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.

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

  1. I would have to agree that things have not improved much since the first century. I would say that many times it seems that in Christianity and churches today we do not seem to be getting better, but rather it seems worse. We are acting like the world in the way that we are still allowing the sin of jealous, frustration, irritation, and selfishness dig deep into our churches. We are allowing the littlest things in the church bother us, and completely disrupt ourselves and those around us for what we are truly at church for, and what the body of Christ is supposed to be. We are to be continually lifting each other up in encouragement, and praising the Lord in everything that we do. When we put one another down, or get distracted from praising the Lord and worshiping Him like He deserves, we are far from what we are supposed to be doing. Many times we think that we know best, and that what we want or desire is the best and nobody knows better than what we know. In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the division of Corinth, and he says “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in the age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (ESV). We are to not deceive ourselves into thinking that we know best, and too many times in our Christian life and in the church we are letting that happen.

  2. As king Solomon would say: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). Sin certainly isn’t a new thing, and since the Church is comprised entirely of sinners we’re bound to get things wrong from time to time. One such problem is that we have never really gotten over our tendency to develop factions. It looks a little different today from how it did in Bible times, though. Rather than Paul or Apollos, we follow Calvin, or Luther, or Wesley. The names are different, but the disunity is the same. And really, whether the specific problem is disunity, or legalism, or lukewarm living, the Church will always struggle with the temptation to live like the world does. Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to be “imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), and we should do the same. It should be easy to distinguish between a Christian and a non-Christian. The Church is called to be set apart, a unique entity devoted to serving God.

  3. I never really thought about the churches real problems with following which leader until reading this post. It makes a lot more sense now since you stated in the first sentence of the last paragraph that they treated Christianity like another philosophy. With that in mind, it is easy to see and understand why there would be competition to see who is following a more educated and more better leadership. The modern church, I think, acts a lot like the divisions in Corinth. I experienced this at my home church three years ago. The Youth Pastor left the church and took almost half of the church with him. The people that left were the ones that supported his ministry and no other ministry. SO because of the disagreement to expand the church in certain areas, he left and took all the people with him. This is, I believe, a great example of this post. The youth pastor was in competition with a more important role in the church and wanted to expand certain areas that the pastor did not want to do. They had a conflict in their vision of where the church was going to go.

  4. I think that one of the more significant things in this is the definition of what Chrisitans are supposed to be. I agree that the modern church has “missed it” just as much as the Corinthian church did. It’s so sad to me that churches focus more on the number of people attending. The real focus of the church, and what I think Paul was getting at, is to create, to coin your term, stewards of the gospel. That idea of stewardship is incredibly important imagery. A steward is defined as “One who manages another’s property, finances, or other affairs” (dictionary.com). I really like the idea of “managing another’s property”, it takes away the opportunity for us to find pride in what we are doing in ministry. It helps us to poimt the praise back to God, because it is His gospel, not ours. Just like what Paul was fighting against, sharing yhe gospel always has to be sharing GOD’S gospel, not ours. We are not recruiting people to be our disciples we are training them to be God’s disciples. We, particularly those of us who preach, need to copy “Paul’s attack against human-centered…wisdom” (Polhill 238), and only speak from Godly wisdom. The gospel we are preaching, as afore mentioned, is not our own; it isGod’s and we need to treat I as such.

  5. I also agree with you that things really have not changed much since the first century. The modern church acts just like the world in many ways – sadly. But in regards to the divisions, the fact that we look down on other Christians only because they have a certain name/denomination tacked on to them sounds very familiar with the way the world acts. God intended for His Body to have oneness, not separation and retaliation. This reminds me of the book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” by Dr. Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey. Dr. Brand makes comparisons between the human body and the body of Christ. In one particular section he talks about how cells in the body all need to cooperate and “get along”, but as soon as one cell decides to turn against the rest and do its own thing, it becomes very sickening to the body – like cancer. Now to bring it back to the modern church acting like the world, I think because there have been so many people who have let so much worldly “stuff” into the church or that we have no wanted to fully give up out worldly lives, it has tainted what the church was really supposed to be. I think one of the main concerns today, is the idea that churches need to be considerate and aware of the culture now and that the church almost need to adapt to it so we don’t lose everyone, in a sense. The problem with this is is that the church then has the tendency to conform to the world. We are then given the mentality that we can live in the world and of the world, but still live out our Christian life as well. However, Pohill’s reaction to something like this is, “The only belonging that counts is to belong to Christ, for only through him can one belong to God” (Polhill 238). The simplest and also the hardest way for the church to de-paganize, is to belong only to Christ and not to the world.

  6. The church in my opinion has gotten worse. Not only have we continued to fight and squabble, but we have also created so many denominations refusing to talk to each other. When a church splits often times both sides lose yet the pretend to be ok. We split on things that make no sense like the color of a pew bible, the carpet, the head pastor is leaving and so on. At least these Christians were still talking about it even if it was the wrong way. Truth be told the church has adapted to the way the world does events and runs itself like a business because “thats how it has to work”. I think the world is so ingrained in church we couldnt let go of it without the Holy Spirit directly taking it from us.

  7. The modern church has not gotten any better from how the church was in Corinth. The church spends more time thinking about petty problems like renovations and worship songs. These things are important too, but the main focus of the church should not be on these material things. These things are what make churches worldly, because the world is materialistic. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul questions the church in Corinth. He says, “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?” This should be consistently asked of churches today. Are we a worldly church? Where is our focus? We, as the church body, need to reflect on our church and see where we fail and fall into worldly things. Like Polhill says, “Christ is the only true foundation for the church” (Polhill, 238). With Christ as our foundation, we will be a church that thrives for God.

  8. Many people choose to emphasize the divisions within the Modern church, and though there is no denying that there is a significant level of disagreement, there is also ample room to argue for a unified Church Take for example the numerous Protestant denominations, federations, fellowships and other words for common theology, and the fact that though there is much disagreement theologically many of these churches work together in supporting various para-church organizations as well as for the most part being willing to call on another brothers and sisters in Christ, this is unity very similar to a family. Like siblings the various churches within the Church find themselves bickering over little things and yet ultimately knowing that when all is said and done we all have the same Father who really does not care about the subject matter of our arguments merely cares that we treat each other with Love and respect. The Church has unity, it may be ugly and disjointed but there is a commonality within the Christian community and that is the desire to drive all closer to Christ. We may make mistakes similar to the Corinthians in humans seeking followers of their respective philosophies, yet God manages to use even division to create unity in people ignoring those conflicts of theology and just focusing on the foundations of our faith.

  9. The modern church still seems to struggle with division- we can see division among denominations, larger/ smaller churches, pastor vs. pastor, Bible college vs. Bible College. Although there is unity inside of each of those things, when against each other, there sometimes seems to be a sense of “Mine is better than yours” and other prideful thinking. With divisions, comes a sense of judgement towards “others” or preconceived ideas about certain denominations, churches and pastors based on hear/say. Because of this, I agree with what you stated in the blog, there are ways in which we have still failed to de-paganize church. 1 Corinthians 4:6-7 Paul warns against being “puffed up in favor of one against the other”, which is what we tend to see in Christianity today; pride in self and judgement in others. We do however; see glimpses of unity in Christ. When churches ban together for a single cause, pull resources to help the community, etc. Striving for unity among Christians should be a top priority, especially since Christ is the only true foundation for the church (Polhill, 238). Modern day Christianity should be less “human centered worship”, as Polhill puts it, and more about worship with Christ as the center; which would result in a greater unity in the modern church (Polhill, 238).

  10. In church this morning, the pastor spoke on the prodigal son. While his message had to do with forgiveness and reconciliation and little to do with de-paganizing or unity(beyond the unity that forgiveness fosters), he made one interesting comment I am reminded of reading this. While speaking of the elder son in the parable who is angry and feels overlooked by his father who dotes upon his “screw-up son” who has come back, he said that pastors do this about ministry. They look at the churches or ministries of others and compare. They wonder why God is blessing others’ ministry and not theirs. The pastor said that the question, “why is God not blessing my ministry?” misses the point because it’s God’s ministry. This is an incorrect focus because we as ministers are placing ourselves in competition with others and judge success based on worldly standards. We are trying to gain “prestige” and “followers” for ourselves and not God.

  11. The modern church acts “just like the world” in several ways in regards to church. It seems that multiple issues arise out of criticism of the pastor or various church leaders. I would like to raise the question of the congregation (the Sunday church-goers) and our regard of pastors and worship pastors as teachers in competition with each other. The modern church is full of divisions in a similar way to Corinth. Paul addressed this by stating that while there is freedom in Christ, in the church there is a limit to individual freedom. These limits are love and mutual concern for one another (Polhill, 244). Ways in which we have failed to “de-paganize” include our self-centered view of church and individualism. We are self-centered in that we expect a church to fit our needs and tastes in music and preaching and giving, etc. Also, while individualism is celebrated especially in America, these cultural strains cannot be brought into the church. Paul depicts the church as one body and the imagery given is one of unity. If we, the church begin seeing ourselves as one body again it would be a helpful step towards unity. The head would not hurt its own foot, nor would the eye disregard the ear. All parts are essential to the body of Christ.

  12. The competitive nature of the Church I believe is still going as strong as it was back when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians. It’s easy to be entranced and captivated by certain speakers. Some of the more renowned speakers (e.g. Francis Chan, Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, etc.) have developed into great orators because of their eloquence in delivery. Therefore, it is easy for us, individually, to pick and choose “favorites.” Now, I’m not just encapsulating worldwide speakers but also our very own local pastors. We can become quickly dissatisfied if our pastors do not meet the expectations we have acquired through mere comparison. Consequently, when someone does meet our qualifications, we tend to place them in a higher pedestal than need be, thus vilifying the nature of the Gospel.
    In 1st Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul “…accused the Corinthians of being immature and still incapable of understanding the deeper spiritual truths (Polhill, 236).” Appropriately, the modern Church fits into this paradigm, as we tend to fall into strife and combativeness. The source of this issue is connective to our propensity to lean towards the world’s mechanism. We are inclined to adopt knowledge and wisdom as the highest form of accomplishment that we overlook faith and practice. Why do we veer so often in to judgment? Simple, we are immature, as the Corinthians. As Paul said, “It is the Lord who judges me (1st Corinthians 1:4).” Paul understood that judgment did not rest upon the shoulders of anyone except the Lord himself.

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