UNITY — oneness, harmony, agreement. The church is a unity in diversity, a fellowship of faith, hope, and love that binds believers together. Unity has been attacked since the Church’s first gathering—if there is one thing the devil fears, it is a body of genuine believers unified in its mission to present Christ to the unbelieving world.
The devil’s tactic is old, but effective—he seeks to instill thoughts of division and failure into the hearts of God’s people; making them ineffective in sharing the message.
1 Corinthians is a book about unity and divisions.
At the same time, it is clear that Paul is not concerned with an intellectual debate about the relationship between faith and philosophy. Paul immediately expressed his central concern: “I appeal to you … that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The Corinthians had formed parties, or cliques, based on the supposed superiority of various Christian leaders. There was a “Paul party” and a “Peter party”; an “Apollos party” and a very spiritual type, “Jesus-only party.” These divisions had shattered the unity of the local congregation, and created dissension. This whole section is basically about divisions, and how to maintain unity.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Now, what is the subject of this paragraph? What is its focus? If we emphasize the problem, we might summarize this way: The division in your church fellowship is wrong.
If, however, we emphasize the goal, we’ll pick up from Paul’s first sentence: I urge you to resolve your differences and restore unity in your church fellowship.
I urge you to resolve your differences and restore unity in the church family. Remember, Christ is the center of our lives and in Him we are one.
This may not sound like a very “wise” argument, but then the message of Christ and His cross has always been at odds with human wisdom.
And Christ, not some super “wisdom,” brought you your righteousness, holiness, and redemption. That’s why I kept my message simple when I was with you, that you might rely only on the crucified Lord.
Of course there is a divine wisdom, but it comes by revelation and not human discovery. This wisdom involves learning to think God’s thoughts, something that requires both hearing the revealed words and being enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
But you! Why, your jealousy and quarreling make it very clear that you think and act like mere men. Who do you think is important: we servants, or God who works through us? I’m thankful I can serve, but my foundation is Jesus, and one day what I build will be evaluated. (Don’t you even grasp the fact that the true construction is going on in your lives and that you are God’s sacred temple? Building up people, not tearing them down, is doing God’s work!)
So don’t deceive yourselves with all those childish arguments over leaders. Abandon that foolish game and focus again on all that is yours in Jesus, you who are not on trial before any human jury! Can’t you grasp the basic principle? God Himself is the source of all. How then can we boast about anyone’s superior gifts or skills?
Why, rather than trying to build our own little kingdoms, we apostles have abandoned all that, and have chosen humiliation, weakness, hunger, and even persecution as our lot. So I warn you. Imitate me in this, and get your priorities back in order. And this is a warning. Unity in the family is so vital that, in God’s own power, I will discipline you when I come unless you abandon your worldly arrogance!
What a powerful passage! And what a vital message for divided Christians today.
Reviewing the Text: 1 Corinthians 1–4
At this point, with the overview of the argument in mind, we can go back and look into each paragraph more closely. It is now that a verse-by-verse approach to Bible study can be helpful, for now our understanding of the thoughts and phrases will be guided by an overview of their context.
Often at this point we will make exciting discoveries, and see fresh meaning in verses that have become so familiar that we read over them, without thought. Often too we’ll make a discovery that will lead us back to our paraphrase to make a change that brings the whole into clearer focus. In short, a study of the details of the text is always more fruitful when we have first grasped the argument of the larger unit.
This very point is one that Paul made in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. He pointed out that man’s ways of thinking (human “wisdom”) and God’s ways of thinking (His “foolishness”) truly do not correspond. The Cross is given as an example. What human mind would have imagined that God would give us righteousness, holiness, and redemption by means of the execution of His Son as a criminal!
To the Greek mind the whole notion was idiotic: salvation, if there were such a thing, would have to come through some appeal to man’s capacity to achieve. Furthermore, the Greek mind viewed God as immutable and unchangable. The Gospel presentation of Incarnation, the Cross, and Resurrection were simply ruled out; the Gospel contradicted one of the axioms of classical Greek philosophy.
To the Hebrew, the whole thing was foreign as well. Deliverance would come in another Exodus, with God breaking into history to perform miracles and punish Israel’s enemies. A suffering Saviour? Never! Israel would settle for nothing less than a conquering king.
While the Greek and the Jew each clung to his own notion of how God must act, God had His own ideas. The Cross meant that each must surrender his own way of thinking, and submit to a divine wisdom that operates on principles which are basically different from those that appeal to human thought!
Man is impressed by human accomplishment: God chose to use things man despises.
Man is impressed by strength: God chose to use weakness.
Even in the church, the human tendency is to seek to build little kingdoms around differences—different leaders, different doctrines, different ways of baptizing, different likes and dislikes in music. It is God’s way to reject that kind of thinking, and to build unity around the one thing that Christians have in common: Jesus!
Paul’s whole argument is a warning to the church at Corinth—and to us—that we must learn to look at issues from the divine viewpoint. We must realize God doesn’t think the same way we do. We must be willing to surrender our own way of thinking and earnestly search out His.
How? God has revealed His thoughts “in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). And God has given believers the Holy Spirit to interpret the written Word (vv. 9–15). In the Word and in the Spirit we have been given an astounding gift: “We have the mind of Christ” (v. 16). Searching the Word, guided by the Spirit, we are to learn God’s way of thinking (His wisdom), and gradually learn to evaluate all things from His unique perspective.
Application: 1 Corinthians 1–4
First, Christ is One. Unity in the church is vital, because unity alone can model this reality. A church that is splintered by disputes so that its members are at odds, dividing and competing, ignores Christ’s call that we be “perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Second, Christ is the Source and focus of our faith. The Corinthians had exalted mere human leaders to that position. “I’m a Paulite.” “I’m a Peterite.” In modern terms we might say, “I’m Methodist,” or, “I’m Baptist,” or even say, “I’m a Calvinist” or, “I’m a charismatic.” Use of any such term to identify us makes that particular association or belief the defining difference—the focus of our identity. Paul argued that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the basis for Christian self-identification.
To exalt leaders, or denominations, or doctrines, or experiences, to the level where they make us “different” from our brothers and sisters in Christ is to operate on that mere human wisdom which is nothing but foolishness in God’s sight. As for leaders, they are merely servants of God. There is no place in the church for pride in a human leader, or by a human leader. If God blesses us through one of His servants, we are to address our praise to the Lord, and are to be loyal to God, not the leader.
There is one foundation and one only (3:11), and that foundation is Christ Jesus. Any person or group that tries to rest its faith, all or in part, on any other is foolish indeed.
How wonderful that Jesus is our foundation. And how wonderful that we can live by God’s wisdom, refusing to let any of our “distinctives” separate us from heartfelt fellowship with brothers and sisters who, whatever our differences, still own Jesus as Savior and Lord.