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Divisions in the Church at Corinth

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(σχίσματα, 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 11:18, schisms, as rendered 1 Corinthians 12:25), i.e., parties or factions leading to altercation (ἔρις, "contention" 1 Corinthians 1:11). The existence in many of the early churches of a strong tendency towards the ingrafting of Judaism upon Christianity is a fact well known to every reader of the N.T.; and though the Church at Corinth was founded by Paul and afterwards .instructed by Apollos, yet it is extremely probable that, as in the churches of Galatia, so in those of Achaiai, this tendency may have been strongly manifested, and that a party may have arisen in the Church at Corinth opposed to the liberal and spiritual system of Paul, and more inclined to one which aimed at fettering, Christianity with the restrictions and outward ritual of the Mosaic dispensation. The leaders of this party probably came with letters of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1) to the Corinthian Church, and it is possible that they may have had these from Peter; but that the party itself received any countenance from that apostle cannot for a moment be supposed. Rather must we believe that they took the name of the apostle of "the circumcision" as the designation of their party for the sake of gaining greater authority to their position; at any rate, they seem to have used Peter's acknowledged place among the apostles to the disparagement of Paul, and hence his retort (2 Corinthians 11:5). The vehement opposition of this party to Paul, and their pointed attack upon his claims to the apostolic office, would naturally lead those who had been Paul's converts, and who probably formed the major part of the Church, to rally round his pretensions, and the doctrines of a pure and spiritual Christianity which he taught. Closely allied with this party, and in some respects only a subdivision of it, was that of Apollos. This distinguished teacher was not only the friend of Paul, but had followed up Paul's teaching at Corinth in a congenial spirit and to a harmonious result (2 Corinthians 3:5, etc.). Between the party, therefore, assuming his name, and that ranking itself under the name of the apostle, there could be no substantial ground of difference. Perhaps, as Apollos had the advantage of Paul in some respects, especially in facility in public speaking (Acts 18:24; conmp. 2 Corinthians 10:10), the sole ground on which his party may have preferred him was the higher gratification he afforded by his addresses to their educated taste than was derived from the "simple statenments of the apostle concerning" Christ "and him crucified." Thus far all, though almost purely conjectural, is easy and probable; but in relation to the fourth party that which said "I am of Christ" it has been found extremely difficult to determine by what peculiar sentiments they we're distinguished. (See the Stud. u. Krit. 1865, 1.) The simplest hypothesis is that of Augustine ("alii qui nolebant aedificari super Petrum, sed super petram. [dicebant] Ego autem, sum Christi," De verb. Dom. Serm. 13), whom Eichhorn (Einleit. 3:107), Schott (Isagoge in N.T. page 233), Pott (N.T. Koppian. volume 5, part 1, page 25), Bleek (Einl. page 397), and others follow, viz. that this party was composed of the better sort in the Church, who stood neutral, and, declining to follow any mere human leader, declared themselves to belong only to Christ, the common Lord and the Leader of all. This opinion is chiefly based on 1 Corinthians 3:22-23, where it is supposed the four parties are alluded to, and that of Christ alone commended.

But this seems a forced and improbable interpretation of that passage of the words ὑμεῖς δὲ Χριστοῦ, "and ye are Christ's, being much more naturally understood as applying to all the Corinthians, than as describing only a part of them. This opinion, moreover, hardly tallies with the language of the apostle concerning the Christ-party, in 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:12, and 2 Corinthians 10:7, where he evidently speaks of them in terms of censure, and as guilty of dividing Christ. Another hypothesis is that suggested by Storr (Notitiae Historicae epistoll. ad Cor. interpretationi servientes. Acad. 2:242), and which has been followed, among others, by Hug (Introd. page 524, Fosdick's tranls., Bertholdt (Einleit. page 3320), and Krause (Pauli ad Cor. Epistolae Graece. etc. Proleg. page 35), viz. that the Christ-party was one which, professing to follow James and the other brethren of the Lord as its heads, claimed to itself, in consequence of this relationship, the title οἱ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, those of Christ, by way of eminence. To this it has been objected that, had the party in question designed, by the name they assumed, to express the relationship of their leader to Jesus Christ, they would have employed the words οἱ τοῦ Κυρίου, those of the Lord, not οἱ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, the former being more correctly descriptive of a personal, and the latter of an official, relationship. Besides, as Olshausen remarks, "the party of James could not be precisely distinguished from that of Peter; both must have been composed of strenuous Jew-Christians. In fine, there is a total absence of all positive grounds for this hypothesis. . . . The mere naming of 'the brethren of the Lord' in 1 Corinthians 9:5, and of James in 1 Corinthians 15:7, can prove nothing, as this is not in connection with any strictures on the Christ- party, or indeed on any party, but entirely incidental; and the expression γινώσκειν Χριστὸν κατὰ σάρκα, 'know Christ after the flesh,' (2 Corinthians 5:16), refers to something quite different from the family- relations of the Savior: it is designed to contrast the purely human aspect of his existence with his eternal heavenly essence" (Biblische Comment. III, 1:457; comp. Bilroth Commentary on the Corinthians, 1:11).

In an able treatise which appeared in the Tubingen Zeitschrift fü r Theelogie for 1831 (part 4, page 61), Baur has suggested that, properly speaking, there were only two parties in the Corinthian Church the Pauline and the Petrine; and that, as that, of Apollos was a subdivision of the former, that of Christ was a subdivision of the latter. This. subdivision, he supposes, arose from the opposition offered by the Petrine party to Paul, which led some of them to call in question the right of the latter to the apostleship, and to claim for themselves, as followers of Peter, a closer spiritual relationship to the Savior, the honor of being the alone genuine and apostolically-designated disciples of Christ. This opinion is followed by Billroth, and has much in its favor; but the remark of Neander, that "according to it the Christ-party would be discriminated from the Petrine only in name, which is not in keeping with the relation of this party- appellation to the preceding party-names," has considerable weight as an objection to it. Neander himself, followed by Olshausen, supposes that the Christ-party was composed of persons "who repudiated the authority of all these teachers, and, independently of the apostles, sought to construct for themselves a pure Christianity, out of which probably they cast everything that too strongly opposed their philosophical ideas as a mere foreign addition. From the opposition of Hellenism and Judaism, and from the Hellene-philosophical tendency at Corinth, such a party might easily have arisen . . . To such the apostles would seem to have mixed too much that was Jewish with their system, and not to have presented the doctrines of Christ sufficiently pure.

To Christ alone, therefore, would they professedly appeal, and out of the materials furnished them by tradition, they sought, by means of their philosophic criticism, to extract what should be the pure doctrine of Christ" (Apoestel. Zeitalt. page 205; 1:273 of Eng. tr.). The reasoning of the apostle in the 1James, 2 ndd, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th chapters of the 1st Epistle seems clearly to indicate that some such notions as these bad crept into the Church at Corinth; and, upon the whole, this hypothesis of Neander commends itself to our minds as the one which is best maintained and most probable. At the same time, we have serious doubts, of the soundness of the assumption on which all these hypotheses proceed, viz. that there really were in the Corinthian Church sects or parties specifically distinguished from each other by peculiarities of doctrinal sentiment. That erroneous doctrines were entertained by individuals in the Church, and that a schismatical spirit pervaded it, cannot be questioned; but that these two stood formally connected with each other may fairly admit of doubt. Schisms often arise in churches from causes which have little or nothing to do with diversities of doctrinal sentiment among the members; and that such were the schisms which disturbed the Church at Corinth appears to us probable, from the circumstance that the existence of these is condemned by the apostle, without reference to any doctrinal errors out of which they might arise, while, on the other hand, the doctrinal errors condemned by him are denounced without reference to their having led to party strifes. For farther information, besides that contained in the writings of Neander, Davidson (Introd. to N.T. 2:222 sq.), Conybeare and Howson, and others, the student may be referred to the special treatises of Schenkel, De Eccl. Cor. (Basel, 1838), Kniewel, Eccl. Cor. Dissensiones (Gedan. 1841), Becker, Partheiungen in die Gemeinde z. Kor. (Altona, 1841), Rabiger, Ent. Untersuch. (Bresl. 1847); Hilgenfeld, in Zeitschr. fur wiss. Theol. 1865, page 241 sq.; Beyschlag, in the Theol. Stud. u. Krit. 1865, page 217 sq.; but he cannot be too emphatically warned against that tendency to construct a definite history out of the fewest possible facts, that marks most of these discussions. (See CORINTHIANS ( EPISTLES TO THE).)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Divisions in the Church at Corinth'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/d/divisions-in-the-church-at-corinth.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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