Unity in Diversity at the Church in Corinth (p.3)

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on “Restoring Our Unity Heritage.” If you missed a part or would like to read the entire essay ahead of time, I have posted the file at the bottom of the page.

The greatest example of the one, indivisible body I can think of is the church at Corinth. At this church, there were Christians from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. They had different thoughts on what one could and couldn’t eat, what holy days to keep, and whether one should circumcise their children. The important thing to see as we go through a few passages in 1 Corinthians is that it wasn’t their opinions and methods that caused division, it was their attitudes and the drawing of party lines that threatened to break up the church.

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul introduces the problem:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

(1 Corinthians 1:10–13)

These Christians weren’t speaking the same thing. Now some, including myself at one point, would point to this passage to talk about how divided the church is doctrinally, but that misses the point of what Paul was saying. They could have their different opinions; there is nothing wrong with that. The issue arises when we divide, split, and form groups around those opinions.

For example, Paul considered himself the minister to the uncircumcision (the Gentiles) while he called Peter the minister to the circumcision (the Jews):

But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles),

(Galatians 2:7–8).

While there is nothing wrong with having a favorite or preferred preacher, writer, or minister, there is an issue with dividing over it, as Paul covers in the context of Galatians 2. In Corinth, apparently, they were dividing over these differences. Those who were Gentiles, or maybe sympathetic to the Gentiles, were gravitating towards Paul while those who were of Jewish descent who kept the Law gravitated towards Peter. Others, of course, may have appreciated Apollos for his speaking ability, something Paul claimed was not his gift (Acts 18:24; 2 Corinthians 11:6). Regardless of their reasons, their preferences were not wrong so long as they did not lead to divisions.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. Some were claiming to be “of Paul” or “of Peter” when they should have all claimed to be of Christ. George Whitefield, a preacher during The Great Awakening (1730s-40s), said during one sermon in Philadelphia,

Father Abraham, whom have you in Heaven? Any Episcopalians? “No.” Any Presbyterians? “No.” Have you any Independents or Seceders? “No.” Have you any Methodists? “No, no, no!” Whom have you there? “We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians – believers in Christ men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony.” Oh, is this the case? Then God help us, God help us all, to forget party names, and to become Christians in deed and in truth.[1]

The point here is simple: while preferences aren’t inherently divisive, they can bring about division if they are made into law, creed, or confession of faith. This has been the problem with the protestant reformation, and it is the problem among Churches of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul reveals a little more about what was going on in the church at Corinth. There were those within the church who had the correct opinions. They had a better understanding of what was allowed than other Christians at Corinth. In fact, they understood the nature of God better than some of the newer converts. The trouble they had, however, was using their correct knowledge to abuse or belittle others in the church. This was a problem that the Stone-Campbell Movement faced in its earlier years. Thomas Campbell observed,

“Whereas, were we to refute all the errors in Buck’s Theological Dictionary by the common method of theological argumentation, we might, indeed, by so doing, make orthodox systematics; but not one real practical [C]hristian. And why? Because, in this way of arguing, the mind is turned away from itself, to sit as a judge in the case pending; so that the point at issue becomes an abstract truth, addressed purely to the understanding—not to the heart, as directly and immediately affecting the hearer himself; but merely to his judgment, to determine who is right…Hence it often happens, that the purest orthodoxy, and practical [C]hristianity, are not always found united in the same person.[2] (Emphasis Mine—bold and underline)

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul shows us what pure Christianity looks like when he wrote,

“Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

(1 Corinthians 8:1–3)

Pure Christianity is not defined by what we know but by whom we are known. If we are showing Christian love towards one another, this is a sign that we are known by God. When we define Christianity based upon one’s abstract knowledge, then we make the mind the center of our faith and not God. This is what happened at Corinth, and this is what continues to happen in churches all around the globe.

Returning to Paul’s question in chapter one we now ask, “Is Christ divided? Were you baptized into the Memphis School of Preaching? Were you baptized in the name of Gus Nichols, Guy Woods, Franklin Camp, or some other man?” While preferences do not divide on their own, the way some people act, including myself at one point, it is their way or the highway. We must not elevate our understanding of the Bible (that is, our opinions) to the level of the Word of God Himself (Jesus). In the next section, we’ll cover what differentiates faith from opinion.

[1] Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), p.49. Garrett cited William Warren’s book The Story of Religion in America (Harper, 1935), p. 206.

[2] Thomas Campbell, “To the Editor of the Millennial Harbinger,” The Millennial Harbinger (1836), p.216.

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