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Self-Defense or Defense of Unity?

What if 1 Corinthians isn’t really about Paul’s apostleship, but about the need for the body of Jesus to be one? Perhaps a false dichotomy in the end, especially since they are divided over Paul’s ministry. But I hear much more about Paul’s ministry than I do the unity of the church.

Consider this purpose statement, however: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you might be in agreement and that there be no divisions (schismata) among you, but that you be ordered in the same mind and in the same opinion” (1:10). This statement should remind us of Phil 2, where Paul’s application of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus is unity of mind and looking to other’s interests. Richard Hays works out the implications:

Dissension in the church is deeply worrisome to Paul, for the aim of his apostolic labors has been to build community, not just to save souls. He has “laid the foundation” (3:11), and he is concerned that other contractors are botching the subsequent construction job.

The quality of construction matters urgently because the community is “God’s building”(3:10).

Indeed, Paul dares to assert more: the community is the place where God dwells. “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]?”(3:16).

To read this last sentence as though it spoke of the Spirit dwelling in the body of the individual Christian would be to miss the force of Paul’s audacious metaphor: the apostolically founded community takes the place of the Jerusalem temple as the place where the glory of God resides.

When the community suffers division, the temple of God is dishonored. But the presence of the Spirit in the community should produce unity rather than conflict.

Thus, the first four chapters of the letter focus on Paul’s appeal for unity, not, e.g., on Paul’s apostolic self-defense.