Has Christ been divided: Paul and unity among Christians

As we enter the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which will end on the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, we share with you an essay written by one of our sisters, a rhetorical analysis of the first four chapters of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. These chapters, where Paul addresses the problem of divisions within the Christian community, will also be read as the second reading at Sunday Mass (Roman Catholic lectionary) in the weeks to come.

Has Christ been divided?

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the problem of divisions within the community. “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Co 1:13)[1] Paul’s rhetorical question challenges even contemporary Christians, both from an ecumenical perspective and within different ecclesial communions. As the problem is still relevant, so too may Paul’s treatment of it be, and a study of this could prove to be more than just an academic exercise. While Paul addresses the problem of divisions in several places throughout the letter, this essay will be limited to the pericope 1:10-4:21.

Following Raymond F. Collins and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, I would classify the letter as deliberative rhetoric, which aims at persuading listeners to decision-making and change of behaviour.[2] 1:10-4:21 constitutes the statement of facts – narratio (1:10-17) and first proof – probatio (1:18-4-21) of the letter as a whole,[3] after the introduction – exordium – in 1:1-9, made up of the greeting and initial thanksgiving.

Treated on its own, 1:10-4:21 can be further divided into rhetorical units. I note some variation among commentators,[4] but choose to follow Kieran O’Mahony who suggests the following schema:[5]

Statement of Facts 1:10-17
Thesis in three parts 1:17
Proof 1: Wisdom/foolishness 1:18-2:5
Proof 2: Spirit wisdom 2:6-16
Proof 3: The apostles 3:1-17
Refutation 1: Wisdom/foolishness 3:18-23
Refutation 2: The apostles (a) 4:1-7
Refutation 3: The apostles (b) 4:8-13
Conclusion 4:14-21

Using this disposition as a general structure, I will now move on to a closer analysis of the text, attempting to demonstrate how Paul addresses the problem of divisions.

Statement of facts: Presenting the problem (1:10-17)

Paul enters the matter by addressing to his readers a solemn appeal to unity, thus showing straight away what occasions his letter: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10). The problem is clearly expressed: “that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’” (1:12). Commentaries reveal some scholarly debate about the nature of these factions, but limitations of time and space prevent me from doing more than mentioning this fact.[6] What seems clear, is that the community was divided, and that the divisions were rooted in questions of leadership, personality cults and pretence to superiority of wisdom and spirituality.[7]

In response, Charles B. Cousar writes, Paul’s strategy is “not to pit one figure against another”, arguing his own case or abandonment of all human leadership. Rather, he makes the whole community face the scandalous reality, and points to “the source of all authority in the church”[8]: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13).

The narratio ends with the thesis in 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” This lays the ground for the subsequent argument. As shown in O’Mahony’s schema, Paul works it out with three proofs and three corresponding refutations, which will be examined in greater detail. The first proof concerns the opposition wisdom/foolishness, the second the spiritual wisdom perceived by the world as foolishness, and the third the role of the apostles.

Proof 1 (1:18-2:5): The Cross of Christ

In contrast to attachment to human wisdom and eloquence, Paul points to the great paradox of the Christian faith and the central theme of his own preaching: the cross of Christ:[9] “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). At first glance, what follows may seem like a digression from the theme of divisions. However, when one remembers that these are rooted in quarrels over authority, and notes how often the word “power” is used along with “wisdom” in these verses, Paul’s argument becomes clearer.[10] Charles K. Barrett comments: “The party slogans all bear witness to an overvaluing of human wisdom, and a failure to understand, or rightly value, the Gospel, which Paul was sent (1:17) to preach.”[11]

Paul’s first example to illustrate his point, are the Corinthians themselves (1:26). Their own weakness was no obstacle to God’s choice of them, nor to the gift of the many charisms the letter will deal with at a later point. They should be careful in emphasising human wisdom too much, lest they themselves be excluded by their own argument. In the words of Gordon D. Fee, “Paul tries to get the Corinthians to see that their own existence as Christians, especially in regard to their Christian beginnings, stands in total contradiction to their present ‘boasting.’”[12] For “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1:27). What they should boast of, then, is not their different “champions” and their personal wisdom or strength, but the Lord (1:31).

Furthermore, Paul places himself in the same category as the Corinthians, thus both taking the edge of the possible offense in his characterisation of them, and conceding, in a way, to those who were perhaps less than impressed by his preaching.[13] Apollos may have been a better orator (cf. Acts 18:24), but God had chosen Paul to lay the foundation (3:10), preaching “Christ crucified […] not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (2:2-5). Paul thus concludes this first proof with a repetition of what he said in the thesis.

Throughout this pericope, Paul subtly establishes a “we”, constituted of those who, like the Corinthians and Paul, have received and believed the Gospel, in contrast to those who have not.[14] Also, Christ unites both Jews and Gentiles, the two groups contrasted in 1:22.[15] Christ crucified is a unifying force.

Proof 2 (2:6-16): Spiritual wisdom

After this caveat against human wisdom, Paul goes on to claim that his preaching is nonetheless a form of wisdom for “the mature”, “ though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age” (2:6). Rather, it is “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden” (2:7). This wisdom is always a gift, and can never be used to boast or to set one person above another.[16] “The emphasis lies not on the preacher, but on the word of wisdom that is proclaimed.”[17] Once again, Paul comes back to Christ crucified as the touchstone of true wisdom: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

The Corinthians, as the rest of the letter shows, was a community where spiritual gifts were held in high regard, and Paul appeals to their desire and esteem for spiritual wisdom to point them in the right direction.[18] Ironically, when they disdain the message of the cross and Paul’s weakness, they aim for the wrong kind of wisdom and let the wisdom of God pass them by.[19] Divisions are the result. Paul will hammer this home in the first refutation (3:18-23), exhorting them to become “fools to the world”, to gain true wisdom.

Collins notes that, as frequently in this letter, Paul brings his argument to a close with a statement invoking the name of God or Christ:[20] “But we have the mind of Christ” (2:16). As he appealed to them in 1:10 to be of the same mind, he here attributes “the mind of Christ” to those who have received the message of Christ crucified, those in communion with Christ, and also with Paul and his co-workers.[21] He urges the partisans of the different groups “to correct their view and consider all things in the perspective of the Christ event”[22]. Once again, Christ is the source of unity.

Proof 3 (3:1-17): Servants

Now, Paul returns to the slogans from the beginning of the pericope, pointing out how these reveal that the Corinthians are not the spiritual people they think themselves – and ought – to be.[23] “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (3:4). If they really believe themselves to be among those who “have the mind of Christ”, they should not keep behaving as “people of the flesh” (3:1).

In response to the division over leader figures, he points to the relative insignificance of apostles or leaders, who are all, in the end, only messengers and servants of Christ (3:5-6). Not only are the apostles subordinate to God, but: “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose,” they are one[24], “and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together” (3:8-9).

Through his argumentation here, Paul assures for himself the chronological priority while at the same time acknowledging the rightful place of those who came after him.[25] Switching metaphors from planting to building, he claims to have laid down the foundation for the temple of God that the Corinthians are (3:17). Others can continue the work, but “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” ( 3:11).

Refutation 1 (3:18-23)

The thrust of this refutation is what has already been shown repeatedly: the only important person is Christ: “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (3:21-23).

While the statement “you belong to Christ” is reminiscent of the fourth slogan from 1:12, Collins, Fee and Barrett all agree that the important message in these verses is the belonging of the whole community to Christ and through Christ to God,[26] even if they differ in their views of how the “Christ-party” in 1:12 is to be understood.[27] Christ cannot be set alongside other authorities as one party among others – “has Christ been divided?” (1:13). No, he is the one in whom all authorities come together and from whom they have their power, if they are true.[28] No human leader can claim ownership of the community. So, as demonstrated in the second proof, those who believe themselves to be wise, those who create divisions in the community by their attachments, must adopt the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God, and so enter into this vision.

Refutation 2 (4:1-7)

How, then, following the third proof, are the Corinthians to relate to their leaders? Paul’s response is unequivocal: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (4:1). The foregoing is not a denial of human leadership, but a call not to absolutize God’s instruments in ways that become divisive. Paul’s own authority is not unimportant, or this very letter would lose its purpose.[29] If he thought himself without right to admonish them, why write in the first place?

The thesis shows that Paul is aware of his own call, and he sees himself as calling them back to the true Gospel.[30] He then moves to the greater context, and says that his teaching here is general, he himself and Apollos are just examples used to illustrate his point, which is valid for all leaders, “so that none of you will be puffed up in favour of one against another” (4:6).[31]

Refutation 3 (4:8-13)

As stated in the thesis, Paul did not preach the Gospel with human eloquence and wisdom, “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). In this third refutation, connected to the first proof, the apostles are again his example, as, with biting irony, their foolishness is contrasted with the “wisdom” of the Corinthians.[32] Seen in relation with the first proof, the contrast makes it clear that the Corinthians, by their self-inflation and attachment to worldly wisdom, disqualify themselves from the true wisdom of God, whereas the apostles, being weak and foolish, are examples of God’s chosen ones.[33]

Conclusion (4:14-21)

Paul brings his argument to a close by an appeal to a change of mind and behaviour. His reference to fatherhood here evokes the primacy he claimed in 3:6-10. Again, however, both he and the guardians have their role “in Christ” (4:14-15). He posits himself as an example for imitation, but in “his ways in Jesus Christ” (4:17).[34]

To sum up: “No other foundation”

To sum up the argument: Paul is sent to preach, not to baptize – the apostles have different tasks, all working for the same Lord (proof 3, refutation 2). He preaches, not with impressive eloquence and style, for the power in his preaching is not his own, but the Lord’s (proof 2, refutation 1). This is so precisely to manifest that it is in weakness God’s power best shows itself, as it does in the crucified Christ (proof 1, refutation 3).[35] Hence, it is senseless of the Corinthians to become divided over human leaders, wisdom and power.

In response to the Corinthians’ attachment to leader figures and fine speech, then, Paul relativizes human leaders and their wisdom, and points to the one all-important figure: Christ, who is both their Lord and his, and to Christ’s work accomplished on the cross, which their baptism in the name of Christ has given the Corinthians a share in. The very weakness of the apostles, and especially of Paul himself, illustrates their message. It highlights that the power in their work comes from God. This is what he wants the Corinthians to imitate. Their quarrels go against their very nature as a Christian community. They belong to Christ crucified, God’s foolishness and weakness, wiser and stronger than the world’s wisdom and strength (1:25), to Christ who is one and undivided.

I began with suggesting that Paul’s way of addressing divisions could still be relevant today. I will end with referring to a contemporary preacher and founder of an ecumenical religious community, Peter Halldorf, who demonstrates how appeal to the crucified Christ is indeed still valid, when he writes in his manifest on ecumenism that “all prestige, every need for self-affirmation and self-defence must be handed over and united with the self-giving Christ on the cross” for divided Christians to come to the point where they can listen to each other and together move towards unity.[36]


[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Biblical quotations are from the NRSV (Anglicised), and the chapter and verse numbers refer to 1 Corinthians.  
[2] Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Sacra Pagina Series 7 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999), p. 19; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., Paul the Letter-Writer, Good News Studies 41 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999), p. 70. Kieran O’Mahony, whose delimitation of the text I will follow (see note 3), does not explicitly classify it as deliberative, as he makes no mention of the type of rhetoric it belongs to. However, his analysis does not, in my opinion, contradict this classification, but rather confirms it. I therefore do not consider it inconsistent to follow Collins and Murphy O’Conner in their classification and O’Mahony when it comes to disposition. 
[3] Kieran O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, ed. John Littleton, Theology for Today 15 (Dublin: The Priory Institute, 2012), p. 29. 
[4] For a presentation of different dispositions, see Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, p. 81. 
[5] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 30. 
[6] For discussions of this question, see Collins, First Corinthians, pp. 16-17 and Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 47-50. 
[7] Collins, First Corinthians, pp. 16-17, 176; Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 48-50; O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 30. 
[8] Charles B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross – The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 28, 34. 
[9] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 31. 
[10] Cousar, A Theology of the Cross, p. 34. 
[11] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Second Edition, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: A. and C. Black Limited, 1971), p. 51. 
[12] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 66. 
[13] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 31. 
[14] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 98-102; Collins, First Corinthians, pp. 108, 127. 
[15] Collins, p. 108. 
[16] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 31. 
[17] Collins, First Corinthians, p. 124. 
[18] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 12, 100-101. 
[19] Fee, pp. 98-99. 
[20] Collins, First Corinthians, p. 122. 
[21] Collins, pp. 123, 127.  
[22] Collins, p. 127. 
[23] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 12, 100-101. 
[24] ESV-translation of the same verse.  
[25] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 32. 
[26] Collins, First Corinthians, p. 164; Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 154; Barrett, A Commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 45-47, 96-98 
[27] Collins, pp. 166-167; Fee, p. 58; Barrett, pp. 45-47. 
[28] Cousar, A Theology of the Cross, p. 34. 
[29] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 156. 
[30] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 33. 
[31] Collins, First Corinthians, p. 176. 
[32] Collins, pp. 182-183.  
[33] Collins, p. 189. 
[34] Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, ed. George W. MacRae, S.J., trans. James w. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 92.  
[35] O’Mahony, The Pauline Writings, p. 31. 
[36] Peter Halldorf, Å elske sin nestes kirke som sin egen, trans. Asle Dingstad (Oslo: Vårt Land Forlag, 2016), p. 48. English translation mine.