If there is one complaint church leaders everywhere seem to share, it is the lack of unity they see in their congregations, their denominations, and across the landscape of 21st-century Christianity. Recent events in the United Methodist Church are just one (relatively tame) example of what seems to be a perennial problem for Christianity. Jesus said we would be known by our love for one another (John 13:34-35) and prayed we would be united (John 17:20-23), but we seem to be determined to hate, castigate, and separate from one another.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10-3:23, we learn how Paul faced similar problems. The church at Corinth was dividing itself into cliques, and Paul thought he knew why. His insights are instructive for us as we seek to facilitate unity in our own time, but be forewarned. Paul had some tough words for the Corinthians and they are tough for us, too.
Cult of Personality
The most prominent issue Paul highlighted in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians was the tendency of the various factions in the Corinthian church to align themselves with specific church leaders. Some claimed to be allies of Paul, while others claimed Apollos or Peter as their patron saints. And some had the audacity, or perhaps the foresight, to claim Jesus himself as their champion.
Humans throughout history have wanted someone to whom they can cling, someone who will be their advocate and guide in the midst of life’s exigencies. The problem with this practice is that it dehumanizes the very people whom we claim to be honoring. It doesn’t just put them on a pedestal. It simultaneously makes them both more than and less than human. They become a symbol of all our hopes and dreams, and their words and actions take on a significance that is out of proportion to their abilities.
So, what happens when we engage in this toxic mix of idolatry and dehumanization? At best, we use other people, sometimes unwittingly, to promote our own claims to knowledge and power. That is what the Corinthians were doing. At worst, we give our chosen heroes a blank check they can use to acquire power, vanquish foes, indulge their worst desires, and insulate themselves from accountability.
A second problem to which Paul alluded in 1:10-3:23 was the perpetual human desire to acquire status—often, at the expense of others. Sometimes, we want people in society, in general, to think well of us. At other times, we want people in our own religious group (congregation, denomination, etc.) to think well of us. Either way, our quest for status can motivate us to do things which are harmful to the unity of the church.
Wanting to be liked is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It can even serve God’s purposes (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12). But the incessant clamor to rank oneself or one’s group vis-à-vis others is almost always destructive. It turns us against our fellow believers, treating them as enemies rather than siblings.
Paul implied there was a third cause for the disunity at Corinth. The believers there were immature. This immaturity certainly seemed to have a spiritual element, but it may also have had intellectual and emotional components. Whatever its composition, it was so pronounced Paul could not put as much content in his teaching as he, or they, wanted.
Immaturity is rampant in the 21st-century church. We all know church leaders who bully others, who use spiritual means to gratify carnal desires, who have an insufficient grasp on even the most basic truths of the faith, and who put themselves first. And sometimes we are those leaders. Indeed, it is often the immature who are the last to notice their own immaturity.
The unavoidable result of rampant immaturity is disunity. People want to be loved and valued, and when their leaders (or even just their fellow parishioners) exploit, bully, or manipulate them, they have very little incentive to sublimate their own needs and desires for the good of the group. Wounded people produce wounded congregations—which, in turn, produce wounded denominations and a wounded body of Christ.
A Dire Diagnosis in Context
Paul had some tough words for the Corinthians. I have no doubt, if he were around today, he would have some tough words for us, too. It is important, however, to keep Paul’s words in context. They were not the self-righteous rants of an uncaring and uninvolved stranger. They were the thoughtful observations of a loving pastor. And they were offered in light of Paul’s genuine thankfulness for what Christ had done in the lives of the Corinthian Christians. As such, we can see them as God’s instruments to produce a healthy change in our hearts, our churches, and the world.