1 Corinthians begins with four chapters directed at reported divisions in the church. In 1:11 Paul uses the noun ἔρις (eris), quarreling or discord. This word refers to a “hot dispute” between rivals (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 77). It appears in Sirach 40:9 in a list of things that will come upon the sinner: “death and bloodshed and strife and sword, calamities and famine and ruin and plague.”
This is not a football rivalry (although those can get heat up fast); it is more like standing in the lobby of the Creation Museum with a sign that says “I believe in Evolution,” or visiting Planned Parenthood wearing a pro-life t-shirt. This word describes an emotional flare-up, going beyond reasonable discourse
How can the presence of “divisions” be described as “worldly?” The “divisions” seem to be over leadership: some considering Paul their authority, other Apollos, others Peter, and still others only Jesus. It is within the context of describing these divisions that Paul describes the church members as worldly.
Bruce Winter describes the Greco-Roman practice of discipleship in the second chapter of his book and finds 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. The skill of oration involved not only speaking skills, but also an attractive demeanor, the best orators were good looking, athletically trained men. Orators might be employed as lawyers, gaining clients from the very highest ranks of the city. Dio Chrysostom also observed that the disciples modeled himself after his teacher, taking the imitation seriously, including style of speech, dress, and even walk.
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 complained that Corinth was filled with “wretched” sophists, many of whom were debating one another with “shouting and abuse” near the temple to Poseidon.
Disciples could be fiercely loyal to their teacher, the term used to describe a loyal student is “zealot.” (This is not to be confused with the Jewish Zealots of the mid-60’s in Palestine.) The teacher expected exclusive loyalty from the student, which included the defense of that teacher or the ridicule of other competing teachers.
Bruce Winter reports the story of students following a rival teacher and his disciples listening for mistakes of grammar or rhetoric (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 39). When the mistake was made they would ridicule that teacher as deficient. Philostratus tells the story of a teacher that was so ridiculed that he ordered his slaves to thrash the disciple that was mocking him. The slaves actually beat the rival teacher’s disciple to death!
Obviously Christian teachers are different than an orator or philosopher. If the Corinthian Church is thinking about their Christian teachers as a Greco-Roman orator, then they are importing “worldly thinking” into the church and risk the unity of the Body of Christ. To what extent does this kind of thinking cause trouble in a modern context? While I would love to see the Beth Moore disciples go after John’s Piper’s disciples in a turf-war, I am not sure the Christian church is effected in by the world in quite the same way—or is it?