Problems in the Church Today
1 Corinthians 1—4
Wouldn’t it be marvelous to belong to a church where everything ran smoothly? If all the items of business were passed by unanimous vote, business meetings would become a pleasure rather than the long, boring meetings, full of meaningless discussion, to which most of us are accustomed. Unity would pervade the local assemblies of God’s people.
Unfortunately, that is not usually the case. Church members come from different backgrounds and have different life-styles. Some people view life theoretically, while others are very practical in nature.
While the education and training of church members are varied, Paul was addressing very different problems in 1 Corinthians, problems that were far more serious than differences of personality or background.
The Church at Corinth
A Believing Church
A cursory examination of the church at Corinth might lead one to think the Corinthians were not believers at all. However, Paul set the record straight by declaring that they were true believers in Christ. In the introduction to the epistle to this problem-laden church, he said,
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, both theirs and ours…I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ, That in everything ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge, Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you…God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:2, 4-6, 9).
Paul referred to the Corinthians as “brethren” (1 Cor. 1:11; 2:1), stated that they were “in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:30), and declared, “in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15b). They were his spiritual offspring.
Regardless of the sorry condition of their lives and the divisions which abounded in their assembly, it was obvious that Paul was addressing Christians at Corinth. They had trusted the Lord and were part of the body of Christ. Paul gave thanks to God for the dear people of this church which he had established and to whom he had given so much time (1 Cor. 1:4-9).
A Divided Church
At the conclusion of a successful three-year ministry in Ephesus, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:5-8). Word had reached him from the house of Chloe that there were contentions among the people in the church. This fact, combined with the knowledge of other disturbing matters, troubled Paul and caused him to pen the 16 chapters of 1 Corinthians. He sought to resolve the problems which had developed in the church during his absence.
Before he could deal with the problems, however, Paul had to first establish his authority. The Corinthians would not listen to just anyone. Paul was an apostle (1 Cor. 1:1), and as such, he had the right to deal with their problems. Furthermore, he was not an outsider; he had established the ministry at Corinth and had spent approximately 18 months there. He had far more than a passing interest in the situation which had developed in the church.
Paul clearly understood the problem, as well as the extent of it. There was outright division. Some in the church claimed to follow Paul, while others declared themselves to be followers of Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Cor. 1:12). Arguments must have abounded as the people sought to prove that the leader they followed was the best.
In dealing with the problems of division and contention, Paul touched on the subject of worldly wisdom at the outset of his letter. He stated that man’s wisdom, which controlled the thought processes of the Greek mind, was not the solution to man’s needs. He succinctly pointed out that although the Greeks sought wisdom and the Jews a sign (1 Cor. 1:22), the truth of the gospel was not to be found in wisdom or signs but, rather, in the message of a crucified Christ.
God did not choose man’s wisdom or sign miracles to present His truth. Instead, He chose that which the world considered weak and despicable. God’s simple message could confound the mightiest of philosophers. The purpose of God’s message was to show that nothing of the flesh will “glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Paul stated, “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption; That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
Although the apostle laid down magnificent principles, he was still dealing with the basic problem of divisions in the church. He clearly demonstrated to the recipients of this epistle that they could not put their faith in man, his wisdom, or his deeds.
The solution for a divided church is to forget man’s opinions and rest in the truth of the Word of God. To prove this point, Paul reminded the believers at Corinth of his manner when he came to them (1 Cor. 2:1). He did not exhibit a contentious spirit, nor did he present himself as an orator or a wise man. “For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
He did not come with the eloquence of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4-6). However, he made it clear that the message of Christ was not without wisdom. Paul clearly stated that had the world understood the message of Christ, they would not have crucified Him (1 Cor. 2:8). Paul never devoted himself to rhetoric or oratory. Although he was schooled in Greek philosophy and literature, his message was in the power of the Holy Spirit, which is infinitely superior to the foolish wisdom of unregenerate man. Paul did not confront the Corinthians with a decadent philosophy that for centuries had been and still is, searching for truth. His message, although simple, is not bound by time. It is eternal; it is truth.
Paul then struck at the very heart of the problem of divisions and contentions in the Corinthian church. He stated that men should not follow other men. The wisdom of man divides, whether it be the wisdom to Cephas, Apollos, or even himself. It is the wisdom of the Spirit of God that counts. Furthermore, Paul stated that the unsaved man cannot grasp spiritual things: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor, 2:14).
A Carnal Church
In chapter three, Paul seriously challenged the believers at Corinth. Their background in secular philosophy led them to follow what this man or that man had to say, and they were doing this because they were carnal. They were operating in the flesh. He said,
And, I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ…For ye are yet carnal; for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? (1 Cor. 3:1, 3-4).
The root of division is carnality. It does not matter if believers, through carnality, follow a man because of his personality, or unbelievers, through carnality, follow the wisdom of this world – carnality is wrong.
Unbelievers always follow someone else. If you don’t believe this, observe the habits of our youth. Some “star” dresses in a certain manner, and soon millions of young people begin to wear that style of clothing. Unbelievers will follow a Jim Jones to their death, or the strange teachings of a Moon or a guru which lead to eternal spiritual death.
The same pattern is often followed in churches today. Some of God’s people tend to follow certain Christian leaders, whether they are good or bad. Following man will always lead to division and contention. It is a sign of carnality and spiritual immaturity.
Paul then returned to the premise he put forth early in the epistle: The Corinthians were following men.
Who, then, is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So, then, neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one; and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are laborers together with God. (1 Cor. 3:5-9a).
The carnality of the Corinthians made them look to man. They were following creatures rather than the Creator. They had set these men up as their idols, and in their carnal state, they looked to the errand boys of God rather than to the Lord himself.
Again, lest we be hard on the Corinthian believers, don’t we often do the same thing? Certainly God has given the church many faithful men to expound the Word of God, but we should never forget that they are only men. We should keep our eyes on the Lord rather than on His servants.
Paul went on to point out that he had laid the foundation at Corinth, which was the Lord Jesus Christ. Other men had followed him, building the superstructure. But it is only as man builds that superstructure properly – in the power of the Spirit of God – that it counts for eternity. The beloved apostle concluded this point by stating, “Therefore, let no man glory in men” (1 Cor. 3:21a). We should not be involved in the work of God to receive the praise of men or to have people idolize some mere servant of God. If the Church of God performs the work of God properly, it will not succumb to the glorification of a leader but will bring praise and glory to God alone.
To finalize his position on divisions and contentions in the church at Corinth, Paul defined the responsibilities of apostleship.
Apostleship Required Stewardship
An apostle is a steward; and the apostles, or stewards, were to be faithful to the message the Lord had given them. All of their actions were to be of God, who would be the Judge of all they did. This argument destroyed the possibility of any man claiming to follow the apostles. Paul summarized his argument as follows: “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes, that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6). None of these leaders was better than another. They were all gifted men of God used to develop His ministry in Corinth, and Paul warned the people not to be puffed up, through carnality, by following one or another.
Apostleship Required Servanthood
It is difficult to be a true servant of the Lord. It requires having the attitude of Christ (Mk. 10:45; Phil. 2:7). Many times, God’s people are proud. We do not exhibit the attitude and actions of a servant. We like the limelight, the glory, the power, and the prestige of being a popular Christian. We would rather leave the suffering for others – perhaps those in some foreign land.
Paul summed up his teaching on apostleship by stating,
For I think that God hath set forth us, the apostles, last, as it were appointed to death; for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; And labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure it; Being defamed, we entreat; we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you for though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore, I beseech you, be ye followers of me (1 Cor. 4:9-16).
The first problem Paul dealt with in this marvelous epistle to the Corinthian church was division. The reason for the division was the carnality which had lifted its ugly head among God’s people.
The solution was quite simple. First, the Corinthians had to realize who they were: They were part of a body built on the foundation of Christ. Second, they had to realize that the men they tried to exalt were only errand boys for the Lord. Third, they were not to be puffed up but were to have the attitude of a servant.
What great lessons we can learn from this problem of carnality and its outworking in Corinth. We must set aside the personalities of men and the bickerings between believers and look to our living Lord. Divisions and contentions will fade when we place our eyes on Christ rather than on man.