Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I’m going to answer three main questions in today’s sermon. First: What is the Corinthians’ biggest problem and how does it relate to us. Second: Why are they quarreling… and what can we learn from their experience? Third: What’s the solution?
Any of you remember this classic jingle? [sings]“Reach out, reach out and touch someone/ Reach out, call up and just say hi…” That was, of course, a famous jingle from AT&T in the late-’70s and ’80s. Basically, they were trying to encourage us Americans to make long-distance phone calls. Because back then, very few Americans would would “call up and just say hi” to anyone who lived far away. Why? Because you’d have to pay long distance charges! Long-distance was for emergencies only—or for sharing really important information.
Heck, Cavonna tells me that even calling from Toccoa to Lavonia and from Toccoa to Clarkesville meant long distance charges!
That seems crazy now!
Surely one of the great things about cell phones is that those days of long-distance charges are gone! But, man… “long distance” was a big deal back in the day!
Of course—for better or worse—the days of making actual phone calls—voice phone calls—are increasingly rare. I have three kids under 25, and they simply don’t make phone calls! Or only rarely. Young people consider it slightly rude when someone calls—like, “This better be really important for you to expect me to drop whatever else I’m doing, to answer phone and talk to you!”
Times have changed.
So I was feeling nostalgic when pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson, in his commentary on today’s scripture, was discussing how people in our culture begin important business phone calls. He said that people from other cultures often begin business calls by simply stating up front the reason they’re calling. But not us… What do we do? Whether we know it or not, we follow a well-worn script. For about 30 seconds, we talk about nothing important. Then there’s a slight pause, and we say, “Anyway,” or “The reason I’m calling is…” Dot, dot, dot. 1
Well, in 1 Corinthians, Paul is also following a script. He begins verses 1 through 9 the way anyone writing a letter in the ancient world would begin… Except, Paul, as a Christian, is thankful to Jesus instead of pagan gods, but you know what I mean… Verses 1 through 9, which we looked at last time, are following a script.
But in verse 10, the beginning of today’s scripture, Paul gets to the next part of the letter… And this is the “anyway-the-reason-I’m-calling-is”part… Literally the most urgent reason I’m writing this letter, Paul says in verses 10 and 11, is 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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers [and sisters].”
Quarreling was evidence that this church had a problem being united.
Please note: all of Paul’s letters are part of an ongoing correspondence—a two-way conversation between Paul and a particular church, or between Paul and an individual Christian. In the New Testament, we only have access to one side of that conversation. So we often have to read between the lines of Paul’s words to infer what the church members were saying to Paul in their letter to him. But in 1 Corinthians, “reading between the lines” isn’t hard to do. Because beginning in chapter 7, verse 1, Paul writes, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” And in five other places after that, Paul writes, “Now concerning this… Now concerning that…” And he spends most of the rest of the letter addressing questions and concerns that they raised in a previous letter to him.
The Corinthians knew they had problems in their church, but guess what?
Nobody from Corinth apparently knew they had a problem with quarreling. Because nobody said a word in the previous letter about “quarreling.” Paul had to hear about it from a third party—from Chloe’s people… They were likely people from Ephesus, in Asia—where Paul is writing 1 Corinthians—who had gone to Europe and visited the church at Corinth and who were now telling Paul what’s really going on at that church. And what’s really going on is, they are fussing and fighting, they are being divisive, they are mad at one another, they are slandering one another, they are gossiping about one another, they are jealous of one another… all of these bad things are implied in that little Greek word Paul uses in verse 11 that is translated as “quarreling.”
In Greek, that word is eris. Elsewhere in the Bible this word gets translated as “strife,” “rivalry,” or “dissension.”
And here’s the thing: It doesn’t surprise me that “quarreling” was a problem that escaped the Corinthians’ notice, such that they didn’t even know it was a problem until Paul pointed it out. It doesn’t surprise me because I think we modern-day Christians are often equally oblivious: We don’t believe that quarreling is a big deal! “Of course we quarrel. We’re only human!”
I referred to this two weeks ago in Part 1 of this series, but at the beginning of chapter 5, Paul writes about something else that “Chloe’s people” have told him… Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” And to say the least, pagans tolerated a lot… That’s Paul’s point.
But anyway, most of us today would probably think, “Well, now, ‘sexual immorality’—that’s a much bigger problem than simply ‘quarreling,’ right?”
Well… Paul disagrees. That’s why he talks about quarreling first!
And I’m not about to play the game of “which is the worse sin,” because from Paul’s perspective, both sexual immorality and quarreling are sufficiently sinful and evil… to require the Corinthians to repent of it immediately.
And lest you think I’m overstating the case about the sinfulness of quarreling, that Greek word translated as “quarreling”—eris—shows up elsewhere in Paul’s letters—in Galatians 5:19 to 21—in a way that ought to stop us dead in our tracks. In those verses, Paul writes, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery…” And we listen to those words and think, “Yep, those things sound really, really bad!” But then listen to what he says, as he continues: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” That word translated as “strife” in verse 20 is the same Greek word, eris, translated as “quarreling” in today’s scripture.
And to make matters worse, in Galatians 5:21 Paul says—speaking of eris, among other sins—“I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
I need to be perfectly clear: Paul is not suggesting for a moment that any of these terrible sins is an unforgivablesin: Christ died for each and every one of them, and we can be confident that we’ll be forgiven of these sins as we repent of them, as we confess them, and as we continue to believe in Christ.
And you might say, “But what if I commit this sin again? And again?” To which I would ask you, “Are you continuing to confess and repent and believe in Jesus?” If so, you can be confident that your sins will continue to be forgiven.
After all, God isn’t less forgiving than he demands for us to be. Remember Peter’s asking Jesus, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” Peter thinks he’s being generous. “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” 2—or it could be “seventy times seven times”—either way, Jesus’ point is, there’s no limit to God’s forgiveness so long as we continue to confess and repent and believe—and there should be no limit to our forgiveness, because we strive to be like Jesus.
Also, when Paul writes in Galatians 5:21, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom” he means, “those who continually do them… habitually, persistently, without repentance, without remorse, without confession… people whose lifestyle is characterized by this kind of unrepentant sin.” If you commit these sins in this manner, then it is very possible you are not saved—it’s possible that you were never saved in the first place, or, as we Methodists might say, if you were saved at one time, it’s possible that you have backslidden to the point at which you have now lost your salvation. That’s possible, we believe.
But if it makes you feel any better, consider this: Yes, the Corinthians are quarreling, and, yes, that’s a deadly serious sin, and, yes, they need to repent. But as I said in Part 1 of this series, so far… as of this moment, the moment that Paul is writing this letter, none of these Corinthians, Paul believes, have backslidden to the point where they’ve lost their salvation… Not yet! So far, Paul says in chapter 1, verse 2, even these sinful Corinthians are all still “sanctified,” that is, they are all “saints”—they are all still saved… even though they are guilty of committing deadly serious sins—like idolatry, like sexual immorality, and, yes, like quarreling.
So that’s Point Number One: the Corinthians’ biggest problem was quarreling, a problem so subtle that it escaped their notice—and maybe it escapes ours too?
Listen, I don’t want to get too personal… I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes… Now I’ve got your attention… If there’s no truth to what I’m about to say, forgive me and disregard it… I’m not speaking of anyone in particular—if these people exist…
But… I’ve heard from more than a few of you over the past four years that this church is divided… It’s divided between those who prefer to worship at 8:30—in our contemporary worship service—and those who prefer to worship at 11:00—in our traditional worship service.
Why on earth should different worship styles be something to divide over… something to quarrel about?
And yet, based on what I’ve heard, it has been…
Are there really people in our church who say or think, “The people who go to that service don’t know how to worship properly”? Are there really people who are loyal to one service who look down on people who are loyal to the other service? Are there really people who think they’re “closer to God,” holier, more righteous, more Christ-like, because they attend one service over the other?
If so, I urge us to repent!
Let me assure you: Toccoa First will continue to glorify God at 8:30 through contemporary worship. And we will continue to glorify God at 11:00 through traditional worship.
But be assured that God is not glorified at all when we say, or think, or act in a way that communicates the following: “I belong to the 8:30 tribe.” Or “I belong to the 11:00 tribe.”
No… We belong to exactly one tribe—and we are done with any nonsense that says otherwise! We’re done with it! I don’t want to hear it. This kind of divisiveness, if it exists at all, is wrong and it needs to stop!
And this brings us to Point Number Two: Why are these Corinthian believers quarreling… and even if we don’t quarrel about the same things they quarreled about, what can we learn from their experience that will help us overcome this same “quarrelsome mindset”?
To answer this question, I’m going to briefly discuss three sins that contributed to the sin of quarreling in Corinth: the sin of pride, the sin of judging, and the sin of the tongue.
But first… pride.
Let me begin by sharing an experience I had last weekend… In case you don’t know I attended the Mockingbird Ministries conference in Orlando. Mockingbird is a Christian ministry, mostly for clergy like me, but also for laypeople. And mostly run by Episcopalians—but don’t hold that against them. Mockingbird emphasizes God’s grace for everyday living. And it has been a source of great help and encouragement in my life and ministry over the past ten years.
Anyway, the conference was held at an Episcopal church near Orlando. And on Saturday morning, a dear friend and mentor, Paul Zahl, was the featured speaker. And after he spoke, people were coming up to him and speaking with him… and even though I only knew a few people at the conference, I happened to recognize one man who walked up to my friend Paul. He was kinda famous, a literal rock star—even though no one else in the crowd seemed to recognize him… He wasn’t there, after all, as a celebrity or a musician. He had just come to hear his friend Paul speak.
But this man is a musician for whom I have great respect, he is a member of the rock and roll hall of fame, I own several records by the band he is in. He is the keyboardist and chief songwriter for the band Journey… His name is Jonathan Cain… whom I talked about, coincidentally, in a sermon last November! But here was the man who co-wrote “Don’t Stop Believin,’” and “Separate Ways,” and “Open Arms”… who wrote both the words and music to “Faithfully.” Even his keyboard riffs are unforgettable!
For kids of my generation, Jonathan Cain is a very big deal. And here he stands at this conference last weekend, like, ten yards away from me!
I’ve got to go meet him!
As I was walking over to do so, feeling starstruck and nervous, this voice in my head was like, “Be cool, Brent. Be cool. Don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t be a dorky fanboy.”
I didn’t need to worry… When my friend Paul saw me, he immediately introduced me to his friend “Jon,” and immediately put me at ease. And I uttered these immortal words to “Jon”: I said, “Jon, I’ve told Paul this already, but you basically wrote the soundtrack for falling in love when I was in sixth, seventh, and eight grade, so thank you for that!”
Whew! That’s not bad, right?
But the very reason I want to tell you this story, I’m afraid, is at least one important reason that these Corinthian believers are quarreling in the first place: Because to tell you about my association with this rock star makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel good about myself to imagine that I’m somehow “cool” enough to move in the same circles with this famous rock star. It makes me feel good about myself that I didn’t stutter or stammer or act like an idiot when talking to this very important person. It makes me feel good about myself to imagine that Jonathan Cain knows who I am.
I’m not proud that I feel this way… I’m just telling you the truth. It flatters my pride, it strokes my ego, it makes me feel like a worthy person to say, “I’m with him.”
Something like that is going on in today’s scripture. See verse 12: “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” I’ll say more about that last group, “the group that follows Christ,” in a moment, but… there is pride in being associated with, or being connected to, or identifying with either Paul, Apollos, or Cephas—another name for the apostle Peter. It makes the Corinthians feel good about themselves. It strokes their egos. It flatters them.
And inasmuch as they are looking up to other people and counting on other people to satisfy needs that Christ alone should satisfy, then that is a sin… it’s the sin of idolatry… and pride is the form of this particular kind of idolatry… And that’s bad enough…
But their sin is even worse than that. The Corinthians are saying, in so many words, “I follow Paul, and if you don’t, well… something is wrong with you, and you need to change! I am judging you because you follow someone else.”
And we know that a sinful kind of judging is a big part of what’s going on here… because of that last group… the ones who say, “I follow Christ.”
Is there anything at all wrong with saying, “I follow Christ”? No! In a sense, the people who are saying that are correct, theologically. We should all be following Christ—not bragging about following any merely human leader. And yet, in the context of Paul’s words here, he’s implying that there’s something wrong even with the people who are saying that. Not because of the words themselves, but because of the sinful impulse that motivates the words… You know, you can be wrong even if everything you’re saying is 100 percent right—did you know that?… But I’m talking about the sinful impulse that attempts to look into the hearts of one’s brothers and sisters in Christ and say, “I am better than you. I am holier than you. I know more than you. I’m more mature in the faith than you are. I am further along on this journey of sanctification than you are—that’s why I, unlike you, would never say, ‘I follow Paul,’ or any other merely human leader… because I follow Jesus! You need to get your act together and be like me.”
This is the very definition of the sinful kind of judging that Jesus prohibits. This judging that purports to have spiritual X-ray vision… and look into a fellow believer’s heart and say, “I know why you’re doing what you’re doing. I know why you are the way you are.”
Sinful judging isn’t saying, “What you’re doing is bad”… Or “What you’re doing is a sin.” We are perfectly justified in identifying sin as sin.
But sinful judging is different. It’s not saying, “This person has done something bad”; it’s saying, “This person is bad. I know what’s in their heart. I know for certain why they’re doing this—and it’s because they are bad people. It’s because they are evil… or at least much worse than I am!”
These are not judgments that we’re equipped to make. Only God can judge like that.
In fact, the seventeenth-century Catholic priest St. Francis de Sales was so scrupulous about sinful judging that he would not even call a person who committed murder a “murderer,” because he couldn’t look into that person’s heart… for all we know that person has repented and changed… For all he knew, this sin of murder no longer defined him. Therefore he would only say that this person committed murder in the past.
That’s extreme, of course, but he was rightly concerned about the sin of judging in a way that we often are not…
Besides, when we commit a sin, when we wrong someone else, we are very quick to excuse our behavior—“I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” “I’m stressed at work.” “If only you knew what I was dealing with at home…” “If only you knew what my parents were like!” “If only you knew what the doctor told me last week…” “If only you knew what was really going on, you would cut me some slack, you would sympathize, you would have compassion.”
This sinful kind of judging, by contrast—the judging that Jesus prohibits—is unwilling to cut people any slack. It’s unwilling to ask, “I wonder what’s going on in that person’s life to make them act like that? They must going through a hard time right now. They be dealing with some tough stuff… Regardless, as a fellow sinner, I can find room in my heart for compassion—even as I recognize that what they did was sinful, hurtful, and wrong.”
So the Corinthians quarreled… because of sinful judging… and because of sinful pride.
But not only those two sins…
Consider this: They wouldn’t be able to quarrel in the first place without also using words!
So the third sin that contributes their sin of quarreling… I’m calling… “the sin of the tongue.”
I am convinced, from reading Proverbs, from reading the gospels, from reading the Psalms, from reading the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes, from reading James chapter 3, that if we took seriously the Bible’s many warnings about the tongue—about the words that we speak—then we would be much more reluctant to speak than we usually are.
Words are potentially a spiritually deadly weapon that most of us wield with very little thought or care!
Let’s just consider James chapter 3. The apostle first compares the tongue to a small bit in a horse’s mouth, which guides the horse in whatever direction it goes. Then, in verses 4 through 6: “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”
These analogies might surprise us: How is the tongue—the words we use—like a horse’s bit or a rudder on a ship… how do words somehow “steer” or “direct” the course of our lives and cause such great harm?
I don’t think most of us would write it like that. We might instead say, “Our sinful hearts are like a horse’s bit or a rudder.” Or “The evil thoughts we think in our heads are like a horse’s bit or a rudder”? Our “hearts,” we believe, are what steer the ship or guide the horse.
Isn’t the problem… with our hearts… not with our tongues?
Well, no one denies that we have a deadly serious problem with our hearts… Jesus makes that clear. But when we transform the sinful thoughts in our hearts into the words we speak, or the words we tweet, or the words we tap on our screens—when we let the sinful thoughts of our hearts spill out into words… words of gossip, words of slander, words of insults, words of putdowns—all of which, in their quarreling, I’m sure the Corinthians were guilty of—we make this problem in our hearts so much worse!
So that’s Point Number Two: Why is the church at Corinth quarreling? Because of the sins of pride, of judging, and of the tongue.
How are we guilty of these same things?
Point Number Three: We need help solving this problem of quarreling and the sins that contribute to it! Where do we find this help?
We find it in that one little word that Paul uses… twice… in verses 17 and 18. And that word is “power.” Paul says that we have access to power through the “cross of Christ,” or power through the “word of the cross.” I’ll say more about this power next week, as Paul continues to talk about it.
But for now, what does this “word of the cross” tell us?
It tells us that through the cross of God’s Son Jesus, God has done everything necessary to bring us into a perfect relationship with him—he has forgiven all of our sins—past, present, and future—so that there is now, therefore, no condemnation for us.
The word of the cross tells us that God has given us Christ’s righteousness as a free gift, so that when God looks upon us, he no longer sees our many sins; rather, he sees the perfect righteousness of his Son Jesus.
The word of the cross tells us that through faith we have been adopted into God’s family forever.
It tells us that God our Father now loves us as much as he loves his only begotten Son Jesus.
It tells us that in all things God is working for the good of his children—indeed, God is always for us, and if God is for us, who can be against us?
It tells us that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I said earlier that it flattered my pride, it stroked my ego, it made me feel like a good and worthy person to sidle up to a rock star and say, “I’m with him.”
But are you kidding me? What a joke!
By contrast, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, the One through whom all things were created, “the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of God’s nature, the One who upholds the universe by the word of his power,” 3 this same Jesus, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that sinners like me should come within the reach of his saving embrace, 4 this same Jesus now says, “Brent White is with me.”
Brent White is with me!
“I give him eternal life, and he will never perish, and no one will snatch him out of my hand.” 5
Brent White is with me!
But friends… Jesus wants to say the same of you… Will you let him? Will surrender to him, and believe in him, and receive his gift of eternal life even today?
Nothing is stopping you…
Are you with Jesus?