Undoing the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1.10-17)

24 Jan

The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday night, January 24, 2010.

Imagine with me that you are the leader of a church that is having multiple problems. The members of your church are arguing over which minister is the best preacher. They have even started little groups with posters and t-shirts. They are in such conflict that they are suing each other in court. At least one of your more prominent members is engaged in such gross immorality that it makes a sailor blush with shame. You got one group that thinks celibacy is the only way to go, and another group that sees no reasons for any boundaries regarding sexuality. There is major social class division going on in your worship services with a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, and the fellowship meals have turned into drunken parties. Certain spiritual gifts have been elevated above others, and many of them don’t even believe that Christ was raised from the dead.

With all of those issues going on at the same time, which one would you address first? Would you address the gross doctrinal error or the gross immorality? Would you bring them into line in their understanding of spiritual gifts or would you straighten out their views on marriage? Well, if you were the apostle Paul, the one issue that you would address first and give the most attention to would be issue of divisions among the body.

We said last week that his letter is a response from Paul to two communications from members in the church in Corinth. Some people from Chloe’s household, who we presume was a member of the church, have come to Paul in Ephesus and told him about some problems. And then a letter was sent to Paul with a list of questions. Broadly speaking, the first six chapters contain Paul’s response to Chloe’s people. Paul answers the questions brought forth by the letter beginning with chapter seven.

When Chloe’s people show up with their report, they most likely presented Paul with three major problems. First, there were divisions among the ranks. Second, there was gross immorality among the membership. Third, there was great conflict among the family. Paul will take the first four chapters to deal with the issue of unity, chapter five will deal with the gross immorality, and chapter six will address the issue of lawsuits. So you can see the amount of attention this issue gets from Paul. And with all of their problems, the first thing Paul talks about is the fact that there are factions among them.

1 Corinthians 1.10-17 NIV

10I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1.10-17 NIV)

You Got To Be Kidding

This is of course not Paul’s full response on the matter of divisions, but is just the opening arguments, so to speak. Actually, Paul will take the first four chapters to deal with this issue, and we will break that down into smaller sections.

In his opening arguments, Paul appeals to the church in Corinth that all of them agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among them and that they may be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1.10). You will excuse my curtness, but I have been in Baptist churches for almost all of my life. Paul wants us to agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among us. I can’t help but think, “Fat chance that is going to happen.” No divisions among you? Has Paul ever even set foot in a church before?

When I read the Bible, I realize that church fights did not originate with the Baptists. The people of God have been infighting forever. In fact, from the very beginning, when there were only four people on the planet, Adam and Eve and two kids, there were already divisions. Cain and Abel couldn’t get along, to the point where one of them killed the other. And that basic problem has yet to go away. In this fallen world, people just don’t get along. In other words, in the world in which we live, people are not perfectly united in through and mind.

Join me, if you will, on a quick fly over of the Scriptures. This basic problem has been with humanity from the beginning of time. Divisions and factions. Remember the story of Jacob and Esau? Daddy preferred Esau, Mommy liked Jacob, and Mom actually schemed against husband and son to get her way. And let’s not forget about Joseph and his wonderful brothers. So unified were they in “mind and thought” that they sold their brother into slavery and told their father that he had been eaten by wild animals. Yes, a brilliant example of being perfectly united in mind and thought. And we are not even through the first book of the Bible.

Turn the page, and you come to the exodus story. The people are barely out of Egypt, and already the people are plotting against Moses and asking Joshua to take over. Moses’ own wife and brother murmured against him until God set them straight. Korah and his followers mounted a “out with Moses” campaign, but they found out pretty quickly not to challenge Moses when the earth swallowed up him and his family.

Fast forward a little bit and we come to David, a man whose own son started a revolution to take the throne from him by force. Not exactly perfectly united in mind and thought. Even in the New Testament, Paul and Peter didn’t exactly always get along. In Galatians, Paul openly challenges Peter before the apostles about whether or not it was right to eat with the Gentiles.

The words of Paul to the church are quite stunning, almost laughable. “I appeal to you that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

Reasons for the Divisions in Corinth

We are going to find out as we read the rest of the book the reasons for these divisions, and there seem to be several. Obviously, one of the issues is that the church is arguing over which leader to follow. It appears that some factions have developed behind leading figures like Apollos, Peter, and Paul.

We first meet Apollos in the book of Acts chapter 18, and we get the picture that he was a skilled speaker.

24Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. 1While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. (Acts 18.24-19.1 NIV)

His speaking gift is referenced three times in these six verses, and in a city where public speaking was seen as great entertainment and thrilling theater, many were drawn to him. He must have developed quite a following.

It didn’t help matters that Paul might not have been such a great public speaker himself. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes,

10For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (2 Corinthians 10.10)

Let’s be honest for a moment. If you had one minister who was unimpressive in person and whose speaking amounted to nothing and you had another minister who spoke with great fervor and boldness and was a great public debater, who would you want to listen to week after week? It is understandable why there was a faction in the church who wanted Apollos to be the main guy and not Paul.

Of course, others like Peter. Peter was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, a leading apostle, and prominent preacher in the early church. He was known as one of the pillars of the church along with James and John (Galatians 2.9). Peter was the Billy Graham of the first century church. What local church leader could hold a candle to Billy Graham? Who would you want to be your pastor? Some first year graduate from seminary or Billy Graham?

There were some who claimed membership in the party of Paul, but notice that it was only one fourth of the factions. Paul, who was their spiritual father in the faith, was losing his voice of apostolic authority over the congregation, and surely this was an issue that was brought up frequently in church business meetings.

The rest of the letter cast light on some of the other causes for division. For instance, the Lord Supper, which should have been a time of unification within the church, was actually making things worse. The Lord’s Supper was observed as part of a fellowship meal, and remember, the first day of the week was not a day off from work. Sunday would remain a work day for hundreds of years. These believers in Corinth would work all day, and then come together at night on the first day of the week to observe the Lords’ Supper. But all things were not being equal. The wealthier members could arrange their schedule to arrive earlier at the fellowship meal while the working class had to work a full day. By the time the working class folks arrived at the fellowship meal, all of the food had already been eaten by the rich folks. And there are some hints that the rich were getting drunk at the fellowship meals. This has obviously caused divisions to arise within the church (1 Corinthians 11.18).

Spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues, was also creating divisions within the church. Apparently, some in the congregation had elevated some gifts as more important than others. If you couldn’t speak in tongues, then you must not be as good of a Christian as I am. Paul urges them to build one another up with their spiritual gifts instead of bringing division.

Addressing the Problem of Divisions

As Paul develops his argument about how to achieve unity, ultimately he will emphasize four things. First, he will focus them on the cross of Christ (1.18-25). Secondly, he will help them to understand the nature of true spiritual wisdom (2.6-16). Third, he will lead them to recognize the fundamental equality of all believers (3.1-23). And finally, he will encourage them to treat Christian leaders appropriately (4.1-21).

But in these “opening remarks,” he asks three questions. “Was Christ divided? Was someone other than Christ crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of someone other than Christ?” Of course, the answer to each of these questions is “no.”

The first question seems silly enough. Obviously, Christ was not divided. But the implication of this was not lost on Paul. In fact, it would become a significant teaching point of his ministry. Over and over again, the apostle would speak of this one Christ who was crucified for all. In the book of Ephesians, Paul wrote,

11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2.11-18 NIV)

So the very idea that there would be factions within the body is in direct conflict with the gospel message. Christ came to make one new man out of two and to reconcile both of them to God through the cross. When the church turns that “one new man” into several factions, they are undoing the work of Christ on the cross.

It is no wonder then, when Paul lists the deeds of the flesh in Galatians 5, the deeds of “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God,” he lists among the acts of the sinful nature, “…discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy…” (Galatians 5.20-21). To subdivide Christ is to undo the work of the gospel.

Which of course, brings us to the troubling questions of denominationalism. If subdividing Christ undoes the gospel, then is it sinful for there to be Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, etc.? Lest I be thought of as avoiding the question, I would like to save that question for when we get to chapter five. This is, in our culture, perhaps one of the most important and yet unanswered question that the church must answer because the unity of the church, or the churches failure to maintain unity, discredits the heart of the gospel. And I will attempt to answer that question when we get to chapter five.

Three Observations

Let me make just three observations about Paul’s opening comments regarding divisions in the church and his desire that the church be of one mind and thought.

First, unity in the church is never as difficult as when it involves a minister who has been instrumental in our spiritual development. Paul asks, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” I think part of what he is alluding to is the very real fact that when someone leads us to Christ or leads us to greater faith in Christ or is a significant instrument of God in our lives, we tend to develop a very high opinion of that person. More than that, we hold them up as saintly. And it can be very difficult to distinguish between them and Christ is we are not careful.

In my own life, growing up in Fort Worth area, the music minister in my home church was instrumental in my faith development. He went out of his way to grab this shy kid and put me in positions of leadership and positions where I would be exposed to things that would develop my faith. He almost forced me to join the youth ensemble because he knew it would put me in positions to be more involved in the church and to be more influenced by some of the key leaders. And it worked. I am radically different today because of the path I started on because he kidnapped me one Sunday afternoon.

Years after I had left the church, and the church had a different pastor than the one I grew up under, this music minister and the new pastor had a falling out. I don’t know what the issue was or how it came about, but the music minister was fired by the church. I don’t know any of the details. My parents are no longer members of the church and I don’t have any close friends there, but who do you think, in my opinion, was the innocent party? Of course it was the minister who played a significant role in my faith development. I don’t know the facts, but I know he was right. Fortunately, I was not in the church when all of this happened. But if I had been a member of the church during that, I can only imagine how hard it would have been for me to follow Christ and not just instinctively believe the minister of music.

Those who had been baptized by Paul were fiercely loyal to Paul. Those who might have heard the gospel message from Peter on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem were fiercely loyal to Peter. And those who were won over to the faith by the great debating skills of Apollos must have been fiercely loyal to Apollos. And knowing this is true, we have to be all the more diligent in making sure that we are following Christ and not merely the individual who has been a significant part of our spiritual development.

Which leads me to my second observation. Hero worship is as bad for the worshipper as it is for the one being worshipped. If religious leaders are so honored that they can do no wrong, it won’t be long until they begin to act as if they can do no wrong. When ministers lose sight of the fact that Christ is head of the church and not the lead pastor or ministry head, trouble is just around the corner. There is a lot of hero worship going on in the church today. Christian musicians are getting just as much attention and popularity as secular rock bands. Pastors go on speaking tours to promote their books. And in my opinion, the new and very popular church paradigm of “satellite churches” is driven by hero worship. We need to watch this very carefully.

Which leads me to my last observation. While the church must never elevate the ministers of the gospel to the status of hero worship, we also must be very careful to not just overlook the role of ministers in Christ’s church. One of the groups in Corinth was the “I follow Christ” group. They didn’t recognize any leader. They didn’t need any spiritual leader; they just wanted to follow Christ.

But this attitude greatly ignores what the Bible clearly teaches about the way Christ organized His church. Christ Himself put prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers in his church to prepare God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4.11-12). And these overseers, or bishops, or elders have been placed in the church by God to “direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5.17), and they are to “take care of God’s church” (1 Timothy 3.5). And one of the dangers of congregational churches, like the Baptist church, is that ministers of the gospel are entrusted to preach and to teach but they are not entrusted to direct the affairs of the church. In fact, in many churches, when pastors begin to tinker under the hood is when they get themselves in the most trouble. Paul’s instructions to the church in Thessalonica would almost be offensive to us today when he wrote,

12Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5.12-13 NIV)

Obviously the challenge in the church is to resist hero worship and yet to submit to those who have been placed by God to be over us in the Lord, but that appears to be the challenge to the church today. And there is a real danger to the church when we fail at both points.


Paul finishes his opening remarks with a phrase that really leads into the next section. “Christ sent me to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” And when we come back to our study, we will pick up with the foolish, but powerful, message of the cross.

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Posted by on January 24, 2010 in Uncategorized


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