Our heavenly father, thank you for gathering us and being with us again in this afternoon. Your word is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged swords. I pray that this afternoon you can use your word to prick into our hearts. Help us to realize our sin and change our mind in order to be used by you. I also pray that you would use me to preach your word, and bless my tongue to speak English fluently. I pray in the precious name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
I believe most of us have experienced a kind of disunity in the church. There are different levels of disunity in the church. The result of some disunities caused believers holding different opinions to feel angry against each other, or maybe they won’t talk to each other any more in the church. If they have to talk, they will speak with eyes staring at another object. Some disunity will cause some leaders to leave and join or start another church. We usually call it “unexpected church planting”. The most serious disunity I have ever seen is that one side not only left church but also wrote articles on Internet criticize another side as “heresy” and “false church”. These are sad stories that not only hurt God’s people, but also brought shame to God’s name. However, it’s easy to criticize others who cause the disunity, but have you ever thought one day you will be one of those “troublemakers”?
I once had a disagreement on a ministry project with another leader in the church. I hold my opinion so strong that I thought that brother is not mature and hard to communicate. I started to think that maybe we just don’t match. I thought he is human-centered while I am (of course) God-centered. I was so worried about this disagreement that I thought about it day and night, I even thought I should not have such a human-centered coworker in my team. I thought he must change; otherwise I will try to not involve him in my future ministry (which means, get rid of him from my team.). You see, everyone could be a potential threat to the unity of the church.
In 1st Corinthians, Paul is trying to handle the problem of disunity in the church of Corinth. Last time we went through the first half of the first chapter, in which Paul is very thankful for the spiritual gifts and resources that they own. Now Paul will start to deal with the first problem in the church that was reported to him. And the problem is related with the abundance of spiritual resources in the church. Let’s open our Bibles and turn to 1st Corinthians chapter 1 verse 10 to 17.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." 13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one may 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.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Friends, THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD.
The text I just read shows that Paul heard about a problem of disunity or division among the believers in Corinth. From this text, I want to appeal to you, Trinity students and future ministers of Jesus Christ, to serve with diversity but under unity in your future ministry.
The disunity is a problem in the church of Corinth that the congregation is used to it because they experience the same thing in their secular life. In Greek culture, it’s very common that people follow their favorite philosopher or teacher and debate with others.
Paul tries to resolve the problem in two ways. First, he revealed God’s perfect design for the unity in His church; secondly he reminds them that unlike the Greek world, disunity is a serious problem to Christian faith. At the last verse, he shared how he himself avoids the risk of introducing disunity.
I. The perfectness of unity (vv. 10-12)
In verse 10 to 12, Paul raised the issue that he has heard. The issue he heard from Chloe’s people is that there are divisions in the church. It seems that Paul is quite sure about the details of the division. We can read the details of the division in verse 12: the believers claimed that they follow their favorite teachers respectively. However, Paul does not start his message with the details of the disunity, nor does he start with the analysis of each teacher that Corinthians were following. Instead, he starts with an appeal. Moreover, he says that his appeal is “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In English, “appeal” is an earnest request. It sounds weaker than “command”, but Paul says this earnest request is by the name of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that this is a request from Jesus, a request that our Lord want his church to execute, a request according to Lord’s will.
For today’s Christians, we might feel that Paul is over-reacted. What’s the big deal? We can see it everywhere that believers, pastors and Christian leaders claiming that they belong to a certain school of theology or they are followers of a certain teacher. This tension can even exist in a local church’s cell group, not even to say a local church, a multi-sites church like the house church I was serving in Shanghai, or the denomination. What’s the big deal? Why does Paul write a letter for this? Why does Paul appeal to them by the name of the Lord?
I think the “follow” in the church of Corinth is more serious than today’s “fans”. Because when they “follow” a teacher in the Greek culture, they organize parties and identify themselves as part of the party that is loyal to their teacher. They cut themselves off from the body of the Christ and emphasize what they think is important from the teacher they respect. They argue with each other not because they have different understanding on the Bible, but because they belong to different parties, as Greek people do in their culture. One interesting thing is that there’s one party claiming that they follow Christ and still condemned by Paul. Why? I think it’s not because they follow Christ, but because they argue with other parties and separate themselves from others as if they are the only small group that follows Christ. We have such Christian group in today’s world, right? For them, the identity of “following whom” is much more important than the identity of “Christian” under unity.
Five years ago I attended hermeneutics training in a Chinese church while I was studying MBA in University of Washington. The teacher gave us an assignment to read Judges 11 and discuss whether Jephthah’s daughter was actually died or just never got married. After small group discussion, each side needs to present their analysis. Then an interesting thing happened, both sides quoted their favorite and famous preacher’s words to support their conclusion. None of them went deeper to analyze the text based on the context and culture. They both said “I believe this because pastor XXX said so.” They both emphasize the authority of the teacher instead of God’s word.
Paul does not like it to happen, so he starts with his resolution on the appeal which reflects God’s heart and God’s desire: the unity. What is the unity that God desires among his people? Paul said that the unity he desires has two positive meanings:
1. “All of you agree”, or “speak the same thing”. He asks for an agreement among them that all have one voice as the ultimate outcome. God does not want us to keep divided or ignore the existed different opinions, but want us to work toward the unity. They are so used to division because it’s very common in their social life. But Paul says “no”. This is not favored in God’s eye and you must work together toward an agreement. The “same thing” that we will agree doesn’t need to be one of the different things we are holding. It could be a broader agreement that reached by our stepping back. We shall agree to Lord’s desire, not the desire of anyone of us.
2. United in the same mind and same judgment. Paul is not suggesting suppressing the different opinions. He also does not mean that one party is correct while others are all wrong. He asks the church to “unite” or “join” together in the same mind and same judgment, which is the mind of Jesus and judgment of Christ. Here Paul answers the question that “is diversity not favored in the church?” Absolutely Not. The gifts of Paul, the gifts of Peter, the gifts of Apollo are all from God. Just like Paul says in 3:21 that “For all things are yours”. Diversity is created by God and diversity is prepared by God for us. God ask us through Paul that we should unite the diversity in the mind and judgment of Christ. The perfectness of unity is revealed in diversity.
You might think it’s naïve today. There are so many denominations and school of theologies. How can we unite them together? I agree that this is the actual situation in today’s Christianity. But aren’t they also from God? Paul’s appeal here is not asking us to remove the difference, but to treat unity as the ultimate outcome of every disunity in your ministry. Unfortunately, today I have seen so many people setup their mind to treat separation as the ultimate outcome of every disunity. This is not God’s plan.
II. The seriousness of disunity (vv. 13-16)
Paul continues his letter in verse 13-16 to discuss the seriousness of the disunity. He not only tells the church that God favors unity, but also tells the church that disunity is a serious problem in the church, and disunity is against God. Since he used the word “appeal” in verse 10, the audience might think that it’s just a suggestion not a commandment. But if they realize that disunity is against God, they will know that unity is a commandment and unity is mandatory. Paul criticizes disunity in the church of Corinth in three ways:
1. Disunity divides the head of the church. In verse 13 he says “Is Christ divided” as the first rhetorical question. Christ is the head of the church, and the church should have only one head. Emphasizing the teacher more than the unity of the church is dividing the head of the church. On the other hand, since all gifts are from Christ, following one gift over than another gift is also dividing Christ.
2. Disunity hides the salvation of Christ. The second rhetorical question is “Was Paul crucified for you.” Crucification of Christ is the basis of the salvation because he is the only God and the righteous man. We are all saved through the Crucification of Christ. Any human’s Crucification cannot help. One honors his favorite teacher more than the truth is moving away his salvation basis. Thus his salvation is in question, and his faith is in vain.
3. Disunity harms the foundation of baptism. The third rhetorical question is “were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Baptism is very important to Christians in the early churches. Baptism establishes their Christian identity and in the Baptismal service, they will be baptized three times in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit respectively. One reason for people in the church follow their favorite teacher is that they were baptized by the teacher and thus they connect their identity with the one who baptize them. Paul rejects this thought because the foundation of the baptism is not the one who baptize them but the name they were baptized into.
Today we are in a world of individualism. We are so focused on my will, my interpretation of the Bible, my understanding of the theology that we forget that unity is a commandment from God and disunity sins against God. Two years ago in my church in Shanghai, we had a new member family from another house church. I asked the reason why they left the original church because it’s our policy that we don’t encourage believers to leave a church without good reason. The husband said he is a Calvinist and a professor in the university. He led many students to Christ and they all joined his original church. One day one of his students asked him some theological questions and he answered them under the view of Calvinism. The pastor, who is an Arminian, was very angry after he knew this. The pastor sent an email to the whole church and said Calvinism is not correct and should not be taught in the church. Well, this brother felt upset and thought there’s no way for him to serve in this church. He heard that we are reformed so he came to my church with the family. Though I’m glad we have a new family joining, I asked him, “Have you ever tried to sit down and study the Bible with the pastor regarding your differences? And have you asked him if you don’t change your theological view, how can you serve in the church?” He simply answered, “No. I don’t think this is something we can negotiate and I have to leave.” Just like my example at the beginning, many of us today never tried to eliminate the difference, because our mindset is influenced by this world and we don’t think disunity is serious, we set separation as the goal whenever there’s conflict.
Paul does not agree with this opinion. He says that the disunity is dividing Christ, it is replacing the foundation of salvation, and it is removing the foundation of baptism. It’s a serious problem, much more serious than we think.
III. Application: how does a minister avoid the risk of creating disunity? (vv. 17)
After showing the perfectness of the unity in verse 10 to 12, and the seriousness of the disunity in verse 13 to 16, in the last verse Paul use himself as an example to illustrate and apply how should a worker of Christ avoid the risk of disunity. In verse 17, he says “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
From Paul’s word, it is quite clear that two major reasons for the disunity in the church of Corinth is baptism and wisdom. The believers either follow the one baptized them, or follow the one whose speech is favored by them. They affiliate their identity with the one who baptized them or with the one whose speech is favored by them. Though Paul is listed among those favorite teachers, he refuses to create the disunity. In another word, he refuses those believers to affiliate their Christian identity with him. It doesn’t mean that Paul refuse to be followed. In the same book, in 11:1 he asks the Christians to follow him, to imitate him, just like he imitates Christ. In his ministry, due to believers’ potential misunderstanding and God’s calling, he would rather not baptize anybody. He also refuse to use the rhetorical skills that widely used by Greek so that the power of Cross won’t be hidden by the language skill.
It doesn’t mean that we as future pastors neither baptize nor use any illustration in preaching. No! Paul has his calling to preach the gospel and plan churches as an apostle. However, what we can imitate from this application is how we give up some privileges to avoid the risk of disunity. Baptizing new believer or preaching being appreciated by people are both wonderful marks of a successful preacher, however Paul says he would rather give up both because they might cause disunity, and disunity will prevent him from fulfilling God’s calling. Paul is very clear that the purpose of his ministry is to preach the gospel and present the power of the cross of Christ. God also called other ministers to baptize, and Paul has no intention to compete with them because God give different gifts to different people. God will unite the diversity into His perfect unity. Paul taught us two things: one is knowing your calling, and the second is willing to give up something that might interrupt you from accomplishing the calling.
Is there something that we hold firmly or value too much but our attitude could actually introduce potential disunity in the church? Is there someone in your team that you want to compete with and win more supporters to make your ministry smoother? God might send some “troublemakers” to your ministry and to your life. God might use them to test your heart for unity. When I was preparing this message, a brother in my home church complained on church forum because he thought that I always criticize government. You might need to note that in mainland China we are educated to only support and love the government & the party. He thinks it’s not a good testimony for a minister of Christ to criticize the communist party. Since he posted his thoughts on the church forum, I was not happy. My initial thought is to reply to his thread and justify my behavior. And I know he won’t be convinced by what I’m going to say. But I just don’t want his critic to stay on church website because that will makes me feel bad and defeated. But God use this verse to remind me two things: First, is criticizing government something God called me to do? No, God didn’t call me to be a social reformer or revolutionist (though I expect He can call someone to be). Though I have the right to criticize government, but if it’s not a direct calling from God, it’s a right that I can give up if it introduces disunity. Secondly, God has given diversity in the church that some people are passionate about social justice while some other people pay more attention to inner life. I should be thankful for this diversity and thank that brother for giving me the reminder. This is how God unites the diversity into perfect unity. I replied his thread and simply thanks for his reminding. In the meanwhile, I want to share this story with you because God speaks through it to me and to my audience.
Friends, Paul show us how perfect the unity is and how serious the disunity is. Paul also uses his ministry strategy to let us know how he avoids the risk of creating disunity. Maybe we are unlike Corinthians that values their affiliation with the teacher more than anything else, but there must be something in our heart and mind that we hold so firmly and could lead to disunity with other fellow Christians. Remember the struggle I mentioned in the beginning that I had with another leader in my church? Though we still cannot reach in full agreement in many things, but thanks God we are still serving together. Because when I had that idea of “excluding him from my team”, God was asking in in my heart “is it your team?” This was a tender ask pricked my heart. Yes, it’s not my team and the church is not my realm. And now I realize that God really uses us differently. If we decide to seek unity, the diversity would work together towards God’s design. God does not call us to give up the differences. Rather, he speaks to us through this passage to ask us serve with unity.
Lord, I thank you for your words. Help us to serve under unity, help us to stay away from disunity. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.