Maintaining unity in Christ

First Corinthians 1:3–9 forms part of the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, which is November 29th. Whereas most letter writers today sign their name at the end of their correspondence, it was customary in the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D for a writer to identify himself or herself at the beginning of a letter.

Paul followed the above literary convention. He also established his authority to instruct the church about spiritual matters by describing himself as one “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (v. 1).

A number of people in the church at Corinth were at odds with Paul, who had founded the congregation about five years before writing this letter. By letting his readers know that God had appointed him to a divine task, the missionary-theologian reasserted his apostleship, which was the reason for the Corinthians to be careful to adhere to his instructions.

Sosthenes was Paul’s coworker while he was in Ephesus writing this letter. It might be that this Sosthenes was the same person who was the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17).

If so, then Sosthenes became a Christian under Paul’s teaching. The fact that the apostle referred to Sosthenes as “our brother” (1 Cor 1:1)—implying that he was well-known in Corinth—lends more weight to the view that Sosthenes had been the ruler of the Corinthian synagogue.

After referring to himself an apostle, Paul addressed his readers as the “church of God” (v. 2) located at “Corinth.” By noting that the congregation belonged to the Creator, not to the apostle or to his readers, he subtly addressed one of the major problems hindering the Corinthian church. By holding a lofty view of themselves, the Corinthians felt too great a sense of ownership over the church.

“Saints” (or “holy ones”; Greek, hagios) does not refer to individuals the Roman Catholic Church deems to be exceptionally reverent and so worthy of canonization. Instead, Paul’s focus was on the sanctification of all believers, including those at Corinth.

The Spirit used the proclamation of the gospel to separate Jesus’ followers from sin and set them apart to the Savior. Consequently, the Spirit called them to live holy lives. In this, they were like all other believers who worshiped the Lord.

After fully identifying himself and his purpose, and after addressing the church and its purpose, Paul offered his readers a Christian greeting (v. 3). The apostle said that “grace” and “peace” come from God the Father and Jesus the Lord. By saying this, Paul reiterated that the Corinthians were the recipients of this grace (God’s unmerited favor that leads to forgiveness of sins and acceptance into His family) and this peace (the ending of the hostility that had existed between sinners and God).

As is true of all Paul’s letters to churches, he thanked God for the believers who were part of the church, and then elaborated on the reasons for his thankfulness (v. 4). In this letter to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle mentioned the spiritual gifts that they were diligently exercising (vv. 5–7).

While later in the letter, Paul admonished his readers for misusing their gifts, here he expressed gratitude for the spiritual enrichment they enjoyed in baptismal union with the Messiah. The apostle said that in every way the believers at Corinth had been blessed with a multitude of gifts.

For example, the Spirit had given the Corinthians the ability to speak in tongues, to prophesy, to interpret tongues, and to discern spirits. Indeed, no spiritual gift was lacking in the congregation.

What Paul and his coworkers declared about the Messiah had been confirmed in the lives of the apostle’s readers. Their behavior was transformed in measurable ways, and their service for the Lord was dynamic and effective, especially as they waited for the Second Coming.

Paul realized that the Corinthians faced many challenges. Even though they lived in a city that had become widely known for its vice and idolatry, the apostle said that God would keep them strong in their faith (vv. 8–9). Expressed differently, the Creator would remain faithful to the faithful. Paul promised that by the power of the Spirit’s grace, the Messiah would find that the church had lived above reproach when He returned.

Though the Christians of Corinth were abundantly gifted, major problems existed within their ranks. Perhaps the main issue plaguing the congregation was the believers’ divisiveness and quarreling. This was the first of many difficulties that the apostle addressed in his letter.

Evidently, the situation at Corinth had become grave. Having learned from members of Chloe’s household that quarrels had arisen among members of the church (v. 11), Paul appealed to his fellow believers to be unified in their thinking (v. 10). The apostle knew that as long as the believers bickered over ideas, their testimony to the unbelievers at Corinth would be diminished.

Apparently, sectarian groups had arisen within the Corinthian congregation. Some claimed to adhere to the teachings of Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Jesus (1 Cor 1:12). Paul was not taking issue with these teachers or their teachings. In fact, he tried to uphold his teachings and those of Apollos, Peter, and (most of all) Jesus.

What Paul opposed was the divisiveness of believers saying they preferred one person’s teaching over that of another to the point of being sectarian. The wording the apostle used implies that members of various cliques were even referring to themselves by the names of their favorite teachers—“I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas.”

Perhaps the most spiritual sounding were those who asserted, “I only follow the Messiah!” These individuals might have thought that their pride-filled allegiance to Jesus made them better than those who only claimed to follow the teachings of such mere human teachers as Paul, Apollos, or Peter.

The problem that faced the Corinthians is a common problem today. It is easy for believers to become divided over doctrine, philosophy, or even the expenditure of funds. Such barriers prevent real unity and fellowship from occurring. As long as such divisions exist in a church, the congregation will be crippled in its effectiveness to tell those who are unsaved about the Redeemer.

Paul asked the Corinthians a series of rhetorical questions to get them to think seriously about the implications of their actions (v. 13). The body of Christ was never intended to be divided into different groups. To emphasize his point, the apostle used himself as an example. It was not Paul who was crucified on behalf of sinners. Rather, Jesus was sacrificed to pay for humanity’s sins.

The Corinthians had been baptized into the name of the Messiah, not Paul. They had become identified with the Son and spiritually united with His people. They were to be followers of the Lord Jesus, not of some less significant individual.

Even today, some choose to revere prominent Christian leaders in a way best reserved for the Son. Tragically, instead of being His follower, they have become overly enamored with a captivating personality. Naturally, when this occurs, as it did in Corinth, disharmony and rivalry arise within the church.

The solution to the Corinthians’ problem was to shift their attention away from prominent leaders and back to the Savior. This did not depreciate the value of those pastors who led them. It just meant that no one could replace the Messiah or be given more prominence than Him.

For the preceding reason, Paul realized his place within the church. Accordingly, he declared his thankfulness for not having baptized anyone at Corinth besides Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas (vv. 14–16).

The apostle did not want his role in performing baptisms to be a cause of division. Nor did he want anyone to claim to have been baptized in his name, and as a result, promote discord among the Corinthian believers.

Furthermore, Paul said his primary calling was not to baptize people (v. 17). His intent in making such a statement was not to minimize the importance of baptism. Instead, he was indicating that his main purpose was to proclaim the gospel to the lost.

Regarding his preaching, Paul noted that his words were not based on human wisdom, but on the redemptive power of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. The apostle knew that many of his readers were enticed by worldly wisdom. So, his words contained an implicit warning: the Corinthians were not to be so impressed with skillful rhetoric or clever-sounding arguments that they missed the simple message of the cross of Christ.

Key ideas to contemplate

I have listened to college students who were studying to be pastors fervently debate the finer points of theology. Then, I have seen those same students worship together later in a spirit of unity and love.

I have also been part of a congregational meeting called to vote on the starting time of the morning worship service. I saw a ballot on which one voter wrote that if his or her preferred time was not selected, he or she would no longer be attending the church.

Other such sentiments circulated. A few people even insisted that one of the times on the ballot was more spiritual than the others, because it was more conducive to families with small children.

Tempers flared. Relationships became strained. It was ugly!

What’s the difference between these two examples? Was there more at stake in one situation than the other? Perhaps. Yet, the real difference lies in the focus and attitudes of the “combatants.”

The seminary students recognized that while a group of believers will not always agree on every issue, they can work together harmoniously because of their common faith in the lordship of Christ. From this we see that inconsequential differences should never divide believers.

God has made us all with varying temperaments and differing backgrounds that result in our unique viewpoints. The many denominations and church bodies within Christianity today testify to believers’ differing perspectives and convictions about everything from the finer points of theology to differing styles of worship.

So, how can we ever hope to get along with each other? It’s by remembering that the most essential thing—our baptismal union in Christ—takes precedence over every other concern. In church meetings, we need to hear the words, “The Lord Jesus would want us to . . .,” rather than “I think we should . . .” The two statements are not the same.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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