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Favorite Factions


*1 Corinthians 1:10-17
September 24, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:15 in the audio file.


Or, Paul’s Greeting to and Gratitude for the Church in Corinth


I believe it was in John Calvin’s rough draft of the Institutes that he wrote, “The human heart is a celebrity factory.” He changed “celebrity” to “idol” in the final edition (okay, there’s not actually any evidence of this), but in some cultures the two are not that dissimilar.

The Corinthians had some identity problems, namely, they had begun to identify themselves with particular leaders and with impressive styles of communication. Paul was genuinely thankful for them, as he told them in the previous paragraph (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). He saw signs of grace among them and said that the testimony of Christ was confirmed among them. He reminded them of their identity as saints, as sons of God, as those in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they had factions—smaller divided cliques—in the fellowship.

Starting in verse 10 Paul moves from the greeting and epistolary pleasantries to the first, if not the main, problem among the believers in Corinth. They were quarreling which was causing divisions. Their squabbles showed that they did not have the understanding they thought they did. They did not understand the very center of the gospel, the cross of Christ, and how the word of the cross doesn’t belong with disunity, especially disunity based on who’s preaching or how they preach the word of the cross.

Whether or not disunity among the Christians in Corinth is the main problem, it is the first problem that Paul addresses. Paul had heard reports of side-taking and starts by addressing it straight on. Unlike so many of this other letters that begin with doctrine and hinge on a “therefore” into application, he heads directly into exhortation, and this section continues through chapter four.

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Appeal (ESV) is just not strong enough. Perhaps you’ve heard someone mention the Greek word: parakalō. Something such as “urge” (HCSB) or “exhort” (NASB) is better. As someone who knows them and will give an account for them, this is what he wants from them.

We’ll see the nature of the exhortation (verse 10), the context/need for the exhortation (verses 11-12), and the crux/nub of the exhortation (verses 13-17)

The Nature of the Exhortation (verse 10)

He addresses them with affection as his spiritual family, brothers and sisters (later he will address them as a father, 4:14-15), and he addresses them with representative authority by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has now mentioned by name for the tenth time in ten verses.

There are three goals that stand together like a three-legged stool. Paul exhorts:

  1. that all of you agree
  2. that there be no division among you
  3. that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment

The first and third are positive pursuits, the middle is the negative way to put it, and all of them belong to the same responsibility.

We don’t yet know why Paul is concerned about this other than unity being a primary desire of Jesus for His people (think John 17:11, 21). To agree is to “say the same thing,” not in uniformity (which might be say the same things, as in, each and every word) but rather harmony. “They are to be like a chorus singing from the same page of music, not like a cat’s concert with each howling his or her own cacophonous tune” (Garland). They were not doing this (see verses 11-12); they all had their own jingle.

Division is the Greek word schismata from which our English word “schism” derives. If we read ahead into chapter 11 we will see there “there must needs be factions among you,” and Paul was for dividing from false teachers. So we’ll have to see what he means here.

To be united in the same mind and the same judgment is to be mended together, to share perspective and standards.

The Need for the Exhortation (verses 11-12)

Paul is not urging them to unity because he just finished a great weekend of fellowship with some brothers and it was “like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard” (Psalm 133:1-2). Rather, he exhorts them to unity For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. We don’t know exactly who Chloe is, but the Corinthians knew well enough that Paul didn’t have to say more. Chloe seems to be a woman’s name, and “the ones of Chloe” could mean her family, or more likely her servants. Presumably she lived in Corinth or in Ephesus and did business in both cities, and presumably she was a widow since households were usually associated with the father (Ciampa & Rosner). Regardless, more than one witness reported, “informed” (NASB), “made clear” (Thiselton), a more official word rather than hearsay, let alone slander, that there is quarreling. There was a present reality of strife.

Then he explains the sort of discord and competition. 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.”

Note that, at least at this point, this is an ego problem among the followers not an ego rivalry among the leaders. In verse 17 Paul transitions to talk about the sort of preaching and ministry that belong with the “word of the cross,” and that extends into what leaders should be like. But in context the people who need to understand the true nature of cross-centered ministry are the Corinthians.

This is who thought they were more spiritual. It’s not just a battle of yard signs in a political campaign, it’s supremacy arguments at the church potluck.

They had started to sort themselves into groups based on something about a particular leader. Some were “of Paul,” but this wasn’t his doing or desire. He consciously worked against anyone putting the wrong sort of dependence on their association with him. He was like a brother and like a father to the Corinthians, they should listen to him as one who had responsibility for them. He did desire their loyalty, but not to the exclusion of appreciating other Christian teachers.

Others were “of Apollos,” a man who had skills in interpretation and in communication (see Acts 18:24), who “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” in Corinth (Acts 18:28). Like Paul, Apollos himself didn’t seem to be responsible for the false allegiances and Paul never disapproves of anything Apollos himself did or taught. Paul mentions Apollos numerous times in the next couple chapters, and even says that he wanted to send Apollos back to them in chapter 16:12. There was nothing wrong with Apollos’ teaching or doctrine or motives, though some claimed him as their favorite celebrity.

Still others were “of Cephas,” the Aramaic name for Peter. It’s possible that Peter spent some time in Corinth, but it’s neither verified or necessary. It’s just as possible that some of the Christians in Corinth were saved under Peter’s ministry elsewhere and then brought a Petrine mindset with them.

The fourth group were those “of Christ.” There are a couple different interpretations of this. Some believe that this is actually the right group; and it’s true, we are Christ’s (1 Corinthians 3:23). So this could be the correct way for us all to speak against the party spirit among the first groups. But the sentence structure is the same; there is no contrast between this and the first three statements. It is better to understand this as another divisive group. They were the “no creed but Christ” group, which is, as you know, a creed. It is possible to be divisively uppity in only Jesus’ name.

In the corners we have:

  • Paul – the Founder
  • Apollos – the New Generation
  • Peter – the Old School
  • Christ – the Ultimate One

There were four names but one problem.

It’s possible that there weren’t actually four separate Facebook groups who each had their own logo. Perhaps Paul was pointing out with irony that there is no “I” in exaggerated sarcasm. But the factions were developing according to their favorites.

Some factions are necessary (again, 1 Corinthians 11:19). Unity is not more important than theology.

All of these groups claimed to be the superior “spirituals.” All of these groups identified themselves against the other groups. All of these groups were within the church. All of these groups held largely the same beliefs, though beliefs probably weren’t the most important thing to them. All of these groups had taken some external thing (i.e., personality, leadership/communication style) and competed over it. All of these groups needed the exhortation.

The Nub of the Exhortation (verses 13-17)

The exhortation to harmony centers on the cross. The cross, and the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, kills all self-promotion and status-seeking and group-positioning.

Paul starts the gospel rationale for unity with three questions ab absurdo. These are obviously ridiculous questions that characterized the way the Corinthians were acting. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? Without doubt the second and third questions expect a negative answer. I think the first question does as well. He’s not saying that they “successfully” divided Christ, Paul’s saying, “Are you guys for real?”

He uses himself as the example, rather than Apollos or Peter, to say why allegiance to a man only goes so far. There is no redemptive sacrifice outside of Christ. For that matter, there are no rituals performed by man that mean more than Christ.

He picks up on the baptism piece, perhaps because some of the divisions were based on who performed the ordinance. But the divisions can’t have entirely been based upon that because the Paul group would have been very small, and the Christ group even smaller, as in zero. But who performs the baptism is a good example of an improper allegiance.

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. It is an usual thing to give thanks for, since the Great Commission includes baptizing disciples into identity with Christ. Paul’s point here is that it’s possible to place the wrong emphasis on who did the baptizing.

Verse 16 is an interesting parenthesis. As Paul dictated the letter, he remembers, or is reminded, that I did also baptize the household of Stephanus. Stephanus was with him as he wrote the letter (16:17), and instead of editing the letter, Paul leaves it as an addition, which also serves in it’s own way to highlight how few he himself had baptized. We don’t know how many were in the household, and we certainly cannot prove that there were any infants.

The final sentence of the paragraph is the crux of the exhortation. It explains why disunity is so wrong, it explains why who baptized you is less important, and it explains why gospel ministry and ministers ought not seek preeminence or be put on pedestals by listeners.

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 problem is not with baptism. Paul did baptize. The problem is with dividing according to who performed the external ritual. Baptism is good as it identifies us with Christ, but that should bring about unity in the body.

Paul’s main work as an apostle was to preach the gospel. It’s one Greek word, euaggelizesthai, “herald good news.” Isaiah 40:9 describes this same sort of work.

Though there was a “Paul” brand, not everyone thought his speech was impressive. This is where he begins to transition, a more specific digression in order to make a bigger point, into what the gospel does. The gospel itself is not “impressive” in terms of its philosophical or rhetorical display. Those who preach the gospel cannot expect to win the approval of those who want to be impressed in the ways natural men would be impressed. The gospel is not impressive, but it is “the power of God to salvation.”

Eloquent wisdom introduces his subject at least through the beginning of chapter 2, and it connects to celebrity followings because shows of speech were the expected way to get an audience and approval. The gospel is not about approval (even though the doctrine can be adorned by a certain sort of life). Clever communication may manipulate but it can’t save.

The idea of the cross of Christ being emptied of its power is both impossible and contemptible. A human being cannot ruin what Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection, but a human being can ignore it, downplay it, turn others to trust something other than it. That is what a certain kind of Rhetoric does, and the next part of the letter attacks it.

to treat the gospel of the cross of Christ as a vehicle for promoting self-esteem, self-fulfillment, and self-assertion turns it upside down and “empties” it of all that it offers and demands. (Thiselton)

Preachers shouldn’t want ratings for themselves but repentance from their hearers.

We are regularly trying to persuade others about something. Paul worked to persuade others to be reconciled to Christ. Later in this letter he will write that he’s become all things to all men in order that he might win some. But living in obedience to the Lord, and teaching in a way that brings attention to Him more than on the teaching, and caring enough about those you’re speaking to is appropriate, even necessary rhetoric.

The cross empowers harmony. Empower: make (someone) stronger and more confident.

Conclusion

Division and manipulation are both inconsistent in light of the gospel. The word of the cross kills the pride of man, no need for rivalry. The word of the cross is the power of God, no need for rhetoric.

If personality issues in the church can be used for sake of spiritual divisions, then of course preferences and doctrinal interpretations can be made into spiritual factions.

Also, names are not necessary sectarian. Does a label make something more clear or does a label turn the focus off of the thing itself? What does the label feed, humility or pride? Trust in Christ or trust in the talker?

let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)

For us, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Kuyper, Sproul, MacArthur, Piper, they are all ours.

Disunity may not be the worst sin, and it likely isn’t the main problem in Corinth. So why talk about it first and for so long? Because disunity fails the litmus test for how the word of the cross has been taken to heart. Imagine a clothesline hung between the word of the cross (chapter 1) and the letter’s pinnacle about resurrection (chapter 15) on which the details hang. Disunity shows that the line is down and the clothes are piled in the dirt.

We are in the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1:9). We should act like a unit. A church is a battle division of disciples, it should not be divided disciples battling each other.


Charge

Unity is not uniformity. Unity requires differences while headed in a common direction. This is a Triune reality. God is one God and three Persons. The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit, yet they have one Name. They do not take sides against each other. So we are one and many. The point is not that every part is the same, the point is also not to stand away from the other parts and point out how much we are not their part. We are all saved at the cross, and a united body is quite a force.

Benediction:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Philippians 1:27–29, ESV)