Contention in the Church

One issue dominates the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. It’s contention in the church. The Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli wrote:

How does it happen that we Christians who are united by such powerful agencies have much greater quarrels than unbelievers? And how does it happen that in a Confederacy in which until now a fraternal love prevailed, for the sake of foreign lords violent quarrel has arisen? Answer: Real piety, by which is meant true worship and prayer to God, has disappeared among us.

We could simply state this by saying contention arises when we major on minors and minor on the majors. There are contentions among the Corinthian believers (1.10-12; 3.3-9, 21; 4.1-2). These contentions develop in the name of a human form of wisdom familiar to citizens of Corinth in the first century. The Corinthians do not understand wisdom the way Paul does. So, he takes the first three chapters to explain this to them. It’s like the character Vizzini using the word inconceivable in The Princess Bride. Paul could say with Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word wisdom. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Corinthian contentions are fueled by Corinthian boasting (1.29-31; 3.21; 4.7). They are puffed up (4.6, 18-19). They boast over the leaders of their factions in order to really boast about themselves and their so-called wisdom theories. So, Paul defends past ministry among the Corinthians (1.16-17; 2.1; 3.4) to reinforce his present relationship with them (4.1-21).

Why is the church divided? It is because the Corinthians were immersed in Greek thought and culture. They were enamored with knowledge as an end in and of itself. They deified philosophy. They were intrigued with so-called wisdom speakers. These speakers were all about presentation and form. Content was not as significant as delivery.

So, 1 Corinthians 1.10-17 paragraph is divided around four personalities. But it’s the novel expression of so-called wisdom that attracts the Corinthians. Each faction boasts in its own expression of human wisdom. So, with this in mind, let’s look at the text:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. – 1 Corinthians 1:10–17

Paul makes his plea for peace to accomplish two objectives: 1) to combat a declaration of contention; 2) to more effectively preach the Gospel of the Cross of Christ.

A Plea for Peace (1.10)

Paul’s authority comes by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. He pleads with believers on the basis of this authority. Still, he is pleading with them and not demanding them. He wants these believers to respond to the grace of God found in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The name of Jesus represents all Jesus is and all He has done for us. Paul’s authority rests on His name and not any other name – not even his own name as an apostle.

  • Positively, Paul wants the Corinthians to speak the same thing, be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and have the same judgment or opinion of things.
  • Negatively, he does not want divisions to exist among them. They ought to be of the same mind and judgment when it comes to the gospel. He doesn’t want uniformity, but he does want unity. We need a diversity of people and gifts in the church, but we don’t need factions tearing the church apart over a misunderstanding of the gospel, the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What will this plea for unity accomplish? First, it will lead them to combat a declaration of contention charged by those of Chloe’s household.

Combatting a Declaration of Contention (1.11-16)

The Report of Contention (11)

Paul knows about the factions in the church from those of Chloe’s household. We don’t know who these informants are. Some think that it was a contingent of believers from the church in Ephesus. Paul wrote Corinthians from Ephesus. These believers went to Corinth on business and visited the Christian community there. They returned to Ephesus and consequently tell Paul what’s going on in Corinth.

Whoever these informants are, Paul now knows what is going on in Corinth. He is beginning to understand the true nature of the opposition he faces there.

The Nature of the Contention (12-16)

Some Corinthian believers set up these factions that the supposed leaders of each would reject (v.12). We don’t know why or how this was happening. We don’t even know to what extent it spread through the church. Paul gives us more about the nature of this contention in Chapter 3:

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. – 1 Corinthians 3.4-9

They are all on the same team. We might well-imagine the Corinthians lining up behind these different personalities. We see it in churches today. But to line up under Christ? To say, “I am of Christ”? Isn’t that a good thing? Not the way the Corinthians were doing it. It’s just that we don’t know what they meant when they said, “I am of Christ”.

I’ve always looked at it as a form of spiritual elitism. Kind of like saying, “While all you other people are following mere human leaders, we are the only ones actually following Jesus!” We’ve seen this a lot! It’s a form of boasting.

The factions are simply developing because the Corinthians love to debate and verbally spar with one another. That’s the real issue here. They are after their own form of wisdom. They believe that their own form of wisdom is manifested in one of their choice leaders or even in Christ Himself.

These questions in verse 13 are meant to gently bring the Corinthians to see the absurdity of what was going on among them.

  • Is Christ divided? It’s absurd to think so. Jesus cannot be apportioned out so that only one group within the church has Him.
  • Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? If you’re parceling out Christ as One among the others, logic demands that you would think that Paul had been crucified for you or that you were baptized in Paul’s name instead of Jesus’ name. He simply wants them to see how foolish this position is.

We shouldn’t read too much into verse 14-15. Paul isn’t teaching about baptism nor is he downplaying baptism. So, why is he thankful to God that he didn’t baptize any of them except for the few mentioned? By not baptizing them, they can’t say they were baptized into Paul and form some faction in his name. That’s why he is thankful. That’s the only reason.

Verse 16 demonstrates the human element behind the letter. Paul’s memory is jogged. He remembers baptizing the household of Stephanas but doesn’t remember if he baptized anyone else. This fits nicely with the idea of downplaying his role in actually doing the baptizing. This is not what is important when it comes to this local church ordinance.

So, Paul makes his plea for unity to combat the declaration of contention from Chloe’s household. Second, Paul also made this plea to emphasize the importance of preaching powerfully the Gospel of the Cross of Christ!

Preach the Gospel of the Cross of Christ (1.17)

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. – 1 Corinthians 1.7

It’s not Paul’s calling to baptize and create factions. Paul is called to preach the gospel! And he was not doing it with the “wisdom of words” or the Corinthian human wisdom found in wisdom cults. Eloquence and intricate argumentation might be fine in the college classroom, but it takes away from the clear, simple message of the Gospel in the Christian pulpit. Paul speaks of the gospel by aligning it with the cross of Christ.

It’s interesting that by saying that Christ did not send him to baptize but preach the Gospel means that baptism is not a part of the effectual Gospel message: to trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ for salvation.

However, we shouldn’t take that so far that we make baptism unimportant. Baptism is a part of the Great Commission and the first step of obedience in my relationship with Jesus. Baptism comes after salvation and is not necessary for salvation, but it is important. It is a way to identify with what Christ did for me and the church He promised to build. It is a unifying ordinance.

Wisdom is not a bad thing. We need wisdom, persuasion, and eloquence when communicating the Gospel. But the “wisdom” of the Corinthians is the wisdom of this world, not the wisdom of God.

Corinthian wisdom was limited because it relegated wisdom to mere human understanding and debating or rhetorical skill. God’s wisdom is so much more. Paul will make this clear at the outset of Chapter 2:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2.1-5

The wisdom, persuasiveness, and power of God’s words as demonstration of the Spirit will not empty the cross of Christ of all of its glory and power.

Churches today profit greatly from 1 Corinthians 1.10-17. Not just because of the arguing that goes on within our own local church, but also because of the deep factions and fragmentation on every level of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. There are many sects and denominations.

Visible unity of the true church of God won’t happen until Jesus returns. This ought to provoke shame and repentance in the body of Christ. The way forward won’t be found in bashing denominationalism either. The way forward is more positive than that. Paul tells us to focus on the preaching of the cross. This is the great contrast to human ways of doing church. How can we obey Paul’s plea for unity? I think in four ways…

  1. Believe the Best
  2. Major on the Majors
  3. Keep Christ Preeminent
  4. Keep It Simple

Believe the Best

If factions were a problem developing in Paul’s day, they are a problem coming to fruition in our day. Are you so devoted to particular Bible teachers or denominations that it causes conflict in our local church? If we don’t cross our theological “t’s” or dot our theological “i’s” the same way, should we at least not impugn one another’s motives? Shouldn’t we believe the best about one another? Doesn’t love demand this? Why are we so quick to charge one another with dishonesty or insincerity? Do we assume that we have a corner on the truth and no one else has it? We should be able to still love one another even when we have a difference of opinion when it comes to inconsequential things like politics or the theological finer points that have been disputed for centuries.

Major on the Majors

We need to major on the majors of Christianity. What is more major than the Gospel or the Cross of Christ? So many people are causing conflict over non-essential things. Loving others as Christ loved the church and unifying on the major doctrines of the Christian faith are what’s important. Of course, we need discernment. Some doctrinal defections are worth dividing over. We must be uncompromising when it comes to false teaching. We must be firm defenders of the Truth. We must be on guard against those who seek to undermine it. However, this firmness comes from a love for our God and for the narrow way to holiness – without which no one will see the Lord.

Keep Christ Preeminent

Be careful of saying, “I am a follower of so-and-so when it comes to this particular issue.” It’s not bad to follow the teaching of a godly person. But what motivates you to do so? Also, are you seeking to defend the person to the point of absurdity? Are you putting him in the place that only Christ deserves? Examine your motives and attitudes when following your favorite Bible teacher.

Keep It Simple

The Gospel is simple and clear. Don’t empty it of its power with histrionics or ‘high-falutin’ terms. The Gospel doesn’t need dramatic, theatrical presentations. The Gospel will never please the world. Those who hold to the true Gospel will not be considered academically respectable. The desire for a dialogue with academics has led to the downfall of many once great churches and Christian institutions in our country. Instead of intellectualism and philosophy, let’s get back to sound reasoning and the Scriptures.

Let’s believe the best about one another when it comes to our disagreements. Let’s major on the majors by obeying the Great Commission by keeping the Great Commandments. Let’s make sure everyone else decreases as Christ increases in our lives. And finally, let’s keep it simple yet powerful. Let’s make certain that we preach the cross of Christ! D.L. Moody wrote:

Our failure now is that preachers ignore the cross and veil Christ with sapless sermons and superfine language. They don’t just present Him to the people plainly … What we need is to preach Christ and present Him to a perishing world. The world can get on very well without you and me, but the world cannot get on without Christ.

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