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“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow 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, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
The city of Corinth in the first century A.D. was an affluent Roman colony situated strategically close to the western port of Lechaeum and eastern harbor of Cenchreae. The older Corinth had been sacked and destroyed by Lucius Mummius for defying Rome in 146 B.C. However, Julius Caesar reestablished it as a colony shortly before his assassination. When Paul arrived at Corinth around 51 A.D., it had a mixed population of Roman freedmen, indigenous Greeks, sailors, merchants and Jewish immigrants. Being a relatively young mercantile colony of freedmen, its culture was not tradition-bound and spurred ambitions to seek material success and public status. According to David Garland, such aspirations would be greatly served by “attaining the patronage of powerful persons… exerting political enmity to ostracize opponents, and
employing skillful oratory to persuade others in any assembly.”1 There were probably itinerant Sophists whose rhetorical and philosophical skills could be hired to give convincing speeches on behalf of their employers.
Being a cosmopolitan melting pot, it was not surprising to read the Greek writer Pausanius describing about 26 temples and shrines dedicated to various pagan gods. Emperor cults, mystery religions and fertility cults for deities like Apollo, Aphrodite, Osiris, Mithras and others were rampant.2 Even though Strabo's record of 1,000 sacred prostitutes in the temple on the Acrocorinth may be an exaggeration, sexual immorality in the city was probably similar to other commercial centers at that time. It is at this place that Paul established a community of faith that inherited the corporate vocation of God’s covenant people, Israel.
Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was partly a response prompted by reports of divisions he gathered from Chloe’s people. After greeting the church in a customary salutation and thanksgiving, in which he reaffirmed the troubled church as having been “enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge” (verse 5), he proceeded to address the first problem of internal dissensions in the church. He appealed the Corinthian community of faith to be “united in mind and thought” in the name of Christ (verse 10). The theme of unity within the community would occupy much of Paul’s thoughts in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. Regarding the call for unity, it should not be confused as a reference to dull, monolithic unison. Lightfoot (1895) writes: “We have here a strictly classical expression. It is used of political
David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2003), page 5 2 Gordon Fee, Corinthians: A Study Guide, 3rd edition, page 9
communities which are free from factions, or of different states which entertain friendly relations with each other”.3
What has caused the quarrels amongst the believers in Corinth? In the prevailing Greco-Roman culture, it was known that religious teachers were exalted to the status of “theanthropoid”, men possessing divine qualities4. It is possible that the relatively new converts carry over this tendency to elevate their Christian teachers on a pedestal and pit them against each other. Other mitigating sociological factors have been suggested by Gerd Theissen’s research on social tensions between the rich and poor in the congregation and Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s on how distinctive ethos may develop because the villa architecture used for such church gatherings allow for preferred guests and less privileged members to be compartmentalized.
Much discussion amongst scholars revolve around the nature of division in Corinth based on the four slogan-like catchphrases - “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, “I belong to Cephas” and “I belong to Christ”. FC Baur argued that a theological controversy not unlike the heated debate in Galatians 2:11-15 was to be blamed. He associated the Paul group as people with “radical emancipation from the law” struggling against the Judaizing parties represented by the Cephas group. On a similar vein, Robertson and Plummer saw four possible theological factions. The Apollos group represented “Hellenistic intellectualism”, the Cephas group championed “conciliatory conservatism” and the “Christ” group was comprised of “zealots for the law, hostile to the apostleship of St.Paul”.5
Lightfoot, Notes, 151. Quoted in Antony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, page 116 F.F. Bruce, I & II Corinthians, The New Century Bible Commentary, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2001), page 32 5 Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary, (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1982), page 12.
On the other pole, Welborn attributed the divisions “to a power struggle, not a theological controversy”6. He compared Paul’s terminology with that used by Greco-Roman historians to argue that personality-centered politics within the church may resemble the surrounding society where aligning oneself to an apostolic figure would give added clout and prestige to one’s own agenda. Munck also cautioned against seeing these groups as separate theological fragments.7 In a rebuttal to Baur, Grosheide argued against the supposed Paul-Peter rift by pointing out that it was Peter who first preached to Gentiles. At the Jerusalem Council, both men were on the same side (Acts 15) and had same coworkers in Silas and Mark.8 There is also little evidence to associate Apollos of Alexandria with Philo’s Hellenistic philosophy and emphasis on wisdom. We do know that he is eloquent in speech and learned in Scripture, only knew of the baptism of John before being more fully taught by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24).
The divisions were most probably internal because the different groups were still one church and still met for Holy Communion (11:17ff.).9 If there were theological controversies like that in Galatia, Paul was not one to shun away from heresy to preserve his reputation or for the sake of not rocking the boat. But here in Corinth, Paul did not attack or defend any groups, not even the party that claimed to follow him. He went out of his way to represent Apollos as a fellow worker in the gospel (3:6-9).10 If Apollos was responsible for the divisions, it would be odd that Paul himself would urge him to visit the Corinthians (16:12). The fact that he was unwilling to do so at that time is probably an attempt to distance himself from the party associated to his name.
Welborn, Politics and Rhetoric in the Corinthian Epistles, 7. Quoted in Antony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek New Testament Commentary, (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2000), page 115 7 C.K. Barrett, A Commentary On The First Epistle To The Corinthians, (Hendrickson Publishers: Massachusetts, 1987), page 45-46 8 F. W. Grosheide, The First Epistle To the Corinthians: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Eerdmans Pubishing: Grand Rapids, 1953), page 36 9 Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Inter-Varsity Press: Grand Rapids, 1985), page 39 10 C.K. Barrett, A Commentary On The First Epistle To The Corinthians , page 43
Perhaps against his will, some believers were boasting and taking pride over against another on the basis of their favorite teachers (4:6) and an adversarial attitude towards the founder, Paul.11 Although there is still no clear evidence that doctrinal splits existed, it is not merely a matter of petty squabble. Paul can still criticize all the groupings without going into the details of each partisan difference because “the community still exists as a whole and all the groups recognize the traditional creed. This of course is presupposed in 11:23 ff and 15:3 ff.”12
However, what was wrong about the Christ party? Chrysotom disputed the existence of such a party. The slogan “I belong to Christ” could be added by Paul to reduce the other three slogans to absurdity. However, the parallelism of the phrasing and the difficulty in finding a logical link between verse 12 and verse 13 probably indicated that there was a fourth group.13 We could only guess what they stood for. Perhaps, they claimed to know Christ without the mediation of preachers or what Lutgert called an elitist, quasi-gnostic “spiritual enthusiasm”. Just as some take pride in their favorite preacher, some caused divisions by taking pride in the opposite, cynical direction. If so, then Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 12: “Is Christ divided?” would make more sense. It would have a similar effect as what Paul said elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 10:7: “If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.” The believers were all baptized into one body of Christ (12:12-13). When they belong to Christ, then all things – whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world of life or death or the present or the future – are already theirs so there is no ground for boasting (3:21).
The second rhetorical question, “Was Paul crucified for you?” pointed them back to the gospel. It was Christ who gave Himself up for their sins (15:3). By doing so, he took away the ground for
Gordon Fee, Corinthians: A Study Guide, 3rd edition, page 58 Hans Conzelmann, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermenia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, translated by James W. Leitch, (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1975), page 34 13 Ibid., page 33
boasting in the “Paul group” that claimed allegiance to him. It was not Paul who died on the cross for them, but Christ. Instead of criticizing the other groups first, Paul deliberately avoided being made a pawn in their game of partisanship.
The last rhetorical question turned on baptism, the rite of initiation: “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:13) According to Barrett, baptism into the name of Christ indicated “it is under the authority of Christ that baptism takes place, and… the person baptized becomes a property of Christ.”14 Paul does not own or lord it over their faith. Perhaps there were some mistaken notions of a special mystical relationship between the person who performed the baptism and the baptized, Paul was glad that circumstances were such that he did not baptize many of them except Crispus and Gaius. As an afterthought, he recalled having baptized the household of Stephanas but the omission could have been a “deliberate gambit to underline how unimportant it is who baptized whom”.15 In verse 17, Paul stressed that his primary calling was to preach the gospel and not to perform baptisms, further downplaying the issue of who performed the rite. As a preacher of the gospel, he did not rely on eloquent words of ‘human wisdom’ that elevates self-reputation and distracts attention from the power of the cross of Christ. It was not wisdom per se that he finds incompatible with the gospel. He would not gain the assent of listeners with superficial rhetorical tricks rather than substance that really transforms.
C.K. Barrett, A Commentary On The First Epistle To The Corinthians , page 43 David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, page 55
As the world becomes increasingly fragmented with violent conflicts, the church faces the challenge to be an alternative community of reconciliation and peacemaking. Our witness suffers if sectarian divisions based on personalities, petty doctrinal differences or hyper-spiritual independence continue to characterize the Body of Christ. There is a place for making a courageous stand when grievous errors threaten unity in the gospel like what Paul did in Galatians. However, partisanship and boasting centered on gifted leaders only breed jealousy and strife.
We need to be reminded that these ministers serve in different capacities according to what the Lord has called them, and our ultimate allegiance lies in Christ alone who died for our redemption and into whose Body we have been baptized. Our ecclesiology cannot be content with merely abstract unity in an invisible church, but actively seek to express it visibly in concrete terms. When Martin Luther learnt that some Protestants were being called Lutherans, he captured the heartbeat of Paul by registering this protest, “What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone… How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”16
Ibid., page 49
1. I & II Corinthians, The New Century Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce, Eerdmans: Grand
2. 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, David E. Garland, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2003 3. 1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leon Morris, Inter-Varsity Press: Grand Rapids, 1985 4. A Commentary On The First Epistle To The Corinthians, C. K. Barrett, Hendrickson
Publishers: Massachusetts, 1987
5. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermenia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, Hans Conzelmann, Translated by James W. Leitch, Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1975 6. First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Gordon Fee, Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1987 7. First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary, Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1982 8. The First Epistle To the Corinthians: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F. W. Grosheide, Eerdmans Pubishing: Grand Rapids, 1953 9. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek New Testament Commentary, Antony C. Thiselton, Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2000 10. The Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954.
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