First Corinthians 1--Exhortation to Unity
Feb 17, 2017
After Paul concludes his greetings and expresses confidence in the believers of Corinth, he says in 1 Corinthians 1:9,
9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Paul’s opening statement reminded them that they were a “fellowship” (koinonia, “fellowship, association, community, communion”). The Person of Christ Himself is always the unifying factor. And because He is the Head of the Church, all differences of opinion ought to be resolved by asking Him to reveal His will and His truth.
Paul then addresses the first problem that had arisen in the Corinthian church—that of division, or faction. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says,
10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions [schisma, “schisms”] among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment [or “opinion”].
When differences of opinion arise, it is difficult to deal with the problem of division. Paul was no stranger to controversy, for the great division between mainstream Judaism and the Christian faction had been ongoing for two decades. At the time of Paul’s letter, the final division had not yet taken place, and Rome officially considered Christianity to be one of the sects of Judaism, along with the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes.
Yet there will always be differences of opinion among believers. God allows it partly to test their ability to hear God’s voice and to discern truth, but also to test their love for the brethren. Love is the primary glue that unites people in the bond of fellowship; agreement in areas of truth is the second.
The Family of Chloe
Then we discover how Paul had learned of the problems in the church. He had been informed by Chloe, whose family had written to Paul from Corinth. No doubt the letter had been hand-delivered to Paul by some member of Chloe’s family or by a servant. 1 Corinthians 1:11 says,
11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.
It seems inevitable that once the initial euphoria of faith in Christ subsided, and after Paul left their presence, questions would arise. Without Paul’s authoritative presence, disagreements were sure to come. Leaders are recognized either for their greater knowledge or for their recognized positions of authority. The original apostles themselves often disagreed, both before and after the day of Pentecost. Yet they found a way to remain in fellowship. Nonetheless, in later centuries other church leaders were not so loving, for they attempted to force unity by coercion and threats.
The church in Corinth was experiencing an early sign of division, as the people followed different leaders who held differing opinions.
The Prophetic Roots of Denominationalism
When the people of Israel demanded a king, God gave them Saul, who was the best man for the job at the time. David had not yet been born. Samuel objected, knowing that it was not yet time to give Israel a king, but 1 Samuel 8:7 tells us,
7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.”
Whatever the surface issues were at the time, God knew the hearts of the people and understood that the root problem was that they wanted a man to replace God as king. The problem is explained further in the next verse, for 1 Samuel 8:8 continues,
8 “Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also.”
Hence, we see that the root of this problem is idolatry, and its particular application in this case was that they worshiped man rather than God. They wanted to be in submission to men. This problem surfaced in Exodus 20:18-20, when the people refused to hear God’s voice for themselves. They wanted Moses to hear God and then to return and tell them what He said. Here is the root of the denominational problem. It is the desire to hear God’s voice indirectly through men only.
God does indeed speak through men. He speaks through all of nature as well, including the stars and constellations (Psalm 19:1-4). It is not wrong to hear God’s voice through others. However, even then one must hear God through those other men and not listen only to the voice of men. One can hear the voice of God through anyone, but most people believe what men say about God, rather than hearing God through those men.
This is the primary way in which idolatry manifests in the church. It was the problem that the Corinthian church faced. It is doubtful that the believers truly understood what they were doing. If they had understood it, they might have known how to correct the problem among themselves. Instead, they were splitting into factions under different leaders that they wished to follow. Each of these leaders (like Moses) were godly men, but none of them ought to be idolized.
Jesus is King of the True Church
The root problem, Paul seems to say, is that the believers had forgotten that Jesus Christ is always the Head of the church. All other authorities are subordinate to Him. But the spirit of denominationalism dictates that their own leaders are true to Christ, while all others are not. The influence of this spirit, given enough time, inevitably leads each denomination to decree that if one wishes to have access to Christ, he must go through their particular denomination and submit to its leaders.
Eventually, this leads to the idea that an earthly organization is “the true church” and that no others are in real unity with Christ. They confuse the earthly organization and its membership rolls with the true church described in Hebrews 12:23 as “the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven.” The assumption is that their own earthly organization is called as God’s record-keeper of all true believers. Hence, anyone not enrolled in their earthly records is not “enrolled in heaven.”
Each denomination cites its own reasons or its own founder as proof of its exclusive position. Judaism pointed to Moses. The early church pointed to Christ, which should have been sufficient, but soon various groups were pointing to lesser men under Christ. Hence, Paul gives us a list of four factions in 1 Corinthians 1:12,
12 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.”
It is significant that Paul lists his own followers first, lest anyone think that he was siding with his own follows. Paul had no intention of starting his own denomination. A “Paul” church was just as divisive as an “Apollos” church. Even a “Christ” church could easily become just another denomination, regardless of its good name. When a denomination names itself after Christ, and when it claims to have Christ as its Head, this does not necessarily mean that that the Spirit of Christ is operating in its midst. It only shows that it was smart enough to lay claim to the best name possible.
Virtually all denominations have had good intentions, at least at the start. Many of them began with the discovery of some new truth (or perception of truth), and when their denomination rejected it, a split occurred, and the world gave birth to another “true church” possessing the last bit of truth needed to know the whole truth of God. A new creed is thus written, expressing the complete truth needed to be a genuine believer. In this way, acceptance of creeds replaced simple faith in Christ as the measure of true believers.
Whereas Paul said in Ephesians 2:8, “by grace you have been saved through faith,” denominations say (or imply), “by grace you have been saved through faith, and you must accept our creed that defines such faith and submit to our leaders who represent Christ.” It is always “faith AND,” adding to Paul’s simple statement.
In fact, nearly all of the Church Councils have made it mandatory to accept their decisions as a measure of true faith, so that if anyone refuses to accept their decisions, their faith in Christ is declared to be null and void. Few contemplate the divisive and rancorous nature of nearly all the Church Councils. Bishops were bribed, threatened, and even killed in order to secure the votes needed to establish the “truth.” Yet we are supposed to believe that such carnal men—because they were bishops—were capable of establishing truth that all others ought to believe. “God works in mysterious ways,” we are told, and so men are forced to believe that carnal men, using carnal methods, were capable of discerning truth—as long as they won the majority of the vote.
Few understand the story of King Saul and how he represents the church. Even fewer see how the problem of denominationalism (submission to men) rejects Christ as king. It is an antichrist spirit, and it is fully illustrated by Saul, who was anointed king because the people had rejected the rule of Jesus Christ over them. But such was the revelation given to Samuel. Israel’s rejection of Christ as King set the prophetic pattern for the church in later years. Yet we are now coming to the time of a new King. David was the type of Christ, and his kingdom prophesied of the age to come, following the death of Saul.
This is part 4 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones