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1 Corinthians 1:10-18

On the eve of yet another presidential election, the lectionary text that confronts us carries a poetic irony. In Corinthians1:10-18, Paul is attempting to counsel a community that, much like our own today, is trying to navigate political schisms and quarrels amongst its members regarding which figurehead was the most authoritative or best suited to be the leader of the Corinthian Church.

Much of this conflict within the church can be traced to the social, political, and religious dynamics of Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing (53-54 CE).[1] There was no particular event per se that caused this climate—there certainty wasn’t an 18-month election cycle which riled everyone up. Rather, many different factors made the city a breeding ground for tumultuous episodes. Corinth was once a Greek state, but had been conquered and destroyed by Rome, and then rebuilt as a Roman Colony in 44 B.C.E..[2] One of Rome’s strategies when conquering other nations was to free the slaves of the states they had sacked, and offer them citizenship within the Roman empire. In exchange for their freedom, the former slaves would acquiesce to Roman law and order and occupy territory for Rome, but were allowed to persist in their cultural and religious norms so long as they did not upset Roman sentimentalities. Hence, because the Greeks bought and traded slaves all over the Mediterranean region, Corinth consisted mostly of Jewish, Syrian, Greek, and Egyptian freed men at the time of Paul’s writing, and boasted a multiplicity of laws, political structures, cultural customs, and religions.[3] Despite this plethora of ethnicity and culture however, the Greco-Roman values of honor, wealth, and power remained the defining measurements of social status within the colony, and the dominant religious system was that of the Roman Imperial Cult.[4] Such realities made Corinth a dog-eat-dog city; the political-economy and the religious dynamics made the city one of perpetual competition.

The Corinthian Church was a microcosm of the city itself, and, thus, it is unsurprising that there was some issue as to who was more dominant in church hierarchy: Paul, the planter of the church; or, Apollos, the waterer and developer of the Corinthian community. This quarrel, however, at least in Paul’s view, belied that the Corinthians had lost sight of the gospel message that he had first preached to them. It showed that they were still living by the measure of Rome, which, in many ways, stood diametrically opposed to Christ’s message. This is why at the heart of this text lies a single question. Paul asks the Corinthian church, “to whom do you belong?” The correct answer according to Paul is “Christ” or “God,” and if one were to answer otherwise—e.g., “Paul” or “Apollos”— it may be because they are letting some other force or worldview govern their actions and life before God.

Of course, the members of the Corinthian Church have been claiming that they served Apollo and Paul, and hence Paul, aware of this, is subtly saying that the Corinthian’s division may be an indicative of idolatrous belief. Although Paul has yet to call the church the body of Christ he expatiates this idolatry vs. unity in Christ theme through his rhetorical inquiry of “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13). In fact, through this oratorical device, Paul makes two important moves.[5] First he conveys to the community that their divisiveness, as a possible sign of idolatrous belief, is ripping the body of Christ into pieces. And, second, he is implicitly asking how to resolve this predicament. He answers his tacit question himself, arguing that the only way to re-member the body of Christ when it is so divided is through remembering our baptism (1:17). For in baptism, one becomes God’s, as part of God’s body or church, through Christ’s resurrected body. By remembering our baptism—i.e., our death to one reality and inauguration into another—we remember that we, in truth, belong to God.

Thus, what really unites us in Christ is the death and resurrection that we experience with Christ in our baptism. The source of all of this is Christ’s and God’s death on a cross, which looks like foolishness to the Romans and their value system (1:18). Paul emphasizes this foolishness in this text in order to combat the social norms the Corinthians have been conditioned to believe ultimate. He juxtaposes the cross against the “eloquent wisdom” in effect, saying, “remember everything you built your life around? Those Greco-Roman values of honor, wealth, and power? Forget all of that.” In Paul’s view, a divided church is one which has yet to die completely to the dominant values that surround them, and, subsequently, remain unable to embrace the radical reality ushered in by Christ.

Today, as a body of believers united in Christ through baptism we must remember that we belong to Christ, not a political faction or figurehead weighed by the norms of the world. However, perhaps what is needed most in our day is not another nebulous Christian blog post about “getting along with one another despite our differences.” I want to be crystal clear here: the gospel has and never will be about getting along with one another. “Getting along” and unity in Christ are two very different things, which Paul makes apparent in this text. The Corinthian church is divided because they still have not freed themselves from the shackles of Roman values and standards, not because they are disagreeing regarding the best way to live out Christian life together. The gospel, in other words, is not about docile consensus, it’s about the radical good news that God in Christ has freed us all from what society demands we be; it’s about figuring out how to live together as a community in light of that life-altering message; and it is about spreading that good news to others. No matter what political party they belong to, what their sexual preference or gender identity is, their legal status, or what race or ethnicity they claim, they too are irreducibly integral to the beautiful unity of difference which can happen in Christ.

Yet, unity in Christ also means that certain things are non-negotiable. For instance, we are to condemn as Christ did the oppression of the poor for profit, or for sustaining a middle-class lifestyle; we are to speak out against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and patriarchal violence and the abuse of the vulnerable. Being united in these instances means fighting and struggling against injustice alongside the poor and deportable—just as Christ did long ago. When Paul wrote to the unstable Corinthian community, they were trying to play by the same rules and operate under the same values as the rest of the world. Values that pardoned the exploitation of the poor, discrimination, hierarchical violence, and systematic oppression of people who were different. In contrast to these divisive values, Paul writes, we are to be united in the foolishness of the cross—that same foolishness Jesus embraced each day on earth as he sat with the poor and ate with the despised of society.

​ [1] Paul Sampley, “The First Letter of Paul to The Corinthians.” Introduction. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville, TN: Abingdon 2003), 2035 [2] Richard Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997), 3 [3] Hays, 3. [4] Victor Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge UP, 1999), 2 [5] Paul J Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 10 (Nashville TN, Abingdon, 2003), 808