Learning lessons from the church at Corinth
The Bible has a lot to say about unity amongst God’s people. We can read stories of united churches (Acts 2 and 6), hear Jesus pray for unity amongst believers (John 17), and see ultimate unity as all believers join in worship (Revelation). But the Bible doesn’t just show us what unity looks like; in 1 Corinthians it also shows us what church conflict looks like – and how it can be put right. Whether your church is united or disunited, that’s a valuable lesson to learn.
Anyone who has read 1 Corinthians knows that it was a church full of problems – probably more serious problems than our churches face! They’ve got theological problems, relationship problems, ethical problems, and to cap it all off, they actually think they’re a wise and mature church (ch.3)!
The problem of selfishness
Paul realises that all these problems have the same cause. Right at the beginning of his letter he tells the church what the real problem is: ‘Each one of you says, “I follow Paul”, or “I follow Apollos”, or “I follow Cephas”, or “I follow Christ”’ (1:12). We shouldn’t hold Paul, Apollos and Peter (Cephas) accountable for the actions of their ‘followers’ in Corinth. Paul and Apollos were united in their mission, even if their ‘followers’ were not (3:5‑6). So Paul ignores the labels and deals with the real issues. Which person had caused the problem? Obviously not Christ. Nor was it Cephas. And it wasn’t Paul, or Apollos. No, the problem person in that sentence is the first person singular: ‘I follow’. The united church says, ‘we follow’, ‘we pray’, ‘we want’, ‘we need’, but in Corinth all they said was ‘I’. Everyone in Corinth just thought of themselves.
Although they were all Jews, Paul, Apollos and Peter had quite different backgrounds. Apollos was a Greek from Alexandria, Paul a Roman citizen, Peter a Palestinian. At the same time Apollos was an eloquent speaker, Paul an educated scholar, Peter an uneducated (though certainly not unintelligent) former fisherman turned preacher. It’s likely that the different people in the church found themselves attracted to the leaders who were most like them. ‘I’m a working-class man with no interest in rhetoric. I’ll follow Peter!’ ‘I’m a Roman, so I’ll follow Paul!’
But Paul has a gloriously simple solution to the problem. His whole message can be summed up by 11:24: ‘Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour.’ That’s why in the middle of his exposition on so-called spiritual gifts, he devotes an entire chapter to love. If the Corinthians truly loved each other, they wouldn’t have fallen out over how they should worship.
Churches like Corinth, whose members are different ages, come from different cultures, represent different strata of society, and even speak different languages are not easy churches to belong to. But such churches must not be places where the young people say, ‘I want modern music’, and the older people say, ‘I want hymns’. Instead, the older people should be going to the elders and saying, ‘You know we prefer the hymns, but for the sake of the youngsters, we think you should choose more modern music.’ And at the very same time, the young people should be saying, ‘We enjoy the modern music, but we know the older people really like some of the old hymns. Why don’t you choose more hymns, for them?’ Likewise, Welsh-speakers should say, ‘You know I feel much more at home in my own language, but when it benefits others I’m more than happy to have English spoken.’ English-speakers should say, ‘I don’t understand Welsh, but I do understand that people love to speak their own language. If it benefits them, why don’t we have bilingual hymns, or allow people to pray in Welsh and have it translated?’ Those are just two examples, but the principle applies in every area of church life.
The problem of narrow-mindedness
But there was a second problem in Corinth, and it made the first worse. The Corinthians were incredibly narrow-minded. They thought everyone ought to be the same. No-one followed Paul and Apollos and Peter and Christ, they chose just one to follow. No-one (except Paul) valued prophecy, tongues and interpretation; they just valued tongues. The strong thought the weak were foolish, the weak thought the strong sinful (ch.8-10). The rich looked down on the poor, the poor were jealous of the rich (7:21-24). Those who were single even thought that married people should live celibate lives the way they did (7:1)!
It’s gratifying to know that the problems we face are not new to our generation. We too often find that churches can be narrow-minded. But Paul doesn’t solve the problems in Corinth by setting up St Paul’s, St Peter’s, St Apollos’ and St Saviour’s churches, each with its distinctive, but monochromatic culture. That, perhaps, is what we would have done. We often have churches for students, churches for traditionalists, black churches, middle-class churches, or churches just for Welsh-speakers (or, just as bad in areas where Welsh is spoken, churches just for English speakers). Sometimes this is done intentionally, sometimes it’s just that a particular subset of the community are more attracted to that church’s style, and as they’re converted, they invite their friends who are very similar to them, and the problem is compounded.
But Paul doesn’t want everyone to be the same. He says ‘let each person lead the life that the Lord as assigned to him… in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God’ (7:17, 24). Later he adds, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am’ (15:10). The church cannot be so big that unrepentant sinners can remain members (5:11). But in 12:12-25 Paul reminds us that bodies need a head, hands, eyes, ears and so on. If all were a single member, ‘where would the body be?’ Paul doesn’t tell us all to be the same, but rather that despite our differences all believers are one in Jesus Christ (1:24, 2:16b, 3:16, 21-23, 6:11, 15a, 7:22, 12:12-13, 15:51).
Corinth was a diverse city and therefore had a diverse church. Do our churches reflect the diversity of the communities we serve? It’s easy nowadays to get statistics about our own communities (www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk), but we hopefully know our communities well enough not to need them. If a young black rich English-speaking Christian man moved into our community and came into our church, would he immediately think that our church was for people like him? What if it was an elderly white poor Welsh-speaking woman? They should both feel at home. If our church is largely full of middle-aged or elderly, middle-class white people, yet the evangelical congregation down the road is largely full of young working-class men and women, we need to ask whether either of our churches is really reflecting the unity spoken of in the New Testament. If our church is in a bilingual culture, but we only ever hear one language being spoken, is that really reflecting the glory of the church ‘from every tribe and language and people and nation’?
I’m not for a moment suggesting such diversity is easy. But the gospel not only makes unity desirable, it makes it possible, and it makes it powerful. Last year I spoke to a young lad at the Aber conference who’d been recently converted. Key in his testimony was the fact that he was witnessed to by someone who was like him (‘a proper bloke’, he said, ‘someone who could swing a hammer’). But he also said, ‘The fact that middle-class old ladies who pinch your cheeks and drink tea from cups with saucers would have me in the church and love me… is one of the biggest things that has proved to me that there is a God and that He’s behind the church.’ That’s why this matters. That’s how the gospel has an impact. And that’s why gospel churches should be full of proper blokes who swing hammers and middle-class ladies who drink tea – and everyone else besides.