Connections 01.26.2020: Unifying Grace

1 Corinthians 1:10-18, 26-31

Division within a church is incredibly painful. I know this from experience. Maybe you do too. I was part of a church fellowship for ten years before deciding to leave because the divisions were so disruptive.

What were we arguing about? I’m not exactly sure. Any time a lot of people come together, their natural differences will occasionally cause problems. It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment the differences among the members of that church began to destroy the foundation of the fellowship. What I remember is that our congregation was deeply divided. People said hurtful words and took upsetting actions. What used to be a place of welcome and good questions and peace became a place that caused anxiety, uncertainty, and even fear the moment I walked in the door. The disunity among the people of that church became too great, and we all lost sight of God’s grace. It was time to leave. Sometimes that is the healthiest decision to make.

We don’t have to read far into today’s lesson text to find some common ground with Paul. Division among believers is not a new thing. It’s been happening since the beginning of the Christian church. Back then, Paul says the disunity was caused by people supporting different faith leaders and claiming that their leader was the best and only one to follow. We can understand this. Many of us have mentors in the faith—leaders or teachers who have shown us a better way to follow Jesus through their examples, their written words, their preaching, or their explanations of Scripture.

I like Jen Hatmaker. You may like Max Lucado. These two writers and speakers have different views on certain issues within the Christian church. It would be easy for you and me to say things like “I belong to Jen” or “I belong to Max.” What we mean by this is that these people’s Christianity looks like our own. We agree with their views on this issue or that issue. It would be easy for us to pit the two of them against each other, to say that if I agree with Jen, I can’t agree with Max. It seems like this was happening in the Corinthian church too.

I think Paul would say to you and me as he said to the Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided? Was Jen crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Max?” (See 1:13.) Paul’s point is clear: the foundation of our beliefs should be none other than God, who “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1:30-31).

The two writers and speakers I mentioned have been able to stand together on the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and this was made evident in a recent episode of Jen’s For the Love podcast. Titled “The Beauty of Disagreeing Agreeably,” the episode features Jen’s interview with Max, and I appreciated their conversation for the grace they offered each other. They came into the interview knowing where they both stand on certain issues, and yet they listened to each other with the willingness to be challenged, to learn, and to grow. Above all, they stood on the foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord of all. That is a true example of unifying grace that I hope to emulate.

Discussion

• Have you ever been part of a church fellowship that divided and maybe even split over certain issues of disagreement? If so, what was that like, and how did you recover from the pain it caused?

• Why do you think it can be so hard for Christians to stay unified in a church setting?

• What steps can churches take to remind members of the foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord?

• If you have time and are interested, listen to the podcast where Jen Hatmaker interviews Max Lucado. How do they exemplify unifying grace in spite of their differences?

• How can you demonstrate a spirit of unity toward another believer with whom you disagree this week?

Reference Shelf

The body of the letter begins in 1:10 with the request formula “I ask” followed by Paul’s relaying of the problem reported to him by Chloe’s people (1:11-12). This is followed by a series of three questions (1:13), the first of which is addressed in the balance of this unit (1:14-17). Verse 17 provides a key word (stauros = cross) for transition to the crucial argument about the “word of the cross” in the next section (1:18–2:5).

Paul’s use of “I ask” here should be seen in light of the ancient parenetic tradition. On the basis of his close relationship to the Corinthian believers, which Paul later casts as that of a father to his children (4:15), Paul asks them to pursue a course of behavior different from that which he learned they were following. In making his case for a change in behavior, Paul presents his word of the cross as the appropriate model and himself and his coworkers, including especially Apollos, as examples of that model. True to the parenetic fashion, Paul does not advocate a new teaching but rather calls them back to the traditions that he has already presented to them (4:17). Their failure to realize the full implications of his previous teaching had led to the emergence of divisions among them.

In making his request, Paul refers to them…generically [as] “brothers and sisters.” As noted in chapter 1, Paul frequently employed fictive familial terms to refer to believers. First Corinthians, however, contains the term in the plural far more frequently than any other letter (compare 27 times in 1 Corinthians to 13 times in Romans). Repetition of this term signifying familial bonds was part of Paul’s strategy for restoring those bonds.

Paul makes his request “through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” …Paul is the person making the request, but that request carries the authorization of Christ in that Paul has been authorized by Christ to speak on his behalf. Thus, in a similar fashion, Paul will pronounce judgment “in the name of Lord Jesus” on the member guilty of immorality (5:4). What appears in many respects to be a human problem, namely divisions, is immediately elevated from the anthropocentric realm to the theocentric.

The content of the request contains two pairs of appeals: (1) “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you,” and (2) “that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (NRSV). The language of these appeals is politically charged and reflects ancient discussions regarding the dangers of communal division. Together the terms signify the seriousness of the threat to the cohesiveness of the community and the urgency of restoring harmony.

The basis for Paul’s concern stems from the report he had received from Chloe’s people (v. 11) that “contentions” existed in the church. …Chloe was possibly a woman of some means in Corinth since she had sent some of her agents, possibly slaves, to report the problem to Paul. As such, she and her people may have been involved in the quarrels.

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? …

Addressing these questions in reverse order, we focus first on the most significant issue, namely what lay at the heart of the divisions. …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 particular 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….

The brief narration of the reported problem in 1:11-12 is followed in 1:13 by three questions that highlight the incredibility of the situation from Paul’s perspective. The first (“Has Christ been divided?”) raises an unthinkable possibility in a physical sense, but it also brings out the lunacy of the actual fractures that are occurring in Christ’s body, the church. The second (“Was Paul crucified for you?”) clearly contradicts reality in that Paul had not been crucified, but more importantly it interjects into the discussion by inference the important affirmation that Christ was. The third question (“Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”) not only reminds the audience through indirection in whose name they were baptized but also challenges the situation in Corinth where loyalties to human figures have become so important. Paul draws out the implications of these questions in reverse sequence as his argument unfolds.

Regarding baptism (1:14-17), Paul displays a somewhat fuzzy memory in recalling whom he had baptized. The fuzziness contributes to his diminishing of the significance of the act as a signifier of status on the basis of the administrator of the rite. Admittedly, the persons Paul acknowledges having baptized were members with whom he appears to have been especially close (cf. 16:15; Rom 16:23). Despite these concessions to having baptized some, however, his point is that baptism by anyone pales in comparison to the greater calling to preach the gospel.

Stating this enables Paul in 1:17 to make a transition to his important discussion of the content of that gospel and the corresponding nature of his proclamation. His preaching was not in sophisticated speech, for that would “empty” the cross of Christ. This first mentioning of [the word] usually translated “wisdom” sets the stage for understanding its meaning in subsequent verses. Paul has a particular “wisdom” in mind, exactly the kind that the Corinthians have been valuing so highly—namely, that sophisticated speaking displayed by successful sophistic figures. The juxtaposition of sophia logou with the cross of Christ accentuates the consequence of trying to merge the two: sophisticated speech empties the cross. How? Such speech reveals a regard for, a reliance upon, and an enslavement to a system of valuation that holds no place for the power of God at work in the world through the self-defaming cross of Christ and its proclamation. Highly regarding the practitioner of sophistic eloquence and the practice itself engenders the spirit of competitiveness, which renders genuine community unattainable. Relying upon the power of speech to manipulate thought and action closes the door to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. The end result is a perpetual enslavement to a system dominated by those who have learned the art of manipulation through language….

1:18-25. The catchword stauros (cross) connects this part to the previous section. Here, “the word of the cross”, which is considered foolishness to some, contrasts

with the “wisdom of speech” of 1:17, which is valued so highly by those same persons. The contrast in perception has a corresponding contrast in result: those who perceive the cross as foolishness are perishing, while those who see it as the power of God are being saved. The force of the present participles here (“are perishing”; “are being saved”) should not be overlooked. Paul does not speak here of salvation as an event accomplished in the past but rather as one in process awaiting future consummation….

1:26-31. As a paradigmatic proof of the counterintuitive nature of God’s wisdom revealed in the word of the cross, Paul asks the Corinthians to look at themselves at the point of their calling. When they do, they are reminded of the status (or lack of it) for the majority of members: “Not many were wise according to the flesh, not

many were powerful, not many were well born.” This verse has been taken as an indication that a few in the church did possess such social attributes. While it does suggest that, the emphasis here is that most of them lacked those laudable assets. Wisdom “according to the flesh” is wisdom from a human perspective. This is the main contrast Paul wishes to draw at this point since his argument thus far has focused on the difference between God’s wisdom and the worldly wisdom they cherish. Paul expands his focus here, however, introducing two other qualities to form a triad that he will refer to again in 4:10. There he sharply contrasts the Corinthians with the foolish, weak, and disreputable apostles such as himself. Here the focus is on contradictory values of worldly wisdom and of God’s wisdom.

The point of Paul’s reminder of their status at the time of their calling is not primarily to belittle them or to put them back in their place, though that is partly his purpose, but rather to stress the radical nature of God’s wisdom. God acts counter to the world’s norms. God chose the foolish, powerless, and lowly. The second term is…usually translated “weak” and thus contrasts with the “strong” whom God has not chosen. The “strong,” though, parallel the “powerful” of 1:26, so [the word] may be read “powerless.” The last term contrasts with the [term] of 1:26, but Paul adds a qualifier to bring out the significance of the social attribute of being “well born”: they are esteemed, while the lowly are not. The foolish, weak, and lowly are counted as “nothings” in the perspective of worldly wisdom. Yet, God had chosen such nobodies to render the “somebodies” nothing (1:28). In fact, God’s calling entails a reversal of the total order of the values of worldly wisdom. Paul asserts that God’s purpose in calling was to subvert all human boasting before God. His target here is not only the world outside the church but also the point where the world’s standards for boasting have penetrated the church. That those standards have done so is evident in 4:6-7 where Paul accuses the Corinthians of being puffed up and boasting. If his words were intended for the whole church and not simply for an elite that carried their external status into the assembly, then even the foolish, weak, and lowly were guilty of boasting. Of what? One answer often proposed is that they were glorying in their experience of spiritual gifts. Another is that they were boasting of the superiority of the leader of their faction, which signified that their own status was superior to members of other factions. Both views can be supported, and both may have been true. An eschatological (or noneschatological) perspective different from Paul’s was also likely involved. Paul saw the church as a “work in progress.” The Corinthians relished what they had already accomplished, and from the perspective guiding their assessment, they had accomplished much. That perspective was shaped, however, by worldly wisdom and its competitive standards. Paul again interjects his theocentric perspective asserting that before God no one can boast.

This God is the sole source of their life in Christ Jesus, who is always the crucified Christ (1:30). This crucified one has become wisdom for us from God (recalling 1:24). Three other aspects of God’s activity in Christ are added in 1:30: righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Together with wisdom, these terms may form a fourfold contrast to the foolish, weak, lowly, and discounted nobodies of 1:27-28.31 Or, the last three terms may define the results of God’s peculiar wisdom. The terms may also reflect the influence of Paul’s source for the quotation that follows in 1:31: “Let one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” The reference to God’s action as steadfast love, justice, and righteousness may have led Paul to give a threefold explication of God’s wisdom enacted in the cross of Christ. In any case, the stress is on the fact that they are from God. They are gifts, as Paul reminds them in 4:7, and thus boasting is precluded, except for boasting in what God has done.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2009), excerpts from 82–92.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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