The apostle Paul wrote a number of letters to different churches, most of which he himself had planted. But Paul didn’t usually write out of the blue. He is usually writing in response to news he has received from the churches and usually to put them back on the right track when they have gone astray. A few years ago we thought about the letter to the Galatians in our evening services and saw how that church was being led by a false gospel. In a series of morning sermons we saw how the Colossians were being led astray by false teaching. And the same is true here in 1 Corinthians. Paul has received a letter we don’t have telling him about a number of problems in the church in Corinth and 1 Corinthians is Paul’s response to those issues.
So after initial greetings Paul gets stuck in to the first of these problems.
1 Cor 1 10 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.”
Perhaps the biggest threat to the church at Corinth is a very common problem in churches. Division, party-spirit, quarrelling. Groups and factions gathered around different figureheads.
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.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14 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.
Many preachers use this passage to talk about unity between Christians of different denominations. But the original context is of the one congregation of all the Christians in Corinth. Paul is talking about the problems of division and disunity within a particular congregation.
There is only one church! Christ is NOT divided. It is not a question of who brought us to Christ, Billy Graham or Nicky Gumbel or J.John or Rico Tice. It’s not about who we were baptized by! Or whose teachings we prefer – Tom Wright or Steve Chalke or whoever is the latest fashionable preacher on Premier Radio or God TV or the main stage at Spring Harvest. Christ is not divided.
The problem of divisiveness is addressed in a number of places in the 1 Corinthians. We will read about the arguments over spiritual gifts and which gifts are the most important in chapter 12. That will prompt Paul to teach about the church as the body of Christ – one body with many parts.
1 Corinthians 12 12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The church is one body. Every congregation is part of that one body of Christ and at the same time itself a single body. It may have different parts, but all belong to that one body. 1 Corinthians gives solemn warnings for all churches for all time of the dangers of division within any congregation. And those warnings are even for us at North Springfield Baptist Church.
It can so easily happen. Groups gather around particular leaders. Different emphases. Subtle differences in doctrine. Personalities clash and before you know it a church tears itself apart in two, or three, or even four pieces. One group thinking they are better than another, for any one of a hundred foolish reasons. Another group feeling devalued or marginalized. Events from decades ago still fuelling resentments today. Paul is very clear in what he says in chapter 3. Quarreling is not a sign of spiritual maturity but of childishness and immaturity.
1 Corinthians 3 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men?
A church split into different factions following different figureheads. Peter was the Leader of the church in Jerusalem, Paul was the founder of the church at Corinth. Apollos was the preacher and teacher who came to Corinth after Paul to help the church grow in faith. Peter and Apollos would never have encouraged that kind of party spirit any more than Paul did. But different groups claimed different church leaders as their figureheads and the result was quarreling and argument.
3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
Divisions in the church are not only signs of childishness and immaturity, says Paul. Jealousy and quarreling are signs of worldliness. Older translations use the word “carnal.” Controlled by the flesh, our fallen sinful human nature. Arguments and disunity are the marks of Christians still giving into our sinful human desires for power and recognition and control.
Churches can be divided by all kinds of things, from seemingly important understandings of doctrines to totally trivial matters like the colour of the walls or the style of the chairs. So many churches are split over forms of worship and preferences in music. I know of one church which in its heyday found it needed more space. They found a piece of land a mile away and built much bigger and more impressive premises. But when the time came to open their new building some of the church refused to move and the church completely split giving a thriving new church and a struggling remnant. Divisions when some people embrace change and others fiercely resist change.
In the church in Corinth it seems there was a big division between those who were materially rich and those who were poor, and that difference was even spoiling the Lord’s Supper for them.
1 Corinthians 11 17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
A gulf between rich and poor. But I was very sad to hear last week that there are divisions today in some Baptist Churches over the Lord’s Supper. Some Baptist Churches, like some of the newer non-denominational churches, are trivialising the Lord’s Supper. No prayer of Confession. No invitation to the Table. No prayer of Thanksgiving. No prayers of Intercession at the Lord’s Table for the needs of the church. In one church I attended during my last Sabbatical, which was a truly wonderful church in every other way, the bread and the wine were simply placed on a table beside the door and people were invited to help themselves on their way out to coffee.
It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11 applies to that church.
27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34 If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
Unity in church life is not an optional extra but at the heart of what it means to be the church. Jesus had prayed that His disciples would be united!
John 17 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
God wants the church to be one. For our own sake. For the sake of God’s glory. And supremely for the sake of all those in the world around who are lost without Christ. We need to be united to show the world God’s love in action to that the world will believe in Jesus. And to see what that unity means in practice we need only look back to things we were learning a few weeks ago in Philippians.
Philippians 2 2 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
There is no place in the church for selfish ambition or vain conceit. Instead we need true humility. We need to be like minded and to be one in spirit and purpose.
While he was President of the United States Ronald Reagan had an inspiring sign on his desk. “THERE IS NO LIMIT TO WHAT A MAN CAN DO OR WHERE HE CAN GO IF HE DOESN’T MIND WHO GETS THE CREDIT.”
Mature Christians will be united in their faith. They will show God’s love, as Paul explains in that wonderful 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. … 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
LET’S USE THESE VERSES AS A MEDITATION TO MAKE SURE DIVISION DOES NOT CREEP INTO OUR LIVES AND OUR CHURCH