This question, posed by the apostle Paul to the first century Christians of Corinth, implies the answer ‘No, certainly not’! As Paul wrote elsewhere, Christianity is about ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’(Ephesians 4:5), etc. The reality on the ground in Corinth however looked somewhat different, hence Paul’s challenging question to them.
Jesus had prayed that His is followers might be ‘“one”’(John 17:21). Surely this prayer couldn’t have failed for the ancient Corinthians? What about His followers today?! So what is this Christian unity, and how should/does it work?
It seems that the Christians in Corinth had been dividing into factions favouring different leaders, such as Paul himself (who’d brought the gospel to them originally), Apollos (a skilled speaker who taught at Corinth later) and Peter (perhaps revered as the official leader?). Paul was ‘unskilled in speech’(2 Corinthians 11:6), as he himself acknowledged, so they appear to have been dividing over issues such as preaching style/ability and authority structures. Paul was quick to point out that no-one was ‘baptized into the name of Paul’(1 Corinthians 1:13) and that they should ‘“boast in the Lord”’(1 Corinthians 1:31) not men (or their methods/positions etc.).
Dividing over such things, or debatable ‘opinions’(Romans 14:1) and the like, is a sign of spiritual immaturity. He warns them that they were behaving like spiritual ‘babies’(1 Corinthians 3:1) by forming such ‘divisions’(Galatians 5:20) – a product of the sinful nature, not the ‘fruit’(Galatians 5:22) of spiritual maturity. He reminds them that our identity and message should be ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’(1 Corinthians 2:2), who is ‘to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption’(1 Corinthians 1:30).
It’s of note however that despite their immature behaviour, Paul did regard these Corinthians as under ‘the grace of God… in Christ Jesus’(1 Corinthians 1:4ff.), generally as a group at least – i.e. true believers. However, there can be another side to such groups that we must be aware of and take into consideration too. They can be a mixture not only of sheep and ‘“goats”’(Matthew 25:32) but include ‘“wolves”’(Acts 20:29; Matthew 7:15)! Such malign influences can ‘masquerade’(2 Corinthians 11:15) as servants of God. Through these sorts, or partisan sheep, others might find themselves marginalised or even pushed ‘out’(3 John 10), with some groups becoming virtually ‘“dead”’(Revelation 3:1) spiritually, even Jesus left to ‘“knock”’(Revelation 3:20) from the outside! So where’s the Oneness?
Not surprisingly the one true church is united ‘in Christ’, defined not by mere men, our groups or institutions, but by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s earlier list of ‘ones’ mentions ‘one Spirit’(Ephesians 4:4), which ‘“blows where it wants to”’(John 3:8) to mark out and ‘seal’(Ephesians 1:13) those ‘“born of the Spirit”’(John 3:8). This is what defines membership of the one true church, across time and place, since anyone who ‘doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ… is not his’(Romans 8:9). It’s also the oneness that Jesus prayed about: ‘“I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor… the Spirit… In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”’(John 14:16-20), ‘“I pray… that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us”’(John 17:20-21).
So this nebulous group is the one true church, and where our identity should lie, with its sometimes difficult to discern yet nevertheless real God defined boundaries – like a spiritual ‘building’(1 Corinthians 3:9), ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone… a habitation of God in the Spirit’(Ephesians 2:20-22). Later in this letter Paul compares the church to a single human body, ‘one Spirit… all baptised into one body’(1 Corinthians 12:13), yet with diverse parts and functions, like the ‘foot… hand… eye… apostles… prophets… teachers’(1 Corinthians 12:15-29) and myriad other little niches that God carves out for us, ‘each one’(1 Corinthians 12:18). Similarly, some plant and others water in God’s field, but His Spirit gives ‘the increase’(1 Corinthians 3:7), which importantly isn’t just in numbers, but a ‘building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith’(Ephesians 4:12-13).
So this remains a work in progress, as Jesus’ prayer implies too, that we ‘“may be perfected into one”’(John 17:23). It’s precisely why Paul wrote these things, in his role as an apostle and teacher, teaching also that we must ‘build’(1 Corinthians 3:10) with ‘love’(1 Corinthians 13:1ff.), and other similar ‘costly stones’(1 Corinthians 3:12) like ‘peace, patience, kindness… gentleness’(Galatians 5:22-23) until our fully realised unity dawns in the splendour of the ‘holy city’(Revelation 21:10), forever.
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