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Focus Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Scriptural Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The First Epistle to the Corinthians is an occasional, ad hoc response to situations that had developed in one of the churches connected with Paul’s missionary activities. Apparently conflict had arisen both within the Corinthian church and between the church and the apostle from the time when Paul left the city in A.D. 51-52 to when he wrote the letter about three years later (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 1987, p. 4). The list of issues facing the Corinthian church included ethnic diversity, economic disparity, geographical and cultural difference, allegiances to different spiritual leaders, and theological disagreements as well as sinful behavior like idolatry and sexual immorality. Despite the historical gap between Paul’s day and the present, these remain common challenges to church unity.
Corinth was quite a diverse place, both religiously, economically, and ethnically. Situated between two port cities, Corinth attracted all kinds of people from across the Mediterranean world including artisans and traders, rich and poor, slave and free. The city was also home to a number of pagan temples. It is easy to see how divisions could develop. Paul’s opening appeal in particular seems to indicate divisions in the church which were exacerbated by association with different leaders or personalities. Other parts of the letter seem to suggest that social status and wealth played a role in these conflicts as well. Much of the background is difficult to reconstruct, but, as Gordon Fee notes, “the nature of this particular strife had as its root cause their false theology, which had exchanged the theology of the cross for a false triumphalism that went beyond, or excluded, the cross” (Fee, p. 50).
To combat such division, Paul insists that the church is one, for everyone is gathered to worship the Triune God—one God (8:6), one Lord Jesus Christ (8:6), one Spirit (12:13). Moreover, there is once faith (12:3), one baptism (12:3), one Eucharist (10:17). In fact, Paul uses the word “one” (Greek: heis) in this sense 31 times in the epistle. He insists that they should be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10). Yet, Paul emphasizes not only the oneness of the church, but also its variety. Ecclesial unity does not preclude difference in identity or practice.
Paul employs two primary metaphors in the epistle to convey the unity and diversity of the church. First, Paul uses the image of a building, which becomes a repeated motif throughout the letter (1:6-8; 3:9-17; 8:1; 10:23-11:1; 14:3-5; 15:58; 16:13). Paul offers a number of points which are connected to this building image. Christ, of course, is the foundation of the church (3:11). Paul, the apostle who brought the good news to the Corinthians, is a builder (3:10), who seeks to edify Christ’s church. He also encourages the Corinthians to build up one another in love (8:1).
A further extension of this building metaphor is Paul’s insistence that the church is God’s temple (3:16-17). He uses this image to make several points. First, as the temple of God the Corinthians are to be an alternative to the pagan temples and to the way of life which surrounds them in Corinth. Throughout much of the letter Paul is concerned with the immoral behavior which makes the Corinthian Christians indistinguishable from their pagan surroundings (cf. 5:1; 6:7; 10:32; 14:23). Therefore, he uses the temple image to call them to holiness: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:17). Second, just as God’s presence dwelled in the Jewish Temple, the presence of the Holy Spirit dwells in the midst of the church. In contrast to the mute idols that fill pagan temples, the Corinthians themselves are the sanctuary of the true and living God by the dwelling of Holy Spirit. This common experience of the Spirit is a unifying reality: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).
Paul uses another key metaphor to explain the unity of the church: the church is the body of Christ (10:17; 11:29; 12:12-26). Again this image stresses the necessity of unity. The rich must stop oppressing the poor at the Lord’s Table (11:22, 29). Likewise, those who are more visible must never say to the less visible, “we have no need of you” (12:21). God has made the body such that all the members are essential to one another. This image also shows Paul’s understanding that the church is also by its nature diverse: “For the body is not one member, but many” (12:14). Rather than complete uniformity, Paul urges believers to understand the church can encompass various manifestations and gifts of the one Spirit of God (12:4).
Thus, Paul’s call to Christian unity in 1 Corinthians has supplied believers with some of the most enduring images for thinking about the nature of the church. Yet, “Paul does not argue for Corinthian unity in the abstract, but in regard to the very specific practices and beliefs which divide them” (Margaret Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, Westminster John Knox Press, 1991, p. 255). In other words, what makes one variance in practice and belief acceptably diverse and another transgressive is highly situational to the context, even though such arguments may ultimately be rooted in the more fundamental principles of Paul’s theology. Therefore, it is important to understand both the underlying principles of Paul’s understanding of the church and the situation which he is addressing. Readers of Paul’s letter ought to study closely the reasoning and circumstances behind each of his pronouncements before applying them to present day context. Balancing unity and diversity is no easy task, but as we strive to live as members of one body, “let all that [we] do be done in love” (16:14).
By Michael Burns, Duke Divinity School Intern
Worship Aids about The Unity of the Church
For the Unity of the Church
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer 1979, #818)
A Prayer of Jesus
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Suggested Hymns about The Unity of the Church
Blest Be the Tie That Binds
The Church’s One Foundation
In Christ There is No East or West