Near the end of his second missionary journey, Paul carried the gospel to Corinth. The results were remarkable. "Many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized" (Acts 18.8). To encourage the fearful preacher the Lord told him, "I have much people in this city" (v.10). These baptised believers were gathered together as "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor 1.2), and from the standpoint of participation in the gatherings, their contribution was outstanding: "ye come behind in no gift" (v.7). In other respects, they left much to be desired, and throughout his two letters to them Paul highlighted deficiencies, and at times spoke of things that were "among" them that disturbed him. Without being exhaustive, these articles will pursue the recurring phrase "among you", and while the series will in no way encompass the teaching of the two epistles, it will give a flavour of what Paul communicated to these believers.
Divisions and Contentions
The first epistle has hardly commenced when Paul raises as a major concern the fact that there were "contentions" among them (1 Cor 1.11), hence his appeal that they all "speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you" (v.10). The strife did not stem from huge doctrinal issues as at Galatia where they were biting and devouring one another (Gal 5.15). The unrest was not the result of a fall-out between two sisters as at Philippi where they had to be exhorted to "be of the same mind in the Lord" (Phil 4.2). The problem was that of personalities; they were preoccupied with prominent men who were well known among the assemblies. The men themselves did not crave hero-worship, but their followers were vying with the other factions. The whole situation left everyone nervous and constantly on-guard, creating an atmosphere of tension that was spiritually debilitating. Located as they were in a heathen environment, this unhappy situation left assembly testimony perilously ineffective, for it is a principle that a "house divided against itself shall not stand" (Mt 12.25). There is a hint that the spirit of partisanship that prompted them to say, "I am of Paul etc." extended to their attitude to local brothers as well, creating unhealthy rivalry among them (4.6-7).
Obviously, "speak[ing] the same thing" and being "perfectly joined together in the same mind" does not extend to compromising with sin, or accommodating worldliness or tolerating carnality, but Paul's appeal should sound the death knell to petty jealousies and jockeying for position. The Lord's work demands the co-operation of every assembly member. It took four men working together to bring the palsied man to the Saviour. It required the involvement of partners in the other ship to allow Peter to land the miraculous draft of fish (Lk 5.1-11). Let the squabbles and in-fighting and unpleasantness be assigned to the dustbin of history so that a united front can be presented to the world in effective gospel endeavour.
The House of Chloe
News of the commotion at Corinth had been communicated to Paul by "them which are of the house of Chloe" (1.11). We know nothing about this sister and her household, but undoubtedly the information conveyed was not passed on as idle chatter. "The words of a talebearer are as wounds" (Prov 18.8); malicious talk is damaging. Deep concern motivated them to enlighten Paul about the true state of things, and it is very significant that when he confronted the issue he did not act like a modern journalist who feels bound to protect his "sources". Paul named his informants, establishing a principle that when issues have to be exposed it is never sufficient just to say, "I heard that…" or, "They say that…". Who are the "they"? Even men of the world know that their slanders carry more weight if a name can be put to them; Sanballat's letter to Nehemiah (Neh 6.6) opened with this, "It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it…", whoever Gashmu was! So then, when news of some unhappy incident or circumstance reaches your ears, be sure to elicit the source and check the details; your honest enquiry could prove to be a huge disincentive to mischievous talk.
Envying, and Strife and Divisions
The list of the evils "among them" described in ch.1 as "divisions" and "contentions" is augmented in ch.3. "There is among you envying, and strife, and divisions" (v.3). The word "envying" describes an attitude of mind. From this Greek word we get our English word "zeal", and on occasions it is translated like that in a positive way. Here, the concept is that of an unwholesome desire to outdo other people, to match their status, to outstrip their gift, to equal their popularity. This evil gnaws at our spiritual vitals, saps our power, and embitters our hearts. Inevitably, it bubbles to the surface and gives way to "strife", a word that carries the idea of quarrelling and wrangling. Things degenerate into a "slanging match" with harsh accusations, cutting words, and sarcastic comments; the outcome of all that is "divisions", and it all started in the heart! Scripture cautions us, "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov 4.23). When we harbour malevolent feelings it can result in the whole assembly being fractured.
This domino effect is illustrated in David's experience after the death of Absalom. The ten tribes resented the tribe of Judah commandeering the reinstated monarch; that was envy. Now the strife; they complained of being despised and ignored in the consultation process, and their heated words were more than reciprocated by Judah, for "the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel". Finally division came and, stung by the insults, they "followed Sheba the son of Bichri" (2 Sam 19.40–20.2). Let us be guarded lest our hearts should be the source of the knock-on effects of bitter envy.
The envy, strife and divisions at Corinth stemmed from the fact that their spiritual growth was stunted. They were carnal (3.1), that is, to some degree their behaviour was influenced by the flesh, the sinful nature that is still an integral part of our make-up and is "contrary" to the Spirit of God who resides within us (Gal 5.17). Their volatility and partisanship were a consequence of allowing the flesh to mould their thinking and behaviour. They were still "babes in Christ"; true, they were "in Christ", but they had never developed. Later chapters leave the impression that they had a high opinion of themselves, perhaps regarding themselves as giants! In reality, spiritually, they were undersize and had the mind-set of a child. Even at play, children are notoriously awkward and quarrelsome (Mt 11.16-17). That was how it was at Corinth. They were childishly intolerant of each other, behaving as men of the world act (3.3). If a brother had a preference for the silver-tongued oratory of Apollos, Paul's sympathisers would have laughed him out of court. If some expressed even a modicum of admiration for the little legal touch that clung to Cephas, those who championed Apollos would have despised them, and so it went on, and the assembly was in danger of meltdown.
The major lesson from these early chapters is that God takes great issue with smouldering discontent and outbursts of animosity among His people, so if we resemble Ishmael, and our "hand (is) against every man" (Gen 16.12), we can be sure of divine disapproval. That is the general lesson. Keeping to the context, Paul does address the specific cause of the problem at Corinth - their excessive regard for the preachers. He encourages a proper appraisal of these servants of God. Both Paul and Apollos had been instrumental in seeing souls saved at Corinth, they were "ministers by whom (they) believed", but it was "as the Lord gave to every man" (3.5). Paul was saying to the Corinthians, "No credit to us, this was God at work". As to their work among believers, Paul did have the privilege of planting the assembly and Apollos brought a ministry of refreshment to the saints by watering God's field, but it was God who gave the increase (3.6). If there was any spiritual or numerical growth it was because He was active; again, no glory for the preachers.
Another major point that he made was that the servants themselves were not at variance. Their so-called followers may have been attempting to create competition, but "he that planteth and he that watereth are one" (3.8); their activity was complementary. Never be guilty of fomenting rivalry between God's servants. There were some who tried to drive a wedge between John Baptist and the Lord Jesus, but it gave rise to John's statement of loyalty: "He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3.23-30). "Let us walk honestly…not in strife and envying" (Rom 13.13).
To be continued.