When Members Won’t Get Along

1 Corinthians

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about the things that divide a church.

Misplaced Loyalties: 1 Cor. 1:10-15.

[10]  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. [11]  For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. [12]  What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." [13]  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? [14]  I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, [15]  so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.

Paul’s high view of the Church pinpoints the sadness he must have felt at hearing news of division among the Corinthian Christians. The double reference to brothers in verses 10 and 11 show that the fact of Christian brotherhood is the ground of his appeal for unity. If Jesus Christ has by His grace made them one and if they share in Him, then they must become what they are. They must put aside divisions and be united in the same mind and the same judgment. To be united in the same mind refers to a Christian mind-set that may include being able to judge what distinguishes good and right from what is evil and wrong. To be in same judgment refers to having the same goals and opinion about the truth. What exactly caused this division at Corinth? We can see both explicit and implicit causes in verses 12-17. Obviously personality-cults were emerging, taking three major figures in the early church as their focus, almost certainly with absolutely no encouragement from either Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter). But there may well be other clues to the trouble in the way Paul argues in verses 13-17: for example, it looks as if baptism was becoming an issue. Whatever the causes of these developing cliques, the situation had become one of strife (quarreling [11]).

The major problem was that these cliques had all managed to take their eyes off the Lord Jesus Christ. Each rallied support around one personality or another. Each had its own slogans. Very often what happens in a local church today is that differences grow around personalities (either from within the church fellowship or from the wider church) and then become articulated around matters of doctrinal dispute. There may well be genuine theological disagreement, but the strife emerges because personal relationships are not good. When the love of God is truly controlling such relationships within a church, areas of disagreement find their proper perspective and do not necessitate strife, let alone schism. However inevitable such distinctive groupings may have been at Corinth, Paul is not prepared to ignore their potential divisiveness. He makes a very strong appeal for unity in verse 10 and then proceeds to give three powerful arguments against disunity in verses 13-17. Paul believes and urges that these four groups should work together. Each has an important emphasis and that emphasis must be brought fully and unreservedly into the life of the Christian community. All must be on the look-out for imminent schism, refusing to allow differences of emphasis to produce division. Paul believed that it was not merely possible for Christians of many different kinds to live together in harmony, but that this was their calling from God. Such mutual recognition, giving each person the freedom to express his convictions and insights, would lead to a restoration of true unity. Paul’s arguments against disunity all focus on Jesus Christ and it needs to be said uncompromisingly that both then in Corinth and generally today division and disunity arise because the eyes of Christians are elsewhere than on Jesus Christ. These arguments revolve around the wholeness of Christ (Is Christ divided?), the cross of Christ (Was Paul crucified for you?), and the Lordship of Christ (Were you baptized in the name of Paul?). Whenever Christians give their allegiance to any human personality, such as a gifted preacher or pastor, they have taken their eyes off Jesus Christ and there will inevitably be disunity. Jesus is the only one who can unite men and women and He does so through His cross, because we can come to God only via the cross of Christ and the ground there is level: all are equal at the cross. There is no single truth more eloquent or productive of true unity between Christians than the cross of Christ.

Human Pride: 1 Cor. 1:26-29.

[26]  For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. [27]  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; [28]  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, [29]  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Paul offers empirical evidence of the foolishness of God from his audience’s own experience: the founding of the Corinthian church. The foolishness and weakness manifested in the cross and its preaching carry over to the kinds of persons who have responded to that preaching. Paul bids them to consider their calling. That calling refers to the circumstances surrounding their coming to faith, not simply their socioeconomic status. It is shorthand for God’s act of calling them purely on the basis of grace, without regard to their moral worthiness or their status as gauged by human standards. In choosing them, God overlooked their lack of spiritual merit and flouted all worldly measures of human worth. The wise are the learned, clever, and experienced. The phrase according to worldly standards refers to evaluations made by unregenerate humans employing criteria that are revealed to be bogus in light of God’s measures. These worldly norms only factor into the equation those things that can be shown off and admired. They foster boasting and self-reliance which lead one to spurn God’s truth because it challenges all human illusions. The powerful are the influential whose wealth gives them the social and political levers of power. The noble are the well-born who have a proud pedigree and belong to the wealthy ruling class. Unless something quite exceptional happened to an individual, persons living in this era did not rise up the social ladder but remained within the confines of the social class in which they were born. Prestige belonged only to those of noble parentage. When Paul proclaimed the word of the cross, it did not attract the wise and powerful. They are not excluded but tend to exclude themselves by rejecting the wisdom of the cross, which does not honor their achievements but pours contempt on their pride.

God’s choice is reiterated three times for emphasis, and the objects God has chosen are the antithesis of those persons described in 1:26. The threefold in the world means in the world’s estimation and is used by Paul as a contrast to the way that God chooses individuals. God chose the foolish because the wise thought the cross was sheer folly as a means for saving the world, the weak because the strong thought they were powerful enough without God, and the low and despised because the high and mighty did not care to debase themselves by attaching themselves to a crucified God. Throughout the biblical narrative God consistently chooses the most unlikely figures, and Paul maintains that God has continued this pattern in choosing the believers in Corinth. God’s choices disclose that the church’s creation and success can be attributed only to God’s power. God’s ultimate goal in choosing the foolish, weak, and despised was not simply to shame the wise and strong, but to preclude all human boasting. Human beings, as frail, mortal creatures, have no business boasting about themselves in the presence of the immortal God. In the present context, God eliminates all human boasting by conferring His salvation on those who are too foolish, weak, base, and contemptible to take any credit for their new exalted position in Christ. They have nothing worth boasting about that they did not receive freely from God. Rather than praising themselves, they must humbly await praise from God. This lesson was difficult to drive home to a congregation enmeshed in a culture in which people were accustomed to tooting their own horns to gain and maintain status.

Spiritual Immaturity: 1 Cor. 3:1-4.

[1]  But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. [2]  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, [3]  for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? [4]  For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? [ESV]

[1-2]  For the first time in the letter Paul criticizes the church directly and sharply, but he cushions his rebuke by addressing them as brothers, which conveys solidarity. Implying that they still require a diet of babies’ milk packs a punch for those who think they have advanced far beyond that stage. He continues the rebuke by saying he was not able to address them as spiritual people because they were in fact people of the flesh. Spiritual persons are those in whom the Spirit has really become a fundamental power of life and who have the mind of Christ. But fleshly people are controlled by natural, human impulses rather than the Spirit. Paul does not use the term natural person from 2:14, because that describes the person who is completely devoid of the Spirit. As Christians, the Corinthians are not natural, but their behavior testifies that they are still too much of the flesh. They are weak and sinful. They have not yet been freed from the normative practices of the world. Their adherence to secular attitudes and values belies their baptismal identity. Many interpreters assume that by calling them infants, Paul intends to emphasize their need to grow. It is more likely that it is a rebuke for behaving so childishly and unspiritually. The problem is not that they have failed to progress but that they have failed to comprehend the message of the cross as is evidenced by their wrangling, personal ambition, and arrogance. There is irony in this reproof. If the Corinthians counted themselves among the mature and spiritual, they would have been stunned to find themselves labeled infants by Paul. Their behavior reveals that they are not wise and mature but childish and foolish. By fancying themselves as wise and mature, the Corinthians cut themselves off from the transforming power of the cross to change their worldly ways. In this context, Paul believes that the message of the cross exposes the truth about the listeners. Their selfish ambitions that trample the wisdom of the cross has proved their immaturity. The divisions are incompatible with following Christ because they emulate the world’s wisdom.

[3-4]  Paul describes them as still being of the flesh, which is highly ironic in a congregation that touted and prized its spiritual giftedness. To be fleshly refers to an individual’s values, attitudes, and judgments, which manifest themselves in self-centeredness, self-indulgence, and arrogant self-sufficiency. Paul lists jealousy and strife as companion works of the flesh and as works of darkness, things that gratify the desires of the flesh. Treating the church community as an arena in which to maneuver and advance their personal status reveals that they are controlled by human motives and the purely human order of things. They act no differently from the rest of Corinthian society. A divided spiritual community is, for Paul, untenable. Paul finally returns to the problem raised in 1:12. In the intervening verses Paul discussed the importance of Christ crucified. If the Corinthians were truly wise and mature as they claimed, then they would have seen the relevance of Paul’s teaching about the centrality of the cross. For Paul puts down all that is merely human and calls them to be more than that as spiritual ones not lacking in any spiritual gift. But as it stands, the Corinthian divisions reveals a spirit that is all too human and contrary to the ways of Christ: are you not being merely human?

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why is church unity so important to Paul? What are the three arguments Paul uses against disunity? How can you use these arguments to combat disunity in your local church?

2.         Why does God choose the foolish, the weak, and the despised? Why is there no place for human boasting in the calling of God?

3.         What does Paul mean by people of the flesh? What are the Corinthian believers doing that convinces Paul they are still of the flesh? What must they do to become spiritually mature?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, Baker.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter-Varsity Press.

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