The Gospel and Our Divisions

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:12-13

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 1:11-13, RSV

As many of you know, here at Words of Hope we welcome questions from our listeners. We try to respond to one of them, at least, on each broadcast. A question that frequently comes to us in one way or another is about the divisions among those who believe in Christ. People wonder why there are so many denominations. Just today, I was reading a letter that asks this: “Please can you tell me why practicing Christians of one faith criticize another believer because that person is not of the same denomination?” It must be bewildering to onlookers that Christians call themselves by so many different names. Some describe themselves by their church government: “I’m a Presbyterian,” or “I’m an Episcopalian,” or “I’m Congregationalist.” Some appeal to the name of a great founder. “I belong to the Lutheran church,” or “I’m in one of the Calvinistic churches,” or “I’m a Wesleyan.” Others, impatient with those names, take the Lord’s. They are “Churches of God” or “Assemblies of God.” They are “Churches of Christ” or “Christian Churches.” Still others describe themselves by the part of the world in which they have their center: the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church. How would anyone recognize, we wonder, that all of these groups are seeking to follow the same Lord?

As we try to understand the situation and to gain the right perspective on it, it helps to remember that the problem is not a new one. It showed up in at least one Christian congregation less than 25 years after our Lord’s resurrection. I’m talking about the church in Corinth. Listen to what Paul writes to them in the first chapter of his first letter: “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’” Does that sound familiar? These aren’t denominations in the present-day sense of that word, of course. They represent groups within a local congregation. But the way in which they describe themselves and the spirit which they manifest is all too contemporary.

Let’s look at this carefully for a few moments. What was actually going on among these believers in Corinth? It had been reported to Paul through the household of one of his friends that there was dissension among the Christians in this first-century Greek city. Factions had formed within the church. They hadn’t split off and become new congregations but the seeds of that dividedness were certainly present. Each group was setting itself apart from the rest and calling itself by the name of a favorite Christian leader. The first group said, “I belong to Paul,” or “I am of the Pauline party.” They were saying, in effect, “We follow the teaching of the great apostle to the gentiles. We like Paul’s way of presenting the gospel. We think his version of Christianity is the best.”

Others identified themselves especially with Apollos. As far as we know, Apollos and Paul were preachers of the same gospel. They respected one another’s ministry. But some in the congregation, apparently, tried to play one off against the other. Apollos was apparently a man of considerable eloquence. His fervent preaching had made him notable and popular. It was perhaps because of these qualities in his manner of presentation that Apollos was preferred by some to the more plain spoken Paul. Apollos was a real orator. He was more a preacher to their taste. They said, “Apollos is our man. No one can preach like him.”

A third group in Corinth claimed the name of Cephas, or Simon Peter. Peter, of course, had been the original spokesman of the disciples, first among the twelve. Perhaps those with a special interest in history were his advocates. After all, he had been one of the original disciples. In their minds, that qualified him to speak with special authority.

Then, too, Peter was more inclined than Paul to emphasize obedience to the Jewish law. Some who felt the need for clear moral standards may have favored his approach. Perhaps they regarded the others as too progressive, too lenient.

A fourth group in Corinth found a way to upstage all the others. They said, “We belong to Christ.” How could anyone top that? And who could challenge them for saying that they belonged to the King of Kings? But the name they chose implied, of course, a criticism of their fellow Christians. The unspoken message was, “All the rest of you are following human leaders; we follow only the Lord.”

That was the situation in that thriving, gifted, early church in Corinth. Paul apparently was not enamored of any of these groups, especially not of the one that bore his name. He doesn’t single out one as being right and the others wrong. The whole picture apparently grieved him deeply.

Why, we ask, did such a condition develop among the Corinthian Christians? They were all believers. They had trusted in the same Jesus, crucified and risen for them. They had all received the same Holy Spirit. They rejoiced in the same great hope. What had brought about this dividedness among them?

One notable expression of human sinfulness to which the apostle Paul often draws attention, is what we might call a “party spirit.” There seems to be in all of us a drive to distinguish ourselves from others. We’d like to be in some way superior to our peers, to belong to an in-group, to claim a special rank. Isn’t that behind most social clubs, fraternities, sororities, lodges? There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the formation of a smaller group. It may fulfill a significant function within a society or a church. But the spirit behind it is often exclusive rather than inclusive. It’s more designed to keep certain people out than to welcome others in. It easily becomes an occasion for human pride. By whatever criterion we adopt for forming our group, we usually like to believe that those in it are a cut above the rest.

Along with that is often found an undue attachment to human leaders. This is especially lamentable when it happens within the Christian church, where we are all called to be servants of one another and where all own allegiance to one Lord. We lose the perspective that all the talents and graces which leaders manifest are God-given. We begin to stand in awe of outstanding leaders. We attribute the growth of the church or the transformation of society to their efforts, their brilliance, their devotion. And we seem to gain a sense of specialness in the life of the church when we identify ourselves with the one whom we consider the greatest.

Do you know how Paul analyzes this situation? He says that the Christians in Corinth are “behaving like ordinary men.” For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and the other, “I belong to Apollos,” the apostle asks, “Are you not merely men?” What Paul is saying here is that their sectarianism, their party spirit, their glorying in human leaders, is characteristically human. It’s the way people normally operate. It’s the style in which the rest of the world lives. “You can find that sort of thing,” Paul seems to say, “in any other group on earth.”

But these believers in Corinth had received a new life. God had breathed His Spirit into their hearts. They had been forgiven by God, cleansed through Christ, and they were in the process of being totally transformed. They had within them the capacity now, the power, to walk in newness of life. And here they were reverting to their old ways, doing what everyone else does.

How does the apostle Paul deal with this situation? How does he minister to these Christians? How does he help them through this problem? The first thing that strikes me is that he is very gentle and pastoral in his approach. Listen: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t present himself as an authority, doesn’t crack the whip and demand submission. He calls them “brethren,” that is fellow-Christians, spiritual equals. He doesn’t presume at this point to give commands or even advice. He makes an appeal. He pleads with them. He lovingly urges them “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice it’s not because Paul is a famous apostle that they are to listen to his entreaty. He comes to them not in his own name but in the name of Jesus, the One whom they call Lord.

Secondly, he tells them exactly what he wants to see in them, that they be “united in the same mind and in the same judgment.” This is an appeal for agreement. The image in the words he uses is that of “political communities which are free from factions” or “different states which entertain friendly relations with each other.” Paul wants them to abandon their party slogans, to cast aside the battle cries of their division and to pull together. He wants them, he writes, “to be perfectly joined.” That pictures restoring something to its rightful condition. It can be used for something like mending nets or supplying what is lacking. The net here was surely frayed and breaking. The lack was painfully apparent. Unity had to be restored.

But here is the genius of Paul’s approach, his characteristic way of dealing with problems of every kind. He applies to their situation the heart of the Christian gospel. He helps them to look at their dividedness in the light of the cross and the empty tomb. He does that with three telling questions. Listen: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

Look at that first one: “Is Christ divided?” Paul focuses attention now on the risen Lord, the One whom all the groups within the church claim to worship and serve. He asks, “Has Christ been parceled out to particular groups? Has He been divided up so that each has only a portion of Him? Can any one faction claim to have more or less of Him than others?” Paul hopes that simply raising the question will expose the folly of their party spirit. Since the resurrected Christ is one and undivided, so the fellowship of His people must be.

The second question focuses on the Cross. It’s the most searching and powerful of the three. “Was Paul crucified for you?” Graciously, Paul doesn’t single out Apollos or Cephas here. He takes on the party that bears his name, that makes special appeal to his apostleship. He shows them the folly of this kind of exclusive attachment to him. How can we give to any human leader, he asks, the place that belongs to Jesus Christ alone? The Lord Himself has won our devotion, our supreme obedience, our single-hearted worship by His self-offering for our sins. Paul is saying to his special friends and supporters, “I certainly appreciate your love and loyalty, but don’t put me in that place. Don’t give to me the kind of allegiance that belongs to the suffering Savior. Remember that your ultimate indebtedness is to Him. He’s the One who loved you and gave Himself for you. Never forget that. Never let any human leader get in the way.”

The final question: “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” It’s another question to which the answer is perfectly obvious. It’s the name of the triune God that has been named over them. It’s the name of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. Their baptism has brought them into His body, into vital union with Him so that if they’re going to give themselves a name, if they’re going to say they belong to someone, let it never be anyone other than the Lord Himself.

Let me say a word now to all of you who are believers: I hope you will think well of your pastors and priests. I hope you will value the tradition in which you find yourself. But let the words of the apostle sink down into your heart, and let nothing be as central and significant to you in the life of the church as this: you belong to Jesus Christ, the Lord. Don’t let attachment to a human leader or to a particular group within the church divide you from your fellow believers and obscure your vision of the one Lord.

And now, to you who have not yet become Christians, let me assure you that the heart of the Christian faith, for those of all denominations and traditions, is Jesus Christ, crucified for us, risen from the dead. Put your trust in Him. Yield your life entirely to Him. Give to nothing else, to no one else, the place that belongs to Him. The nearer you are to the living Lord Jesus Christ, the nearer you will be to all His other followers.

PRAYER: O God, forgive, we pray, our dividedness, our over great attachment to great leaders. And grant us grace so to bow before Christ as Lord, so to set the crucified and risen Jesus before us that our divisions will tend to fall away and we will know ourselves to be truly one with all who love the Savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.