1 Corinthians 2:14—3:15
Paul continues to “pander” to the Corinthians. He notes that unspiritual people do not receive the gifts of the Spirit; they can’t even understand these gifts of the Spirit because one needs to be spiritual in order to understand these gifts. As far as the Corinthians are concerned, Paul is talking about other people. The Corinthians believed that they were spiritually mature, and that, more importantly, they had many spiritual gifts. But then, Paul drops the bomb. Paul addresses the Corinthians, not as spiritual people (as they would have liked to be considered), but as people of the flesh, which was an enormous insult to them. How could they be people of the flesh? They focused on spiritual things. As we’ll see later in the letter, they abstained from sex, they didn’t worry about food taboos; the Corinthians believed that they were liberating themselves from their flesh. This notion of freeing oneself from one’s flesh was a popular idea in the first century. The prevailing philosophical wisdom suggested that only the soul is immortal, that the body is going to be destroyed. This philosophy suggested that human beings should strive to remove the trappings of the flesh while they are alive, so that their soul can be released when they die. The Corinthians bought into this philosophy, and so they strove to separate themselves from their flesh. How then could Paul possibly suggest that they were “people of the flesh”?
Paul argues that the Corinthians’ “fleshiness” comes out in their quarrelling, especially when they align themselves with particular “apostolic parties.” He observes that when one of the Corinthians says, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos,” that person is demonstrating that he is a mere human being, because he has aligned himself not with Christ, but with a human apostle who has been called by Christ. Paul goes on to note that both Apollos and Paul are merely servants through whom the Corinthians came to believe, hired hands who were simply doing the task God had appointed to them. Paul may have planted the seed, Apollos may have watered the ground, but it was God alone who gave the growth. It is silly for the Corinthians to align themselves with particular apostles, because those who plant and water are not working at cross-purposes. The apostles have the same concern: the growth of the Christian community. Paul then shifts the metaphor slightly, explaining that he laid the foundation for the Christian community; the other apostolic workers are simply building upon his foundation. It is important to remember, however, that Paul’s foundation has nothing to do with him; Paul’s foundation is Jesus Christ.
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
During this season of political primaries, it is easy to forget that those who campaign for office essentially have the same basic objective. In spite of what demagogic radio and television personalities might say, every candidate wants to serve her constituency and leave the country/state/county/city/town/village in a better place than when she first ascended to office. Naturally, candidates have different ideas about how to accomplish this goal, and these differences in approaches can often lead to anger and polemic on all sides. Supporters of individual candidates can be blinded by these difference and fail to see the underlying similarities among them.
Paul sees this happening in Corinth. Members of the community aligned themselves behind the preaching of particular apostles, failing to notice that Christ was the source of each apostle’s preaching. Paul’s illustration of the laborers in the field demonstrates the folly of the Corinthians’ factionalism. The sower is no more important than the one who tends the plant, because the plant would not exist without either person. The one who sows and the one who tends are united in the same purpose. Just as Paul and Apollos were united in one purpose, so also Paul calls the Corinthians to cease their quarreling and live as one in Christ.
There is no question that dialogue and debate are important parts of living in community. Indeed, it is easier to clarify one’s own position in conversation with someone who might have a different view. This debate, however, should not lead to divisiveness. And dialogue gives way to divisiveness when we make the subject of our debate the central issue. When we argue as if our positions are completely unassailable and that any other position is unchristian, we risk, as Tolkien said, breaking the community in order to “see what it is.” We rupture the fabric of the Church in order to define ourselves as “the progressive church” or “the conservative church,” rather than the Church that keeps Christ at its center. We cannot, in other words, allow the subjects of our debate to define us. Within the Christian community, our differing views of theology, Scriptural interpretation, and liturgy are all ultimately subordinate to our unity in Christ.