“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
The first nine words of this verse constitute a pattern that is consistent all throughout the New Testament writings: “The church… at such-and-such a place.” There is only one church-one universal Body of Christ made up of all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ-that is expressed locally according to the city in which the believers reside.
Tonight I was with a brother. He told a story about how an old friend of his whom he recently reconnected with asked him what church he is a part of. He responded, “the church in Portsmouth.” His friend replied, “yeah, but what is the name of the church?” Apparently he couldn’t conceive of a gathering of believers which doesn’t have a name. It’s funny how in today’s Christianity you can’t refer simply to the church in the city without it sounding strange to the ears of most people, yet at the same time you can’t talk about the churches in scripture without doing so! Nowhere in the New Testament do you see anything other than the church in the city. Consistently, all you find is the one Body of Christ, locally expressed.
(The possible exception to this rule is the church in the home. For my thoughts on that check here.)
But at the time Paul wrote this greeting to the church in Corinth, things were coming apart. Divisions were springing up. Other workers had visited the city since Paul’s departure, and some of the saints were factioning off around their favorite apostle. “I follow Paul,” some would say, while others proclaimed their loyalty to Peter or Apollos. To top it all off there were some who boldly announced, as if to shun all the rest, “we follow Christ alone!”
What was happening here? The church of God at Corinth was in danger of being practically divided. The unity of the Spirit between those who are in Christ will never be disannulled, for it is based not on what we do but what He has done, but in the purpose of God that oneness is to be given practical expression, and that expression can indeed be forfeited. Here in Corinth was one of the first cases where the unity of the church was teetering on the brink of total collapse.
Had Paul not stepped in with this letter, and the supply of the Spirit to bring the saints’ focus back onto Christ and His cross, what would’ve been the result in Corinth? 21st century American Christianity, that’s what! Had you strolled through the city streets you would’ve found a “church” built around Peter’s ministry at the corner of 1st and main, one built upon the ground of Apollos just down the road, a “Pauline” church three blocks over, and worst of all, a little house group who claimed fellowship only with those who were anti-sectarian! God help us!
Was the situation really that perilous, or am I making all this up? Well, it would appear Paul at least was up-in-arms over the whole thing. Any honest believer today will read the first chapter of 1 Corinthians and agree that the situation was not right and something needed to be done, but when you try to apply that same principle to the divided state of present-day Christianity, suddenly it becomes ok!
But there is a convenient cover for this mentality, and it stems from the congregational view of the church. We take 1 Corinthians and apply it only to the specific group of Christians that we meet with. As long as there is unity in our group we think things are ok and according to God’s will. Never mind the fact that other believers are meeting separately just down the road. Yet we forget that 1 Corinthians was written to the saints who made up the entire city. This is because the ground of the church is the city. Scripture never speaks of the church in a county, the church in a region, the church in a nation, or the church on a particular street. The boundary is never bigger or smaller than the city.
Apply that to Corinth, and you see that God’s people were about to forsake the unity of the one Body of Christ-made visible through the local assembly-and divide themselves up into rival sects that were based upon different men’s ministries. No wonder Paul was about to go through the roof.
Having said all this, what are your thoughts? In the first two posts on this subject we dealt with Old Testament foreshadowing regarding the ground of the church. Here we have looked at a practical example from New Testament times. View them together and tell me what you think. Don’t toss it all out the window just because it seems too idealistic. I hope to continue approaching this from different angles in the days to come in order to present a precise and thorough view of the matter, so keep checking back or take a minute to subscribe. In the meantime, feel free to share some feedback.