to go back to school! Last week I managed to remove a defective hot plate from my very old and rusty cooker. My friend Denis, a skilled electrician, got me two replacements. He said to me, "JR, when you fix a new plate it may be faulty, contain moisture and trigger your trip switch." I paid very careful attention to him because I know nothing about an electrician's work. I am glad I listened to Denis because what he warned might happen did!

Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, knew it all. Jesus told him, "I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. .... You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' John3v5and7. Nicodemus, for all his erudition, had to start afresh. He didn't think this would be easy! (See exposition on John3v1to12.)

The single most important reason for the continued divisions in the church are Christians who know it all, who are right about everything. The intellectuals at Corinth were like this and yet Paul calls them infants, babes in Christ. Very few leaders of the mainstream denominations are sufficiently humble to say, "On this issue we are wrong." Someone must be wrong! We cannot all be right - otherwise the divisions would not exist.

(2) Make the most of your opportunities.
This is Paul's antidote to narrowness, exclusiveness and the drift to stagnation. He urges the Corinthians: All things are yours .... all are yours. v22.

(a) Paul encourages us to make the most of all types of Christian teachers. All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas .... . v23. We should embrace scholars, teachers and writers from a variety of traditions and with different views from ourselves. I know of a seminary where the students are only recommended books by Reformed writers. This means C.S. Lewis is not on their reading list! In the preparation of this series on 1Corinthians I have found the most unorthodox author, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, by far the most stimulating.

(b) The world is ours. It is not too clear what Paul meant by this. Certainly the world provides us with enormous opportunities. Christians can make money in the world to use for Christ's sake. It is easy to overlook the largely anonymous, sacrificial giving of some of God's people. The technology of the world from printing to the Internet provides many marvellous opportunities for spreading the gospel. Administrations also help the cause of Christ by maintaining law and order. In England Christians are still able to witness in prisons, hospitals and schools.

Paul took the opportunities the world offered. He collected money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem, used the roads built by the Romans on his missionary journeys and appealed in law to Caesar in order to reach Rome.

Christians should not withdraw from the world but remain in it, if not of it.

(c) Life and death are ours. In life we serve. Jesus said, "As long as it is day we must do the work of him who sent me." John9v4.

Christians have been given new life - abundant life - eternal life. So at the very least we should be lively and not fritter away our opportunities to please Jesus. There are a remarkable number of believers who lack joy, zest and confidence.

Occasionally a Christian can witness powerfully in death. I used to visit a devout believer called Doris. She did not fear death because she loved the Lord and had absolute confidence in him. Doris had three daughters who loved her very much but who were very irregular church attenders. Doris left a letter to be read at her funeral. In it she described how she had prayed every day for her 'gals' and how it was her dearest wish that they come to love the Lord. Since that good woman's death her daughters have attended our chapel with increasing regularity.

(d) The present and the future are ours. It is pointless to keep looking back because we cannot serve Jesus in the past. The present is ours to learn, pray, worship, witness and serve. In the present, and only in the present, can we make a difference.

The future is ours because the future belongs to Jesus. All who believe in Jesus will share his triumph. If we died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure we will also reign with him. 2Tim2v11and12. The Saviour has promised eternal bliss and the riches of glory to all who believe in him.

(3) Be aware of your unique status.
Paul reminds the Corinthians: And you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. v23.

(a) It is a tremendous privilege to be in an intimate relationship with Jesus. There is no higher honour than to bear his name:

            Precious name, .. oh, how sweet!..
            Hope of earth and joy of heaven!

(b) Our relationship with Jesus is what makes us special to God. Only our belief in Jesus can save us! We are not saved by our denominational allegiance or doctrinal position or special viewpoint or idiosyncratic practices. Jesus, and only Jesus, is the way, the truth and the life.

(c) What unites us? It is our common, unreserved, utter dependence upon Jesus; it is our share in his life, death and resurrection. Christians are a redeemed people and it should be our redemption that binds us together in love for a wonderful Saviour. Our unreserved and glad commitment to the King of Kings and Lord of All should transcend all differences in faith and practice. It is the saddest of all testimonies to the power of the old nature that it does not.

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