Pursue unity in Christ (June 29, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:4-9

Have Christians ever been unified in Christ? The apostle Paul writing to Christians in Corinth in 54 CE did not think that community of believers was unified in Christ. He had heard too much about the divisions and problems that developed in Corinth after he had founded this congregation to think that they demonstrated unity in Christ. To address this issue, Paul made his expectation that the followers of Jesus should live and work together in unity a major theme of 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 1:10 — Unity of mind and purpose should characterize the Christian community. 

Speaking in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul says that unity and not division should characterize the Christian community. He defines unity as sharing a common mindset and a common purpose. That does not mean they agree about everything, but they do share basic values and a common goal.

1 Corinthians 1:11-12: Christians in Corinth are divided by their loyalty to particular leaders. 

Paul has heard from people that members of the community were quarreling with each other. They were claiming loyalty to various individuals — Paul or Apollos or Cephas — or to Christ. Apollos is described in Acts 18:24-28 as an eloquent but theologically deficient evangelist who was active in the general area of Corinth. The reference to Cephas (Peter) is puzzling because there is no record that Peter was active in the area of Corinth. Perhaps Christians who had been with Peter elsewhere had come to Corinth. Those loyal to Christ were probably eschewing loyalty to any human being. The result was a fragmented and conflicted Christian community in Corinth.

1 Corinthians 1:3-17 — Proclaiming the Gospel is more important than baptizing converts. 

Paul wanted to remove himself from the arguments among the Corinthians. Evidently some Christians were claiming allegiance to Paul because he had baptized them. Paul admitted to having baptized a few Corinthians, but he could not remember exactly whom or how many. He did not think baptizing was his main responsibility. Instead, his call was to preach the Gospel without sophisticated rhetoric but relying on the power of his message about Christ’s cross. The mention of sophisticated rhetoric may be a subtle contrast with Apollos, whose rhetorical skills were well known.

1 Corinthians 3:4-9 — Evangelists like Apollos and Paul are servants through whom God brings people to faith. 

Paul makes it unmistakably clear that human beings, even such gifted ones as Paul and Apollos, cannot rightly take credit for bringing new converts to the Christian faith. While human beings have a role to play, only God can change a person’s heart. Using the analogy of a farmer growing crops, Paul says that he planted and Apollos watered, but God caused growth to occur.

Although Paul’s way of preaching the Gospel differed from that of Apollos, they shared a common purpose. Both worked to communicate the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. They were united in that respect, and they were also united in making converts as the reward for their labor. “Wages” in 3:8 is a misleading translation. Paul and Apollos were not hired evangelists.

Paul emphasizes that he and Apollos are both servants of God who work together. As servants, they are not leaders of congregational factions.

For discussion:

  • In this passage Paul is talking about differences within a congregation. What can congregations do to avoid the development of factions?
  • If factions do develop, what strategies could be used to overcome their negative effects?
  • What are the characteristics of servant leaders that discourage the development of harmful factions?
  • Some persons might say that Presbyterians have a history — starting with the Reformation and continuing to the present day — of starting factions that undermine Christian unity. In your view, what constitutes a sufficient reason for breaking the unity of the church as the body of Christ?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.