Yesterday we began a series in 1 Corinthians 1-4, looking at Paul’s letter to a church divided. We saw how even in his opening thanksgiving he was laying the groundwork for his appeal for unity. Given what God has done for us in Jesus, how can we not be united!
Today, we look more closely at the reasons the Corinthian church was divided. And as we do, we’ll keep an ear out for how we might do similar things today.
Because like the Corinthians, we also live in an entertain-me culture. And this can create division in the church. In the Corinthians’ case, they were divided around the various preachers who’d passed through the city at different times. They had been seduced by the cult of personality and speaking style that was a feature of public life in Greek cities.
Have a listen to how Paul explains it in the narrative section of his speech. (This is the part of a speech or letter where you’d give the details of the events that led to the problem you’re discussing):1:11-13 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul;” another, “I follow Apollos;” another, “I follow Cephas;” still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
On the surface, at least, the Corinthians were divided around preachers, of all things! Like an ancient reality show So you think you can preach? Now why would they do this? What makes preaching style something worth fighting about?
But this wasn’t a problem found only in the church. It was endemic in society. In the absence of TV, movies, and games consoles, people listened to public speakers – believe it or not – for entertainment! Although the art of public speaking originated out of necessity in the law courts and city councils, over time it developed an entertainment element. Speaking not for any real purpose other than to amuse, to please. Or, to display how good you were at speaking.
And this caused divisions in society – among philosophers, among speakers, and even the general public. Some wanted public speaking to be functional and serious, rather than the circus spectacle it had become. Others were happy to be entertained by a grand display of verbal fluff; they thought that this kind of showy eloquence was an indicator of wisdom and superiority. In musical terms, it was a choice between the earthy simplicity of Missy Higgins, or the vocal gymnastics of Mariah Carey. (Substitute other artists depending on your musical era or tastes, e.g. Neil Finn vs John Farnham. Yes, I’m old. Feel free to add yours in the comments section.)
Now this disagreement had found its way into the Corinthian church, and everyone had an opinion. Some of the travelling speakers, like Apollos, were more down the Mariah Carey line. Now, that’s not to say Apollos lacked substance – simply that he was happy to present the gospel using his accomplished public speaking skills in all their glory. And some in Corinth responded very warmly to his style.
Unfortunately, this caused some division, as it was the opposite to Paul’s strategy. In v17 Paul makes it clear that he doesn’t want to use such eloquence. He doesn’t want it to get in the way of the power inherent in the gospel itself:1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence [lit: the wisdom of speech], lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power
In fact, a better translation of the phrase ‘wisdom & eloquence’ is the literal one: ‘the wisdom of speech’. That is, he doesn’t want to present a façade of wisdom through a clever and entertaining use of words. He wants the real wisdom of God to remain sharply in focus.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Paul refused to speak with great skill. Throughout his letters, we see that he uses all kinds of well-crafted strategies to persuade people of the truth of the gospel. What it does mean is that he won’t pander to people in their desire for style over substance. He refuses to be sidetracked by entertainment when he’s preaching the gospel. Yet tragically, this led to some in Corinth thinking that Paul was less worthy of their attention. It led to division of a most petty kind.
Let me stop and ask: do you see the similarities with our own culture? How we value style over substance. How we sit back and wait to be entertained in all aspects of life. How we set up little rivalries between ‘performers’ and barrack for those who appeal to our own preferences. How we’ve got our finger permanently poised over the remote, ready to change channel the second our own buttons aren’t being pressed.
And do you see how we can often bring this attitude into the church? Ironically, the theme song of the 90s generation – ‘here we are now, entertain us’ – can be what prevents us from reaching church-Nirvana.
The way we respond to various preachers, sometimes we behave like we’re in the studio audience for an episode of So you think you can preach. Score-cards at the ready, we can’t wait for the SMS voting to start. Just like the ancient Greeks, we’re ready to judge the quality of the public speaking. And if our local pastor’s not up to scratch, we’ll just download the podcast of someone more famous, more entertaining.
This is a new development. For centuries, Christians have had to put up with whatever drivel their pastor served up each week – or leave their church. Now, more and more Christians belong to a church with a local pastor, but their primary teacher lives and ministers on the other side of the world. John Piper, Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Joyce Meyer, Rick Warren… just to name a rather broad cross-section of famous preachers you can hear each week.
Now this can be a great thing: inspiring messages from dynamic preachers around the world, now available to everyone. It’s particularly useful in places where there’s a shortage of trained Bible teachers. For us, it can be a convenient way of feeding continually on God’s word throughout the week. But like all technological advances, it also comes with great dangers. It’s the danger that rather than hear what God is saying to us as a gathered community here in our local church each Sunday, we’ll shop around to find something that satisfies my spiritual wants, right now, in the style that I like… ?
Because it can be divisive when I shop around for what suits me. It’s divisive when local pastors are then compared unfavourably with their possibly more entertaining and certainly more famous counterparts; like the Corinthians did with Paul. (One of my roles is to help train future local pastors to preach. And one of the questions I’ve started to hear from them is this one: how do I compete against an iPod?)
Other times, we rally around a particular Christian author, or theologian, or conference. And we might do so for many good, theological reasons. But we also do it, sometimes subconsciously, because those particular speakers, authors, and organisations press our buttons. We like their humour, or their intellect, or their passion and zeal. We like their style – we ‘get it’. And that’s great! But then we can begin to wear this as a badge of honour; as a symbol of our theological pedigree. Just like some of the Corinthians tried to display their sophistication by attaching themselves to Apollos. Personal preferences are OK. But they can become divisive when I allow my personal preferences to be expressed in a way that demeans yours.
Beware of our entertain-me culture, and how it can divide the church.
To think about
How am I tempted to bring an “entertain me” attitude to church – both to the services, but (more importantly) to the way in which we live out community?
What badges of belonging do I (un?)consciously wear to show people the kind of Christian I am, or as a claim to some kind of status in the church?