1 Corinthians 1:10-17 ~ Life Together: United in the Same Mind and Purpose
Today I have bad news, and I have good news, and I have really good news.
THE BAD NEWS
The New Testament church did not live up to its glorified reputation. What I mean is this: If you’ve spent much time in Bible study groups, at some point you’ve surely heard someone waxing wistful over the early church: “O I wish I could have been there, and seen the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and felt the zeal of those first believers to share their faith, and enjoyed their unity!” Well, two out of three of those were true. But unity? Read your Bible again.
Oh, there were moments of blessed unity, like when those Jerusalem Christians were praising God daily in the temple, and sharing all they had with each other so that no one was in need, eating together with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:46-47) But there were also Ananias and Sapphira lying about their contributions, there were Paul and Barnabas parting ways because they disagreed about taking Timothy with them, there were Paul and Peter quarreling over whether to share the same table with gentile Christians. And then there was the church in Corinth.
Read Paul’s letters to Corinth and you will be cured of any rose-colored nostalgia for the New Testament Church. We haven’t even gotten past the first chapter, and already Paul moves into the conflicts that he had heard about from hundreds of miles away.
It was partly that city’s love for slick talkers that had gotten them in trouble. Corinth gave superstar attention to any skilled orator who came to town. It was like the circus coming to town whenever a famous debater and speaker visited. That was their entertainment and their fascination. Cultured speech was the sign of high status and power and wealth. People crowded around impressive speech givers.
The house church of Corinth had the same obsession. They would rate the comparative attributes of the various speakers who visited them. So some were fans of Paul. Some were fans of Apollos, a gifted orator from Alexandria. Some were partial to Cephas. Some claimed to rise above all the strife: “We’re with the Messiah.” So they competed for whoever they thought was the smartest and smoothest speaker in the room.
Corinth was a conflicted mess. It was not the only messed up church back then. In Revelation, the Lord addresses seven churches in Asia Minor, now Turkey. He has strong words for most of them. For anyone who tends to idealize the early church, that’s bad news.
We certainly don’t idealize today’s church. The barber shops and beauty parlors of Wilson keep track of which church is the latest to fall into some squabble. Baptist associational missionaries and Methodist district superintendents and Episcopal bishops run themselves ragged among the churches trying to put out the fires. We Baptists struggle with this as much as anyone: for wherever there are two or three Baptists gathered together, you know you’re going to have three or four opinions about anything.
That’s partly because we are still swayed by whoever looks and sounds to be the smartest and smoothest speaker in the room. We flock to leaders on the left and the right who are especially good speakers, “each side arguing that they know best and that the other is completely wrong.” (Sermon by Andrew Taylor-Troutman)
But however it can happen, it’s no fun. It would be no fun to be on a team that doesn’t play or work well together, fractured by competing personal agendas. It would be no fun to be in a church in tension between factions, such as between old guard and the new crowd, or whatever. It would be hard to get anything done. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news. God does some of God’s best work with flawed people and with flawed churches. As messed up as Corinth was, its legacy has become a source of inspiration for generations. Reading Paul’s letters to Corinth gives us hope: if God could be at work in them, then God can certainly be at work in us!
Paul appealed, pleaded, and asked pretty please that they be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (v. 10) Paul promised that God was at work to give them that mind and purpose. To have the same mind and purpose does not mean that everyone thinks exactly the same all the time. If there were no disagreement at all, no conflict at all in a church, then it would be one dead church. It would be a church in which “their friendship has become more important than their discipleship, and so disagreements are swept under the rug, and no conversations of any depth are allowed to happen.” (Julie Adkins)
The problem comes when a church is so engrossed in conflict that conflict is the main thing. That’s unhealthy. But it IS healthy for a church to be aware of differing views and to know that it has things to work out together. If a church has the confidence and trust to work through various issues for the sake of one overall overarching purpose – then that’s a healthy church. (By the way, I think this is where we are as a church.)
It is a healthy church when what unites it is more powerful than what would pull it apart. It is a healthy church when, as Paul pleaded, “there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (v. 10)
Andrew Taylor-Troutman described that kind of health:
True unity is not simply having the same thoughts or opinions. True unity is practicing our faith through loving one another.
The emphasis here is upon “being” a Christian. …it is much easier to defend one’s religion than it is to practice it; much easier so say who is not a member of our community, than to reach out to others in love, much easier to say, “I am a Christian” than to actually become like Christ.
REALLY GOOD NEWS
That’s good news. But I also have really good news: it is the power of Christ that makes possible that kind of unity in mind and purpose. In fact, it is only the power of Christ that can make it possible. Eloquent wisdom cannot. Our wits and our smooth ways certainly cannot; often they just trip us up. When unity does happen, it is by the power of Christ. It is a gift from God.
Here’s how that power comes upon us. You and I share the same story. We were all chained to the power of sin. We all had the same utter need for God’s grace. And it was the same power of mercy that set each of us free. You see? Our Christian unity rests on our shared story. It most certainly does NOT rest on our common opinions! Our unity rests only on what Jesus has done for us. True unity comes by God’s grace, by Christ’s love, by the Holy Spirit’s power on us. It is the Holy Spirit — God’s presence and power among us — that makes it possible for us to have the mind of Christ.
All of this Paul drove home when he said that for him the only one that mattered was the Messiah. Not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, not any earthly leader. It didn’t matter whether Paul collected a following for himself. It only mattered whether Paul collected a following for Jesus Christ.
- The bad news is that church people and churches have been flawed and fractured ever since the church began.
- The good news is that God does some of God’s best work with flawed and fractured folks, like Corinth and like us.
- And the really good news is that our unity doesn’t depend on how smart we are or how good we are. The unity of the church comes only and totally because of the power of God’s Holy Spirit working on us.
Now, all that bad news and good news and really good news poses some challenging questions to us:
When finding your place in church, where is your first loyalty? Are you loyal first to a certain worship style? Are you loyal first to being with certain friends? Are you loyal first to maintaining a beautiful experience in a beautiful place? Or is your first loyalty to nothing but Jesus Christ? If what makes church for you is something other than the Lord Jesus, then you have some work to do. Or more accurately, the Holy Spirit has some work to do with you.
Another challenging question: where are you proclaiming the good news? Paul pointed his Corinthians friends to this truth: all of their petty schisms, all of their personal preferences paled before the one thing — were they proclaiming the gospel, the power of the cross of Christ, the power of the whole story of Christ? So it is with us. It matters little whether we draw people into our favorite group or whether we make people become just like us. The only thing that matters is whether we are sharing our faith — sharing the story of Jesus with others.
- Douglas E. Murray