1 Corinthians #1 – Divisions in the Church 1:1-17

09 Jan

true-spirituality“Jesus, yes! The church, no!”

That was a slogan popular among young people when I was in my teen years. It has been repeated by other generations of young people as well. It’s the conflict between “the church of faith and the church of fact.”

They certainly could have used it with sincerity in Corinth back in AD 56, because the local church there was in serious trouble. Sad to say, the problems did not stay within the church family; they were known by the unbelievers outside the church. Corinth was a city located in a very sinful setting. As a result, the church was also situated in a sinful setting.

To begin with, the church at Corinth was a defiled church. Some of its members were guilty of sexual immorality; others got drunk; still others were using the grace of God to excuse worldly living. It was also a divided church, with at least four different groups competing for leadership. This meant it was a disgraced church. Instead of glorifying God, it was hindering the progress of the Gospel.

How did this happen? The members of the church permitted the sins of the city to get into the local assembly. Corinth was a polluted city, filled with every kind of vice and worldly pleasure. About the lowest accusation you could make against a man in that day would be to call him “a Corinthian.” People would know what you were talking about.

I wonder how one would feel about being sent to a church like the one in Corinth, as described in the two epistles of Paul to the Corinthians….we will see some of those negatives weekly as we go through the book.  

From a human point of view, the situation in Corinth appears to be hopeless. Ancient Corinth was known for its temple to Aphrodite, goddess of love, where a thousand priestesses practiced prostitution in the name of religion.

If you want to know what Corinth was like, read Romans 1:18-32. Paul wrote the Roman epistle while in Corinth, and it is said that he could have “looked out the window and seen the very sins that he listed!”

And yet when we read these introductory verses to this epistle, Paul is positive, upbeat, and optimistic. His prayers concerning this church are filled with expressions of thanksgiving. How can Paul be so positive and optimistic as he communicates with this church? One thing is certain—it is not because of the godly conduct of many of its members.

Paul supported himself by making tents with Aquila and Priscilla. Paul spent much of his time sharing the gospel in the synagogue.

The city of Corinth needed Christ and Paul spent 18 months preaching and teaching.

      Paul is writing to a very troubled church, a church which exists in the midst of a very corrupt city and culture. I notice that in spite of the weaknesses and willful sins of these saints, Paul does not begin by questioning the reality of their conversion, but by affirming the present and future benefits.

This book of 1 Corinthians should cause us to reject the myth of the perfect New Testament church. We often refer to ourselves as a “New Testament church.” We are that in the sense that our church is patterned after the principles set down in the New Testament. We are governed by a plurality of elders. We have a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and we encourage believers to exercise their spiritual gifts in a way that edifies the whole body.

So often Christians look back to the New Testament times as though the church in those days was nearly perfect. If you read the Book of Acts, there is a wonderful period of bliss in the infancy of the church, but this lasts only from late in chapter 2 to the end of chapter 4.  

  • In chapter 5, a couple is struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit.
  • In chapter 6, there is strife between two groups of Jews over the care of their widows.
  • By the time we get to the Corinthian church (Acts 18ff), it is far from perfect and hardly what could be called good.
  • The final words of our Lord to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 are not complimentary either. The church was not perfect in New Testament times, and neither is it perfect today.

     The same sins which Paul exposes in 1 and 2 Corinthians are present and evident in churches today. And so Paul’s words of admonition and correction are just as applicable to us today as they were to the saints of his day.

We deceive ourselves if we think we can retreat within the church walls to escape the evils of the world. The Corinthians Epistles inform us that the world too easily and quickly finds its way into the church. The church is not the place where we go to escape from sin; it is the place where we go to confront our sin and to stimulate each other to love and good deeds.

The church is not a Christian “clean room” where we can get away from sin; it is a hospital, where we can find help and healing through the ministry of the Word and prayer.

The church is not the place which is kept holy by keeping sinners away. It is the place where newly born sinners are brought, so that they can learn the Scriptures and grow in their faith.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NIV) 1  Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2  To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours: 3  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4  I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5  For in him you have been enriched in every way–in all your speaking and in all your knowledge6  because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.

7  Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8  He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9  God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

Now, in the light of these great truths, how could the people in the Corinthian assembly get involved in the sins of the world and the flesh? They were an elect people, an enriched people, and an established people. They were saints, set apart for the glory of God!

If there was hope for the Corinthians, then there is hope for anyone. It matches some counsel offered to one of our members this past week: We need to believe what God has done for us! We also need to see ourselves as God sees us, cleansed by the blood of Christ!

If there is hope for the lost, there is also hope for those who are saved but whose life falls far short of the standard set by the Scriptures. Here is a church that seems almost beyond hope. There are divisions, immorality, and opposition to the apostle Paul and to apostolic teaching. Is Paul discouraged? Does Paul give up hope? No!

I think it also speaks to the practice of some of our more ‘conservative’ members of our fellowship, who are known to ‘withdraw fellowship’ from congregations with whom they have disagreement…even sin. That is a practice that was never carried out against the Corinthian church – or any other New Testament congregation.

Paul’s first words to this church are those of hope and confidence:

  • Paul’s confidence and hope are not in the Corinthians, in their good intentions, or in their diligent efforts.
  • His hope is in the One who called him and who called the Corinthian saints as well.
  • His hope is in the fact that God has abundantly provided for every spiritual need in that church.
  • His hope is in the faithfulness of the God who started the good work in these believers and who is committed to bring it to completion.

Division has always been a problem among God’s people, and almost every New Testament epistle deals with this topic or mentions it in one way or another. Even the 12 Apostles did not always get along with each other.

Paul now moves on to reiterate the call to Christian unity (verse 10). He then points out the ways in which this unity has broken down in the Corinthian church (verses 11-12). In the remainder of this chapter (1), and in the next three chapters (2-4), Paul shows how disunity is a contradiction of the gospel and how unity is a manifestation of the gospel.

A Biblical Challenge Regarding Conflicts (1:10-12)

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. 11  My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Paul is not exhorting the saints to “all agree” on every subject, as our translation suggests. When we come to chapters 8-10, they deal with matters of conscience. Paul expects Christians to disagree as to matters of conscience. He will speak of the diversity of spiritual gifts which are evident in the church, and he does not suppose that this will result in total agreement because our gifts influence our perspective and our viewpoint.

Paul calls upon Christians to “speak the same thing.” When Christians have different convictions, they are not to dispute with one another over them (Romans 14:1). Rather they are to keep their convictions to themselves (14:22). We are not to speak about them in a way that disputes with others about them or which seeks to impose our convictions on others. If we are exhorted to “speak the same thing” so as to practice and promote unity, then we must speak about those truths which all Christians share.

Paul further defines unity as the absence of schisms. Gordon Fee writes, Although the Greek word for ‘divisions’ (schismata) is that from which we derive the English word ‘schism,’ it does not in fact mean that, at least not in the sense of a ‘party’ or ‘faction.’ The word properly means ‘tear/rent’ (cf. Mark 2:21) or the ‘plowing’ of a field. The best illustration of the present usage is found in the Gospel of John (7:40-43; 9:16; 10:19-21), where various groups are said to have divided opinions about Jesus, meaning they were arguing with one another as to his significance. Thus Paul does not refer to distinctly formed groups of ‘parties’ here, but to divided opinions over their various leaders, which according to v. 11 and 3:3 have developed into jealousy and quarrels.

If we were speaking in musical terms, Paul is not calling for the church to sing in unison—everyone singing the same note at the same time—but rather he is urging the entire church to sing the same song, in harmony. This is what Christian unity is about.

In addition to schisms, that there are “quarrels among you” (v.11) as well. In quarreling, the lack of unity becomes personal—individuals treat one another badly. Haughty speech and hurt feelings cause separation among believers. Quarrels and factions, of course, are mutually reinforcing and thrive in immature communities like the church in Corinth. Young Christians who were lifted from obscurity by believing the gospel became proud. They spoke too much and listened too little.

Paul identifies four parties in the Church at Corinth. They have not broken away from the Church; the divisions are as yet within it. The word he uses to describe them is schismata, which is the word for rents in a garment.

The Corinthian Church is in danger of becoming as unsightly as a torn garment. It is to be noted that the great figures of the Church who are named, Paul and Cephas and Apollos, had nothing to do with these divisions. There were no dissensions between them. Without their knowledge and without their consent their names had been appropriated by these Corinthian factions. The problem as it is introduced here is a “follower problem” rather than a “leader problem,” in that the followers are at fault.

Instead of emphasizing the message of the Word, the Corinthians emphasized the messenger. They got their eyes off the Lord and on the Lord’s servants, and this led to competition. It is wrong to identify any man’s name with your baptism other than the name of Jesus Christ. To do so is to create division.

  • There were those who claimed to belong to Paul. No doubt this was mainly a Gentile party. Paul had always preached the gospel of Christian freedom and the end of the law. It is most likely that this party were attempting to turn liberty into licence and using their new found Christianity as an excuse to do as they liked. It has been said that the “Christian indicative always brings the Christian imperative. They had forgotten that the indicative of the good news brought the imperative of the Christian ethic. They had forgotten that they were saved, not to be free to sin, but to be free not to sin.”
  • There was the party who claimed to belong to Apollos. There is a brief character sketch of Apollos in Ac 18:24. He was a Jew from Alexandria, an eloquent man and well versed in the scriptures. Alexandria was the center of intellectual activity. It was there that scholars had made a science of allegorizing the scriptures and finding the most complex meanings in the simplest passages. They were known as the people who intellectualized Those who claimed to belong to Apollos were, no doubt, the intellectuals who were fast turning Christianity into a philosophy rather than a religion.
  • There were those who claimed to belong to Cephas. Cephas is the Jewish form of Peter’s name. These were most likely Jews; and they sought to teach that a man must still observe the Jewish law. They were legalists who exalted law, and, by so doing, belittled grace.

The root problem underlying the Corinthian quarrels and factions is pride. The first three hypothetical examples take pride in the leader they have chosen to follow. The last takes pride in thinking he or she is following Christ. But each is proud in feeling superior to the rest of those referred to in Paul’s example.

The most dangerous group of all in these four examples is the last. It is true that we all should be followers of Christ. But we should not be proud of ourselves for doing so. This fourth group is no less proud or arrogant than the others who are condemned.

The statement “of Christ” needs further explanation: Perhaps it is telling us that those who boast of their following Christ are effectively declaring themselves to be the leader. Those who are “of Christ” do not need Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. They do not need an apostle. They can discern Christ’s mind by themselves without any outside help from others. These autonomous folks might be the most frightening group of all.

Christ, or Men? – The Priority of Christ Over Men (Verse 13) Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?

In a nutshell, Paul takes us to the core question: Is salvation about the work of men or about the work of Jesus Christ? All four of the groups mentioned by Paul in verse 12 were man-centered. The fourth group was a little more subtle about it, but all of these individuals took pride in themselves, based upon their perceived allegiance.

Paul wants to make the point clear and unmistakable: Our salvation is totally about Christ’s work. Those who are man-centered need to be reminded of the gospel and of their salvation, to recall that salvation is Christ-centered. Christ has not been divided, so how can His body, the church, be divided? It was not Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or any other mere man who died on the cross of Calvary; it was Christ whose shed blood cleansed us from all sin. Baptism testifies to this fact. All of the Corinthian saints were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They were not baptized in the name of any man. This is because salvation is through Christ alone, and not through mere men, even if they were apostles.

Paul’s Priority of Preaching Over Baptism (Verses 14-17) I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15  so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16  (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17  For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel–not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Baptism is a very prominent theme in these verses, mentioned six times here by Paul. I take it that some, at least, took pride in the person who baptized them. Some people appear to have been proud and looked down on others who were not baptized by as great a celebrity as their baptizer.

Paul lets ‘the air out of the tires’ of these proud name droppers by telling them that baptism is not a celebrity affair, and compared to the preaching of the gospel, baptizing is a lower priority to him. Do they take pride in the one who baptizes them? Paul is glad he has not made baptizing a priority, and thus that he has baptized very few of the Corinthians.

All Paul is saying is, “I am glad that I was so busy preaching, because if I had baptized it would have given some of you the excuse to say that you were baptized into my possession instead of into Christ’s.” He is not making little of baptism; he is simply glad that no act of his could be misconstrued as annexing men for himself and not for Christ.

When we wish to be perceived as better than others, we do not emphasize what we hold in common, but what is uniquely us, our distinctives.

It was Paul’s claim that he set before men the cross of Christ in its simplest terms….next week’s main topic.

To decorate the story of the Cross with rhetoric and cleverness would have been to make men think more of the language than of the facts, more of the speaker than of the message. It was Paul’s aim to set before men, not himself, but Christ in all his lonely grandeur.

Conclusion: Divisions in the church are unseemly and keep us from seeing the best in each other. They are sure signs of immaturity. But something much more serious is at stake. When we focus on ourselves we diminish the honor that belongs to Jesus.

Our boasting breaks his heart and empties the cross of its power. The way forward is to remember the love of Christ that first drew us to faith. Honesty about our failure makes us cling to the cross instead of devaluing it.

We will look at the cross of Christ next week, Lord willing.


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Posted by on January 9, 2017 in 1 Corinthians, Church


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