Paul and Christian Differences in 1 Corinthians

The current series of epistle readings in the Revised Common Lectionary emphasize the importance of unity within the Christian church. The readings are drawn from the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. It doesn’t matter, Paul says, which Christian leader you and your associates identify with or what kind of label you apply to yourselves. It doesn’t even matter whether you were born a Jew or a Gentile. What matters is the truth of the Gospel as Paul preached it. Divisions along party or ethnic lines reveal, at best, an immature understanding of the Christian faith. In effect, these divisions deny the truth and power of Christ’s work on the cross.

If you read the entire letter, however, you will not find Paul advocating “think and let think” Christianity or unity at any price. In the chapters that follow, Paul addresses a number of issues that divided the church at Corinth. Paul’s response to differences in belief and practice range from “that’s a great thing to celebrate” to “how horrible that you would even consider this.” It all depends on the matter under consideration.

In broad strokes, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians falls into one of six categories.

  1. Some differences enrich the Church.
    • Gifts of the Spirit, when properly understood (1 Corinthians 12-13).
  2. Some differences are ultimately insignificant; living faith and faithful living are what matter.
    • Ecclesiastical identity markers, when set next to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church (1 Corinthians 1-4).
    • Marital status, whether married or single (1 Corinthians 7).
  3. Some differences reveal the human tendency to elevate self-interest over the consensus, unity and well-being of the body; Christians should follow their Lord’s example of sacrificial love in their relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
    • Lawsuits against fellow Christians (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
    • Head coverings in worship (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
    • Communion practices (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).
    • Glossolalia (or speaking in tongues), as practiced by some (1 Corinthians 14).
  4. Some differences are fraught with spiritual risk, both to the body of of believers and to one’s own salvation; proceed only with great humility, caution and discernment.
    • Public consumption of meat related to temple sacrifices (1 Corinthians 8-10).
  5. Some differences are grave spiritual errors, leading to gross sins incompatible with the Christian faith, deadly and intolerable in the community of believers; do not remain united to those who teach and practice these things.
    • Some sexual practices (with a passing nod at the sins of greed, theft, swindling, carousing and what John Wesley called “evil speaking”) (1 Corinthians 5, 6:9-20).
  6. Some differences deny the very truth of the Gospel.
    • The resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15).

When it mattered to him, Paul could be quite contentious. He sought unity within the church but never at the expense of matters he believed cut to the heart of the Gospel.