10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
National anthems are interesting things. They are supposed to evoke feelings of unity and patriotism, but I think the dirge-like tunes and archaic words of some tend to make people cringe more than swell with pride. Even though I’m British by birth I was glad when Australia changed its anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair. But even that, to me, sounds a bit archaic and banal.
However, there’s a song you regularly see on ABC TV that I think everyone responds to - particularly in the current bushfire crisis: ‘We are one, yet we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come. We share a dream and sing with one voice:’ Well, you know the rest of it.
I particularly like the words: ‘we share a dream and sing with one voice’ because that, I believe, expresses what this morning’s Bible reading is saying about the church – or at least about what it should be. Unfortunately, though it’s not always like that.
There’s an eminent English historian named Alec Ryrie who talks about this in his latest book titled Protestants – the radicals who made the modern world. It’s a fascinating history of Protestantism, and one theme that constantly emerges is that Protestants tend to fight and divide over issues they think are really important, and other people just live with.
And in today’s reading, we see the start of it. The Apostle Paul confronts an issue that was plaguing the young church at Corinth; quarrelling centred on certain charismatic personalities. And in this we see the seeds of something that has crippled the Christian church ever since.
So, what had caused it? Referring to these quarrels Paul uses the Greek word haireseis. The root meaning of that Greek word is ‘to choose’. Paul seems to be saying that factions had arisen because certain members had chosen to emphasize one aspect of Christian teaching to the neglect of others. The result was they’d become unbalanced.
It’s that tendency to become preoccupied with certain parts of the Bible and overlook others that give a differing perspective that leads to disunity; often concerning things that to most people seem quite trivial.
For example, a few years ago Marilyn and I used to attend a church in Brisbane whose lay leaders boasted of their commitment to following the Bible – which is a very fine ideal. The problem was they tended to be selective about what they emphasized and what they overlooked.
One day they asked me to organize the worship service, which I did, including getting a woman to offer the prayers. Afterwards a number of people expressed their appreciation of the service. But I noticed that that little group of lay leaders and their wives were all huddled together with looks of deep concern on their faces. It was then I found out they were seriously offended by a woman having prayed that morning.
So, I reminded them that they often opened services up for prayers from the congregation and women participated. ‘Ah’, they said, ‘but they weren’t standing on the platform in a position of authority.’
I started to laugh because I thought they were joking, but then realized they were deadly serious. For a woman to pray from the platform, to them, was to go against the Apostle Paul’s – and therefore God’s – stipulations about women not being permitted to teach. It was alright if they did it as part of the congregation, and it was also fine for them to play the piano; but offering public prayer was offensive to God.
So I said: ‘Do you honestly believe that in a world where millions are starving, where multitudes suffer under oppressive regimes that deprive them of basic human rights, where thousands of women every day are killed, raped and abused, and where untold numbers of children are subjected to unimaginable traumas, that the thing that really upsets God is that a woman said a prayer publicly in church?’
‘But it’s in the Bible!’ they said. ‘Oh no it’s not,’ I replied. ‘It’s in your superficial and selective interpretation of the Bible.’
The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks later they had a Muppets style service and a puppet said the prayers from the pulpit, and they all thought it was wonderful – although, it probably wasn’t a female puppet.
In relation to things like this, most people would say: You’ve got to be joking. In a world full of hatred evil, do we really think this is what God’s concerned about! Frankly, I think God couldn’t care less about many of the things some Christians think are important. But, allowed to go unchecked, that attitude can destroy the unity we cherish.
It’s obvious that the divisions in the Corinthian church had formed around certain personalities: Paul, Apollos and Peter plus another group that just said they were following Christ. We can only speculate as to why; but it’s likely that each of these personalitiesrepresented an approach to faith that particularly appealed to different people.
The group that called themselves followers of Paul may well have been the original members of the church – Paul’s converts. Paul was their father in the faith. They were probably Gentiles who resonated to his teaching that the Gospel is about freedom to love and serve the Lord without the legalism of Judaism and its endless list of ‘thou shalt nots’.
In direct opposition was another group who called themselves followers of Peter. Peter, of course, was the Apostle to the Jews, whereas Paul was the Apostle to the gentiles. Very early in the history of the Church, the leaders in Jerusalem agreed that even though it was right for Jewish believers to continue to observe the requirements of the Old Testament Law, such restrictions ought not to be demanded of gentile believers.
But not all Jewish Christians accepted this, and wherever Paul went, he was dogged by preachers who undermined his teaching about freedom from the law of Moses. Corinth was one of those places, and it’s likely that those who styled themselves followers of Peter were people who held very strong views about all the things that people should not do.
Then there were some who called themselves followers of Apollos. The book of Acts tells us that Apollos was a very gifted preacher, who was noted for his great intellect, his fine speaking, his skill in expounding the Old Testament scriptures and his ability to confound his opponents in public debates. It’s no wonder he attracted a following and some tended to compare Paul unfavorably with him, because Paul, by his own admission, was not an impressive public speaker.
Finally, there was a group who styled themselves followers of Christ. What’s wrong with that you might ask? It’s possible that these people may have considered themselves a sort of spiritual elite, who believed they had their own special hot line to God.
You’ve probably come across people like this. They make us feel inadequate when they talk about how ‘the Lord said this to me’ and ‘God told me to do that’ and so on, whereas we battle through life trying to discern God’s will mostly by trial and error. And it’s hard to know whether they really are closer to God, or just having themselves on.
Paul’s response to all this was to point out that rather than glorifying Christ, their petty-mindedness was actually tearing his body – the Church - apart. He wasn’t insisting that they should be singing in unison, where everyone sings the same melody line, but in harmony, where the differing contributions blend and create a richer and fuller sound.
And we need to learn to do the same. That doesn’t mean that we all have to hold the same opinion on everything and are not allowed to disagree – that’s one of the hallmarks of religious cults! Clearly, there are certain basics we must agree on, if we are to be followers of Christ. But there are many issues where people of good faith see things differently, and in those we should be mature enough to agree to respectfully disagree.
That’s why Paul starts his letter to the Corinthians by appealing them to remember that though they come from differing backgrounds – some of them Jews, some gentiles; some of them well-to-do and some of them slaves; essentially they together are one body -the body of Christ.
A couple of chapters later, he refers to them as God’s temple and issues a warning we would all do well to heed: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God has his dwelling in you? If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him.’
And so, he reminds them that though they are many, essentially, they are one. Like the song that has become the unofficial Australian anthem: ‘We are one, yet we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come. We share a dream and sing with one voice.’
I particularly like those words: ‘we share a dream and sing with one voice’ because that expresses what Paul is saying. We also share a dream and sing with one voice. But, as I said earlier, that doesn’t mean we all necessarily sing in unison; but it does mean we sing in harmony. And one of the things I love about the Uniting Church – and I’m a relative newcomer to it – is that that ideal is central to its ethos.
We don’t know if Paul had any idea of how this accursed capacity for quarrelling and dividing would develop; but we do know that what he saw in Corinth worried him greatly.And so, he appeals to them to take their eyes off those human messengers and place them on the one those messengers pointed to – Jesus himself.
It reminds me of the story of a man who tried to keep his son occupied for a while by cutting up a sheet of paper and then leaving him to reassemble it with all the shapes in their correct place. He returned 15 minute later and was amazed to find it all completed. ‘How did you get it all done so quickly?’ he asked. ‘The boy said: ‘It was easy. There was a picture of Jesus on the other side. I just followed that, and I couldn’t go wrong.’ And so will we if we do the same.