1 Corinthians 1-4 – The Problem of Division

It is well known that the church at Corinth had “divisions” over leadership.  Some considering Paul their authority, other Apollos, others Peter, and still others accepted only Jesus as their authority.  It is possible that these divisions represent competing house churches, some founded by Paul, some by Apollos.  But even if there are multiple house churches founded by different leaders, Paul passionately argues that the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way.  In fact, these divisions are a sign of worldliness.  How can the presence of “divisions” be described as “worldly?”

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Bruce Winter details the Greco-Roman practice of discipleship in the second chapter of After Paul Left Corinth. He finds that there is a great deal of parallels between the disciple-teacher relationship in the culture of Corinth and the problem of divisions in the church over the authority of teachers. Dio Chrysostom visited Corinth about A.D. 89-96.  He described the activities of the disciples of the Sophists – the professional orators who were able to command large audiences, high fees for educating youth, and often a great deal of power within the city.   There was extreme competition among the orators for honor and power.  The better the orator, the higher the fee, and the more disciples he will attract.  Dio Chrysostom complained that Corinth was filled with “wretched” sophists, many of whom were debating one another with “shouting and abuse” near the temple to Poseidon.  (I suppose that if Dio were commenting on the modern world, he would describe the “wretched bloggers” shouting abuse at the temple of WordPress…!)

Paul enters this world of “wretched Sophists” and preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He gathers disciples and establishes a church, a meeting place for educating his disciples.  He begins the process of developing them into leaders who will also preach the gospel and found more churches. The Gentiles coming into this new Church do not seem to be able to see the differences between it and a Greco-Roman philosopher gathering disciples and educating them in a particular philosophy.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul consciously avoids disciple-teacher language.  Paul did not want to present the Gospel as an orator, competing for students as they did.  In fact, Paul never claims disciples.  This is really what is behind his disclaimer on baptism in 1 Cor 1:14-16.  He come to Corinth to create a community of disciples from which he might receive patronage and prestige.

Paul does not want to be considered a philosopher who is gathering disciples, nor does he want that for Apollos or Peter or any man.  So rather that detailing their accomplishments as orators, Paul describes their functions (Paul planted, Apollos watered, etc.)   Christians are all disciples, or better, stewards and servants of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1).

The real problem behind the “divisions” is that the church continues to act like Christianity is just another philosophy, and teachers are in competition with each other just as the Greek orators competed.  They are still acting “just like the world.”  This is the challenge of the “divisions” in 1 Corinthians –  how does the modern church act “just like the world”? In what ways have we failed to “de-paganize”? I do not think things have improved much since the first century.

17 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 1-4 – The Problem of Division

  1. I agree with P. Long’s last statement in that things have not improved much since the first century. Just as there was competiveness for honor and prestige among the orators of the first century, it also seems like there is competition between the pastors and churches of today. Like the orators wanted more money from the fees they charged, many pastors just want more people to look better and have a bigger budget. In my church it seems like they are all about numbers. I lead a small group so I sometimes have to sit in meetings where the pastor shares things about the vision of our church. One of his biggest goals is to double our congregation so we have 5,000 members. Why? If we sacrifice quality for numbers I don’t think we are being good stewards of our gift of leadership. Like I talked about in the first posting, the emerging church makes me question a lot of things they are doing. Because I am a little defensive it seems like they are almost my enemy. Maybe if they are getting rid of core doctrine it is a justifiable anger but I can definitely see how the church is very much the same as 2000 years ago. Polhill says, “every Corinthian had their own favorite preacher” (237). He then goes on to explain that it was the Corinthian wisdom that created so much disunity. Paul knew this and said in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” All that mattered to Paul was Jesus! He didn’t focus on himself being superior to all the rest of the church leaders. I think today if church leaders focus on Jesus and only Jesus we would be so much healthier. We may not all agree on the way to do church but there is definitely more than one effective way. By focusing on Jesus we can see how important the parts of church really are.

  2. I would agree that we find ourselves in much the same situations as those listening to the Greek philosophers/orators. We feel some sense of connectedness to the teachers (pastors/leaders) whose teachings we sit under while they count us as proof of their effectiveness (numbers). I was unaware of this connection before now but it really makes sense. Orators have to be so careful not to let teaching become a pride thing rather than a gift they share to better the other. It is interesting how quickly we forget where our gifts come from and think we are the cause of “success.” Therefore our boasting should only be in the Lord (1 Corinthains 1:26-31).

    Teaching to be effective first needs to effect/transform the life of the teacher and then connect with those who hear. I think we have failed to de-paganize the art of preaching/teaching if pastors/leaders are looking for patronage, prestige, and numbers over relationships, service, and transformation. Like Greg, I recognize this tension in some of the churches I have served in and find it appalling (1 Corinthians 3:18-19). Faith rests on God’s shoulders alone- its not by our wisdom and ability (Polhill 237). I have to admit though that sometimes I think about numbers and recognition and want that. What should our evaluation of a ministry look like I wonder if its not by numbers? Do we need to be looking for results? If so, what results are we shooting for?

  3. I would also agree that division in the church is still a very real issue. One of the key indicators of this would be the number of denominations that exist within our same basic faith. We constantly hear of churches splitting over petty disagreements in theology or even for material/social reasons. When this occurs, people within the congregation either stay with the church or follow the leader of the split. Like Paul dealt with in Corinth, people today still put their loyalty in teachers, pastors, and the wisdom of man instead of in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Too often the church today expects a charismatic pastor who delivers a “feel good” message that does not step on anyone’s toes. There is little demand for biblical truth or a strong community within the body of Christ and I think we are seeing the results of that when we look at the overall condition of the church in America.

  4. There are several things that split the church today. The first and perhaps biggest is denominations. Everybody has their denomination and they cling relentless to their doctrinal beliefs. (Even non-denominationals do this, just without claiming a denominational title). I’m not saying its wrong to stick to what you believe. It is extremely important. But when doctrinal beliefs keep churches from working together to further the gospel.

    A second issue that seems to keep the church divided (the whole church and individual churches) is the little things such as the structure of the service, the type of music played for worship, whether a pastor should always wear a tie, and what color should be used in the bathroom. It’s pathetic that people should get so angry about whether drums are used or if the AC unit is kept at 71 or 70. I don’t remember Paul seeing any thing like these issues as other than trivial.

    Now, we are similar to the ancient world in that some people do see their pastors/teachers as a source of pride. Today we have followers of Rob Bell, Rick Warren, and even Joel Osteen (for some reason). I do not identify my self as being a follower of anybody but Jesus (although there are certain theologians that I do hold in higher regard than others). I think that if you put the teachings of a man over the teachings of Scripture then you have a problem.

    • It is interesting to take what you say are the two main causes for division and apply it to what P.Long said about the real problem behind divisions. If Christianity were treated as more than just another philosophy, these would not be issues. The modern church does no better than the ancient world at this. Even after 2000 years we still struggle with taking paganism out. Many times things with good intention can bring a form of paganism into churches. For example, patriotism in churches can lead to divided allegiances and worship of the country. “God and Country” can fall apart when citizens of the USA want vengeance and citizens of Heaven are told to “forgive as Christ forgave”. Even good intentioned things like patriotism can bring a sense of Paganism into the modern church.

  5. “In what ways have we failed to “de-paganize”?” It seems like it would be better to ask in what ways have we been re-paganized. If I am not out of line I seem to remember that Constantine played a large role in allowing Pagan influences back into the Christian Life. The most well known one is having worship on Sundays instead of the Sabbath. This also brings up another Pagan influence which is naming the days of the week after the planets. It seems like this isn’t a problem and doesn’t affect the church much in its present state. There are many other things that do cause serious problems stemming from the outside world. One of these influencing factors is consumerism which finds its way into even the way Christians think. This unintentional mindset causes people to treat the Bible and its words like it is a product that can wear out, and ignored like an infomercial. When I say worn out I mean people say that it is not usable in the modern world so its words become little more than foot rests in the pew. When I say it gets ignored like an infomercial you probably infer what that means. It seems so bland compared to all the other choices out there when really it presents and encourages people to live out a very different and exciting life in the opposite direction of the world. This consumerism that we face today in the end doesn’t seem all that much different from the way the Christian faith was treated like just another philosophy back in the days of Paul.

  6. I would like to start off with a quote (forgive me for the length) from Polhill that I found to be all to strikingly familiar of today’s churches.
    “Some had no problem with consuming meat that had been sacrificed to idols; for others, it was a real offense. Some boasted of their special spiritual gifts; others felt left out. Some ‘pigged out’ at the Lord Supper; others had barely enough to eat. Some sued their fellow Christians in the secular courts. Some considered Paul their leader, others Apollos, still others Peter. Their conflicts undoubtedly had its theological and philosophical dimensions, but it was social as well, human and petty, high on pride and low on love” (Polhill 233).
    Today’s church is a lot like the church of Corinthians. We have our theological view points, and even our philosophical ones (even though we could have less of that in our churches today in my opinion) but we also have our social dimensions as well. Its all about who looks the best, how much money is made, and how big our churches are. I agree with Greg, I see a lot of times where Pastors begin to care more about the number of the congregation rather on the connectedness of it. Phil Long is correct, we have not improved much since the first century. I always have, and always will believe that this overly exaggerated concept of denominations is a problem. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons our churches are so split and why we act more like the world rather than more like Christ. I understand the fact that people have different beliefs and would like to stick to those (it is good to sick to what you believe) but when you get so segregated that you cannot work together anymore, it becomes a serious problem. We get so off track of what Christianity is all about—Mark 12:30-31– and begin focusing on worldly things like Rob Bell… debated are actually being held to see if this Pastor is even Christian! Why are these thing SO important? We become followers of out Pastors and churches rather than of Christ.
    “In what ways have we failed to de-paganize?” (Phil Long). I think that some of the ways we have failed to de-paganize is because we are still so focused on the little things that ‘make up the church’. Going off of what Cody is saying, in today’s church everything needs to be just right. The bibles need to match the pews which need to match the carpet which need to match the wall color. We worry about how the power points are going to look, if we should have one or two singers, drums or no drums, electric guitars or none at all (I feel like you get my point)… its almost as if we worship these things! We are so proud of them when they look right, but when things start to fall apart, the church begins to fall apart as well. This is not what the Church was meant to be like, and I fully believe that Paul would be appalled by our actions today as a Church of believers in Jesus Christ.

  7. I will jump on the bandwagon here and say that division is definitely an issue today. However, I would like to approach this in a different way than the comments already present here. I would like to approach it from an evangelistic standpoint. The countless denominations and different beliefs of Christianity are often not appealing to non-believers. There are even discrepancies inside single denominations (which means we have division inside our divisions, great…). To an unbeliever, this looks like we cannot agree on our own religion. If I was not raised in a Christian home, I think that I would have the same concerns.

    Yes, we have the “core beliefs” that most Christians will agree upon, but the rest is still very confusing to non-believers. I personally experienced this at work about a year and a half ago. I was taking my break and a person I work with asked where I went to college. I told them GBC and they said something along the lines of, “Oh a Bible college? Then you’re a Christian right?” Even though our conversation could only continue for about 10 more minutes, this issue of divisions within the church arose. I told them that it is a concern of mine as well. I told them that I do not foresee and end to these divisions anytime soon (sadly). Like the “world”, Christians are too concerned with being right and having our way. Unfortunately, this has effected our outreach.

  8. THis has some interesting rabbit trails going on here. I think the division of the church is just as big of an issues as it was in the 1st century, if not more so. One of the biggest things I see dividing churches being the result of is denominations. there are so many denominations out there that all follow the same basic faith that we have. i hate how when peple look for a job in Youth Ministry and the denomination is what makes or breaks it for them. Scott points out that people in the church today want to hear a sermon that does not step on anyone’s toes and makes someone. This is why I do not believe it is necessary to avoid stepping on someones toes. I am not saying you have to step on someones toes. they want to hear a sermon that is going to bing comfort to them.

  9. It is tough for some non-believers to look at Christianity as 100% truth apart from just being a philosophy since everyone, including pastors that we know and love, have been debating and picking apart eachothers’ view of certain minuscule issues in Christianity. The church really does not look like imitators of God to a lot of outsiders, as it says in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loving children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Instead, the theological debates and nitpicking has reflected attributes of Christianity being more of a study and a philosophy than a truth and way of life. Corinth deals with somewhat similar issues as Paul reflects on in the first book. “In 1 Corinthians they are primarily within the congregation, consisting of its own problems of disunity” (Polhill 233).

  10. Well. PLong went and asked a pretty broad question, and for lack of any other way to answer it, I am going to throw out a pet peeve of mine that actually fits into this category, though not precisely I suppose. Beware, there is a significant chance that whatever I write now will make a lot of people somewhat irate… especially Worship Arts and Youth Min students.

    At any rate, I used to, and probably still do, constantly lack a legitimate understanding of the nature of the music we sing in Church. Ultimately I necessarily applied the same logic that drives that lack of understanding to church ministry as a whole.

    As near as I can tell, there is a perpetual tension in the Church relating to music between at least two “opposing” ideas of music. One says that the worship music should be strongly theologically sound and have a firm grounding in Biblical doctrine, (which apparently is an accurate description of most or all of the “good old hymns”?) The other says that the worship music should be such that a new person (generally presumed a “young” new person) might walk into the church for the first time and find the music easy to relate to. (some varieties of this idea add ‘easy to understand’ and ‘adequately reflective of the Gospel message’ but the first generally works against the direction that proponents of this idea typically want to go, and the second is so vague that it really gets generally ignored by the people who utilize it).

    Honestly, I haven’t really witnessed this sort of ideological conflict relating to music in the last few years, but the same sort of ideas can be found relating to ministry. While I personally have my pet peeve with the logic and philosophical values behind these two ideas (predominantly the second, but often the first as well) It seems to me that Paul would apply his doctrine of love as emphasized in 1 Cor 13 to this division as much as any other division in the church. Ultimately, when I break these two ideas down, both sides pretty much come down to preference. People want to worship with the sort of music that they like to sing and hear. All the rest of this is just philisophical justifications for our personal preferences. And making such an enormous huliballoo out of something as simple as preferences is not in the least bit loving in any way. Love fosters unity and, in this context, compromise.

    Well, that didn’t come out nearly as controversial as I thought it would…

  11. The church is full of humans which automaticaly spells out trouble. The church is now concumed with staying up to speed with the right kind of music, look, ect. Now, there is nothing wrong with these things being on the back burner but they are often the main focus. What will give the most appealing outward appearance rather than trusting the Spirit to draw people in. I have seen splits in a church over music or curriculum. How does that represent the church to th outside world, how does that make us stad outto them. Well, it does in sme ways but they are all negative rathe than postive.When our focus is not on Jesus and bringing the gospel of the freedom fund in Him to others then we become just likethe world. We have no changed that much from when the church started. Yes we have a different style and the world is rapidly changing, butthe core problems are still there. We need to fix our eyes upon Jesus and keep them off of the worldly desires and off of the flaws in eachother.

  12. I appreciate the perspective given by the author – and agree 100% that the body of Christ is divided. It’s not just the denominations per se any more – there’s also a proliferation of ‘house churches’ too. They are springing up all over the place, including Downunder (Australia) where I live here in Brisbane.

    While there can be problems with some (no recognised leadership, disorganised, isolated, cultishness, lack of cohesion etc) they can also produce some of the strongest disciples I’ve seen for many years, and yet, they could easily claim to be that fourth division like the one at Corinth – the “I am of Christ” division, where they have no name (no favoured preacher/teacher) but are still divided off.

    In my experience though, I find that it is carnal and unspiritual leaders that put up walls and fences between members of the body. It is those who have a financial interest in their own wellbeing, that divide the sheep up into different folds. God only sees one fold, (John 10) and there is only one faith, one Lord, one baptism etc.

    God’s people who are moving in revival (like we have been to experiencing right here in Brisbane these last few months) have no qualms about getting together to see the nation of Australia come to Christ. It’s pastors, bishops and others who fear the loss of their livlihoods as their former sheep ‘move on in God’ towards the new wine skins of revival that want to maintain the old wine skins which brought them an income. God is all about people, not money, and I feel sorry for anyone who tries to take over the current move of God, put it in a box, stick a label on it, and own it – they will be swept away.

    Austin Hellier
    Brisbane Queensland

  13. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Austin. My impression is that the same sorts of problems evident in Corinth are clearly evident in the contemporary church, whether that is West Michigan or Brisbane. Obviously sin is at the heart of these divisions, but I am encouraged to hear that at least in your corner of the world there is some unification and revival.

  14. I believe that if people would take their eyes off man and stop putting man up up so high and put THE MASTER BACK FIRST in their lives it won’t be so much division in our churches. And I say that because some people focus on “PREACHER” instead of THE “SAVIOR”.

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