Anyone who’s taken a casual glance at the history of the
Christian church knows that it’s complex and fraught with conflict. Even in
Paul’s day, there was misunderstanding and division. Something like our modern understanding of denominations had already sprouted up as various churches and groups pronounced their dedication to specific teachers or leaders in the faith.
They’d barely gotten started and Paul must warn against disunity, citing their own words:
…One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12 NIV)
These were godly men to follow, certainly; bastions of the burgeoning faith. Luke speaks highly of Apollos, calling him “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24-28), and you might know Cephas better as Peter. What’s wrong with following Peter? Paul?
Paul’s call for unity is an appeal to exalt only the name of Jesus Christ, while, instead, some were gathering around an authoritative figure, a teacher, whom they placed on the same plane as Christ (see 1 Corinthians 1:12). The Corinthians, by exalting the names of men, had stirred up division among themselves. Paul wasn’t calling them to ignore his teaching, which did occasionally come into conflict with others; but these men were just men (see 1 Corinthians 3:4-8). He wanted them to follow the teaching of Paul or Peter (or Aquinas or Luther or Calvin, etc.) only as it came through the teaching of Christ.
But if there are different understandings of Jesus’ teachings, what Paul is asking for seems highly unlikely, doesn’t it?
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV).
And, lest you think there’s any room for interpretation, the Greek word Paul uses here, which every major English-language Bible version translates as “mind,” is nous, which can be used to mean disposition, resolve, understanding, insight, and reason. “In [Greek] philosophy and religion, nous came to mean reason or mind as the organ of thought that comprehends the world and human existence. It perceives, orders, and controls everything” (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). Which is to say that when Paul exhorts believers to be “united in the same mind,” he means unity of the complete person with the complete persons of other believers.
I confess, my first feeling upon reading this is incredulity. How can we be in unity with Christians who think so differently from us in important aspects of life or even in what we consider essential doctrine (some of whom may even be members of our own church)? In this sense, harmony sounds a lot like retreat from some of the beliefs and decisions I consider essential to my faith in Christ. And, anyway, didn’t Paul himself “oppose [Peter] to his face” (Galatians 2:11–13) when he felt his brother apostle to be acting hypocritically? But I notice that Paul’s disagreement with Peter here is a striving toward unity, whereas Peter’s action formed a separation.
The unity that Paul is talking about is the kind of unity that demands a complete dependence on Christ. What Paul’s doing here is calling upon believers another reason for total obedience to the only one worthy of our devotion. Only through Christ, in whom no disunity can be found (1 Corinthians 1:13), can we partake in that same unity. Just as Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, required that we “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect,” so does Paul appear to require of Christians the impossible. “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”” (Matthew 19:26).
These are not empty words. Even as I write this, my faith is severely challenged by what I’m putting down. After all, we see little but disunity these days. But it’s faith that precedes obedience, just as obedience precedes understanding in the Christian’s life. With God, unity is possible among believers, among churches, around the world. Obedience and faith in Christ are necessary. No less than complete obedience, in fact: a full offering of our full nous to him. That’s what underlies Paul’s appeal in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. To those who say, “I follow Christ,” do we seek daily understanding of what that means? Do we elevate that above all other fealties?
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