1 Corinthians 1-4 – Division in the Church

It is well known that division in the church of Corinth was 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?”

Division in the Church

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.

14 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 1-4 – Division in the Church

  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. 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.

  4. “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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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”.

  10. Although the modern church has improved in many ways compared to the ancient churches, there is still the issue of division that exists among differing churches as was in the ancient churches. For instance, in the Greco-Roman culture the practice of teacher-disciple relationships was often common and so many Christian converts in Corinth would associate themselves with a particular teacher and be under their discipleship. As a result, this led to the division among Christian converts and to the Christian community as a whole. In comparison to modern churches, it’s easy to say that there are hardly any divisions among Christians and differing churches…but could these divisions still exist today? In fact, there are still many divisions that exist today in modern churches. The first noticeable division would be among differing denominations. Now to this, there should be a division that exists considering that there are some denominations that do teach correct biblical doctrine, while other churches deviate from correct biblical doctrine in order to teach their own false doctrines. Aside from this acceptable division within the modern church, there are also two other reasons for division which should not exist. One of them being the reason to follow a specific pastor. Even as Christians, there seems to be the desire of wanting to uphold one pastor over another by comparison and ultimately glorifying certain pastors. Yet, in reality as long as correct biblical doctrine is being taught no pastor should be viewed in comparison to one another. The other reason is the division among churches of the same denomination. It seems unbelievable at first to think that this kind of division exists within the modern church, but more often than not it is actually one of the most common reasons for division. Even though the churches within a certain denomination agree to the same biblical teachings, some churches within those denominations may begin to disagree with the biblical teachings and break away from the denomination to become affiliated with another denomination that aligns with their beliefs.

  11. Public arguments were commonplace in the Greco-Roman world at the time that Paul was writing to the Corinthian church. One’s honor and reputation were valued highly and if someone attacked your reputation it was expected that you would defend yourself and retaliate by publicly bashing your attacker. It was considered honorable for you to stand up for yourself in this way. It was expected.
    We see similar situations today, with political debates often devolving into a shouting match in which the person who yells their opinion the loudest and the longest is the winner. And just as the Corinthian church was not above the petty rivalries of its time, neither is the modern church above becoming involved in such shouting matches. If Paul could see the divisions between the various denominations of today, what would he say? Furthermore, would the apostle not also be concerned with other divisions within the individual church body?
    A number of churches in this postmodern era have begun to resemble the Corinthian church in alarming ways. Take the various ‘mega-churches’ for example, whose charismatic pastors live in mansions. These preachers draw in masses of people every week who are eager to hear them speak. Church has become about the pastor and not about his message. If Paul were to visit one of these churches, he would see a good-looking man in a custom suit standing over everybody else, and his mind would go straight to the orators of his day.

  12. It is sad to see that our world appears just as divided today as it did back in the first century. The human condition is, unfortunately, one of comparison that seeks to place oneself or their beliefs over another. As bad as it is, it makes sense for the people of Paul’s day to be concerned with whatever home church has the best orator, and then argue for them to other potential followers. With Paul’s harsh criticism of said divisions, you would think that we might have learned how to move beyond that in the 21st Century, however, that is not the case. Instead of directly saying that we follow Paul, or Apollos, we say that we are Baptist, Reformed, or even Catholic. Divisions never really ended with Paul’s letters; they just appear to have evolved into having more sophisticated names. We, as the modern church, say that we hold to Paul’s message that we shouldn’t be conformed to this world, but when we look at the world, there seem to be just as many divisions. Just looking at America, there are political divisions that have destroyed relationships, there are social divisions that have sparked riots around the nation, and there are even religious divisions that have pitted millions against each other. Within our churches, and even in our own denominations (sophisticated name for divisions…), we argue about church funds, who’s on the worship team, and whether the youth should have long hair. Throughout this 2000 year process of normalizing divisions among believers, we have consistently neglected the fact we Jesus should unite us, and unless we choose to make a change, we will continue to forget this fact.

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