A short essay from Daniel Gullotta today examining the phenomenon of factionalism in the early Church. Is the problem any different in the 21st Century when we look at the factionalism in most churches today?
The tension between unity and factionalism in early Christianity...
Icons of the early church depict the earliest Christians as being a united single movement, of one belief and of one practice. Saints Peter and Paul were close allies and friends and while they disagreed they organized together, they never broke fellowship, even to the point of sharing martyrdom. However this rosy-eyed image of the church seems to be completely dispelled by a curious passage in 1 Corinthians 1:12, in which factions and parties have clearly formed, "One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ.'" This essay will look at 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 as well as other parts from 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians to answer the question of how deep was conflict and division in earliest Christianity?
Unmistakably, Paul has heard from Chloe's people (1:1) that certain members of the church in Corinth have described themselves belonging to Paul, and others to Apollos, and others to Peter (Cephas). Why is this happening and who are the people claiming these leaders as their own? Despite this group being unnamed, it is clear that they questioned Paul's missionary practices (9:1-27) and discredited his status as an apostle (9:3-18; 15:5-9). Owing to their unnamed position within the letter, this group has generally been called the Cephas party due to their cry in 1:12. While many have argued to the contrary, it is fair to say that this party is an internal threat to Paul (although perhaps with external influences), rather than an external one.
Firstly the phrase, "I am of Cephas". Some scholars would argue that while the group claims Peter as its apostle, the group's criticisms of and attack at Paul do not in any way represent the feelings and attitudes of Peter himself. I seriously doubt this as we can see from other works of Paul he was at odds with Peter on more then one occasion and Ian Elmer, Gerd Ludemann, and Michael Goulder agree that the "others" in 1 Corinthians 9:1-27 echo the division formed at the Jerusalem Council as described in Galatians 2:1-10. As Gerd Ludemann rightly points out, "(i) Paul does not appeal to his unity with Cephas, and (ii), instead, Cephas is subject to a veiled attacked." However this does not suggest that Peter actually visited Corinth, but it does maintain that this party did represent the feelings of Peter with their attacks. This is clear because of their knowledge of his problematic relationship with the other apostles (9:3-6; 15:9-11). What is obvious is that Paul would not have chosen Peter as the focus of an anti-Pauline party battle cry unless Peter was already a figure whom Paul had or was in conflict with. Ian Elmer brings this to its logical conclusions, "while it seems unlikely that Corinth was divided into four distinct factions, there does appear to be a circumstantial case for assuming that there was anti-Pauline opposition that inclined to compare Paul unfavourably with Peter..."
Secondly, Paul is on the defensive against these members of the Cephas party and if they are connected to him, is also defending himself against Peter as well. In doing so, Michael Goulder points out the polemic Paul faces in defending himself,
"He [Paul] cannot deny the authority of Jerusalem, which prudently uses the name of Cephas… So Paul uses it when he can… bolstering his position on a physical resurrection, and he depreciates it ('God accepts no man's face,' Gal 2:6) when he cannot use it. On the other hand, he cannot allow Petrine supporters to undermine his own apostolic authority; hence the constant return to this cardinal issues in the two letters."
Thus Paul's self-designation as "one untimely born" and being "the least of the apostles" suggests that Paul is well aware of the so-called primacy his opponents hold over him, after all, these were Jesus' own family members and closet disciples during the time of his earthly ministry. Yet while his opponents may discredit or disregard his apostolic status, Paul turns his opponent's accusations over when he compares his suffering to theirs. So while they may hold such titles and positions, they abuse their power so they fight them for "profit" (2 Cor 2:17). In 2 Corinthians, Paul goes so far to say that they are in fact "false apostles" and "deceitful workers", who disguise themselves as "apostles of Christ" (2 Cor 11:13). So while they may consider themselves "super apostles" (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11) Paul's apostleship and mission is even more legitimate than theirs because of his labours and suffering for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor 11:23-33).
Yet, the theme Paul returns to time and time and again is unity amongst the faithful. One of the issues raised in the 1 Corinthians is the issue of baptism and Paul uses this act to prove this point about this ridiculous factionalism taking place in the church. After exposing their dividing slogans of who they are for, Paul asks them in clearly critical and rhetorical and language "Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1:13)". While his opponents may claim that those who they baptised are "real members of the apostolic church" Paul sees that baptism, being in the name of Christ Jesus, renders all people equal, in Christ is there is no division and no distinction. As Paul puts it best in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus". Despite the origins of their baptism, whether it is linked to Paul or to Peter, it serves the same purpose in creating equality amongst the faithful. They are baptised into Christ, not into Paul and not into Peter, as as John Chrysostom makes clear, "The greatness of baptism does not lie in the baptizer but in the one whose name in invoked in the baptism."
What are your thoughts on this commentary?