Remember, we pointed out last Lord’s Day morning that Paul has structured his letter according to then current Greco-Roman rhetorical style. Vv. 4-9 are the exordium, the introduction that weaves together thanksgiving with a suggestion of the themes that will be covered. It is a way of securing the goodwill of his readers, but, of course, Paul pours into that thanksgiving not only the full sincerity of his heart but the God-ward emphasis that would be missing in a typical Greco-Roman rhetorical piece. The forms of the culture are made use of, but they are perfected and sanctified for godly use. Verse 10 is then the propositio, or proposition: the thesis statement of the entire letter.
v.10 As the proposition v. 10 should be understood as “the main advice” Paul wants to give his hearers and for them to heed. The arguments that will follow in the body of the letter will be designed to persuade his readers to follow this advice. Two things are obvious from Paul’s thesis statement: first, there were serious divisions in the church and second, thankfully, these had not reached the point that Paul could not still address the church as a single congregation. [Witherington, 94-96]
v.11 In vv. 11-17 we have the narratio, the narration, the brief account of the reasons that led Paul to write as he does. It serves as the basis for the arguments that follow. It is typical in the Greco-Roman narratio, right near the beginning of a speech or letter, to cite a credible witness so that there can be no question as to the relevance of what will follow. Here the witnesses are “Chloe’s people”, either some of her slaves or some members of her family. Chloe herself was probably an early convert of Paul in Corinth, perhaps a businesswoman like Lydia in Philippi.
v.12 It is likely that this is simply a short summary of the divisions or a selection of them. That is, there were more divisions than simply these that were created by varying loyalties to different preachers. Almost certainly there was a division in the church down socio-economic lines, as will appear later. These factions mentioned here may have had something to do with people’s loyalty to the preacher who had baptized them, but, if so, we don’t know who was the baptizer of the “Christ” faction. [Witherington, 96] But, what seems clear from what will follow in the letter is that these varying loyalties to men also had something to do with how eloquent people viewed these preachers as being. Corinth was a place where people prided themselves on their knowledge of oratory and picked their favorites according to their particular standards of eloquence.
Apollos, we know from Acts 18, followed Paul into Corinth and had an important ministry there. In chapter 3 Paul will say that Apollos watered what he had sown. Apollos was a learned man and, apparently, more eloquent than Paul as a speaker. He was more what people expected from a philosopher. Some clearly felt that Apollos better fit the image of a spokesman for Christianity as the “new wisdom.” You can hear the overtones of all of this in 2:1 when Paul admits that he had not come to Corinth “with eloquence or superior wisdom.” About Peter’s ministry in Corinth we know nothing.
The “Christ” party apparently sought to rise above this partisan loyalty to mere men, but in doing so fell into simply another brand of spiritual elitism in which they saw their viewpoint as setting them above the rest. [Fee, 59] We think for example of Alexander Campbell in the first half of the 19th century. He was going to abolish denominations and recreate the simplicity of New Testament Christianity without all the modern divisions. But what he succeeded in creating, of course, was another denomination, The Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ.
It is important to note at this point that it becomes clear through 1 Corinthians that the teachers themselves – Paul, Apollos, and Peter – had nothing to do with and did not encourage the divisions that resulted from the enthusiasm that some of these Christians had for each one of them at the expense of the others. Apollos and Peter would have been quick to say the same thing Paul says here.
v.13 Here we see Paul’s characteristic tact. He uses his own name and not that of Apollos or Peter. He explicitly rejects the idea of people making him the leader of a party in the church, and by so doing implicitly rejects the notion of anyone else being made the leader of such a party.
v.14 Crispus was the synagogue ruler who became a Christian, as we read in Acts 18. In a statement that puts baptism in its place in relation to the gospel itself, Paul is willing even to say that he is glad that he didn’t perform many baptisms there. Be careful. This is argument; this is polemics. We shouldn’t take from this the idea that Paul thought baptism of no importance. Clearly he thought baptism of great importance as we learn both in Acts and in his many letters. But baptism is not the gospel; it is not the foundation of things; it is not the beginning.
v.16 As we know from Acts, it was characteristic of Paul to baptize households, just as God’s people were circumcised in households in the OT. In 16:15 Paul tells us that the household of Stephanas were the first Christians in this region.
Notice how perfectly human this letter is. Paul, as he writes, suddenly remembers another family that he had baptized and then, to ensure that his memory has not failed him in a way that would bring discredit on his argument, he admits that he could have baptized a few more people and forgotten them in the moment.
v.17 However important, precious, and necessary baptism may be, Paul leaves it in no doubt that the embrace of the gospel, the good news of salvation in Christ, comes first and is fundamental. Baptism comes after to signify and to seal what the gospel has made real. The reason Stephanas and his family were baptized was precisely because they had believed, or at least those old enough to believe, had believed the message Paul preached. As Paul proceeds in his argument, it will become still more clear that baptism is not going to be a basis of his argument. Rather, he will base his case on the nature of the gospel itself, the message about Christ and salvation, which they have believed. That is what comes first and makes all the difference.
The Greek sophists of the period, itinerant orators and teachers, so stressed eloquence and polished form that the content of what they said took a definite second place. For Paul what mattered was the truth about Christ not the skill of the orator. But, as a result, there were Christians there who felt that, in comparison with the more sophisticated and eloquent speech of others, perhaps Apollos in particular, Paul and his message didn’t come across very well.
There were divisions in the Corinthian church and there are divisions in the church today. Lots of divisions. Some of these divisions cannot be helped and are, in fact, the result of fidelity to the Lord and the gospel. They are divisions such as Paul would approve and does approve in other places in his letters. Ours is a free country. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses can claim to be Christians, can call themselves Christians, but we maintain they are not and will not grant them a place in the Christian Church. There are many who claim to be Christians who make no bones of denying the fundamental teachings of the Word of God. Some don’t believe in a personal God, or, if they do they don’t believe in a triune God; some do not believe that Jesus was God the Son, some do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God except in some very vague and attenuated way, some do not believe that when he died on the cross he was bearing our sins, and do not believe that after he died he rose from the dead on the third day, nor do they believe that he is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Nevertheless they call themselves Christians and many hold positions of authority in erstwhile Christian churches, churches where real Christians can still be found. What to do about people like that has been controversial itself in Christian history and still today. Should all such people be drummed out of their churches and, if they cannot be drummed out, should the real Christians all leave? Those questions have been answered in different ways as you know. But that is not the issue that Paul is raising here.
Nor is it the issue of divisions such as exist between Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and evangelical Protestantism. Those divisions also concern matters of the most fundamental kind, matters touching the very nature of the gospel itself. Those divisions are, in fact, much more like the division that very soon separated the Christians from Judaism in the years that followed Pentecost and the divisions created by the teaching of the judaizers, such teaching as Paul dealt with in his letter to the Galatians. After all, both the Jews and the Christians claimed to be the true followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the judaizers in Galatia certainly claimed to be Christians. But the Jews’ denial of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the judaizers’ denial of justification by faith alone, Paul said, placed them in the camp of the unbelievers, not the Christians.
Here, in 1 Corinthians, the issue is of another type. Here real Christians are divided from one another – or distance is coming between them – Christians who are still united in a single conception of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There were significant differences of viewpoint, and if those differences had been left unresolved they would, no doubt, have produced more permanent and substantial divisions, but, at this point, there remained a substantial commitment to the same understanding of Christ and salvation. In other words, the situation there was more like the situation that pertains widely in the world of Protestant evangelicalism today. Differences exist that separate Christians from one another, but there is widespread acknowledgement on all sides that those with whom we are disagreeing are Christians like ourselves.
Sometimes divisions of this type exist in individual congregations. It would discourage you if I were to tell you how often I hear of congregations disintegrating under the pressure of such divisions. It has certainly happened in Tacoma often enough. We have had, in our own Presbytery, a congregation disintegrate because of such divisions in the last few months and we have had another congregation greatly diminished because of similar divisions. In neither case, I believe, would most of these people on either side claim that the people on the other side were not real Christians. But that fact did not prevent the church from coming apart. Sometimes the divisions are produced by precisely the same divided loyalties to different men or parties that troubled the church in Corinth in Paul’s day. Sometimes they are the result of offenses given and received concerning matters of Christian ethics. Paul will deal with some of those in his letter and it was such an ethical issue that destroyed our Presbytery church. Sometimes the divisions come from differences of theological viewpoint. Paul will deal with some of those in his letter and that was the type of division that greatly diminished another of our Presbytery churches recently.
Now, I realize that some of these differences that must be faced and dealt with in our day are not precisely faced or dealt with in the New Testament. We don’t know precisely how Paul would have dealt with the errors that crept into the teaching of the church in the middle ages and which are reflected, for example, in the life and teaching of even great men such as Francis of Assisi or Bernard of Clairvaux. We could never agree with all the teaching of those men, and wonder how we could successfully maintain fellowship with them if somehow they were to appear in our time holding the same views they held then. We agree with Luther that Bernard loved Jesus Christ as much as anyone can, but some of his teaching would be immensely problematic for Protestants like ourselves.
To bring the issue still closer to home, we don’t know precisely what Paul would have said about Arminianism as a theological system or how he would have instructed us to deal with the division that separates us from the great many who hold to that system whom we would cheerfully confess to be fellow Christians. The Calvinist Charles Spurgeon, for example, said that there were features of John Wesley’s theology that he positively detested – and Spurgeon was speaking of Wesley’s Arminianism and his perfectionism – but, Spurgeon went on, he held Wesley himself as a Christian and as a preacher of the gospel in reverence second to no Wesleyan. It is very doubtful that Spurgeon and Wesley could have managed to belong to the same church, so great and serious were their differences, but Spurgeon honored Wesley as a fellow Christian and we know that Wesley would have done the same had he lived in Spurgeon’s time, because Wesley honored Whitefield as a fellow Christian and Whitefield had the same theology that Spurgeon had.
So, I don’t mean to suggest that it is a simple thing to translate Paul’s urgent exhortation here – that we should be perfectly united in mind and thought and that there should be no divisions among us – to our own time and situation. But, I do say that we must hear the Apostle Paul at the outset of his great letter and pay very close attention to his meaning. For we know very well that there are divisions among us. Not, thankfully, divisions that have roiled our congregational life. We are grateful that there have been few of those for many years now. But there are divisions in the church that separate Christians from one another. There are certainly divisions among us in the Presbyterian Church in America. To be frank, I keep some of that from you so that you will not be discouraged by our factionalism. It is easier to do because we live here in a distant corner of the country, far from the center of PCA life and activity.
But differences abound. There are all manner of divisions over worship and how our Sunday services ought to be conducted; differences over the type of music to use in worship; there are differences over what is appropriate for women to do in worship; there are differences over the nature of the Christian ministry; there are differences over the schooling of our children; there are differences over what it means to observe the Lord’s Day; and there are substantial differences, sometimes harder to define, about how we ought to think about the Christian life and how we ought to live it, so much so that it is almost as if we might say there is a “grace” party in the church and a “law” party in the church, though each party would certainly claim to hold to the emphasis of the other. And the result in our church, as no doubt was the case in Corinth, is a measure of suspicion and of active dislike. This unhappy fact, I tell you, is never far from the life of ministers and elders in our church. And, fact is, the same is true in every other denomination of Protestant evangelical Christians. Paul is not dealing here with a situation unique to first century Christianity in Corinth. He is dealing with a problem that surfaces always and everywhere because sin always and everywhere divides people from one another. Sin makes us proud and pride divides. It always does. Pride can always find a pretext. And it was pride there in Corinth, nothing else. Paul is going to take them on later in this chapter and then again and again about their “boasting” and their “jealousy.” So long as we remain sinners, we will have to read and attend to Paul in 1 Corinthians. As John Newton said, there is a principle of pride that inclines us to despise people who don’t agree with us.
Well then, in general, in his introduction, what does Paul say to us about that and about all our divisions, the ones that we all know exist between ourselves and other Christians, even other Christians in this congregation, because we do not share the same viewpoint in some way or another?
Well, take note of how Paul immediately shifts the focus away from the character of the divisions themselves to Christ himself and to the gospel itself. For Paul the divisions are not the true issue, they never are. They are rather a symptom. [Fee, 49-50] The divisions reveal a more fundamental problem, a more basic failing. No one would make a great point of the fact that he was a follower of Paul or of Apollos or of Peter who rightly understood his or her relationship to Jesus Christ and who really appreciated the nature of the gospel itself and that glorious message of salvation for sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.
What Paul is clearly saying as he moves from v. 12 to v. 17 is that when Christians divide among themselves for reasons such as these they are as much as trumpeting the fact that they have to some significant degree lost touch with the glorious gospel itself. Pride has begun to crowd out the faith and love, thanksgiving, and especially humility, that should fill the hearts of those who have discovered Jesus Christ and found in him the hope of peace with God and everlasting life. When they start making an issue of who it was that baptized them or who their favorite preacher is, they are as much as declaring that they have lost sight of the salvation Christian preachers proclaim and that is signified and sealed in baptism.
Now folk will immediately say, “Well, that is not true in my case, because my problem with these people, this division is not personal, it is a matter of fidelity to the truth.” Everybody always says that and most of the time they think that. But, of course, that is what these parties, perhaps especially the “Christ” party, were no doubt saying in Corinth as well. But Paul will have none of it. He immediately refocuses attention on the more fundamental mistake, a failure to take the gospel itself with full seriousness and make it the basis of our living and of our relating to other Christians.
As will become clear as we move through 1 Corinthians, and as is clear from what Paul says elsewhere, he was willing to allow a significant measure of diversity of thought and viewpoint. Paul did not insist on agreement at every point. But, he did insist upon Christians landing squarely together on the foundation of the gospel and living with one another in consistency with that gospel. And a failure to do that was what he detected in Corinth.
Paul was even willing, we learn, for example, in Romans, to make no issue of certain opinions that he knew were false because they could be safely tolerated in a gospel-dominated environment. He will say a similar thing later in this letter.
You and I live now in a similarly charged environment. We don’t encounter and are not so much influenced by sophist orators, though, to be sure, we have our star speakers in the evangelical world and they are lightning rods for criticism and for adulation. There are people in this congregation who think of themselves as disciples of one Christian teacher and other folk in this same congregation who are highly critical of that same teacher! Christians today, as then, often line up behind such men and identify their own position by those they follow. Many of us have benefited tremendously from the writings of J.I. Packer and some of us would consider ourselves his disciples. But then, many of us have profited from the writings of R.C. Sproul. Dr. Packer used to be a fixture at Dr. Sproul’s Ligonier Conferences, but he is persona non grata at Ligonier nowadays.
And, besides our sophists, our itinerant philosophers and sages, such as Packer and Sproul, we have plenty of other people who are telling us how to worship, how to reach people, how to treat the problems people have, what to think about this and about that. And virtually all of these positions have both supporters and detractors not only among folk we would cheerfully confess to be our Christian brethren, but even among folk who belong to the same denomination we do. And all of these positions and all their advocates, of course, cannot help but tend to push us apart from one another.
And what is Paul’s first word on this fact of our life, this challenge to our unity? What does he want us to think first about all of this? He says, “think about the gospel”. Think about your sin and guilt, think about Christ and his love and sacrifice. Think about what you deserved from a holy God and, then, about what heaven will be like. Think again about how utterly inappropriate it is for you – sinner saved by grace that you are – to look down on somebody. Look at your brothers and sisters, especially those who don’t agree with you about something or another, look long and carefully at them. And then say about each one of them what Augustine said about his friend Alypius:
“We were washed in the same blood.”
Say that and then treat them accordingly. Do that, you do all!