Has Christ Been Divided?

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:10–18

We have not been explicitly observing it here at UBC, but this Sunday marks the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That’s ironic, because the epistle readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for the entire season of Epiphany come from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, the least unified, most fractious congregation in all of the New Testament.

Throughout the sixteen chapters of this letter, Paul addresses from afar issues ranging from disputes about the meaning of resurrection, to abuses of the Lord’s Supper, to incipient gnosticism, to licentiousness bordering on incest, and many points in between. The church of Corinth is a mess.

Which makes it ideal reading for this particular moment in church history, especially here in the United States. Whether this historical moment will turn out to be a teachable moment remains to be seen.

The Corinthians came by their divisions honestly, as do we. Like our nation, the city of Corinth was a melting pot, one of the most diverse cities in the Roman Empire. Its strategic location on the Isthmus of Corinth and at the intersection of major trade routes fostered this diversity. Corinth was a magnet for all kinds of people, including traders, retired legionnaires, wealthy citizens, sailors on leave, criminals, freedmen, and slaves. Corinth also offered many different choices in the religious realm. Traders brought their cults and mystery religions with them when they came; pagan temples represented pretty much every deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon; a considerable Jewish community had established itself; and about a decade before he wrote this letter Paul had founded the first Christian church in the city.

Now he hears from some members of the church—“Chloe’s people,” Chloe evidently being a prominent leader within the congregation—who have traveled to Ephesus to tell him about the many problems the church is facing and to ask his guidance. Before he launches into a discussion of the specific issues involved, Paul makes a general plea for unity: “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” (v. 10).

Notice how he grounds his appeal: “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This may sound like formulaic religious language, but I think Paul uses the phrase quite deliberately and pointedly. The problems he is about to address in the rest of today’s reading, and in fact in the letter as a whole, have to do with allegiances. “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people,” he writes, "that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’” (vv. 11–12).

It seems that the congregation has broken up into a number of competing parties claiming allegiance to one or another figure of prominence. Some claim the name of Paul, the founder of the church; others claim the name of Apollos, a charismatic leader who took over after Paul left Corinth; others claim the name of Cephas, or Peter, the already legendary lead apostle; still others look to outdo all of them by claiming the name of Christ. This last group probably thinks they are rising above the fray, but Paul obviously doesn’t think so, because he lists them on the same level as the others. They are a quarreling faction like the rest; their saying they belong to Christ is just a form of one-upmanship, which when you think about it kind of betrays the whole spirit and example of Christ.

So Paul leads off by appealing to the Corinthians to be united “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He calls on them to put aside the bickering and competition and find their unity in their common allegiance to Jesus and his way. It’s going to be an uphill struggle.

To get his point across even more strongly, Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions, the answer to each of which is NO: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v. 13). This mention of baptism gets to the heart of the matter. For Paul, the rite of baptism is not merely a ceremony of initiation into a religious group; it is the mystical participation of the individual disciple in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As he explains in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4).

By using the terms “we” and “all of us,” Paul indicates the concomitant truth of baptism: the baptized person is incorporated not only into Christ but also into everyone else who belongs to Christ through baptism. Participation in Christ means participation in the church, the people of God. The two cannot be separated. In Paul’s mind, there is no such thing as a Christian who lives and functions apart from the church. His theology does not allow for free agents. The metaphor he will use later in 1 Corinthians, that of the body of Christ, underscores this assertion: an individual part such as an eye or a liver cannot live apart from the body; separated from the system as a whole, it will die. The same is true, Paul says, for individual Christians.

In the midst of his discussion of the body metaphor he writes, "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13). This calls to mind a similar idea he expresses to the Galatian churches in what I consider one of the high-water marks in all of Scripture: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28). Our baptism into the one body by the one Spirit makes us one. It breaks down all the walls of division people outside the church use to distinguish and protect and isolate themselves from others. In the church those divisions have no place. We are all in this together.

But when we look at the actual state of the church, at least here in the US, the notion that we are in it together comes off as kind of hollow. Protestations of Christian unity sound like wishful thinking at best. The divide between the conservative and progressive branches of the church, between evangelicals and mainliners, between inerrantists and those who favor a more open brand of biblical interpretation, seems impossibly wide. Far from seeing ourselves as fellow members of the one body of Christ, sometimes it feels as though we are hopelessly estranged, that we don’t even speak the same language.

Unfortunately, those who speak the language of a narrow and exclusionary form of evangelical Christianity outnumber the rest of us, and the certainty that seems to characterize their faith emboldens them to proclaim it loudly and insistently.

But also defensively. The anger that seems so deeply-rooted in some Christians’ lives is really just a manifestation of fear, whether the fear of moral relativism, or of the seductions of the modern secular world, or of the gnawing possibility that they might be wrong. In extreme cases this fear gives rise to mindless biblicism—“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”—and its offshoots: homophobia, the suppression of women’s voices, the rejection of science, and an intolerance for people of other faiths or anyone, really, who disagrees with their understanding of God.

Since the late 1970s this militant form of defensive religiosity has been consciously wedded to a political agenda, and has found a home within one of the major political parties in our nation. The theological elements have in many cases become so completely fused to an economic and political ideology that it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. To some extent, the same thing has happened on the other end of the spectrum with the other party. Is it one’s more liberal theology and interpretation of Scripture that informs one’s support for LGBTQ rights, or open borders, or reproductive rights, or is it the other way around? Does one’s commitment to self-reliance, law and order, and “traditional marriage” arise from one’s more conservative theology and understanding of the Bible, or vice versa? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

The question that confronts us today is what would Paul say about the relationship between these two manifestations of the American church, given what he tells the Corinthians in today’s reading? Would he demand that we have the same mind and the same purpose, and that there be no divisions among us? Would he appeal to unity, saying, “Has Christ been divided?” Would he ask in the plaintive tones of Rodney King, “Why can’t you all just get along?”

The matter becomes more complicated, and those questions harder to answer, when we consider some other things Paul has to say in his letters. Take, for example, his long-running dispute with the Judaizers, a faction of Jewish Christians who would go around to his congregations after he left and “correct” his teaching by demanding that they observe the Law of Moses, including the dietary laws and circumcision. When it comes to these guys, Paul sets aside the conciliatory language of unity in favor of a more confrontational message.

He says, for instance, to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–8). He tells the Philippians, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (Phil 3:2). And, in case we missed the point, he says it as clearly as possible in this gem, again from the letter to the Galatians: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.… I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:10, 12).

Ahem. Hardly a call to unity.

What do we make of this discrepancy? How can Paul appeal to one group within the church to remember their common baptism and have no divisions among them, and then tell another group within the church—remember, the Judaizers were Christians too—to go to hell, which is what he means when he says, “Let them be accursed”?

The key may come in the last two verses of our reading. Paul says the Christ sent him “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (vv. 17–18). For Paul, it all comes down to the cross, the truest revelation of God’s love and grace the world has ever seen. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul diagnoses their problem as having forgotten that they are one because of Christ’s work on the cross. In the Judaizers, however, he sees a group that deliberately perverts the message of the cross and empties it of its power. And he is having none of it.

The same standard holds for us, if we understand the cross of Jesus as the supreme manifestation of God’s love for a wayward world. In cases where differences with another faction of the church arise from selfishness or suspicion or honest differences of opinion, we should repent where necessary and seek unity and reconciliation. But if the differences arise because one or other of the parties is seeking to pervert the gospel by limiting the range of God’s love, by trying to exclude certain persons or groups from access to God’s grace, or by misrepresenting God as anything less than radically inclusive and limitlessly forgiving, we have the obligation to confront them, oppose them, and assert loudly and clearly the true nature of the gospel and the reign of God. Anything less would be faithless and unworthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus.

As we enter this new phase of our national life, where political and theological differences become more entrenched all the time and people on both sides of the divide take pleasure in demonizing and denouncing the other, let us be discerning about how to proceed. At a time when the answer to Paul’s question, “Has Christ been divided?” seems to be a resounding YES, let us live countercultural lives of love. Let us seek and promote reconciliation where we can; let us be steadfast in calling out and standing against anyone who would sow hate in the name of Christ; and let us proclaim the true gospel of grace and acceptance at every opportunity.

Let us be unapologetically on the side of love.

Robert Turner