“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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. 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.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” – 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Paul’s appeal that the Corinthians would remain united is not an abstract appeal. It is specified in a variety of ways, each identifying distinct manners of moral formation. In the first place, he exhorts the Corinthians to all speak the same thing, so that there might be no schisms. The ESV frames the appeal that they would all ‘agree,’ which loses the brute literalism of Paul’s commendation. The King James is nearer to the text: Paul hopes the Corinthians ‘all speak the same thing.’ Speech binds the community together: it is the visible expression of its internal life, the exterior indication of how it lives as one. Paul will anxiously set off his own apostolic proclamation from other forms of eloquent, persuasive speechmaking. He is concerned, in the first instance, with highlighting the possibility that dissensions that arise even from adopting different modes of describing the world.
Yet Paul is not only concerned about the community’s exterior conformity, its binding together of its life through a manner of speech that is united. Such speech is expressive of the mind and judgment which the community should have in common. That Paul includes both in his exhortation to unity is worth considering. On the one side, there is a concern with the abstract patterns of thought by which the community understands the world. Sound doctrine, we might say. But Paul does not limit the concern for unity to such abstract considerations: ‘judgment’ is a term with ethical connotations. It captures an intentionality or directedness of an opinion, its practical orientation. In 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul will issue his ‘judgment’ that a widow will be happier if she does not remarry, which he buttresses by appealing to his dependency upon the Spirit. Paul’s prayer for unity includes this dimension as well: it is an expansive unity that he hopes for the Corinthians, not a minimalistic one, a unity that encompasses the community’s speech, its doctrine, and its moral life together.
It is unsurprising, then, that Paul’s complaint about the divisions in the Corinthian church has to do with their speech: one person says they are of Paul, another of Apollos. In so speaking, each asserts their distinction, their uniqueness, on the basis of their origination or their affiliation as Christians. It is hard to tell which, as the two modes of understanding are here collapsed. Paul observes that he did not baptize anyone (except the people he did baptise), and suggests his own ministry has a slightly different aim. There’s a paradoxical edge to Paul’s critique: even if he did baptize someone, they have their origin and affiliation not in him as the baptizer but in their Lord into whose life they are born. And he didn’t baptise many of them anyway, so why are they banging on about being of Paul or Apollos? Christ is neither divided like their speech indicates, nor is their origin in the people they claim (even if, as Paul will note later, he becomes their ‘father’).
Against this manner of speaking stands Paul’s own apostolic proclamation: he comes to preach the Gospel. The contrast with the speech that tears apart the garment of flesh that encloses Christ’s body of the church is augmented by a second contrast: the gospel is the antithesis to eloquent words of wisdom, which do not simply distort or confuse the matter but empty the Cross of its power. Paul is not simply any member of the Corinthian intellectual marketplace. He announces a message which reveals that there is a contest between the Gospel and the world surrounding the church, a contest that is only known because it has already been decisively won. Christ has ‘destroyed’ the wisdom of the wise, removed it from its position of power and authority in the cosmos, and in doing so has revealed to the world that it is as barren and fruitless as such wisdom would make the cross. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” (1:20) They are all lost, wandering about in the darkness of the folly they think wise, deluded even about their discoveries of the false turns they have taken.
The antithesis, though, is not in the final analysis an abstract or an invisible one: it is, and will be throughout 1 Corinthians, a matter of the moral life of the people of God, of their sanctity and holiness.