This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
Relevance in This Cultural Moment
The unity of the church is one of the most striking and transformative characteristics she has to offer the world. Unity is demonstrated most tangibly in love. Jesus said it this way in John 13 as he washed the feet of his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35).
It would be easy for me to describe the cultural moment I write this piece within as a crisis point for Christian unity. It is. But history has revealed that every age is a crisis point, manifested in unique ways in different places and ages. In fact, the letter of 1 Corinthians was written primarily because of a crisis of unity in the first century church of Corinth. There were particular issues of discipleship, belief, and ethics that Paul addressed in this letter, but it all boiled down to the chaos of disunity among the believers. The principles found in this book are timeless, regardless of culture, technology, and specific situations. Therefore, this book is quite worthy of our examination and obedience.
Disunity into Unity
The melodic line, or main idea, of a book is the first target of study (when possible). How a book begins and ends, as well as repeated themes in the body of the book, are often means of ascertaining this melodic line (1 Cor 1:10–17; 1 Cor. 5–15). One finds the problem of disunity at the beginning of the letter. Then, in the body of the letter, where Paul takes up several ethical issues the church is dealing with, disunity is the common thread again. The letter concludes with a very comprehensive unpacking of the truth of the resurrection, which at first blush does not seem directly tied to church unity, until you begin to see through the layers a bit and realize that the resurrection is not merely a doctrine to be believed for belief-sake but the very picture of unity with God, unity with our true body, and unity with the church in the eternal state (1 Cor. 15). Resurrection provides both a basis for unity and a hope that gives perspective and impetus to seek unity among the brethren. Unity is the purpose of 1 Corinthians.
Rooted in Love
How is Christian unity revealed? Put another way, what is the flesh and blood of union with other believers? Paul roots his theology of unity in love. First Corinthians 13 is often thought of as a sentimental, Hallmark comment on love. It is frequently used as a wedding text. First Corinthians 13 might be a good wedding text, indeed, but perhaps for unconventional reasons. On either side of 1 Corinthians 13 are passages about gathered worship and spiritual gifts. Ironically, the Corinthians are using their evident giftedness to compete, compare, and disorganize their worship gatherings. Certain gifts, like tongues, healing, and prophesy, were being elevated above other supposedly more menial gifts (1 Cor. 12, 14). The outcome is clear: disunity and disorder were abounding in worship, the very opposite worship ethos the Lord had designed for his people. God has purposed Christian worship to be clear, truly powerful, and done in loving unity.
First Corinthians 13 unfolds the grandeur of love, not as a sentimental paean, but rather a rebuke! In all their giftedness and ability with the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit, the Corinthians were missing the main point–love. Therefore, Paul contrasts love with the immaturity and superficiality of the Corinthian mindset, and then he goes on to positively describe love in 1 Corinthians 13. The love that the apostle describes is sacrificial, hard-won, costly, and cruciform. The love of the gospel is the main ingredient that is lacking in the Corinthian church, and it is the root system of Christian unity.
God has purposed Christian worship to be clear, truly powerful, and done in loving unity.
Empowered in Proclamation of the Gospel
Back to the opening of the letter. Paul makes some big points about preaching. Eloquence and power are not necessarily the same thing. There can be a chasm between persuasive speech and transformative proclamation. Paul makes much of this distinction in 1 Corinthians 1–4 of the letter. Why? Paul is setting up his argument, namely, that unity rooted in gospel love finds strength in faithful gospel proclamation that unapologetically proclaims Christ crucified. This gospel content is scandalous to the Greco-Roman mind. It is weakness to the world; it is foolishness to the sophistry of the age. Yet, the gospel is in fact the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–2:16). This very gospel is the truth that defines love, and it is the power that unites believers in that love. Therefore, faithful and unapologetic gospel preaching (biblical preaching) is power for the loving unity of a healthy church.
Following the Word of God
The modern church has much to grapple with and learn from in this letter. A unique characteristic of our recent disunity in the church is the questioning of unity itself. A troubling feature these days is a renunciation of love and mercy-based unity in trade for a unity that is first concerned with conformity to secondary and tertiary beliefs, particularly around the brokenness of justice and power in our society. While justice and power are at the heart of 1 Corinthians, loving unity is the root system which animates real justice and power in service to truth.
Finally, a unified and fruitful church will maintain its roots in true love only if it keeps to the path of Scripture, even when that Scriptural message is out of step with the wisdom of the age. There are several ways of manifesting Scriptural anchoring, but a central way has been and will always be the unabashed proclamation from the Bible of Christ crucified.
Jay S. Thomas is the author of 1 Corinthians: A 12-Week Study.
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