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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
2014

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Has Christ Been Divided?
By Rev. Dr. Timothy George
Dean of Beeson Divinity School
at Samford University
The Church of the Undivided Christ

Introduction (vv. 1-3)

It is ironic, perhaps, that one of the most fervent appeals for Christian unity found anywhere in the New Testament occurs in a letter to one of the most divided churches in the New Testament. That community of faith is called here simply “the church of God that is in Corinth” (v. 2). Paul will elaborate on the multiple sources for this division throughout the letter, but he begins with a series of affirmations. The members of this church have been “sanctified,” that is, set apart, made holy, consecrated. They are the objects of God’s grace and peace (v. 3). Just as Paul has been “called to be an apostle,” so they have been “called to be saints” (vv. 1-2).

This divine summons has resulted not only in a vertical relationship between Jesus Christ and individual members of the church at Corinth but also in a horizontal bond of communion among the members themselves. Throughout the letter, Paul repeatedly refers to them as “brothers and sisters” (2:1; 3:1; 10:1; 12:1; 14:6; 15:1; 16:15). Because of the deep personal ties Paul shares with this congregation, he calls them “my beloved children.” He reminds them that “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (4:14-15). Because of these deep personal and pastoral ties, the divisions in the church at Corinth are all the more painful to Paul.

Another important point is this: While Paul’s letter was written to a specific congregation with particular problems and issues, Paul sees this church as vitally connected with other Christian communities throughout the world. He tells them directly that the call to holiness they have received from God is universal in scope and has united them with other believers within the body of Christ—“together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (v. 2). Thus at the very beginning of the letter Paul brings together two themes he will explore in greater depth—the unity of the church and the lordship of Christ.

Thanksgiving (vv. 4-9)

Before launching into the concern that has prompted his letter, Paul pauses to thank God for this church. Indeed, they have been blessed in so many ways. They have been given God’s grace, enriched, strengthened, and, above all, called into the fellowship (the Greek word is koinonia, “communion”) of Jesus Christ their Lord. This is also a church rich in spiritual gifts. Paul says they are lacking in nothing when it comes to spiritual gifts. The exercise of these gifts is a source of much blessing in the church but also an occasion for rancor and division, as chapters 12-14 make clear.

Paul has a special reason to thank God for the church at Corinth since he was its founding pastor. The story of how Paul first brought the Gospel to Corinth is told in Acts 16-18. In the course of his second missionary journey, Paul had a sudden change of itinerary. Instead of continuing east, as he had originally planned, he responded to the vision of a Macedonian man begging him to “come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). Crossing the Aegean Sea, he began to preach the Gospel on European soil. First to Philippi, then to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and finally to Corinth, Paul brought the message of Jesus Christ.

Corinth was a bustling seaport at the crossroads of the shipping lanes between east and west. There had been an ancient Greek city on the site of Corinth, but it had been destroyed by the Roman Consul Mummius in 146 BCE. The new Corinth had then been re-founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. In a short period of time it had become a wealthy city, a center of bronze-making, the host of the biennial Isthmian games (which rivaled the athletic contests at Mount Olympus), as well as a political and legal outpost of Roman authority in the region. At Corinth, Roman power met Greek culture mingled with oriental mysticism and gnostic spirituality. The drinking was hard, the economy was corrupt, the sex was sizzling, and the politics was cutthroat. Everything was up for grabs in Corinth. It was a postmodern city before postmodern was cool.

Paul’s church-planting enterprise in Corinth was not a two-week wonder. He had spent eighteen months with these new believers, sharing their joys and sorrows, their heartaches and struggles, as only a pastor can share such things. This explains why Paul’s heart is broken by the report he has received that the church he planted and nurtured in the Lord is now hopelessly divided.

Divisions in the Church (vv. 10-12)

Using strong, freighted language, Paul appeals for reconciliation and unity in the church. The Greek word is parakaleo, the same verb used by Luke to describe the forlorn father’s entreaty to his elder son to be reconciled with his brother and come into the “Welcome Home” party (Luke 15:28). He expresses this desire both positively and negatively. He does not want them to be split asunder, literally, to become schismatics, torn apart from the unity they have in Christ. He exhorts them to “be in agreement,” united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Kenneth Bailey points out that the word to “agree” means, literally, “fit together” (kat-artizo). This image recalls the trade of tent-making, about which Paul knew a thing or two. “Pieces of canvas must ‘fit together’ or the tent will leak. If the canvas ‘splits,’ the tent is worthless.” Unity does not mean homogeneity. There is a diversity of gifts within the body of Christ, and this is by divine design. But such gifts much be tempered by the Holy Spirit in order to contribute to the building up of the entire body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). But the Corinthian brothers and sisters are at war with one another. There is infighting, quarreling, anger, bitterness, and disputes that lead to division.

What has caused these disputes? A full answer requires an exposition of the entire letter, for this most gifted church was also fractured in many ways. Divisions had sprung up over numerous issues, including money, doctrine (especially eschatology, according to chapter 15), liturgy (as Corinth had its own raging worship wars), feminine fashions (as evidenced in the question in chapter 11 of what women should wear to church), behavior at the Lord’s table, the practice of Christian freedom (including eating meat offered to idols, according to chapters 8-9), divorce, marriage, sexuality, celibacy, church and state (seen in the matter of whether Christians should sue one another in the secular law courts), church discipline, faith and reason (particularly the danger of intellectualizing the Gospel), and the presenting issue in chapter 1 of pride, arrogance, and party strife within the congregation.

In fact, a four-way split had developed within the church. “One of you says ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another ‘I follow Christ’” (1:12). The Paul Party, the Peter Party, and the Apollos Party had all made celebrities out of their favorite preachers. The church at Corinth was in danger of being seduced by the pagan culture around it, and ministers of the Gospel turned into glamorous heroes, “jocks in the pulpit.” God had given these leaders to the church to be “servants of Christ” (3:5), but instead they had become a source of enmity and division.

The results were no different for the fourth group, the so-called Christ Party, who claimed that they were the ones who really belonged to Christ, unlike all the others. But their confidence wasn’t really in Christ—it was in themselves, meaning their orthodoxy, their uprightness, their special status. With reference to this group, Paul would later write: “If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, so also are we” (2 Cor. 10:7). In other words, Paul says to them: “The fact that you ‘belong to Christ’ is wonderful. This makes grace more immeasurable; it does not make you more memorable!”

At the heart of these divisions was the sin of pride. In the name of purity, tradition, correctness, and spirituality the church at Corinth became puffed up, sniping at one another, walking around on stilts, building fences around their own petty preoccupations. During the Reformation, Martin Luther reminded those who wanted to exalt him above measure: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name and should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

When the world looks at us, as it did at the Christians in Corinth, what does it see? Do we come across as “genuine servants of Christ,” those willing to put the interests of others ahead of our own? Or are we better known for our partisan competitions, personal rivalries, and cliquish exclusivism? What does Jesus think when he looks down on all of this? Is not the Holy Spirit grieved?

Three Questions (vv. 13-17)

In this context, Paul asks three crucial questions.

1. “Is Christ divided?”  Eugene Peterson translates this text: “Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?”  You’re acting, Paul says, as though Christ was a chunk of meat, a commodity you can buy down at the butcher shop, something to be hacked and diced up and passed around like hors d’oeuvres at a party! The Greek word here is memeristai, which means to divide into parties or sects. We could translate Paul’s question this way: Is Christ a partisan? Is Christ sectarian? The very idea, of course, is ludicrous. Christ is not divisible.

The church of the New Testament is the church of the undivided Christ. This fact alone marked Christianity off from the pagan religions of the ancient Mediterranean world. Wherever one looked in Corinth, there was evidence of a pervasive polytheism. On top of the nearby mountain stood the great temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The cult of the Roman emperor also flourished there, as did many of the mystery religions imported from Egypt and the East. No wonder Paul can say that in the world there are many “gods” and many “lords.” Yet for us, he insists, “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:5). Jesus Christ cannot be divided because there is only one God, and Jesus is divine not in the sense of the Greek gods whose divinity was mutable and contingent, but rather as the one who has come from “the bosom of the Father” to disclose the eternal reality of the one eternal God who has forever known himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Here is Paul’s point: There is a direct correlation between ecclesiology and Christology, between the church and its heavenly Head, Jesus Christ. And when we live in rancor, bitterness, and enmity with one another, we are not only sinning against our brother and sister, we are also sinning against Christ. This is a lesson Paul learned on the first day he became a Christian. On his way to persecute believers in Damascus, he was suddenly halted by the risen Christ who asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He might well have responded, “I am not persecuting you. I’m on my way to arrest these miserable Christians!” But Jesus’ question to Saul implies that it is not possible to hurt those who belong to him, those who have been redeemed by his blood, without also hurting him. When you do it unto the least of these, my brother, you do it unto me!

This perspective elevates the question of disunity and conflict among believers to an entirely new level. Would we say about Jesus what we have said about some of our colleagues, friends, and fellow church members? Would we direct our anger at him the way we have held grudges or harbored bitter thoughts against them?

2. “Was Paul crucified for you?” Here Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that their life in Christ is inextricably bound up with what happened one Friday afternoon in Jerusalem outside the gates of the city when Jesus was impaled on a Roman cross. Why does he bring in the cross at this point? Because the cross is where all the bragging stops. Behind all the side-choosing and sloganeering—I am of “Paul,” I am of “Apollos,” etc.—was the self-assertion and self-glorification of those who had an overweening confidence in their own virtues and abilities: the wise, the weighty, and the well-born, as Paul refers to them (1:26). The common anthropological assumptions of Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture greatly valued all forms of human assertiveness as badges of excellence, strength, and virtue (from the Latin virtus, meaning “manliness” or “worth”). Physical prowess, military feats, oratorical abilities, intellectual acumen, political power, monetary success, social status—all these were things to be proud of and to glory in.

But in contrast to all this, Paul holds up something utterly despicable, contemptible, and valueless by any worldly standard—the cross of Christ. For 2000 years the cross has been so variously and beautifully represented in Christian iconography and symbolism that it is almost impossible for us to appreciate the sense of horror and shock that must have greeted the apostolic proclamation of a crucified redeemer. Actually, the Latin word crux was regarded as an expression so crude that no polite Roman would utter it in public. In order to get around this difficulty, the Romans devised a euphemistic circumlocution, “Hang him on the unlucky tree” (arbori infelici suspendito), an expression that comes from Cicero. But what the world regarded as too shameful to whisper in polite company, a detestable object used for the brutal execution of the dregs of society, Paul declared to be the proper basis for exaltation. In the cross, and the cross alone, Paul said, he would make his boast in life and death, for all time and eternity. As the old  Glassite hymn says:

When false foundations all are gone,
Each lying refuge blown to air,
The cross remains our boast alone,
The righteousness of God is there.

3. “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” It might seem strange that Paul would bring baptism into the argument at this point. Several years ago, Michael Green, a distinguished Anglican church leader, published a book about baptism titled The Water that Divides. For centuries Christians have been deeply divided about the meaning, significance, and role of baptism in the life of the church. Should we baptize infants or only adult believers? How much water should we use—do we drip, douse, or dunk? How does baptism relate to church membership? Who is authorized to baptize—ordained ministers only or laypersons as well? Entire denominations have divided over such issues in the past, and such differences are far from resolved today.
But something else is at stake in this passage. The question here is: In whose name have you been baptized?

In the early church, baptism was not a private ritual to be performed in secret. It was a public confession of allegiance to Jesus Christ. Baptized Christians were often singled out for persecution and were sometimes taken directly from the sacred waters of baptism to the expected blood bath in the arena. To be baptized in the name of Jesus was risky business. It was a public declaration that “the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17). During the Reformation, Huldrych Zwingli compared baptism to the white cross sewed onto the uniform of the Swiss mercenary soldiers, among whom he once served as a chaplain. Wherever the soldiers moved across the battlefield, they would be identified to all who saw them by the white cross sewn onto their red uniform. This design can still be seen today on the Swiss national flag. Baptism too, Zwingli thought, was a public badge which identified one with a particular cause. Baptism marked the believer off as a member of the militia Christi, a soldier of the Gospel, fighting under the direction of Christ the Captain.

This was true not only of individual Christians but also of the church as the called-out people of God. Paul declares that something radically new and different has occurred within this baptized community so that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). The three pairs of opposites Paul listed in this verse stand for the fundamental cleavages of human existence: ethnicity, economic capacity, and sexuality. Race, money, and sex are primal powers in human life. No one of them is inherently evil, yet each of these spheres of human creativity has become degraded and soiled through the perversity of sin. Nationality and ethnicity have been corrupted by pride, material blessings by greed, and sexuality by lust. This has led to the chaotic pattern of exploitation and self-destruction that marks the human story, from the tower of Babel to the attacks on the Twin Towers.

But the Good News of the Gospel is that those who have become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ have broken free from enslavement to these controlling forces.  A new standard and pattern of life now distinguishes the baptized community from the environing society all around it. Here, as nowhere else, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). As Gerhard Ebeling has said, the boundaries of baptism define “the existence of a place in the world where things are different:  Jews and Gentiles share the same table; slaves and free citizens are treated equally as brothers and sisters; women are accorded a respect that is more substantial than a merely outward and sometimes too-edged ‘equality.’”

To be baptized in the name of the crucified and risen Christ means that we have acquired a new set of comrades. We now wear the same cross on our uniforms, and we march together under the same banner, the blood-stained banner of the Lamb. We are soldiers engaged in battle, but we must not direct our weapons against one another but against the real Enemy who has come to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10).

Conclusion

Paul’s three questions at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians point to the fact that the unity of the church is grounded in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the one and only Lord of the church: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v. 13). The answer to all these questions is a resounding no! Jesus Christ is indivisible. His atoning sacrifice alone procures our justification and right standing before God. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one God we know and worship through His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. We belong to the church of the Undivided Christ, and we pray for that day when we can all worship together the Christ of the Undivided Church.

For Further Reading

  • Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975)
  • Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in First Corinthians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011)
  • Timothy George and John Woodbridge, The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See (Chicago: Moody Press, 2005), pp. 25-46
  • Charles H. Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on First and Second Corinthians (New York: Crossroad, 1989)

Dr. Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and general editor of the 28-volume Reformation Commentary on Scripture. He is the author of more than twenty books including Theology of the Reformers, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, and Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey. An active participant in bi-lateral theological dialogues and Evangelicals and Catholics Together, he chairs the Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity of the Baptist World Alliance.