[Reorganized and restored 10/23/2013, partly edited 2/28/17]



Jesus himself had clearly wanted his followers to be united. In what’s often called the high priestly prayer (part of John’s Gospel), Jesus prayed this:

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which believe in me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one is us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me.

Jesus insisted that unity was vital.  It was Jesus himself, long before Lincoln, who noted that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

At first, the church was remarkably united.  Acts 2:44-47 says this:

All who believed were together and had all things in common, and sold their possessions as every man had need.  And they continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

But could that unity be maintained?  In this course we’re looking at reasons for the survival and growth of the early Christian church, how this small sect became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.  One key for success: the ability of the church to stay relatively unified—and, particularly, the ability to stay relatively unified in the critical first years of the new religious movement.

All political, social, and religious organizations struggle with division. Had divisions in the early Church gotten out of hand immediately, Christianity would have struggled to survive.  The New Testament letters (particularly Romans, I Corinthians, II Peter, and Jude) show how Christian leaders handled potential divisions and succeeded in maintaining the unity critical to the success and growth of the church.

I Corinthians in particular does a great job showing both the potential sources of friction in the early church and the ways the church stopped these division from getting out of hand.

[In class, we discuss the reasons churches and other organizations divide and the ways one might try to avoid divisions.]

Corinth was one of the most fascinating cities of the ancient world.  It sat on a location ideal for trade, the Isthmus of Corinth. For a long time, Athens and Corinth were economic rivals.  Later, when Philip of Macedon forces the Greeks to unite, he makes Corinth the capital of the “Corinthian League,” a league he would use to help put together the army that Alexander would use to conquer Persia.  After the break-up of Alexander’s empire, Corinth was the center of Greek resistance to Roman expansion.  The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but the site was too advantageous to be abandoned, and so, now under Roman rule, the city rose again.

By the time of Christ, Corinth was one of the richest cities in the empire, a thriving center of trade.  As a wealthy city, it attracted artists, writers, and teachers, becoming a great center of culture.

But it also became a center of debauchery.  More than 1000 temple prostitutes plied their trade in Corinth.  Known for its wild lifestyle, Corinth become the synonym for debauchery: to go out “Corinthicizing” meant to go out for a wild party. And if one wanted to really insult a girl, just call her a Corinthian virgin (i.e., a prostitute).   The San Francisco of the Roman world, I guess.

Interestingly, the church found fertile ground here.  Some mighty good things can grow out of manure. 

Priscilla and Aquilla, Christian refugees from Rome settled in Corinth about AD 51-52.  At about the same time, Paul (via Macedonia and Athens) arrived in Corinth, joined later by Silas and Timothy.  Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth with some success.  Jews tried to created problems for the Christians with local authorities, but the Roman-appointed governor (Gallio) ruled against the Jews, and had the synagogue leader (Sosthenes) beaten for creating a disturbance.  After Paul and his associates left, Apollos, “a learned Jew, mighty in the scriptures”) shows up in Corinth, spends quite a bit of time there, and helps the church grow.

But around 57-58 AD, Paul hears some disturbing news from Corinth: the church is beginning to split apart.  There’s a party of Cephas, a party of Apollos, a party of Paul, and a party of Christ.  Paul can’t go to Corinth himself right away: he’s needed at Ephesus. He asks Apollos to go, but Apollos also has other work.  And so Paul sends Sosthenes and with him a letter: the letter we call First Corinthians.

Now note how Paul deals with the outside manifestations of division, the beginnings of denominationalism.  One might think he’d be thrilled with the “Paul” Christians.  But he’s not.  “Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized in Paul’s name?”  Paul stresses instead the unity of the church leaders, and, particularly, his partnership with Apollos.  “I planted, Apollos watered, God gives the increase.”  

Note how important this is. Later, the tendency of Christians will be to try to affirm their own right standing with God by insisting that they have the right denomination: and church division gets out of hand.  But notice that there is no church of Paul—though, of course, there could have been.  And note the irony of the modern scholars who want to make Paul a 2nd founder of Christianity!  

Paul also deals with a closely related issue, the issue of doctrine. Later Christians will want to insist that they are on the right track because they (alone) have the right doctrine, and they end up stressing their doctrinal differences.  Paul absolutely refuses to engage in the kind of theological dispute that ends up in division.  He rejects the Greek philosophy approach and the Jewish way of reading the scripture.

Both of those approaches lead to division at a later date in church history.  But here, Paul cuts the debates short.  We’re not going to get into philosophical disputes or quarrel over the interpretation of scripture.  

“Where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the disputer of this world?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?”

But we’re going to seek wisdom of a different kind.

“And I, brethren, when I came unto you came not with excellency of speech…For I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my preaching was not with enticing words of men’s wisdom, but in demonstration of spirit and power.”

Now since I can’t claim either the spirit or the power Paul talks about, there’s a great danger of distorting his message here. Just as the Taoist teachers claim that “the Tao that can be told is not the Tao,” the Pauline teaching that can be reduced to Greek wisdom (i.e., human reason) or Hebrew signs (scripture exegesis) is not really what Paul is about, and the important thing is (perhaps) to sense the spirit behind his teaching.

I think this is particularly true when it comes to the way Paul handles disputes over moral and ethical issues, a major potential source of division in the church.  Arguments over abortion, divorce, remarriage, adultery, etc. can split churches wide open today, and, if anything, the potential for destructive divisions over moral issues was potentially a greater problem for Paul than it is for us today. Paul writes to people for whom Biblical morality was a new thing—though, perhaps, not entirely new. While Corinth was a center of debauchery, the Corinthians did have the teachings of the Stoics, etc.

Note how Paul deals with moral issues (I Cor. 5-6)

1.  An insistence that church can indeed deal with such issues.  Paul says saints will judge world!  We can't deal with moral issues?  Wrong!  Those of least esteem in church can solve such disputes--and better than secular law courts.

2.  An insistence that we can't change the rules--God's rules, not ours.  Be not deceived, God is not mocked.  Neither fornicators nor covetous, nor idolaters, etc. shall inherit the kingdom.  Once one understands this, a major source of division is gone.  Suppose there is a practice contrary to scripture one doesn't want to give up, and one wants to be accepted in the church anyway. Paul says: what good would this do?  Even if the church as a human institution accepts you, that's not automatic inclusion in kingdom of God. Don't waste your effort trying to change human opinion.  Come to your senses!

3.  An emphasis on reconciliation. Notice that Paul follows his list of sins with a typical Paul reminder of shared human weakness, "and such were some of you."  Just a few words, but extremely important.  Paul is reminding church that work of Christ is reconciliation.  Yes, sin is to be judged: but the repentant sinner is to be restored--and the sin itself forgotten.  "Now ye are washed."

Paul takes the same approach in Galatians, “If any man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such a one in spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest ye also be tempted."

4.  An avoidance of legalism. It is important to note that, while Paul deals clearly with moral issues, he doesn’t go the route of the Pharisees.  The typical method of many people trying to promote morality is to draw up a list of dos and don'ts--mostly don'ts--to try to suppress sin.  The problem with this is that it deals with only the surface manifestations of sin, not with what's in the heart.  Paul, a Pharisee, knows that this is like trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot. The trick is not to deal with what's on the surface, but to turn down the heat.  Notice how he deals with sexuality in I Corinthians Chapter 6.

Paul could simply issue a rule: don't visit temple prostitutes.  But note what he does instead.  He gets to root of problem.  We’re *not* dealing with a “soma” problem, but a “sarx” problem. We might, as the Greek philosophers did, try to fight against physical desire. But Paul suggests that we have to fight a spiritual problem stemming from the pride problem.

Why is fornication wrong?  Because one becomes one “flesh” with sexual partner. Does this mean joining bodies?  NO!  Remember that "flesh" and "body" are not synonymous.  Paul in Philippians notes that he was “circumcised the eighth day of the stock of Israel,” etc.  This is what he describes as "the flesh." What is involved in sex  is primarily pride, not physical pleasure. For a man, sexual submission of a woman feeds his ego, it makes him, temporarily at least, her god.  And for a woman, it is a man’s desire for her that feeds her ego, and her ability to fulfill that desire that makes her, at least temporarily, a goddess.  It is no accident that prostitution in the ancient world is in the temples of the gods!  When Paul says, “the two become one flesh," he's not that they fill each other’s physical desires, but that they bolster each other’s pride.

Now note Paul's answer. The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord. Paul sees the body as a temple for God.  Not the suppression of the body, but the proper fulfillment of the body’s true purpose is the answer to sexual immorality.

"But physical sexual desire is real!  And it's hard to abstain."  Evolutionists say our fundamental desires are to survive and reproduce.  Freud says many of our neuroses come from suppressed sexual desire.  Paul would think this nonsense.  There's a goal far higher than sexual desire--and it's worth giving up sex entirely for this goal.  But, says Paul, if you really think your sexual desire is that strong, there's an easy answer. Just get married!
And speaking of marriage, note Paul's way of dealing with this topic.  First of all, there’s his insistence that the single state is superior to the married state in terms of one’s ability to serve God.  I think that’s immensely reassuring. Single people have a tendency to feel out of it, and perhaps end up doing some pretty dumb things in the romantic area to try to get the (imagined) higher status of the married person. It’s a lot easier to be patient and to go about romantic relationships the right way if one isn’t desperate for marriage.

Notice also the “wife’s body belongs to the husband, husband’s body to the wife” command.  Paul, once again, is rejecting the Greek attitude.  There is nothing sinful about sex within marriage: quite the reverse. But there’s a bit more to what Paul is saying here.  Let the husband render to his wife “due benevolence,” e.g., what he owes her.  What does he owe her? And what does she owe him? A whole-hearted commitment: not just sex, but love.

And, speaking of love, notice I Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter. Here’s a recipe for ending all sorts of division.  

With this foundation, it's easy enough to deal with any issue that comes up.  Paul deals with conflicts about church practice, settling disputes over prayer, prophecy, speaking in tongue, and communion by appealing to the love principle.

And, as far as doctrines are concerned, Paul defends in particular only one key theme, the resurrection, partly, I suppose, because the resurrection is the reminder of the Day of Judgment.  It’s hard to handle disputes in the vicious way we tend to when one remembers that one will have to give account to God for the way we’ve behaved in these disputes!

Note how key this is to church unity. We don't have to insist on all the recognition we deserve now.  We don't have to have all our wants and needs fulfilled now.  The big rewards are all ahead, and keeping this in mind will make us less likely to quarrel now over things that, in the end, will all be burned up anyway.