What Was Dividing the Corinthian Church?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

We’re all familiar with the verses in 1 Cor 1:10-12:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Most of us assume that the Corinthians were following particular personalities or dividing over a theological issue. The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible suggest another possibility.

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians with a plea for unity. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, . . .” he writes, “that all of you agree with one another . . . and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor 1:10). We might ask ourselves what caused the divisions in Corinth.

All we know is what Paul tells us: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor 1:12).

What likely goes without being said for us is that the church was divided either theologically or over devotion to different personalities. These are two common causes of church divisions in the West. We tend to fall out along doctrinal lines or because we are drawn to one charismatic pastor over another. It is possible, though, that the divisions among the churches in Corinth were not theological.

If not theological, then what?

We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18:24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians.

To me, this is a fascinating and quite plausible take on 1 Cor 1. Something for the church to consider.