PORT CITIES HAVE LONG BEEN vital to commerce, both in the ancient world and up to our own day. Founded in c. 700 bc, Corinth was the principal port connecting the Greek mainland, the Peloponnesian peninsula and Italy. It was especially important in St Paul’s day as the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. There was a sizeable community of Jews in the city and St Paul spent eighteen months there organizing a Church (ad 49-51).
Coming from Athens to Corinth, we are told, Paul “…found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:2-4).
A few years after Paul left the city he received word from “people in Chloe’s household” (1 Corinthians 1:11) that the Christian community was becoming increasingly fragmented. Paul writes this epistle to address this problem.
The Issue of Leadership
There were several reasons for these divisions; at the beginning of St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians he discusses the question of rival allegiances: “…each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). This does not mean that the leaders named were responsible for the divisions, but that members of these factions were using the names of Paul or the others named to justify their divisive actions.
Commentators have suggested that the “Cephas party” may have consisted of converted Jews who continued to observe Jewish practices such as the Sabbath, circumcision and the dietary laws.
Apollos was an apparently powerful preacher who had come to Ephesus (probably in ad 52 or 53), where he was described as “a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, [who] … had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 18:24-28).
Apollos had apparently come to Corinth after St Paul had left and built on Paul’s work. As the Apostle himself described it, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). There is no evidence that Apollos himself led the faction which claimed his name.
St Paul was particularly upset that people were claiming Christ as inspiring one of these factions, in fact reducing His place to that of a sectarian leader: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Corinthians 1:12). There is no Church without Christ so, as St John Chrysostom observed, “The quarreling at Corinth was not over trivial matters, but over something fundamental. Even those who said they were ‘of Christ’ were at fault, because they were implicitly denying this to others and making Christ the head of a faction rather than the head of the whole Church” (Hom. on the Corinthians, 3.5).
Because of his experience with Christ on the road to Damascus, St Paul saw the unity of believer with the Lord as more than that of teacher and pupil. He viewed it as an organic relationship. When Christ told Paul, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5), the Lord made it clear that Christ’s people are one with their Lord. St Paul would express this in imagery of the whole body – Christ the Head and we the members (see 1 Corinthians 12:12 ff.).
“In the same mind”
St Paul saw the unity of the Church as encompassing a two-fold dynamic: unity of mind and heart. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The Church has understood oneness of mind to mean agreement in belief. Within a few years this led to the formation of creeds and the canon of Scripture as indicators of the unity of mind expected of believers.
The Greek word gnomi, translated above as judgment, has the connotation of considered purpose or will. Later Fathers would speak of the mind and the heart in describing the interaction of thought and will. Paul’s paring of mind and judgment is similar. While mind suggests the truth of a concept, judgment indicates a considered action connected to the concept.
We find a similar paring in our Divine Liturgy. The deacon introduces the creed, saying, “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess…” Here the creedal concepts in the mind must be joined to the considered action of love for our expression of belief to represent a true unity of purpose.
Parallels in Our Church Life Today
Sad to say, it is not unusual for similar divisions to arise today in our Church life. People may be attached to one parish priest over another –”I am of Father X” vs. “I am of Father Y.” Some people might leave the parish when Father X does, despite his urgings to the contrary. Even sadder, Father X may encourage this kind of behavior by criticizing Father Y.
The same thing happens when people attach themselves to a certain elder or theologian in contrast to another. The proliferation of blogs by devotees of Elder X or Professor Y encourages some people to surf for what one writer has called “scandal porn” – the latest dirt on a certain elder or theological school of thought. As one writer has noted, “It is so much more in our carnal nature to curse rather than to bless; to tear down rather than to build up; to discourage rather than exhibit the spiritual gift of encouragement and exhortation.”
When tempted to go along with this kind of “Corinthianism,” we would do well to listen to St Paul’s advice to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).