1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The church in Corinth, which Paul started, seems to have had an infinite capacity for division.
It seems that this is the main reason why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and he starts addressing the problem right off the bat. Verse 10 of chapter 1, where our reading for today begins, could be considered the thesis statement for the whole letter: “Now I appeal to you”—some translations use stronger language, saying I beseech you—“brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Nothing has come before this other than Paul’s greeting and thanksgiving.
If we were to read the whole letter, we’d find that the church is divided over a whole array of issues—but a whole lot of them come down to class differences. Some of the Corinthian Christians appear to have been quite wealthy, well-connected in business, used to participating in networking events that took place around food that had first been offered to idols. Others in the church weren’t so wealthy, didn’t have the business connections or the opportunities to be exposed to idol meat, and they feared that eating it could be sinful. There may well have been slaves who were part of the congregation, right alongside free people and maybe even their own masters. How did the church deal with that variety of statuses within its membership?
The wealthier, better-connected folks were probably the hosts of the church’s gatherings, since their homes would have had room to hold a substantial number of people. And they knew how a Corinthian dinner party operated: the most honored guests sat in the formal dining room; they ate the best food and drank the best wine, as much of both as they wanted. Lesser guests might have been seated in a different area, and perhaps served a lower quality of food and wine, and maybe less of it. And the really lower-status guests, maybe the higher-status folks’ servants and slaves, among others, waited in the courtyard and got the leftovers. When Paul talks in chapter 11 about Communion, this is the situation he is addressing.
The Corinthians placed high value on certain spiritual gifts, like knowledge and speaking in tongues. They tended to see people with those gifts as better or more important than others who had different gifts—and may well have said that if you didn’t have special knowledge, or didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t really saved. (That’s actually an issue that has cropped up in lots of churches at various times over the years.) It could have been that only folks with the highest-valued gifts were allowed to be leaders of the congregation, lording it over others who had less-valued gifts.
There were issues relating to the status of women in the congregation: should the church operate like the culture around it, in which women were to be seen and not heard, or quite honestly not to be seen, either, unless absolutely necessary? Or should women be able to learn and to lead within the church, even though the culture didn’t allow that? And what expectations should the church have for the women who did attend their services, given that they likely had never been allowed to attend gatherings like that, and so they had no idea how they should behave?
Divisions ran rampant in the Corinthian church, and Paul was quite distressed by them.
The first one Paul addresses in his letter has to do with what we might today call “cult of personality.” There’s no evidence in the Bible one way or another whether Peter (whom Paul consistently calls Cephas, which is the Aramaic version of his nickname) ever preached or taught or even visited Corinth. But somehow it seems that some of the Corinthian Christians declared that they belonged to Peter. We don’t know enough to say why they would give their allegiance to Peter over someone else; maybe it was because Peter represented the Jewish roots of the church, but there’s no way to know for sure.
And these particular examples of division and quarrel are probably just that, examples; there could well have been other people to whom various Corinthians declared their allegiance—previous pastors, Sunday school teachers, you name it. These divided loyalties may have had to do with the charisma of the particular leader a person attached themselves to, or they may have had to do with which leader’s teachings most resonated with a person.
But Paul was having none of it—even though he seems to indicate that some of the people there declared that they followed him. “I’m not the one who was crucified for you! I’m not the one in whose name you were baptized! Good heavens, I didn’t even baptize but a few of you myself.”
Paul doesn’t want the Corinthian church to unite around one particular human leader, not even himself. It’s not the Pauline church; it’s the Christian church, and Christ can’t be divided. Instead of arguing about which preacher or teacher or evangelist is the best, remember what it was that all of us were there to proclaim to you: the gospel of Jesus Christ, who went to a cross for us.
This is sort of how Paul deals with just about every conflict he has to address in his letters, not just the ones he wrote to the Corinthians. He could have come in and said, “I’m the one who came in here and started this church; you have to listen to me, not Cephas or Apollos or whoever.” When the Corinthians were arguing over the menu and seating arrangements for the Lord’s Supper, he could have come in and said, “It has to be this kind of bread and this kind of wine, and you all need to sit at this kind of table.” When two women in Philippi got into such a heated dispute that the whole church was choosing up sides supporting one or the other, he could have said, “Euodia is in the wrong and Syntyche is in the right; now everybody stop arguing and fall into line.” But that’s not how Paul deals with divisions and conflicts in his churches.
Given that many of the churches Paul started, especially the one in Corinth, were made up of people of different social and economic classes and statuses, not to mention different ethnicities, divisions were pretty much inevitable. But Paul is clear that the antidote to division is not for a strong leader to enforce their will and declare which side of the division is right. Instead, he persistently takes a high road. He always says, Focus on what’s bigger than even the major differences between you.
“I belong to Paul,” or “Cephas,” or “Apollos”? No, we all belong to Christ, who was crucified for us. Focus your sights on Christ and his cross, even though the rest of the world thinks it’s ridiculous.
“We are higher status than the folks out in the courtyard, so of course we get to eat better than them.” No, at this table we’re supposed to be remembering Christ’s body, broken for us all; and Christ’s blood, poured out for us all.
“Euodia says this and I agree with her; tell Syntyche to get over herself.” No, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who didn’t grasp after power and privilege, but obeyed God even though it cost him dearly.
Think about the things that divide our world right now. Ethnicity and race are big ones, of course. Left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, Republican vs. Democrat in this country, but the left-right divide is definitely not just here.
Economics are still a problem; we who have some wealth and privilege can insulate ourselves from the hard reality of folks who had trouble making ends meet even before the economy ran headlong into the Covid-19 pandemic, and because we’re insulated, we can’t begin to understand the choices that are having to be made. So we judge, and we assume things that can’t necessarily be assumed, like that people’s circumstances are always and only the result of their own poor choices.
We are different people—even among the folks who are hearing me right now there are differences. But what if we took Paul’s approach to those differences? What if, instead of saying, “I want nothing to do with you because you voted for the wrong person,” or “I can’t be in fellowship with you because you’re rich and I’m poor,” we said, “We are all created in the image of God, rich and poor, black and white and brown, Yankee or Southerner, male or female, or whatever; and Christ was crucified to save every one of us”?
We’re all different, but we don’t have to let those differences divide us. We’re all in this together, but we aren’t all having the same experiences; instead of judging folks based on our own perspectives and our own experiences, why not try being kind, and doing what Jesus commanded us: to love one another?
Stay tuned; when we return to the sanctuary next week I’ll have more to say about that very subject.