Sermons in this series

  1. United We Stand - 1 Cor. 3

  2. Finding Our Place of Service - Romans 12

  3. Sharing Christ with All People - Ac. 17

  4. Sharing Christ in All Places - Ac. 1

  5. Agreeing on the Basics - Church Life 101 - 1 Cor. 1

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 3


Division is an interesting word. It is made up of the prefix "di," which means two, and "vision" with means the way we see things. The problem at Corinth was that people were seeing things differently. They did not agree with each other, but more importantly they did not agree with what God had to say through the Apostle Paul. So Paul writes to give them God's perspective, the only true way of seeing things.

Pastor, on the phone: "Bad news, Bishop. Our church-planting team is divided on whether to call the new congregation 'First United Church' or 'United First Church.'"

It seems like wherever you have three Christians you are going to have four opinions.

Graham Kendrick, writing in Leadership Journal notes that

Interestingly, of all the songs in the Book of Revelation, not one is a solo. The twenty-four elders sing and cast their crowns before His feet, the united voices of countless angels resound, every living creature in heaven and earth and under the earth and all that is in them are joined in one song. Those who are victorious over the beast are given harps and a song to sing. In every case multitudes of people or angels unite in the same song with absolute unity.

The Church at Corinth was not singing in harmony, they were divided and distracted and consequently derailed from their purpose of pursuing the kingdom of God. Paul writes to them, in his characteristically pointed way, to challenge them and admonish them toward unity. In doing so he points out four clear truths as to how to overcome division in the church.

1. We can be united when we have a proper vision of ourselves

Look in verse 18, "Let no man deceive himself,"

Paul was dealing with people who were well educated in the eyes of the world. Corinth was a city known for its luxury and opulence. The arts flourished there and no doubt the Corinthian Christians had access to the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers. As a major trade city boasting a population of some 700 thousand, Corinth was a crossroads for the world and the latest ideas and finest education of the day was available there.

The temptation to which they had yielded was the temptation to see themselves as being wise and this was self-deception.

The scripture speaks clearly to this sin.

Proverbs 26:12 says, "Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him."

The word "fool" is a very strong word. It refers to more than merely lack of experience or mental ability. It is speaking about someone who willfully and obstinately chooses to walk down his own path rather than God's path.

The people who made up the church at Corinth thought themselves to be wise. And according to the standards of the world, they were. But they were mere bringing human wisdom, or the wisdom of the into the church and trying to apply it to the things of God.Which Paul says is foolishness. The word foolishness comes to us from a Greek word from which we get our word moron. In other words, Paul is saying, the wisdom of the world is moronic and stupid.

Now, some distinction is needed here between human wisdom and the wisdom of God.

Human wisdom – Knowledge – mental – Cognitive

God has given us the capacity to know certain things. He created us with the ability to learn, to amass knowledge, to discover, to inquire and draw conclusions. In areas like Mathematics, Science, Business, Agriculture, Mechanics and other academic pursuits, it is possible, using the mental ability God has given us, to know these things without any special enlightenment from God. This is human knowledge and human wisdom.

Spiritual wisdom – God's wisdom – Truth – deeper than simple cognitive knowledge it is spiritual discerned, and only comes through the Holy Spirit's illumination.

But to know spiritual things, to know things about God and the truth of His word, takes special insight; insight that can only come through the Spirit of God as Paul has told us in Chapter 2.

The major problem at Corinth, and thus the first problem Paul addresses, was that they had received the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, but because of unchecked sin and division in the church, they had grieved the Holy Spirit, they were not walking according to the Spirit but according to the flesh and thus they were living as carnal Christians. Now, instead of repenting and getting right with God, they were going on as if everything was ok. This led them to continue on in the spiritual realm, but without the benefit of the Holy Spirit's guidance and wisdom. Thus they were leading the church in human wisdom instead of God's wisdom.

It is easy for a Christian and subsequently a church to get into that position. Once they knew the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, once they walked in the movement and flow of God's Spirit and their understanding to God's truth was open. But over time they drifted away from the Holy Spirit's influence and leadership in their life, but they continued to lead the church. They became so familiar with that which was holy, and so accustomed to giving leadership that when they became self-deceived, thinking that all along it had been them and their wisdom, when in reality it was the Holy Spirit working through them. The end result was that they were going through the motions of spiritual leadership, without the benefit of the Holy Spirit thus giving carnal or fleshly leadership to the Spiritual body of Christ. This kind of leadership always ends in disaster.

They were plagued with the problem of being wise in their own eyes – They thought they knew something, but because they were operating in the physical realm and trying to speak to the spiritual realm, in reality they knew nothing.

And it was one of the major causes of the division in the church.

But not only did they have a problem with elevating men, they had a problem of not seeing God for who He really is.

2. We can be united when we have a proper vision of God

The Corinthian church had forgotten that Jesus is the foundation of the church and that while He may call men to work in His vineyard, the growth only comes because He brings it. God is the owner of the field, the architect of the house, it is He who has redeemed us, who bought us, who purchased us with the blood of Jesus and He alone retains the right to absolute rule. Paul is reminding them that God is the ultimate reality, not only in the world, but especially in the church.

Look at verses 20-23

To understand verse 21 properly you need to go back to chapter one verse 12 where he initially addresses the problem facing the Corinthians. "Now I say this that each of you says, I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas, or I am of Christ."

They had begun to identify themselves with their human leaders instead of their Divine Lord. The church should never be divided, because there is only one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The division in their church was stupid because it was brought about by an improper view of who God was and what He had given to the church. And they knew better. They knew the truth, Paul had delivered it to them, but they had been drawn away by the wisdom of the world, by the temptation to follow human leaders, by the temptation to use the church of the Lord Jesus Christ for their own ends rather than God's.

Whenever there is division in the church, it is almost always because someone thinks they are more important than they are, because they think that they have wisdom, they have knowledge and insight and that everyone should listen to them and follow their leadership. And often times people will follow them. That's how cliques and factions are formed in churches. Someone is elevated in their own eyes and gradually in the eyes of others till they begin to gather a following. And then another leader rises up, and before long, instead of being united under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, sides have been chosen and lines have been drawn in the sand.

When the Holy Spirit is in control there is always unity. In Ephesians 4 Paul makes it abundantly clear that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father over all of us.

The church at Corinth was messed up, to a large degree because people had taken their eyes off of God and had placed it on humans. Instead of following the leadership of the Holy Spirit, they were rallying behind mere men. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, when they said, Give us a King, the church at Corinth was divided because they were following mere men instead of following God.

The problem was that they had an elevated vision of men and a diminished vision of God.

But Paul crashes in on their little power play party and in essence asks, "Hey, who are men anyway?" How can you say you are of Paul or you are of Apollos, or you are of Cephes? Don't you realize that everything in the church ultimately belongs to God?

The logic is that since all things belong to you, you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God, than all things belong to God, you and all those who you follow belong to God so how in the world can you be divided if you are following Christ? The answer is obvious. If you are divided it is because you are not following Christ and you are not submitted to His Lordship.

3. We can be united when we have a proper view of God's servants

Look in chapter 4:1-2

Instead of choosing sides behind their leaders, they should have recognized that their leaders were merely stewards of the Gospel, servants of the mysteries of God.

In the church of the Lord Jesus Christ today there is far too much praise being given to men and not enough praise being given to God Himself. Ministries build around a charismatic personality often walk the same path the church at Corinth walked. In these two verses Paul wanted to remind the church at Corinth and God wants to remind us today that those who God has called to serve the church are merely humble ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And even as Jesus gave Himself for the church, those who God calls to serve in His church are to give themselves for the church as well.

Paul uses two words to describe himself and all those who God has called to lead the church.

The first word, translated "servant," or "attendant," comes from a Greek word that signifies a subordinate with authority but under another's authority. Of the 20 times this word is used in the New Testament, 12 times it is translated "officer," as in a military officer, one who has authority but is under the authority of another. Paul's point is that while he and Apollos and Peter (Cephas) may have authority, that authority is derived from their submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. That's why a pastor may be a man in a position of spiritual authority, but it must always be remembered that he must remain under the authority of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The obvious insinuation here is that anyone who was leading a faction or divisive group within the church was not submitted to the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ and thus was acting on their own. If they were truly under the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ it would have been evident in their humility, dependence upon God and their efforts to bring harmony instead of division in the church.

The second word Paul uses to describe himself and the others God had called to lead in the church is translated "steward." It comes from a Greek word that means "manager of a household," or "steward." The steward did not own the household but was placed in a position of oversight and authority by the owner. In this text Paul is saying that instead of looking to human leaders as being the ones who own God's house, we must keep them within the proper perspective. They do not own it, but God has placed them in charge.

The writer of Hebrews draws upon this understand of a steward when he admonishes Christians to "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account in order that they may do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."

Paul is not diminishing the role of the pastor or divinely appointed spiritual leader, he is simply placing it in proper perspective. The owner of the church is Jesus Christ, and He has placed certain people in positions of leadership and authority. But along with that authority comes accountability.

Look in verse 2.

That's why Paul says, in verse two, that a steward must be found trustworthy or faithful.

From His Servants God demands faithfulness.

To Him – Personally – the obvious inference here is that if specific leaders were using their position for personal advancement, then they were forgetting who the owner was and thus being disloyal to the Master.

To His Kingdom – Mission – The steward is always to be faithful to the instructions given by the owner. Instead of doing his own thing, or seeking the counsel of others, the steward should carry forth with the mission the Master left him to accomplish.

To His Word – Scripture – In verse two Paul says that ministers are stewards of the mysteries of God. What he is saying that all of God's revealed truth has been entrusted to these called out servants and they must be faithful in how they teach it, preach it and implement it in the church and the lives of their hearers.

That's why preachers who downplay the authority of scripture are unfaithful or untrustworthy stewards. When they insinuate that God's word can in some way or somehow not be trusted, but at the same time want others to trust them, and what they say, they have elevated themselves above God and have become disloyal to the Master.

To His Lordship – Stewardship – this is the issue of authority and accountability.

James 3:1 says, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment."

Paul wants to remind the church that those who are sent to minister are not the owners, but should ever remain under the authority of the owner. They have been placed in charge by the owner (Jesus Christ) and ultimately will have to give account to the owner for how they deal with that which is His.

4. We will be united when we understand God's judgment

Now, apparently there were those in the church at Corinth who were judging Paul. They were saying this or that about him and his teaching and Paul, being the straightforward person that he was, with all of the authority of God behind him deals with this head on. Look at verses 3-5

Notice several things.

First of all Paul says in verse 3, It is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court, in fact, I do not even examine myself."

What Paul is saying is that human judgment, even if it is self-judgment is ultimately meaningless. It meant very little to him that there were those at Corinth who did not like him, who spread rumors about him, who disputed his authority and his teaching. He said, that human opinions of any kind were basically worthless. In fact, he says, I do not even pass judgment on myself, because (now look at verse 4) even though I am not conscious of anything against myself, that does not mean that I am acquitted or guiltless. The one who examines me is the Lord.

Paul is saying, "Hey guys, you don't like me, big stinking deal. Who do you think you are anyway? Your opinion is no more valuable than mine. It is the Lord's opinion that will ultimately count and thus I must live each day in light of His truth and His judgment."

All of the personal opinions, all of the divisiveness in the church would someday be put to rest. Jesus will come back and bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts, and then each man's praise will come to him from God.

So stop going around passing judgment on this person in the church or that person, simply because you may not like something about them. Jesus is coming back and the buck will stop with Him.

4 Practical suggestions

1. See yourself for who you really are

This means seeing yourself from God's perspective not man's. The world places great trust in the wisdom of man, but God tells us not to trust in ourselves but to trust Him and Him alone.

Proverbs three 5-7 says, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding, in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will make your pathway straight. Be not wise in thine own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.

2. See God for who He really is

Do not allow the world and all of its allurements to diminish your view of God. The greater your view of God, the more of His majesty you see, the more of His glory you seek, the more of His word you read and the more time you spend with Him in prayer, the more clearly you will see Him, as Isaiah saw Him, high and lifted up.

What is going to happen when the world sees Jesus for who He really is? Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. He is above all things, over all things and everything is under His sovereign control. If we know that, we should live lives that reflect it. See God for who He really is and live your life in light of that revelation.

3. Be faithful to God

While His ministers are stewards, I Peter 4:10 tells us that all believers are stewards.

Peter says, "As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God."

Just as God has place the stewardship of the church in the hands of His ministers, He has place His truth, His love, His money, His time, and His free gift of salvation in your hands. What are you doing with it? How are you handling it? When you stand before Jesus on judgment day, what will you say? What kind of account will you bring?

4. Leave the ultimate judgment to God

Dr. Calvin Wittman is pastor of Applewood Baptist Church, Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He serves as a trustee at Criswell College, and regularly contributes to Open Windows, a monthly LifeWay devotional publication.