Is Christ Divided?
The letter arrived and the congregation gathered. Many of them had learned about Jesus from Paul. He had established the church in Corinth. Some of those who gathered must have been nervous. Had he heard about their divisions? The fighting? The group that was following Apollos instead of Paul now? And the group that was claiming to follow the original ways of the church as Cephas, the Greek name for Simon Peter, founded it? Or the group that claimed that they were the TRUE Jesus followers and everyone else was sadly misguided?
The reader began, first with the traditional heading, from Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the church of God that is in Corinth, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And then the letter began: I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been you in Christ Jesus…and the thanksgiving went on. And the congregation began to settle in and settle down. Perhaps Paul didn’t know all that had been going on.
Some of them exchanged knowing glances. Whew. Maybe the followers of Paul hadn’t gotten a message to him to send a corrective…and then comes the appeal, the reason for writing. He has heard.
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
I can just imagine the heads turning Chloe’s way, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.”
Over the next several weeks, we will hear Paul’s response to those quarrels among the Corinthian Christians. They were living in a complicated world, in divisive times, and they are DONE. They are so done with each other. Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?”
So, what was really going on? It really had its roots in the culture of Corinth. Corinth had been a city for centuries, but when its people fought in an uprising against Rome 150 years before Jesus was born, they lost badly. So badly that everyone was either killed or deported and the city was a ghost town for a hundred years. Then, about 50 years before Jesus’ birth, Rome placed a colony there. It was a strategic city for trade.
If you were going from Italy to Asia, you had to either go around the Peloponnesian peninsula, but that route was dangerous and difficult, or there was a narrow strip of land, an isthmus that connected the mainland of Greece to the Peloponnesian peninsula. So instead, of sailing all the way around, ships would come to the port on one side of Corinth and the sailors would either drag their boat across the 4 miles to the other port or unload their boat in one port, move the goods to the other side of Corinth, and reload them on another ship in the other port. And land traffic headed south had no other way to get to the peninsula except through Corinth.
When the Romans repopulated the city, a small group of wealthy Roman families came along with a large group of former slaves, who had been freed and were hoping for a better life, hoping to climb the social ladder, and Corinth was rare in its laws that former slaves were allowed to be elected to public office. So, it became a very status-conscious place. Rank and prestige mattered. Networking was important. Most freed people lived in poverty, but they had hope. If they could befriend someone rich, they could maybe get a good job, a secure income. If they had patronage, a powerful person to support them financially, they could run for public office. And the rich were willing to befriend the poor for the recognition, clearly they were a person of significance, of influence. One scholar wrote about I Corinthians that “The entire Roman world operated as a web of privilege and power” (Proctor, WBC, 23). Competition and conflict were baked into the culture.
It’s no surprise that they penetrated the church. You may be thinking, “Yeah, but Farmington doesn’t have any factions. We don’t have any fights. When we gather there are no groups of “us” and “them.” You are right. It hasn’t always been that way, but we have been blessed with years of working together as brothers and sisters without insiders and outsiders, without taking sides, without putting up walls or judging each other. Yet we live in a culture not unlike the culture in Corinth, and it would be naïve of us to assume that we are immune to the web of privilege and power ensnaring us, invulnerable to the penetration of competition and conflict in our faith community.
The church in Corinth is being torn apart by allegiances that the people are allowing to be stronger than their allegiance to Jesus. The word Paul uses is the Greek word schizo, the church wasn’t dividing, it was schizo-ing, the same word used to describe the Temple curtain tearing apart at Jesus’ last breath.
There are more than 38,000 denominations across the globe, many created out of schizo, out of tearing apart because one group believed they were right and the other group was wrong. Torn apart because one group insisted on uniformity rather than embracing diversity. Torn apart because one way of thinking was villainized by some who thought another way. Torn apart because one issue, one attribute, became a defining factor instead of a descriptor.
In October of 2013, Montreat hosted a four-day conference as part of its Institute for Church Leadership. The theme was “The Church in Purple.” Ina Hughes wrote about the conference in The Presbyterian Outlook, describing the Purple Church metaphor as a way “to underscore the need for mutual understanding and respect among Christians who disagree on a variety of theological and social issues, worship styles and how to be the church in today’s world. A judgmental, win/lose approach in dealing with these differences leads to estrangement and brokenness. A ‘purple church’ would be less interested in red/blue labels and more committed to modeling a royal priesthood of believers who aren’t all cut from the same cloth, but meld together in a community that intentionally chooses to live out Christ’s call in mutual respect, humility and compassion.
This conference took the form of a series of dialogues with pairs from different camps, theologically and practically, conversing about the issues, and showing not only how civility and respect is possible among people from different “sides,” but also how these traits model God’s kingdom rather than a culture of “us” against “them.”’
During one of those dialogues, a self-described conservative pastor asked a self-described liberal pastor, “What does that say about us? What is it that drives our need to further isolate ourselves from each other? … The biggest problem with church is not our differences, but how we view each other with suspicion because of those differences.”
“Is Christ divided?” asked Paul.
There were some eye rolls in the congregation in Corinth when those words were read. Was Paul really that naïve? That out of touch? How could they possibly tolerate these views being represented within the church? Did he know the things these people did? Did he really believe that what they taught was ok? Did he understand what they actually believed?
Yes, he knew, and over the course of the letter he addressed many of their controversies with advice on how to respond, how to live in unity without uniformity. We will get to that in the coming weeks.
The first question, though, is a heart question. “Is Christ divided?” If you follow Jesus, and they follow Jesus, are they not your brother or sister? How could they not be?
I invite you to begin to pray this question, “Is Christ divided?” How are you called to live in unity with others without demanding uniformity? What brothers or sisters do you divide yourself from because of their doctrine or their theology or their politics or their stance on social issues?
Is Christ divided? Christ was crucified for you. The power and strength and prestige of the church are in weakness and sacrifice and humility. Let brothers and sisters who boast, not boast about themselves or their leaders or their allegiances or their social standing or their stance on controversial issues, let those who boast, boast in the Lord. Amen.