Uniform 06.29.2014: Finding Unity in a Divided World

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

We live in a world that urges us to take sides. Our culture encourages us to define ourselves and each other based on our beliefs and ideologies: Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Liberal or conservative? Pro-life or pro-choice? Catholic or Protestant? Based on these labels, and often little else, we decide whether or not we should associate with people. We let the sides we take in public debates define who we are.

Even spheres that seem like they’d be free from such staunch division are affected by this culture of us-or-them. I was shocked as a new parent to discover how firmly everyone held to and spoke out for ideas about caring for infants and small children. “Either you raise your son exactly like I am raising my children or I cannot have anything to do with you”—this is how I often felt when having conversations with other parents about epidurals or natural childbirth, breastfeeding or formula, co-sleeping or crib.

In the midst of so much ideological division, spending time in church is a breath of fresh air. Church is one of the few places in my life where I’m not valued or demonized based on what I say I believe about a certain issue. More than that, no one asks for my opinion on controversial or divisive issues as a way to get to know me. I know there are people in our congregation who think differently than I do, but no one worries about how I voted in the last election when we’re sharing a meal in the fellowship hall or a hymnal in the sanctuary.

Reading Paul’s warning against divisions in the church in 1 Corinthians reminds me how thankful I am for a church that doesn’t let differences define people. I recognize that many Christians have trouble finding such congregations, and others would prefer to be in a church where everyone holds the same ideas. I’m grateful to have found a congregation that works to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10) even when that feels like an unrealistic goal. In the polarizing world of cable news and Internet comment threads, may everyone find a community that works toward unity instead of being stuck on our differences.

Discussion

1. What labels do you put on others based on their opinions about certain topics? Do these labels help or harm the growth of relationships between you? How?
2. In what situations or communities have you been most surprised by firm ideological differences?
3. How do you work to maintain relationships when you disagree with people you care about?
4. How can we “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10) within our churches even when we disagree on a number of issues?
5. What can we do to lessen the power of political or cultural debates within our churches?

Reference Shelf

Paul continues his brief narration of the reported problem in v. 12. Several questions arise regarding the nature of the personal labels he names (“I am of . . . “). Were members of the church in Corinth actually using these slogans? Did four such factions exist, or three, or only two, or none? What was the basis for identification with one leader over against another?

Addressing these questions in reverse order, we focus first on the most significant issue, namely what lay at the heart of the divisions. In the Introduction, I have argued that the root of the problem lay in Corinthian challenges to Paul’s leadership. […] They had begun to evaluate Paul’s position on the basis of the same kind of criteria used to judge other similar teachers, in particular sophists. Paul’s sophistic skills were lacking, in their opinion. They were accustomed to teachers who demonstrated their superior status through eloquent speaking. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul would later quote his critics as saying of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (NRSV). Their contempt of his speaking had increased by the time he wrote those words, but hints that the issue was already present lurk in Paul’s criticisms of such criteria in 1 Corinthians. The same competitive spirit that permeated Corinthian society had crept into the church and was affecting relationships of various sorts in various ways. In this section Paul deals with its effect on his relationship with the church.

The question of factions (and how many 
there were) has received numerous answers,
 from the suggestion that no factions actually 
existed to various efforts to describe the partic
ular factions in detail. Factions
 probably did exist, but they were not clearly 
defined, at least not by theology. Questioning 
Paul’s role as apostle-teacher would naturally 
have involved some persons showing preference
 for those they considered superior teachers.
 Very likely, if the report in Acts that Apollos 
was an eloquent and wise speaker is accurate,
 then some may have preferred to look to him
 for guidance. That does not mean, however, 
that Apollos in any way fostered that kind of 
following. Even less likely is the possibility that
 Cephas had cultivated a group of disciples in
 Corinth. The teachers some in the church preferred to Paul may have been “home grown” in 
that they were unnamed members of the church who were exercising their spirit-gifts of wisdom and knowledge in the assembly (12:8, 28-29; 14:29). Their interpretation of such talents not as gifts of the Spirit but as marks of superior leadership status receives Paul’s sharp rebuke in 4:7ff. Paul’s theological response to the problem suggests that, even though its manifestation was political, its origin lay in their ideological perspective that teachers who exhibited more excellent speaking gifts deserved higher respect. A significant portion of the members may have voiced strong preference for Apollos on this basis, while another significant portion espoused loyalty to Paul. Others probably expressed their higher regard for other teachers. For Paul, the problem was not so much that they preferred one particular teacher over another but that the existence of such preferences at all revealed a deep error in their thinking.

As to the third question of whether members in the church were actually using the slogans Paul attributes to them in 1:12 (also 3:4 and implied in 3:21-22), Hall has identified three types of answers: the literal, the semi-literal, and the cryptic. The literal view holds that distinct factions existed and that the members of those factions clearly identified themselves as followers of either Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (and perhaps Christ). The semi-literal view sees some distinct factions with clear allegiances expressed for two leaders (Paul and either Cephas, Apollos, or Christ). The cryptic view, which Hall favors, holds that Paul fabricated the slogans as part of his rhetorical strategy against unnamed leaders of factions. Mitchell has argued that, since the slogans are in the “language of slave ownership and childish dependence,” Paul invented them to caricature groups that had “galvanized” around Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. Paul may have coined the slogans himself to ridicule the practice of aligning one’s self with certain teachers on the basis of sophistic skills. The slogans and other parts of 1 Corinthians 1–4 may reflect Paul’s cryptic use of a device known as “covert allusion” as he attacked such alignments. As Thiselton points out, however, the use of “covert allusion” does not mean that no tensions existed between those loyal to Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul’s great effort to show that no such tension existed between himself and Apollos may have served to attack the competitive spirit of those Corinthians who had aligned themselves behind unnamed leaders they considered superior to Paul. In light of Apollos’s reputation, however, it seems likely that he also would have attracted, willfully or not, a following of those who valued his skillful preaching. Paul may have applied much of what he said figuratively to himself and Apollos (4:6), but behind the figurative language may have been actual strains in their relationship.

Resource

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 84-87.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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