1 Cor. 1:10-17 – Divisions Caused By Elitism

This is the third post in the series on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The question we are asking is: What does this letter teach us about being a community of faith in diverse cultural contexts? And the passage for this post is 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

One problem that consistently surfaced in the communities that I was a part of overseas was division. From time to time a group or two would rise up that disagreed with the general position of the larger community. These communities tried to take a middle of the road approach to all our diversity. Though no one was 100 percent satisfied with this “middle of the road” approach, it was hoped that everyone was at least 60 percent satisfied. We figured if everyone was 60 percent satisfied then everyone was having to make an adjustment but their satisfaction level was high enough to find the community a blessing. However, from time to time some people found the “middle of the road” approach to be too conciliatory. (Their satisfaction level evidently went below 50%.) We would try to negotiate with the people in these groups, but we failed. Sad to say, the division was always caused by people who had somehow become elitist. They thought they were in some way better than the others around them. Either they felt they were in some way more spiritual, or they were more faithful in being evangelical, or they were more “right” than the larger community. These divisions were always grounded upon reasons that the groups felt were valid; and there was always a key personality or two inciting the divisiveness.

The writer of Ecclesiastes said nothing is new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). It appears that the Corinthians had a similar problem to the problems my overseas communities had. In this passage in 1 Corinthians we discover that divisions had come into the believing community. We also discover what were some of the causes for the divisiveness, and we see what Paul’s cure was for the Corinthians’ relational malaise.

10 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 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.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Paul gives us an inside look into the situation in the believing community at Corinth in verses 10 through 13.

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 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.”

There were significant relational fractures in the community. Why did these quarrels and divisions exist? The reference to belonging to Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Jesus is the clue to this answer. So, what did it mean to be of Paul, of Apollos, or of Christ?

THE PROBLEM OF ELITISM

It appears from this that the disagreements were not caused primarily by doctrinal issues. This reference to Paul, Apollos, Peter and Jesus, and the rhetoric of verses 13 through 17 indicates that the divisions in Corinth were primarily caused by certain charismatic personalities. These personalities were apparently using the names of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Jesus as means to gather people around them.

To challenge this elitism, Paul mentions Jesus’ crucifixion (v.13). If there ever was someone who could have been elitist, it was Jesus. But, he was and is marvelously inclusive. He died and he lives for all. After mentioning the crucifixion Paul speaks about baptism in verses 14 through 17.

Why does Paul go on this baptism tangent right after talking about the crucifixion?

The crucifixion and their baptism drew the Corinthians attention to the one they had given their allegiance- Jesus. Not only was their allegiance to be given solely to Jesus, it was also to be given to his body. Highlighting the importance of the body of Christ is likely the reason why Paul wrote these words as he opened his epistle: with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1:2). Though there can be many disagreements in believing communities, each of those within these communities are members of the body of Christ.

Paul described how he demonstrated that he was not an elitist. The reason he baptized only a few in Corinth was because he was not trying to draw people to himself. He worked for the Lord, not for his own personal advancement.

From Paul’s words we can see that one way to keep this from ever happening is for each one of us make a personal pledge to 1) maintain a position of humility when we are in groups that are diverse; and, 2) be committed to maintaining the unity of the body with a peaceful attitude. We do not need to have others agree with us or with our ideas. There should always be space for holding differing opinions. In our overseas communities how can disagreements not happen? The communities I have been a part of were incredibly diverse. We had Finnish Lutherans, German and Brazilian Pentecostals, British and Singaporean Anglicans, Korean Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, American and Malaysian Baptists, and so much more. Within these diverse communities there was much disagreement on so many theological points. Yet, in spite of our diversity most of the time we got along. We all gave one another the freedom to hold differing views and we avoided being disagreeable. There is a way to disagree that respects the right of others to hold differing opinions while still maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Yet, there were some who did not value this kind of diversity in the Body of Christ. Due to this the peace that we shared was disrupted each time a small group of people insisted that their position was the right one. What these “right” people did not realize was that being accepting and agreeable while holding differing views was more important than being right. Whenever we elevate being right above being loving we are in danger of crossing the line and becoming elitist.

Whenever someone or some group becomes elitist, that person or those persons reflect a character that is contrary to the character of Jesus Christ.

In contrast, when we respect one another’s right to disagree and we maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace we demonstrate to everyone around that we are allied with Jesus and with his body. When we do not, we demonstrate that our allegiance has shifted away from Christ to ourselves.

This was Paul’s point about baptism. Paul wanted the Corinthians to keep their allegiance fixed on Jesus. When our allegiance remains with Christ he gives us the eyes to see just who comprises his Body.