Paul is not discussing the differences that exist between denominations and brotherhoods. In his day, there were no denominational or brotherhood divisions. Paul is striking out against division in a local congregation of the church. Most division in the local congregation today is not over matters of faith, but rather the result of personalities that are in conflict.
The problem was a burden, not something to be covered up. They went to an inspired apostle with the problem. We can often do that by going to the Scriptures.
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.
The church at Corinth was in a sad state. The fellowship among believers had deteriorated to such a degree that it was about to crumble and collapse. There was severe division and dissension in the ranks: verbal accusations, differing opinions, competitive positions, power struggles, envy, contention, grumbling, griping, complaining, murmuring, quarreling, attacking, and gossiping. Believer stood against believer, and there was no give in any corner. Disaster was about to strike; the church was divided and a severe split was threatened.
This was the first problem dealt with by Paul. It had to be dealt with first, for a house divided against itself cannot stand. There were other problems in the church, other matters that had to be handled, but the people could not handle them unless they were brought together in one spirit and mind. The ministry and mission of the church could not effectively go on until the people stood together. Worship, exhortation, missions, and reaching and ministering to people—the very cause of Christ, the very reason He came to earth and died—were affected and would continue to suffer until the people were brought together.
The word division (schismata) means to split, to rend, to tear apart. Note the words “among you.” The division or dissension is not outside the church; it is not out in the world. It is inside the church.
- The divisive church is not working to bring peace, love, and brotherhood to the world; the divisive church is not seen out in the world ministering to the starving, diseased, and lost masses of the world.
- The divisive church is seen fuming and fighting. The sinful and devastating problems of dissension are within the divisive church.
- The divisive church is splitting, rending, and tearing itself apart.
Most of us who have attended church for a number of years have been in or know of a congregation where there was a split or at least serious quarreling. The problem has existed in the church from New Testament times. The Corinthian believers fell short of the Lord’s standards in many ways, and the first thing for which Paul called them to task was quarreling.
Quarreling is a reality in the church because selfishness and other sins are realities in the church. Because of quarreling the Father is dishonored, the Son is disgraced, His people are demoralized and discredited, and the world is turned off and confirmed in unbelief.
In His high priestly prayer, the Lord prayed repeatedly that His church would be one (John 17:11, 21–23). Immediately after Pentecost the newly empowered believers were in perfect harmony with each other—sharing, rejoicing, worshiping, and witnessing together. Their unity bore great fruit in their ministry to each other, in their witness to the world, and in their pleasing and glorifying God.
The first need of the Corinthian church was for that sort of harmony. And so Paul made a plea for doctrinal agreement, for repenting of their tendency to form factions around high-profile personalities, and for remembering the great priority of the church: preaching the gospel. Paul argued that supernatural unity can occur only when God’s wisdom is valued over earthly wisdom (1:18–2:16), and when believers walk in the power of God’s spirit rather than giving in to the sinful desires of human flesh (3:1–23).
Christ is not divided, and his true followers should not allow anything to divide the church. Don’t let your appreciation for any teacher, preacher, speaker, or writer lead you into intellectual pride. Believers’ allegiance must be to Christ and to the unity that he desires.
I regard it as clear that these believers were not intentionally choosing Paul or Apollos or Cephas as replacements for their devotion to God or Christ. Carnal decisions by Christians are rarely so self-evident.
Paul will point out in 1 Corinthians 3 that there can be no competition among true servants of God.
This is a graphic picture of what happens when the church (the body of Christ) is divided. With so many churches and styles of worship available today, believers can get caught up in the same game of “my preacher is better than yours!” They follow personalities and even change churches based on who is popular.
To act this way is to divide Christ again. But Christ is not divided, and his true followers should not allow anything to divide the church. Don’t let your appreciation for any teacher, preacher, speaker, or writer lead you into intellectual pride. Believers’ allegiance must be to Christ and to the unity that he desires.
We might sum up the divisions in this way:
- I follow Paul—This group may have taken the attitude that Paul started this church and he will always be our leader. These are the traditionalists. Some of the believers followed Paul, who had founded their church. Although Paul was Jewish, he had been called as a missionary to the Gentiles, so he probably attracted many of the Gentile believers. Paul used great logical arguments but apparently did not have powerful speaking ability (2 Corinthians 10:10).
- I follow Apollos—These people may have put great emphasis on knowledge of the Scripture. Apollos was mighty in his use of the Word (Acts 18:24, 25). These may have been the Bible intellectuals. A third group chose to follow Apollos, an eloquent and popular preacher who had had a dynamic ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:24; 19:1; Titus 3:13). Apollos was from Alexandria and had become distinguished for his speaking ability. Oratory and eloquence were highly valued in the culture of the day, so Apollos probably attracted the highly educated and distinguished believers in the congregation.
- Others chose to follow Peter (Cephas). A Jew and one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, Peter probably attracted many of the Jewish believers who had come to doubt Paul’s apostolic authority. It is unknown whether Peter had ever been to Corinth, although some of the Jews may have heard him in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Or it is likely that the believers simply knew that Peter was the leader of the apostles. I follow Peter—These may have put great emphasis on the church and were taking the attitude that Peter had been given the keys to the kingdom, instituted the church on Pentecost, and they would follow him. They may have been great “church” men without going further.
- I follow Christ—These may have been saying, “We don’t need anyone or anything but Jesus.” Finally, a fourth group claimed to follow Christ. This group may have boasted a special relationship to Christ, or they may have been positioning themselves above the fray, saying that they had chosen to follow Christ alone, not any human leader (see 2 Corinthians 10:7).
There were probably three basic problems causing the division within the church.
- There was the problem in preaching ability and style? There was no difference in the messages preached by Paul and Apollos. They both preached the gospel of Christ, but there was a difference in their style of preaching and ministering. Apollos was an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures (Ac. 18:24). Paul was not a great orator (2 Co. 10:10; 11:6); therefore, some undervalued Paul as a preacher and surrounded Apollos. They failed to see God’s distinct call and gifts to each minister.
Paul was a small-framed missionary, gifted in the understanding of the Scriptures and gifted as an administrator in church order. Both gifts, although not so much out in the forefront of public recognition, were of immense value. Paul excelled in strengthening believers, in growing disciples, and in establishing churches. There is a good possibility that the Apollos party began to intellectualize and socialize Christianity, to turn it away from the doctrine of salvation in Christ, and to deemphasize the utter necessity to walk in Him day by day.
- There was the problem of turning liberty into license? Peter’s emphasis had to deal with the traditions and rituals of the church, for he was the apostle to the Jews (Ga. 2:7). Some believers preferred that the traditions and rituals be stressed more, and that Paul’s emphasis upon doctrine, salvation, and the daily walk of the believer be stressed less. The two groups began to gather around the name of the two apostles and form cliques.
- There was the problem of those who claimed to be “of Christ.” These were probably fed up with the other groups and set themselves up as being more spiritual than the others. They looked upon themselves as being too spiritual to lower themselves to the level of becoming identified with any clique. They probably began to think of themselves as the only true spiritual Christians in Corinth. They claimed to follow Christ alone, and they denied needing or receiving the help of any man.
From this letter we’ll see the Corinthians considered themselves to be so advanced in maturity that it gave them a privileged position. They set themselves up as the judges of others. They usurped God’s authority. They took it upon themselves to judge teachers (1 Co. 1:12f), to judge the wise and the unwise (1 Co. 1:19; 2:1f), to establish moral standards (1 Co. 5:1f), and to judge the gifted and their gifts (1 Co. 12:1f).
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.
Ephesians 4:5 states that believers are united by “one baptism.” Believers are not baptized “into” different preachers—they are baptized into the family of believers. Baptism replaced circumcision as the initiation rite of the new order, the new covenant.
Christians need only “one baptism” by which they publicly acknowledge their one faith in one Lord.
Paul wrote in 12:13, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (nrsv).
This expression of faith through baptism brings unity to believers. Far from it being divisive, baptism is a key unifying factor in the church.
Style and Substance: Some speakers use impressive words, but they are weak on content. Some preachers make the Bible marginal in their sermons in order to hold people’s attention. Even Bible studies give less focus to the Bible than they do to fellowship.
Paul stressed solid content and practical help for his listeners. He wanted them to be impressed with his message, not just his style (see 2:1-5). You don’t need to be a great speaker with a large vocabulary to share the gospel effectively.
The persuasive power should be in the story, not the storyteller. Paul was not against those who carefully prepare what they say (see 2:6), but against those who try to impress others only with their own knowledge or speaking ability. Make Christ the center of your preaching, rather than trying to be impressive.
WHAT IS SECTARIANISM? (by Charles Hodge) Sectarianism is sinful thinking. It comes from evil attitudes. Notice our text. Paul said, “There were contentions.” He did not say there were mis-understandings, different consciences, various opinions, or disagreements. There were schisms, divisions, alienations. It amounted, simply, to “my bunch over Jesus.”
It was personal pride over Jesus. An emphasis upon being in the right bunch had blinded them to their own sins. These were good people going bad. Why? A contentious attitude. Too many have been converted to a preacher, a church, an idea, or a pet peeve instead of Jesus. This is a personality disorder, not doctrine. Someone observed, “You can get off any horse but a hobby horse.” This is so true yet so sad. It is not conviction; it is being contentious. Contentious brethren cannot even get along with themselves.
A family moved from the North to the South. They were at first glad and then sad with so many congregations. One town had seven. Most came from splits. They said, “When some get annoyed, they just go start their own church.” A Hodge observation is: “Any church that started out wrongly never gets right.”
There is another evil attitude even worse than “stinking thinking.” “We did it for God!” After all, who can argue against God? Recently, the world has been shocked with the Muslims. A man authored a book, The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah Khomeini has offered $5 million to anyone, an Arab, who would assassinate the author. In fear, bookstores have removed the book. It was not selling until a price was placed upon the author’s head. Now it can be a bestseller. But the rationale is this: “We are killing in the name of God.”
“Oh, the crimes committed in the name of religion.” In Afghanistan we finally got the Russians out. Now the war is worse among factions. Perhaps we are more Islamic than we thought! “The church of Christ is the only army that shoots its wounded!” To purify the church we will divide, yea destroy it. All in the name of God!
Paradoxically, this temptation comes with our territory. We seek the truth; we condemn error. We then conclude we are saved by knowledge not faith. We go on witch hunts. The Crusades! The Inquisitions! All were done in the name of God!
Religious wars are always the meanest and bloodiest. There is a fear-dominated law-keeping rather than grace. Beware of the bad habits learned in controversy! Beware lest you become like the monster you fight! When brethren cannot bear the sight of each other, they cannot look the world in the eye either!
Sectarianism! Religious paranoia! Keep the unity of the Spirit! Be a peacemaker! Avoid sectarians. Jimmy Allen (professor of Bible at Harding University) said 30 percent of his students came from split congregations! Reuel Lemmons once observed, “Hodge, we are too fragmented to split.”
HOW IS SECTARIANISM OVERCOME? Sectarianism can only be overcome by spiritual maturity: You cannot build a community out of anything except “disciples.” We are a crowd. Will we become a church? Let us be of Jesus, not sectarians.
God is changing me. This gives me the strength to accept all others God is changing. Unity validates truth. Jesus said, “By this [love] shall men know that you are My disciples.” Until the church is one, the world cannot be won. A lost world is the price of religious division. Unity in Jesus—not agreement over personal opinions.
Unity can only be had from diversity. Unity is not union, sameness, or conformity. By the way, conformity demands a creed! Diverse elements unite because of a higher cause. This is unity. My wife and I have much in common. However, we have major and minor differences. The unity f marriage transcends these differences. Unity is not pluralism. Pluralism is only a mixture, a syncretism.
Unity transcends diversities!
Re-read Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” This misleads. Read the NIV: “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to do so?”
Some, even in 100 percent agreement, cannot walk together. You do not walk together in agreement only; you walk together in unity. We must make a vow for unity. “I’ll stick with those I am stuck with.”
An Indian was walking up a mountain when he heard a voice.
“Carry me with you,” it requested.
The Indian turned and saw a snake. He refused. “If I carry you up the mountain you will bite me.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” the snake assured. “All I need is some help. I am slow and you are fast; please be kind and carry me to the top of the mountain.”
It was against his better judgment, but the Indian agreed. He picked up the snake, put him in his shirt, and resumed the journey. When they reached the top, he reached in his shirt to remove the snake and got bit.
He fell to the ground, and the snake slithered away.
“You lied!” the Indian cried. “You said you wouldn’t bite me.”
The snake stopped and looked back, “I didn’t lie. You knew who I was when you picked me up.”
We hear the legend and shake our heads. He should have known better, we bemoan. And we are right. He should have. And so should we. But don’t we do the same? Don’t we believe the lies of the snake? Don’t we pick up what we should leave alone?
The Corinthian Christians did. One snake after another had hissed lies in their ears, and they had believed it. How many lies did they believe?
How much time do you have?
The list is long and ugly: sectarianism, disunity, sexual immorality. And that is only the first six chapters.
But First Corinthians is more than a list of sins, it is an epistle of patience. Paul initiates the letter by calling these Christians “brothers.” He could have called them heretics or hypocrites or skirt-chasers (and in so many words he does), but not before he calls them brothers.
He patiently teaches them about worship, unity, the role of women, and the Lord’s Supper. He writes as if he can see them face to face. He is disturbed but not despondent. Angry but not desperate. His driving passion is love. And his treatise on love in chapter 13 remains the greatest essay ever penned.
The letter, however personal, is not just for Corinth. It is for all who have heard the whisper and felt the fangs. We, like the Indian, should have known better. We, like the Corinthians, sometimes need a second chance.
 Max Lucado, Life Lessons from the Inspired Word of God: Book of 1 Corinthians, Inspirational Bible Study Series (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1997), 7–9.
 Ben Merold, Sermon Outlines on 1 Corinthians, ed. Sam E. Stone, Standard Sermon Starters (Cincinnati, OH: Standard, 1995), 9.
 Leadership Ministries Worldwide, The First & Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, The Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1996), 14.
 John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians: Godly Solutions for Church Problems, MacArthur Bible Studies (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2001), 14.
 Richard Oster, 1 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1995), 1 Co 1:12.
 Ben Merold, Sermon Outlines on 1 Corinthians, ed. Sam E. Stone, Standard Sermon Starters (Cincinnati, OH: Standard, 1995), 9.
 Leadership Ministries Worldwide, The First & Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, The Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1996), 15.