THE DIVIDED CHURCH 1 Corinthians 1
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10).Divisiveness denies the truth that Christ’s church is one.
Paul expressed thanks for his Corinthian brethren (1:1–9), but warned against divisions within the church (vv. 10–17) which reflect human foolishness rather than the wisdom of the Cross (vv. 18–31).
Understanding the Text
“Sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” 1 Cor. 1:1–3. Paul wished the very best for his readers: “Grace and peace to you from God” (v. 3). But he reminded them and us that to experience God’s best, we must become what we are. What are we? We are persons “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” The word sanctified means “set apart to God.” In Old Testament times sanctified persons, places, and things were never used for profane or ordinary purposes. They could only be used in God’s service. The sanctuary table dedicated to God held loaves of bread. But not even the priests of Israel could put a meal on that table, pull up their chairs, and eat from it. Paul said the Corinthians, “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus,” are “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Jesus has set us apart to be God’s own, and God’s only. As God’s people now, we are to live holy lives, not ordinary ones. That’s why it is so important for believers to solve the kind of problems that emerged in the Corinthian church. Only as we live the holy life fitting for those sanctified by Jesus will we glorify God or experience His grace and peace. “You have been enriched in every way” 1 Cor. 1:4–9. The Corinthian church had problems. But it had matchless resources too. Sometimes you and I focus so much on our problems that we forget the spiritual reserves that God has provided for us. What resources did Paul remind us of? We have God’s grace to enrich us, for it was poured out on us when we responded to the message about Jesus (vv. 4–5). We have spiritual gifts to enable us to grow and serve (v. 7). We have Christ’s commitment to encourage us, for we know that He will keep us strong and safe until He returns (v. 8). We have God’s faithfulness to ensure that none of these resources will be taken from us (v. 9). It’s all too easy for us to focus on our problems, and be overwhelmed. What God wants us to do is focus on His resources, and overcome! (See DEVOTIONAL.) “Agree with one another” 1 Cor. 1:10–12. This earnest appeal for outward harmony is matched in verse 10 by an appeal for inward unity of “mind and thought.” The divisions Paul spoke of are schismata, cracks that have appeared in the walls of the church, and threaten to cause the building to tumble. Paul wasn’t asking the Corinthians to plaster over the cracks by pretending to agree. He was asking everyone in Corinth to consider the issues carefully, so that there could be a real rather than false unity in the local body. Plastering over differences never resolves them. Only when we face common problems together, determined to find a basis for unity, will things get better. This is true in the church. It’s true in the family. It’s true in all of life. “Quarrels among you” 1 Cor. 1:11–12. Some folks get upset over the fact that Christendom has so many different denominations. “See!” they shout as they point to these verses in 1 Corinthians. “It’s wrong for believers to say, ‘I’m a Presbyterian,’ or ‘I’m a Baptist.’ There should only be one grand Christian church, with no divisions.” But Paul here was dealing with quarrels. He was dealing with factions that not only competed, but were actively hostile to each other. The believers who made up the “party of Paul” and those in the “party of Apollos” fought and argued over who was best, right, and most Christian. All Christian communities in first-century cities divided up and met in a number of different house-churches. Paul doesn’t hesitate to identify one such congregation as folks “from Chloe’s household” (v. 11). I don’t expect he’d have any serious problem identifying modern Christians as folks “from the Baptist Church on 5th and Main,” or from the “Presbyterian Church on Little Road.” So lets not make too much of such distinctions. Let’s remember that Baptist or Presbyterian, Christ’s church is one church. But, if the Baptists and Presbyterians start to quarrel over which group is right, or who are the best Christians, then we need to be concerned. “Is Christ divided?” 1 Cor. 1:13–16 The basis for Christian unity is Jesus, who died for all who believe. Our union is with Jesus, and He is the source of our identity. One of my wife’s girlhood friends, a devout Catholic Christian, says bluntly that she is a Christian and a Catholic, but that she’s a Catholic first. I appreciate her loyalty to her church as well as her sincere dedication to the Lord. But her approach to faith is too much like that of those in Corinth, whose allegiance to Paul or Peter or Apollos drove them to debate. In truth, our allegiance is to Jesus, and is not divided. He is One, and because He is the Head of every believer, the church is one. My friend Bob Girard put it best when he moved to the Verde Valley in Arizona and wrote on the visitor’s card his first Sunday in a new church. Where the card asked, Would you like to become a member of this church? Bob wrote, “I already am a member of the body of Christ. So naturally I want to become involved in any way I can with my brothers and sisters here.” If we nurture this attitude, the church of Jesus, which is one, will be one here on earth. “Words of human wisdom” 1 Cor. 1:17–24. The word “wisdom” is one of the most significant words in Scripture. In both Testaments it involves the application of knowledge to guide daily life. The “wise” must have truth, and be able to apply it. Mere human wisdom breaks down at both these points. Though all have smatterings of truth, human cultures and societies are flooded with lies and half-truths. And human wisdom is unable to either separate truth from fiction, or to correctly apply truth even when it is discerned. Paul offered proof. When the message of the Cross is proclaimed, how does the self-proclaimed “wise man” respond? Those with roots in Jewish culture insisted on miracles to prove it. Those with roots in Greek culture insisted that it be “intellectually respectable.” Neither realized that the preaching of the Cross is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 24). Why this critique of wisdom here? Because those who quarreled over which splinter group of Christians was closer to God were relying on mere human wisdom. They marshalled their arguments, completely missing the central fact that in Christianity everything must be related to Christ. Don’t be surprised if non-Christians laugh at our faith. Carl Sagan publicly ridicules Creation. Ted Turner scoffed at the Cross in a speech to media executives. But never mind. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (v. 20) Never mind. Just don’t go taking a worldly approach to solving problems in Christ’s church! “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” 1 Cor. 1:26–31. The intelligentsia and the wealthy and the politically powerful are the shakers and movers in human society. They’re the people who count: the people to see if you want to get something done. But, Paul pointed out, their intelligence, wealth, and power were absolutely useless when it came to winning salvation. To bring salvation to the world God’s Son became a poor Man, a Carpenter. He lived in a backward corner of the world, died a criminal’s death, and even after His resurrection there were “not many . . . wise . . . not many were influential . . . not many were of noble birth” who responded to the Gospel’s Good News. It follows that we Christians have nothing of which to boast, except of Jesus. Jesus Himself is our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. What a rebuke for those who quarreled over mere human leaders. They not only argued like men of the world, they turned away from Jesus. Jesus is the unifying center of our Christian faith. As we contemplate Jesus, we are so humbled that boasting in some supposed superiority of our little group seems to be the foolishness it is.
Out, Damned Spot(1 Cor. 1:4–17)
Shakespeare portrays Lady MacBeth, a conspirator in the murder of her king, compulsively washing her hands again and again. She feels that a spot of the king’s blood has been splashed on her hand, and it rivets her attention. Often we Christians respond a little like Lady MacBeth when we discover problems in our church or home. We almost compulsively focus on the problem, talking about it constantly, going over each detail again and again. Like the dear lady, we feel deep frustration, and the more we talk, the more serious the problem appears. I’m not suggesting that you or I should avoid facing problems. Not at all. We should look honestly at things that need to be corrected, in our personal lives, in our families, and in our churches. But we should look at them positively. We should look at them confidently, in the full assurance that we can resolve them successfully. In his Letter to the Corinthians Paul expressed confidence before he even mentioned the first problem. The Corinthians had been enriched by God’s grace (vv. 4–6). They had been enabled with a full complement of spiritual gifts (v. 7). They had been strengthened by fellowship with Jesus Christ (vv. 8–9). Because of these matchless resources Paul was sure that the Corinthians could face and overcome their many problems. Think about it. Only after the Corinthians had been reminded of their resources in Christ (vv. 4–9), did Paul go on to discuss the problem (vv. 10–17). What a pattern for us to follow. Let’s count up our spiritual assets in Christ. Then let’s face our problems honestly, in the complete confidence that together we can resolve them in His strength.
Looking to Jesus first gives perspective on our problems.
“It is called the community of the saints because they have fellowship in holy things, yea, in those things whereby they are sanctified, that is in the Father and the Son, who Himself sanctifieth them with all that He had given them. Thus everything serveth to the betterment and building up of one’s neighbor and to the praise and glory of God the Father.”—Menno Simmons