Christian Unity and the Cross

For many years I have heard the saying: if two people think the same way about everything, one of them is unnecessary. It is usually quoted in regard to marriage as a way of pointing up the enriching value of differing opinions between a husband and wife. And usually the possibility of total agreement is pictured as boring.

The Sweetness of Christian Unity

I think I first heard this saying when I was in high school 25 years ago. I can remember thinking that it was clever but wrong. I still think it's wrong. If total agreement between two persons makes one of them unnecessary, then God the Son is unnecessary to God the Father and the fellowship of the Trinity is boring. Not only that, if total agreement between persons is boring, then heaven will be boring, and my perfected fellowship with Christ will be boring, and the camaraderie of like-minded friends in this world is boring, and the sweetest moments of blended minds in marriage are boring.

But we know from Scripture and we know from experience that this is not so. Psalm 133 says,

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.

The point of that psalm is the preciousness and sweetness of harmony and oneness and like-mindedness in the fellowship of God.

And I know from experience that the sweetest and deepest moments of fellowship in my life are the hours of relishing some great vision together with people who have the same convictions about God and about the world. And the deeper the agreement, the deeper the joy and the power of those moments.

The burden of the message this morning concerns the goal of Christian unity and its relationship to the cross. The text is 1 Corinthians 1:10–17. What I would like to do is

  1. describe the nature of the disunity that Paul is dealing with here; then
  2. examine how he undermines the basis of that disunity and attempts to build a foundation for unity; and
  3. look at the goal of unity and see what the nature of it is.

1. Identifying the Nature of the Disunity

What is the nature of the disunity Paul faces?

It is described in verses 11–12.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ."

So evidently what is happening in the church at Corinth is that the people were beginning to polarize behind their favorite teacher. They isolated particular qualifications or strengths of their favorite teacher and began to brag about them. They elevated these characteristics to the point where they derived some sense of superiority from claiming this particular teacher as their own. We will see the evidence for this in just a moment.

But first ponder how relevant this is today. Let me mention just two ways that this kind of disunity plagues the church still.

Disunity Caused by Vicarious Ego-Boosting

There is the great danger of taking pride in knowing and being associated with important people. Most of us feel like nobodies in a world where the media are constantly holding up the desirability of being well known. So the way millions of people try to satisfy this desire is to line up behind someone who is somebody. Teenagers may put posters of him or her on their walls. We may read all their books. We may listen to their radio programs or watch their TV programs. We may go to their churches, take their classes, get on their mailing lists, and get so familiar with their teaching and their ways of doing things that we begin to idealize them and even absolutize them. The effect of this vicarious ego trip is that anyone who is not on the same bandwagon is generally looked down on, and the result is the emergence of factions and schisms and splits.

Disunity Caused by Anti-Authoritarian Cynicism

If that is a kind of derivative ego boost through someone else's importance, there is an opposite reaction that has the very same root of pride. There are those who are very defensive and reactionary about any kind of influence coming from a Christian leader. So if you've learned something helpful from a book or sermon or lecture or radio message (not at all absolutizing the source, just appreciating it), and you try to tell this kind of people about it, they will immediately impute to you some kind of hero worship or herd mentality. And they will feel the need to make it very clear that they do not believe everything that teacher says because they are more critical and independent and cautious than you are. And that too is destructive of unity.

And so there are two forms of pride in the church when it comes to Christian leadership—one wants to ride the coattail of a leader to a kind of vicarious glory; and the other is a kind of anti-authoritarian, suspicious, skeptical, often cynical attitude that wants to make clear to everybody that it is not part of the herd. Both tend to destroy the unity of the church.

So the nature of the disunity at Corinth is basically a kind of boasting or pride that expresses itself in playing off one teacher against another and getting strokes from having some kind of special relationship with the teacher they think is superior.

Now the real proof of this comes when we start to examine how Paul undermines the basis for this disunity. So let's turn to our second question.

2. Undermining Disunity and Building Unity

How does Paul undermine the basis of that disunity and attempt to build a foundation for unity?

He urges on the Corinthians six truths. We can state them both negatively and positively. Paul believes in the power of truth to change people—just like Jesus did: "Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth" (John 17:17). So let's look briefly at each of these truths and let them sink into our hearts and change us too.

2.1. Christ Is Not Divided; He Is One

Verse 13: "Is Christ divided?" The answer is obviously NO! Now why is this relevant to the issue of quarreling and schisms behind different leaders?

Two reasons:

One is that we are the body of Christ! 1 Corinthians 12:12 says, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." Christ's body is not dismembered. It is whole. If we try to puff ourselves up over the other members of the body it would be a contradiction of Christ. The body is one. The fingers on the right hand would be foolish to boast over the fingers on the left hand because their leader is the right wrist and not the left.

The other reason it's relevant to say that Christ is not divided is that when a believer has Christ, he has ALL of Christ. No one needs to feel inferior or superior if Christ is really your great treasure. Christ is not divided. If you have him, you have all of him. And to have all of Christ is to have everything you need to be happy forever and ever.

2.2. Believers Possess All Things

That leads to the second truth Paul mentions. I'm going to take them out of order because this second one is so closely related to the first. The truth is this: Believers possess all things, not just the distinctives of their favorite teacher.

Look at 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, "So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's."

You can see clearly here that Paul has never lost his concern in these three chapters with the boasting that was behind the divisions—"I am of Paul!" "I am of Apollos!" "I am of Cephas!" Now he brings out the folly of this boasting by saying: Why do you puff yourself up as though you had some special claim on one teacher when in Christ they are all yours along with all the world?

In other words, in trying to claim one teacher all for yourself, you are surrendering your claim on the entire universe. You are acting like people who do not know what the inheritance of the Christian is. Does a man who owns the city brag that he rents a condominium? Why should a man who owns the world boast that one farm is bigger than another farm?

So the second truth that undermines the basis of disunity is the truth that God has made all things the inheritance of his children, and they don't need to secure any little piece of turf with protective boasting.

2.3. Paul Wasn't Crucified for You; Christ Was

Now back to our text, verse 13. The third truth that will undermine the basis of disunity at Corinth (and Bethlehem!) is this: Paul was not crucified for you; Christ was. This what he means when he says, "Was Paul crucified for you?"

Paul is doing something very tactful here: he is zeroing in on the splinter group that made him their hero. Had he attacked the Apollos party first, he would have played right into the hands of the Paul group. So he tries right off the bat to destroy himself as a ground for boasting. "I was not crucified for you! Christ was! And Christ alone!"

This truth should have two effects on us.

One is that when it comes to boasting about someone, let it be the Lord and not a mere man. Verse 31: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." Compared to what Christ has done in dying for us, the distinctives of our different teachers are as nothing. To elevate a human teacher to the point where the allegiance shatters the body of Christ means that we have lost sight of the infinite and overwhelming worth of a crucified Savior. (See Matthew 23:8.)

And the other effect that this truth should have on us is to remind us that our sin is so great that we needed to be saved by nothing less than the horrid execution of the Son of God, and so did our teachers! To boast in a man, to puff him up and to puff ourselves up on his coattail, means that we have forgotten the dreadful condition we are all in without a crucified Savior. The cross breaks the back of all boasting. And so the cross undermines the deepest basis of disunity and lays a new foundation for unity.

2.4. You Were Baptized into Christ's Name

The fourth truth that Paul gives to undermine the disunity of the believers is this: You were not baptized into my name; you were baptized into Christ's name. Again verse 13: "Were you baptized into the name of Paul?" Answer: NO! You were baptized into the name of Christ!

Evidently, one of the boasts of the Paul party was that they had been among the first converts who had actually come to Christ under Paul's preaching. Paul reminds them that he baptized only Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanus and maybe a few others. But he says (v. 14) he is glad he did not baptize more.

In other words, it's no big deal who baptizes you. The issue is what name was solemnly and prayerfully pronounced over you as you were baptized. Did you identify with Christ at that moment or did you identify with a preacher? You contradict the meaning of your baptism when you brag about the man who put you under the water. He is nothing compared to Christ. And not only that, but the very meaning of baptism was death to self and life to God! What a travesty, then, to make baptism a means of asserting that old self of pride and boasting!

2.5. True Gospel Teachers Do Not Rely on Eloquence

The fifth truth that undermines disunity is this: true teachers of the gospel do not try to win converts or party members by preaching with flourishes of eloquence. This is the meaning of verse 17: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."

For the first time Paul is taking aim at the Apollos party. It says in Acts 18:24, "Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures." And in verse 27 it says that he went from Ephesus to Achaiah, which is where Corinth is.

Without too much speculation we can conclude that the two main parties in Corinth were the Paul party and the Apollos party. The Paul party was saying their man was there first, he founded the church, and he did some amazing signs. The Apollos party was saying that their man was more eloquent and had been building with wonderful wisdom.

Paul responds in verse 1:17 by saying that eloquence can nullify the cross. You can attract so much attention to yourself and your abilities that the offense of the cross is lost. The cross is not where people shine but where people die!

Paul also responds to the issue of eloquent wisdom and miraculous signs in verses 23–24, "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." In other words, some people are enamored by the oratorical strengths of Apollos. Some people are enamored by the miraculous signs of an apostle that I have worked. But the truly born again are not focused on either. They see beyond man to the power and wisdom of God.

We would not be nearly so prone to disunity and disharmony if we cared less for the accidentals of leadership (like oratorical skills and the working of signs and wonders) and instead looked through a preacher to whether there is a spirit of crucifixion to self and a genuine exaltation of Christ.

2.6. God Should Get All the Glory, Not Man

The last truth that undermines disunity is a confirmation of what we have just seen about Paul and Apollos being the two big wheels at Corinth. Look at 1 Corinthians 3:4–7,

For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely men? [note! only Paul and Apollos are mentioned here! now verse 5:] What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

So here is the last truth that undermines the Corinthian boast in their human teachers: God should get the glory for the results of all ministerial labor, not man.

Do you see this in two phrases, one in verse 5 and the other in verse 7? In verse 5 he says, "We are servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned [literally: gave] to each [not: gave tasks or opportunity]." The power to believe the gospel and be saved came THROUGH a man, but it was given to each by the Lord. The Lord gets the glory for the faith of the saints, not a preacher.

And in verse 7 it is even clearer. "So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." The meaning here is the same as verse 5: the new life of a believer comes through one who plants and one who waters, but the miracle of life is not the work of a man, and no man should get the glory for it. It is the work of a sovereign God who alone can create a new the new heart of faith.

So the final truth that undermines the disunity of the church is the truth of the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners.


Now that leaves one last question that I wanted to ask this morning, namely, what then is the nature of the unity that Paul wants to put in the place of this disunity that he has so wonderfully undermined? But there is no time to answer that this morning. We will answer it tonight and move on into verses 18–25 and talk about "The Foolishness and Weakness of God."

Let me close by summarizing what we saw this morning.

The nature of the disunity was rooted in pride. This pride expressed itself in lining up behind favorite Christian leaders and boasting about their superiorities. The result was quarreling and schisms in the church.

The way Paul attacked this problem was to teach Christian doctrine—Christian truths—and to apply them to the Corinthian situation. Namely,

  • Christ is not divided; he is one.
  • Believers possess all things in him, not just the little distinctives of their favorite teacher.
  • No teacher was crucified for you; Christ was.
  • You were not baptized into a preacher's name; you were baptized into Christ's name.
  • True teachers of the gospel don't try to win converts or party members by preaching with self-enhancing flourishes of eloquence; they die to themselves in preaching Christ crucified.
  • God is the one who produces all spiritual fruit and should get the glory for the results, not man.